How Defensive Are You?

In her book, Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, Sharon Ellison estimates that we use 95% of our communications energy being defensive. Indeed, as soon as we feel any threat, either of not getting what we want or of being harmed or put down in some way, we are ready to protect ourselves by being defensive. Imagine how much more enjoyable our communications could be if we learned how to respond non-defensively and to avoid provoking defensiveness in others!

Take this quiz to see just how defensive you might be.

  1. When a police officer pulls me over, I’ve always got a “reason” ready for why I was speeding.
  2. When people criticize or judge me, I am quick to point out their own faults.
  3. I often think, “Can’t others see that I’m not perfect?”
  4. If people are upset or disappointed with me, I let them know with explanations and excuses why they are wrong.
  5. I’m afraid that what others think of and say about me is true.
  6. I’m always looking for the hidden critical message beneath people’s requests.
  7. If I don’t defend myself, I’ll just get run over.
  8. If I’m open to people’s criticisms and judgments of me, it means I’m weak.
  9. I can never admit that I’m wrong.
  10. I may not defend myself verbally to someone, but I’ll be sure to get that person back somehow.
  11. If I think someone will have something critical to say, I avoid talking to that person by not answering, leaving the room or changing the subject.
  12. If I’m at fault for something, it’s always because of some factor outside of myself over which I had no control.

If you responded true more often than false to the above questions, consider some of these alternative strategies to minimize your overall defensiveness:

Increase self-awareness – Be an observer to your own behavioral habits. Notice when and how you are being defensive. If you really don’t think you are being defensive or you aren’t sure, perhaps initiating a 360 process, like the Leadership Circle Profile 360© will provide you with the self-awareness you need to make the appropriate behavioral change.

Seek feedback – Welcome feedback from friends, family and colleagues. Ask your closest colleagues for specific feedback on how you show up to a meeting, in a group or 1:1 situation. If you aren’t getting feedback to help you, then consider hiring a coach to provide the accountability and feedback to help you move forward.

Learn and grow – Consider what triggers your need to be defensive. Sometimes, when I’m feeling defensive, I don’t feel safe, competent or confident. Get underneath the defensiveness, to learn more about yourself. Through learning and growth, it becomes easier to notice the triggers and avoid being sucked into them.

Be open without judgment – Sit with any criticism you receive to see if there is a kernel of truth in it. If there is, acknowledge it and work to improve in that area. Also, realize that sometimes people’s criticisms are all about the “story” they have made up around a situation. If that’s the case, don’t take it personally.

Admit when you are wrong. Often you can gain greater influence and leverage in a situation by acknowledging that you may be wrong. Admitting to errors is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength and confidence.

Pay attention to the message. When someone uses the words “always” and “never”, ignore those words and focus instead on the rest of the message. Too often, conflict is created by how a message is delivered rather than the actual content or intended message.

Listen to understand. Listen to understand rather than to be understood. Listen for any (usually) hidden need expressed in a person’s complaint or anger, acknowledge the need, and then see whether there is something you can do to meet it.   

Take responsibility. Take full responsibility for your part of any communication gone awry. Change whatever you can change and whatever you can control.

If you tend to get “defensive”, or interact with someone who does, engage in dialogue which embraces ways of understanding reality from multiple points of view. Learn to disagree without making others wrong or trying to prove you are “right”.

Need more support to let go of “defensive” behavior? Call Linda at 416-617-0734 or email

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