Overcoming Defensiveness
Guest Post by Melissa Hereford

You’re standing in the front of the room. You’re so nervous, but you’ve gathered your courage and start talking. You share a statistic that will fire up the room. Someone speaks up, interrupting you and questioning your source.

You’re freaking out just a bit, worried that maybe you got it wrong. You rack your brain, trying to recall the source, but it’s as if someone took an eraser to your memory. You don’t know what to say, you’ve lost control of the room and everyone is debating the statistic.

Why, Oh Why is this Happening to ME?

We are hardwired to protect ourselves when we feel like we’re being attacked. Your brain has an area specifically designed to keep you alive and out of danger called the Amygdala. When that baby fires up, it’s an alert to keep you alive. It does this by sending you into one of three responses:

  1. FIGHT: You get a shot of adrenaline that encourages you talk louder, get defensive or protect yourself. The downside? You’re likely to say something you regret or make the other person mad.
  2. FLIGHT: You sit back, cross your arms, get quiet, read the room. You’re more likely to wait and see what happens next before you make a move. The downside? You’re likely to miss opportunities, lose control of your meetings and let others take credit.
  3. FREEZE: Your brain is wiped clean, you have no idea what to say to respond. The downside? You’re likely to be seen as ineffective when you have nothing to say.

Another way we show up in FIGHT mode is getting defensive. Even when you’re embarrassed, let’s say you made a mistake or your idea was ignored, you may get defensive to protect your feelings. Defensiveness is like armor that you put on to keep yourself safe.

But getting defensive does not accomplish what you want: to show up at work as a cool, calm and collected leader. As someone who can be counted on to always be professional.

The way to overcome defensiveness? Get curious.


CASE #1: When someone disagrees with you, you feel as if you have to protect yourself.

You’re meeting with your project team to discuss some problems with the product. You’ve laid out the problems and have asked your team to come up with possible solutions. Someone on your team disagrees with your assessment and says, “I don’t think this is a problem. I think you’re blowing it out of proportion.”

If you go into FIGHT mode, you might feel as if you have to protect yourself, get argumentative or bully that team member into silence. You may feel anxious or angry that your authority is being questioned. You may feel a nervous energy that spurs you to take action and/or take this as a criticism.

TRY THIS: Get curious. It’s not about you. It’s about your idea. The two are different.

Say, “Tell me more about that…what do you think is the biggest problem with this idea?”

Now listen.

I see this all the time when working with creative people who come up with interesting (and sometimes completely wacko) ideas. In fact, it’s often the wackiest ideas that start a conversation that connects to brilliance. When you shut it down, you miss out on that potential brilliance.


1) STOP: Be aware of your physical response in your body. This is a gift from your brain, it’s that early warning signal that you are headed to FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE.

You want to protect your idea! But you will instead…

2) DROP: Take a deep breath to calm your nervous system. Take five deep breaths if you need to! The good news is that the more you practice this deep breathing, the quicker your nervous system will respond and start to calm down.

3) ROLL with intention toward a different response. Instead of getting defensive, get curious and ask a question like, “Why do you think this won’t work?” Then ask, “What parts of it might work?” or, “If X wasn’t an obstacle, would there be other ways to think about this?” And so on.

Want more? Click “HERE” to view a short (7 min. 45 sec) video of how you can use this technique. 

CASE #2: When someone brings up a related topic you feel you should know about. Maybe they ask, “Have you read that book?” or “Did you see that report?”

FIGHT: You may explain why that idea isn’t relevant or important.

FLIGHT: You feel embarrassed, you should already know about that! If you were prepared, you would have read that book.

TRY THIS: There’s no way you can know everything. Instead of assuming the other person is trying to make you look bad, assume positive intent. Assume that they’re being helpful

Say, “That sounds interesting, what did you like about it?”

Let’s say that I bring up this topic to a colleague. I say, “I’m writing an article about defensiveness,” and she says, “Oh, have you read fill in the blank? It’s a great article about defensiveness.” I have not read that article, so shame and embarrassment flood through me. It’s so ridiculous, there’s no way I could have read everything in the world about this topic, nor does my colleague expect this. In fact, she’s trying to connect with me by sharing something helpful that she can relate to my topic.

This is a gift, not an attack!


1) STOP: Be aware. I follow my own advice, feel the knot in my stomach and:

2) DROP: Take a deep breath to calm my nervous system.

3) ROLL with intention toward a different response: I ask a question, “What did you like about that article?”

CASE #3: When someone points out your mistake.

FIGHT: You feel as if you have to explain it away with all the reasons why it’s not really a mistake or why it’s someone else’s fault. “I couldn’t finish that on time because Brad was so late with the data I needed. And Julie was two days past her deadline for the graphic design. And Steve never did edit it, I finally had to finish it because he took too long…”

FLIGHT: You apologize (often over and over again for years, every time you see the person).

TRY THIS: It’s not about you; it’s about something that went wrong or something that you did incorrectly. Own it, yes, but don’t over apologize. Apologize ONCE.

Then say, “How can we avoid this in the future? Any ideas?”


1) STOP: Be aware. Feel your wall of defensiveness rising. You want to protect your reputation! But you will instead:

2) DROP: Take a deep breath to calm your nervous system.

3) ROLL with intention toward a different response: get curious and ask a question like, “What do you do when this happens?”

The Bottom Line

We are hardwired to protect ourselves.

To find connection, even when you want to defend yourself, try getting curious and listening. Ask a question.

Curiosity brings us closer together, while defensiveness drives us apart.


Melissa Hereford


Melissa Hereford will teach you how to get more of what you want while building stronger relationships at MelissaHereford.com


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