How To Decode Defensive Behaviour

How To Decode Defensive Behaviour

Leadership | Posted by - January 30, 2018 at 12:30 am

We all have defensive tendencies, but it doesn’t mean that we’re defensive people. “Be careful about judging someone as always being defensive,” says Michelle Gibbings, a change leadership and career expert and author of Step Up – How to Build your Influence at Work. “Sometimes people could have a bad day, and they’re tired and they’ll come across as defensive. They might not mean to be defensive, but that conversation has come at the wrong time. So, often we need to be careful about assuming the intent of the conversation we’re having with someone.” 

To make sure you’re not labeling someone as a defensive person, you’ll need to arm yourself with the right questions and listening skills. “It’s about being curious rather than judgmental,” explains Gibbings. Here are guidelines to try with your team: 


When someone seeks approval for a project that they’ve worked tirelessly on, and then senior leadership is quick to fire questions, people can become defensive. In this situation, Gibbings suggests asking questions to better understand how someone feels and pay attention to how you pose questions. 

If you get the sense that someone is being defensive, ask questions like, "I’m really interested in your ideas," or "I’m really interested to understand more about your thoughts on this." Gibbings says then you’re approaching the situation from the mindset of, "I really want this to be a good conversation."


Defensive behaviour can commonly occur in team meetings or group sessions. If you find someone reacting in these environments, take the conversation to another time or day. If you’re asking someone questions or challenging their ideas, and you feel the conversation going off the rails, sometimes it’s time to pull back and say, "I wonder if this is the right time?" or "Should we have this conversation at a later date?" 

Senior managers and c-suite executives struggle with challenging conversations according to Gibbings. “Often when something isn’t working between two people, it’s because both parties have assumed different intent of the other person. So, when you go to the other person and ask for what you need, what you want to get out of the conversation, and show why the person and the conversation you’re having matters, the dynamic of a relationship can change. It turns from a defensive to to a healthy thriving relationship.” 


To understand defensive behaviour requires you to check-in with your own feelings and motives. “It’s really easy to say someone else is being defensive, but perhaps you’re also coming across as defensive, so that creates heat in the conversation,” Gibbings explains. It’s necessary to approach a conversation calmly because, “if you’re really well reasoned, there for the other person, and really hear what they’re saying, often that can take the heat out of the conversation.” 

Gibbings credits meditation as being able to gauge how you’re feeling at any given moment--a racing heart, and clammy hands are signs that you’re feeling uncomfortable about something. So in these moments, take five minutes in your office or even in a meeting to check-in with yourself. “You’ll notice, wow something has gone off for me, and I need to make sure I slow down, so I’m responding rather than reacting to someone.” 

At the heart of decoding defensive behaviour is the ability to lean back, ask questions, and pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings.  

How do you help someone when they’re being defensive? 

Tags: communication, employees, happiness, leadership, personalities, team building, team members

Kristen Marano

Kristen Marano covers women and their work for publications around the world. She has interviewed some of the most influential business leaders in Canada and the most passionate change makers in towns and cities as isolated as Perth, Western Australia. Most recently she interviewed Canadian businesswoman Zita Cobb about reinvigorating the economy in Newfoundland through the arts. Kristen's work encourages women to share honest and open perspectives about the emotional challenges of their journeys.

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