Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to an
Overly-defensive Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/defensive.htm

Updated  04-03-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief Lesson-2 articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and all people feel heard and respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you experience as "over-defensive" It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

      This brief YouTube video offers suggestions on gving effective personal feedback:

      Can you think of an adult or child who seems overly defensive with you or other people? Keep them and your normal response to them in mind as you read.

Defensiveness 101

      The first steps in responding to any problem behavior are to be aware of it, how you feel about it, and to understand what causes it.

      How would you describe "personal defensiveness" to a pre-teen? Do you agree that defending is a primal response to feeling "attacked" (threatened, disrespected, ignored, and/or misunderstood)? How do you react to these common social dynamics?














Feel resentful?



Do your responses usually bring you serenity or stress?

  What Does Defensiveness Sound like?

      Some common  phrases defensive kids and adults use include...

"No I didn't!"

I had to, because..

You never told me...

"Yes, but..."

"I never did / said that!"

"I couldn't, because..."

S/he's a liar!

S/He made me do it.

"I never / always..."

  What Causes Defensiveness?

      Defensiveness ranges from mild and occasional to chronic and excessive. Four things that combine to promote excessive defensiveness are...

  • "Low self esteem" and/or guilt - i.e. being dominated by Shamed and Guilty Inner Kids; and their Guardian subselves; and...

  • unawareness of primary needs, feelings, social behaviors, and communication options;

  • fear of failure, scorn, and rejection; and... 

  • perceived or actual threats, criticisms, and disrespect,

      Shame-based or fear-based (psychologically wounded) people may feel criticized when others offer them constructive feedback. They may misinterpret other's behaviors and attitudes as being critical or superior when they're not. That's one result of the inherited psychological wounds of shame and reality distortion.  

      If an over-defensive person's behavior doesn't imply a mutual-respect attitude, you may feel irritated, frustrated, and/or critical. Those are apt to degrade your communication and relationship, unless you problem-solve them together as teammates.

      Do these ideas match your experience? Is there a "best way" to respond to an overly-defensive person?

Response Options

      Recall that an "effective response" occurs when the responder (a) gets their primary needs met well enough, and (b) both people feel respected enough. So...

  • Start by checking to see (a) if your true Self is guiding you, and (b) if you respect both of you as equals in dignity and worth. If not, you risk an ineffective or harmful response.

  • Check your attitude about the other person. Does their over-defensiveness lower your respect or cause pity or criticism? Do you tune them out? These are usually signs of a diligent false self.  .

  • Remind yourself of your mutual rights as two dignified people.

  • Decide what outcome you want from your response. Beware of trying to "fix," "save," or "guilt-trip" your partner. Those are lose-lose options which imply that  a false self rules you.

  • If appropriate, ask the other person if s/he's open to some (constructive) feedback. Most people will say "OK" out of curiosity and/or politeness, unless they distrust you or are shame-based.

  • If you need to vent, compose and deliver an ''I''-message like this...

"(Name), I experience you as being often defensive. When you do that, I feel _____________."

  • If you need information, try something like this with steady eye contact...

"(Name), are you feeling criticized / misunderstood / judged / threatened / attacked (by me, or someone) now?" If the person asks why you ask, offer "Because I experience you as pretty defensive now."

  • If you want to help the other person be more aware of their behavior, try...

"(Name), I'm aware that you often need to explain or justify your decisions and actions. When you do, I feel uncomfortable because it feels like you're putting yourself down. I respect you, and I'm not here to judge you."

      An indirect way of doing the same thing is...

"(Name), I'm curious. How do you feel when someone seems over-defensive? How do you usually respond?"

  • For more ideas, see these response options to someone burdened by inferiority, excessive guilt, and/or insecurity.

  • Whatever response you choose, it may be misperceived as a criticism or attack. If it evokes more defensiveness, use empathic listening to acknowledge (vs. agree with) the person, and decide if you want to repeat your original feedback. An alternative is to ask something like...

"Do you feel like I'm criticizing / attacking you now?"

Be alert for a denial that seems phony (a double message).

      Pause and reflect. How do these responses compare to the way you usually behave with an overly-defensive person? How do you feel such a person would react to each of them? Is there anything preventing you from trying out responses like these?


      This is one of a series of brief Lesson-2 articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article proposes the cause of excessive defensiveness, and ways to respond effectively to it. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,  and knowing what you feel;

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude;

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights; and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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