Leaders Build Relationships by Avoiding Defensiveness

No one is immune to defensiveness. When we feel attacked, our first inclination is to self-protect. This comes in various forms—denial, deflection, excuses, projection. But defensiveness rarely works and ends up hurting our relationships.

The third Horseman: Defensiveness

Dr. John Gottman defines defensiveness as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” “They are obviously wrong,” we think, which, of course, makes us right.

Defensiveness happens when we aren’t actively listening to what the other person is saying. They may have a point, but we don’t want to hear it. Usually we react defensively in response to criticism or a complaint we perceive as criticism. The end result is blame.

Clarissa: “Matt, I thought you said you’d have the reports finished by Wednesday, not Friday.” (Complaint)

Matt: “I’ve been busy, and now they threw another project my way. You can’t expect me to do everything.” (Defensiveness)

When we react defensively, we are perceived negatively. Our words demonstrate a lack of regard for the other person is saying. Essentially, we are telling them they’re wrong, they’re lying, or they don’t know what they’re talking about. Relationships can’t flourish in this type of environment.

Antidotes for Defensiveness

When you feel attacked, the first step is to breathe. Be mindful of your heart rate and how you feel. By understanding what’s happening in the moment, you will be better able to control your response.

The next step is to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Even if you think you understand, ask questions to clarify meaning.

Finally, take responsibility. You may not be responsible for the entire problem, but you are likely responsible for at least part of it. Taking responsibility opens up the conversation to explore possible solutions.


Clarissa: “Matt, I thought you said you’d have the reports finished by Wednesday, not Friday.”

Matt: “Yes, I did say that. Other things came up unexpectedly. I apologize. I should have told you earlier I’d be a couple of days late. Will Friday work okay?”

Albert: “I noticed several errors in the presentation slides this morning. Did you proofread it?”

Justine: “Actually, no. I got overconfident because my last presentation went over so well that I thought this one would too. I apologize for my oversight. I’ll see if Chris would help me with proofreading next time.”

Taking responsibility instead of reacting defensively conveys respect, self-awareness, personal growth, and gratitude—all positive ways to build relationships.

Thanks for reading,

DeAnne Negley

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