How to Manage Defensive People

Lowering Defenses by Building Trust

How to Manage Defensive People - Lowering Defenses by Building Trust

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Coax your people out from behind their defensive walls.

Raoul was dreading running a performance appraisal meeting with one of his team members, Sandra. He had negative feedback to give her about her last project, and he had a feeling that she wasn't going to take it well.

On a previous occasion, they nearly got into an argument when Sandra said the criticism she received was unfair. She blamed other people, dismissed Raoul's comments, and stopped listening. In other words, she got defensive.

Just thinking about another potential confrontation made Raoul feel anxious and angry – he was even becoming defensive himself.

We all take things personally sometimes, especially when we receive negative feedback or criticism. When we haven't performed well, we might see our faults and failings, but then try to defend ourselves against an "attack" that highlights them.

Working with someone who is always defensive can create tension, decrease productivity, and make effective communication impossible. Fortunately, you can often do something about this. In this article, we'll look at the causes and signs of defensiveness, and we'll explore ways that you can manage defensive people effectively.

What Makes People Defensive?

Defensiveness is an unconscious way of protecting ourselves against what we perceive as an attack. We can become defensive when we don't want to admit the truth about something personal. It can seem too painful, so we react by rejecting feedback and pushing it away.

Psychologist Joseph Burgo, author of the 2012 book, "Why Do I Do That?" says people often react defensively when they feel blamed, attacked, criticized, or judged. [1] Our brains automatically go into "survival mode" when they sense a threat to our safety, even if that threat is just a feedback meeting.

Essentially, we try to protect ourselves against the unpleasant feeling that we may be seen as incompetent or just not good enough. This is why defensive people have a difficult time admitting their mistakes and dealing with criticism. It feels better to avoid the responsibility, or to try to shift the blame onto someone else.


We can all become defensive from time to time. For example, it's natural to feel a little anxious during an appraisal if we know we haven't performed at our best. This article explores how to deal with a team member whose defensiveness is a normal part of who they are, rather than one who is reacting to a specific situation.

The Signs of Defensiveness

Psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman has outlined some of the defense mechanisms people use when they are criticized, whether this is personal or business related:[2]...

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