If your listener is defensive, your point is probably missed. They have been left with the impression that you, intentionally or not, are criticizing their idea or them. Instead of focusing on getting solutions, they will be driven by this passion for defending the idea or their persona. They are struggling, and it may be your fault. You may have needed to set the right expectations; your tone may have needed to be more appropriate for the message you were trying to convey; you may not have provided them with the necessary resources to accomplish their goals, or they could just be worn out. If you take advantage of their defensiveness, it will only get worse. If you understand how to handle their defensiveness, you can rapidly shift their negative energy—whether fear, doubt, or worry—and help them leave the conversation with your message.
They say, “No.” You say, “Yes.” They say, “I didn’t know.” You say, “You should have.” Perhaps you were taught to ask questions to manage effectively, so you say, “How could you not know?” But, the presupposition in this question suggests that they are somehow not smart because they did not know. While that may not be your intended message, it’s there, their spine will rise, and their eyes will narrow. If you react to their posturing instead of listening and assisting them to sit back and reflect on what’s bothering them, they will also react rather than focus on the real purpose of your conversation.
If you are in a conversation and you notice someone getting defensive, stop. Do not go any further with your point, as attempting to argue your idea differently rarely works; they won’t listen when defensive. They have one agenda: to deflect whatever they think you are attacking. You may need to just listen, ask a question, or make a statement like “What do you need?” or “Help me understand your point of view.” You may have to continue the conversation at another time. The fact that you take time to process and digest that conversation is validation, and that’s the first step to overcoming their defensiveness.
If you do not plan how you’ll approach their emotion, rigid beliefs, or confusion ahead, they will stay shut down and retreat deeper into themselves. To help them come to a decision or understand your point of view without feeling defensive, use a format called “Defensive Persuasion.”
The Format: Defensive Persuasion
- Validate. If they are going to be comfortable, they must know you value whatever issue is causing their defensiveness or their opinion—even if you disagree. Choose your mode of validation; will it be a head nod, listening, or paraphrasing? They can’t open their minds until they know you have heard and understood their point—especially when you disagree entirely. Even in established relationships, you will need to validate the other person. Not as often, but if they are fired up, the only way to cool them down is to show them you recognize their view or the value of their contribution.
- Frame. What message are you trying to communicate to them? You have to decide this ahead of time, and that’s why if you run into someone who is defensive and can’t figure out why and they won’t tell you, you have to pause the conversation. If you don’t’ know the message you want them to understand, the conversation will still go in circles, and they will stay defensive.
- Decide your timeline. It can take several conversations to overcome their emotion. Before stating what you want from the other person, you may need to validate for two or three conversations. If you do this correctly, the trust you build will enable you to communicate more easily next time.