Why Do People Get So Defensive?


by Ellen Blake

We’re all defensive sometimes

Most of us are defensive sometimes. We’re human, and defensiveness is a way to protect ourselves when we feel threatened or criticized. Fortunately, most of us are able to keep this behavior in check or at least acknowledge the behavior, which helps build connection with the other person and move past it. Unfortunately, some people take this behavior to a whole new level, to the point where they seem irrational. And you can’t have a rational conversation with an irrational person.

What does defensive behavior look like?

When people talk about someone becoming defensive, it is generally in the context of a conversation where someone makes emotionally protective statements. These behaviors, designed to turn the conversation to avoid admitting responsibility, safeguard them from experiencing an uncomfortable feeling. It’s a way to let ourselves off the hook when we do something wrong.

I understand people get defensive when they feel attacked, and we all need to choose our words carefully to avoid another person feeling attacked by something we say. Kindness is important. There are people, though, that no matter what you say or how you say it, feel threatened and criticized.  When that happens these individuals cannot usually engage in a conversation with an open mind. They are unable to assume good intent on behalf of the other person, which is often the case, or accept that perhaps they misunderstood what was said or done. Or that there is another perspective they should consider; there are always two sides to a story. Some people simply cannot tolerate any type of what they consider to be criticism no matter how gently it’s given, even if it’s meant to be helpful. Here are some behaviors I’ve observed from conversations with overly defensive people:

Defensive behaviors

  • They seem unable to “hear” what you are saying 
  • They talk over you
  • They rant, repeating the same complaints over and over
  • They make a lot of excuses
  • They blame you for the problem and play the victim
  • If they are clearly to blame in a tangible way, they minimize the problem 
  • They try to shift the focus
  • They attribute their own thoughts and feelings to the other person
  • They bend the truth to justify their behavior
  • They try to tell you how you feel
  • They work hard to hurt you with harsh unrelated criticisms

Defensiveness is a serious problem

Defensiveness is frustrating. And overly defensive people are high on my list of people who are difficult to deal with. I prefer not to engage with those who frequently act this way, but sometimes I don’t have a choice. So I’m trying to understand why people behave this way. 

Most people start to engage in defensive behavior when young. Perhaps this behavior is learned from others as a way to deflect a threat to feel safer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As we age, some of us use those same behaviors when we recognize a threat or even when anticipating one. We learn new defensive behaviors over the years, but many of us also engage in some of the childish ones from our past.  Defensive behavior is generally a combination of defense mechanisms we use without awareness and unhealthy coping strategies we use to avoid stressful feelings and insecurities. Psychological defensiveness can be destructive in relationships and alienate people. It’s a complex type of behavior, based on a combination of your beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and personality.

How can you help someone stop their defensive reactions?

Do not react defensively – when someone attacks, blames, minimizes, shifts focus, etc, the natural response is to become defensive yourself.  Take a deep breath, and recognize your buttons got pushed. React as calmly and rationally as you can.  Remember, they feel hurt, so they will do whatever they can to make you feel as badly as they do.

Be compassionate – recognize the other person’s reaction has little to do with you…it is more likely the result of emotions pent up from other sources in their life and work.  Again, try to respond in calmly and rationally. Be curious and try to figure out what is going on inside them that caused their over-reaction. 

Try to move toward a resolution – Of course, this only works if the person becomes less defensive and more open to rational dialogue, which with some people is simply not possible. However, you might try asking something like “What steps can we take to resolve this going forward?”. If the defensive person is still ranting an hour later and not responding to your attempts to diffuse the situation, it’s best not to continue to engage, at least for now. You need think about yourself too, and if someone is dumping on you for an extended period of time, you need to walk away.

The bottom line

Defensive behavior is deeply ingrained in some individuals. We all know people who behave this way. As hard as it is, remain kind and calm in your interactions if you encounter frequently defensive people. Try to remember it’s likely not all about you. And keep in mind you cannot change them; only they can work towards that.

On a separate note, if you recognize yourself in the list of defensive behaviors noted above, perhaps take a step back to evaluate your own behavior. You may be the person with the problem. The good news is, you can take steps to do something about it…if you want to.






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