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By James McPartland

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

No one likes to be called out on being “defensive” at work. The mere accusation usually causes a double-down on a defensive posture. “I’m not being defensive! I’m being perfectly rational! You’re being defensive! Why are you attacking me?

When an interaction like this goes badly, the person accused of being defensive is often reduced to reactionary tactics—blaming others, straight-up denial, sometimes shouting, sometimes tears. It’s not productive, and we have all seen a situation like this go down. It can happen at any level of the company, from the executive tier to entry-level.


But let us not be too hard on others or ourselves. We have all at one time or another given or received difficult feedback, and perhaps handled it poorly. In the contact sport of communication, there is potential for either side to drop the ball and fumble the whole play.

Yet at the same time, a team committed to the best results cannot ignore a crucial interaction that has gone wrong.  So how does defensiveness happen, and how can we make the outcome work better for everyone?

Defensiveness: What’s Happening?

It’s human nature to defend oneself against a perceived threat. And while that conversation with your boss about why your sales numbers didn’t hit the target this week isn’t exactly a matter of life or death, to your brain if feels no different than a pack of hungry wolves closing in on your campsite. It may be just sales numbers, but it feels like a serious attack that threatens your survival.

Davey has a compelling point. So why we do it? If we look behind the wall of someone being defensive right in front of us, we might discover a mirror. In other words, we all do this. It’s a knee-jerk reaction—pure resistance from an instinctual need to fight back. Intellectually, we all know this is not constructive. But emotionally, we have already started “throwing spears.”

Harvard Business Review writer and business psychiatrist Mark Goulston writes about when we get called out on a defensive response:  “If you get hooked into defensiveness — and most of us do…   you probably got defensive about being defensive. After all, it felt like you were being attacked! What else were you supposed to do?"

When You Feel Attacked

Psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., recommends a five-step strategy:

  1. Evaluate what was actually said vs. your perception of it

  2. Resist the urge to fight back

  3. Consider the source

  4. Take the time for a gut check

  5. Resolve constructively

Re-frame the Situation and Take the Opportunity to Self-Reflect

While Dr. Krauss's steps are mostly self-explanatory, I think the first step is of most importance: “Evaluating what was said vs. your perception.” This step requires us to re-frame the situation. Are our abilities really being questioned? Is this personal? Did we hear something that the other person didn't say? Is it really about someone judging or criticizing us, or is something else going on?

By contrast, the fourth step, “take the time to ask for a gut check” requires us to take a hard look at ourselves. Is the criticism truthful? From an objective point of view, is the person's statement about our work accurate? Admittedly, it takes a big person to admit when they are, in actuality, in error and need to improve.

I believe that professional growth comes about through personal development. And as we all know, personal development isn’t always easy. Holding up a mirror to ourselves, in the moment, while at the same time fighting millennia-old instincts to fight back is a huge challenge. But this tense moment does contain within it a huge opportunity for growth. It's a big challenge, sure, but also an equally big reward.

When the Person You're Talking to Feels Attacked

If you have ever managed a team of people, you know how difficult it might be to navigate different styles of communication, perspectives, and work methods. Inevitably, it will be necessary to communicate something that needs to change or be tweaked. And while often it goes without a hitch, sometimes the person you are talking to takes it extra hard.

So the next time things get heated on either side, take the time to see through the glass armor and discover the opportunity that lies beneath.  Remember that the higher possibility of growing our future together is what makes our relationships in life and business so much stronger.


– Stephen Covey


In other words, we have an ancient threat-response system hard-wired in our brains to protect us in situations that require it. Psychologists might call it hyperarousal, which describes our instinctual response from an impending threat that prepares us to battle or to run. Feeling like our job, our status, or our reputation is under attack can easily be enough to make us come out swinging. In Psychology Today, writer Liane Davey, Ph.D., points out, “Being defensive is a sign that you’re in fight or  flight mode, and that’s not a place where you can accomplish anything constructive.”

Indeed. Unlike wolves closing in for an actual attack, tossing the metaphorical spear at your boss isn’t going to help the situation. Davey says further, “Defensiveness sends terrible signals. When you indulge in it, you’re likely to be seen as insecure, closed-minded and overly emotional. None of these labels are going to help you be successful or build stronger relationships.”


The good news is that we are not helpless. There are tactics and ways of thinking that can help get us back on track, whether we feel ourselves getting defensive, or we witness someone start to get defensive as a result of what we are saying. It is, after all, a two-way street


From the “feeling attacked” perspective, we have a golden opportunity to stop ourselves from “getting the spears out” when we perceive what we think is personal aggression.

First, stop and breathe. It is important to interrupt whatever it is we thought we were going to say and do. Another way of putting this is "when in doubt, do nothing." We can buy ourselves those few seconds.

