Leaders Address Being Defensive During Conflict

An (abridged) email from Bart, a client:

“…and so we just wondered why you would include the TPS module in your proposal?”

My early-in-the-career defensive response was similar to:

“Why on earth wouldn’t we include the TPS module? Without it, the rest of it won’t make sense; the TLA segment would totally lack context!”

And Bart comes back with:

“Hey Alan, I’m not questioning you. I’m asking you a question. Just because I ask a question doesn’t mean I disagree with your recommendation. In fact, I agree with it, but wanted some extra ammo to advocate for it.”


In that exchange, I began in a place of insecurity, and that’s where defensiveness comes from. We get defensive when we worry that things might not end up okay. That worry keeps us from letting other opinions or questions get their due consideration. We don’t want to admit failure, or weakness.

Our brain’s defense mechanisms kick in, triggering “fight or flight”, and tell us that the stakes are high, so we get defensive. This is an extreme response that can confuse others rather than putting ourselves in a better position.

What to do instead?

In conflict situations, when you find yourself about to get defensive,

ask yourself “What am I really afraid of?”

After you get real with yourself, calmly deal with the objection or question in a low-emotion way. And, when you see others about to get defensive, reassure them that they don’t need to be afraid of the conflict.

This is the 4th post in an 18-part series discussing what not to do during conflict situations. Effective leaders avoid portraying these 18 behaviors during conflict and address them in others. Follow along as we explore the negative impact of these behaviors, and what to do instead.

Post 1: Leaders Address Arguing During Conflict
Post 2: Leaders Address Belittling During Conflict

Post 3: Leaders Address Caving In During Conflict

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