Breathe and Practice Restraint

Business psychiatrist Mark Goulston advises, “Think of the first thing you want to say or do and don’t do that. Instead, take a deep breath… Think of the second thing you want to say or do and don’t do that, either. Take a second breath…Think of the third thing you want to say or do and then do that…  once you get past defending yourself and retaliating, you have a better chance of seeking a solution.”


Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. goes a step further when it comes to a reframe. What if what you perceive as an attack is, in reality, a demonstration of another's belief in your abilities? Dr. Hendriksen explains, “Even if you don’t hear the words “I believe in you” or “I know you are capable,” if you know in your heart that your mom, your boss, or your partner is only offering feedback so you can achieve great things, remind yourself of their faith in you and the criticism will go down easier.”

We are all valued members of our teams. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be working in our positions. Teammates who believe in us will trust us to take criticism and use it to grow our already formidable skills. They will believe we can reach a higher standard. We must remember to empathize with the person speaking to us. Imagine our roles were reversed. How would we deliver the message?

In the spirit of looking at the bigger picture, it's also important to look at the responsibility of the person delivering the constructive criticism.


I expect a lot from my clients and my team, and I want to prevent any communication that seems like I’m making a personal attack. That is counterproductive, and also just not in integrity about how I choose to treat people.

To be clear in my communication efforts, I choose to take radical responsibility for how I speak. I consistently self-reflect to see if I’ve been careless in the way I have delivered a message if I happen to get an extreme reaction.

Check Your Intentions

It’s always good to double-check our communication. Here are a few questions to run through if you are someone in charge:

  • Am I unfairly judging or criticizing this person?

  • Did I make a factual error?

  • Am I being passive-aggressive?

  • Am I looking for what’s wrong instead of what’s right?

  • Am I trying to show off as the boss?

  • Am I trying to control someone?

  • Am I intentionally trying to hurt or make someone feel bad?

  • Am I being unnecessarily angry? Would an objective person be scared by my behavior?

  • Am I being kind?

It may be easy to look at a defensive reaction and assume the other person is overreacting. But sometimes, their reaction may be warranted by our own imperfections. Just like the person receiving the hard communication, take the opportunity to stop and breathe. If they get defensive, it might trigger us to do the same, and before long we might have an unproductive argument.

Taking ourselves through the checklist can help us see if there’s a better way to say what we tried to say the first time. As someone in charge, we’re setting an example of a positive model of communicating. Another way to demonstrate constructive communication is by reminding our team members of what is possible. 

Reframe the Criticism into a Future-Based Possibility

When I say “future-based” in this context, I mean using our relationship to build on what we can both accomplish in the future. A future-based statement might sound something like this: "OK, I heard you. This is what has led us to this point. Now, here's what I think is possible. This is something I think we can do together. How can we build our relationship and in turn look at a future where I can support you?"

It’s not about assigning blame. It’s about empowering the best possible solutions.

It's similar to international diplomacy, where countries with differences focus on the future and on the things they can build together. If we come into a conversation with hope, possibility, and trust in our teammates, our language will come out in a way that's much easier to receive.

Of course, the trick is, we have to mean it. This is not a shallow script. We must believe what we say in our hearts and speak with integrity—which brings me to my next point.

How Am I Responsible for the Outcome I Am Expecting?

There is always the possibility that the person we should be talking to is ourselves. What if, to continue the example, the lower sales number we are getting this month is a result of our own actions?

Stop and think—how am I contributing to the problem? Am I giving my team the tools and resources they need? Is what I am asking of them achievable? Am I passing the buck for something that should be sourced from me?


This is not always what is happening, but examining it from this perspective takes a lot of the blame out of our communication. It becomes how can “we” achieve this result together, instead of “Why are you not delivering?” Self-reflection is for everyone, especially individuals at the top. Each of us has been given gifts that are needed to grow the company to a higher potential.

Discover Opportunities for Growth 

I’ve been known to say time and again that each of us has a unique gift to contribute to the world—  and in order to keep it, we have to it away.  Shutting down in defense when we engage with others, deprives those around us of receiving our gifts— the very qualities that make us invaluable to the teams we are a part of.


If we seek to grow and be prosperous, we must come to realize our need for one another.  In the end, every one of us just wants to be understood.  Is it so much to try and do that for each other? 

Even if we do nothing else, this will help dramatically! Breathing and taking a moment will interrupt our instincts, help our emotions cool off and give us time to re-engage your strategic brain. From here, there are many suggestions as to what to do next.



From Unopened Gifts to Unstoppable Breathrough article by Executive Coach, Author & Speaker, James McPartland


Exemplify Responsible Leadership By Taking Radical Responsibility article by Executive Coach, Author & Speaker, James McPartland


Skyrocket Team Synergy With These 5 Traits article by Nicole Lowell, staff writer for Executive Coach, Author & Speaker, James McPartland


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