The Art of Non-Defensiveness

Here’s a true statement: I am a lousy communicator when I feel defensive. This is one of those tough challenges not because it happens often, rather, when it happens it often catches me unaware and I get tangled up in it. Too much of my calm and reason goes out the window when I feel defensive.


There was one time at work that a colleague, Marc, was peppering me with questions to understand how I planned to deal with an objection that another team might raise. I explained to Marc my solution once or twice, the conversation didn’t reach a point where it felt settled. It was going in circles and I felt pretty frustrated.

At some point, and I don’t exactly remember how, Marc let me know in a very gentle way that I was speaking to him with a raised voice. (I have very little situational awareness when this happens but I would wager that I was practically scolding him) And I paused for a moment and I said, “you know, you’re absolutely right.” My voice was elevated and was probably not that kind. It meant a lot to have him point this out in such a gentle way. And it left me with so much room to reflect and see the truth of the matter and to apologize without beating myself up. It was a real gift.

I had gone into a state of defensiveness. It has become clear to me that when I go into this state, it is very hard for me to listen because I default to arguing, to getting Marc to try to see my point of view. I become chiefly concerned with disarming the arguments of my “opponent” and especially anything that can be taken as a criticism of me.

And when I rush into counter-argument, I end up in a conundrum. I am not really hearing or acknowledging what the other person has said, though I somehow expect that the other person hears me out before I can consider the matter settled.

And as if all of that were not bad enough, it’s to speak in a way that makes it easy for others to listen. Even when I can choose my words so that I am not misunderstood, I find that the tone that I use lacks any sense of compassion or empathy. So it is very easy for both sides in such an interaction to feel utterly unheard and to feel unsympathetic to the other person.

A Tough Nut to Crack

Bad reactions, like defensiveness, are a tough nut to crack for anyone interested in mindfulness, but I am committed to changing this about myself.  Years ago, I made a major improvement in my life simply by choosing to endure alone, those times that I had let myself get so angry that I was out of control. 

Being My Own Comfort and Letting the Storm Pass

As a young kid who had the occasional temper tantrum, it made sense to seek the comfort of an adult. But this wasn’t something that translated well into my adult years with my friends. I’d have these moments where I was so upset about something that if I tried to talk about it with someone, it would be yelling or nothing.

Depending on the friend and how upset I was, if I sought the comfort of a friend, I’d possibly end up making my friend as upset as I was. It’s an understandable desire, to seek commiseration, but it is also misguided.

After one particularly bad episode where I really upset my friend Dave on the phone, I decided to quit. I chose not to seek comfort the next time I was spun out about something. This choice entailed an implicit assumption: I was enough to deal with these feelings by myself.  Very empowering.

Adjusting the Story

In addition to my choice of just letting the storm of an anger reaction pass through, I have also adopted many versions of this next tactic: adjust the story I tell myself in an attempt to defuse the earlier phases that build toward anger.  This has been the bread and butter of my psychological mood-management tool set.

As an example of how this works applied to road rage, I have worked to habituate a sense of being unrushed by committing to a belief that it doesn’t matter when I get there. I choose to be a “Sunday Driver” who lets people lane change ahead of me, no matter what day of the week it happens to be.

Other people don’t have the power “cut you off” if you invite everyone in!

It isn’t “Me vs. Them” if we are all just getting where we are trying to go!

Adjusting the story is great for lowering the stakes in situations where I have a lot of time to deal with my thoughts. It is a practice to be honed over thousands of tiny opportunities. It is a gift to your own sanity.

Deconstructing A Lightning-Fast Reaction

Defensiveness, though, doesn’t offer a lot of time for that sort of reflection. By definition, you’re interacting with another person when it sneaks up on you.  And there is something about the pressure of having to deal with it in realtime with real hurt feelings that adds some complexity to it for me.

So while my intentions to change my behavior may be very strong, I have failed at my attempts rather often.  Still, I believe that there is always a way to achieve whatever it is you are willing to apply your mind and your disciplined effort.

Here’s a rule I work by: If a problem seems too big when I examine the whole of it, then I need to break the problem down to a set of components that describes the whole problem and attack the individual pieces. 

Applied to defensiveness, if we can identify the aspects that we can apply our thinking and hard work to, we can begin to rewrite the patterns.

Here are some of the key elements of what I do that allows defensiveness to completely disarm me:

• Reaction without (sufficient) thought

• Listening badly

• Speaking badly

• Believing that a criticism of some idea/action is a criticism of you

• Believing that you are responsible for what others think of you


Reacting without sufficient thought is the first problem. Addressing it is a matter of improving your communications hygiene. My plan for this is to practice non-reaction: a practice of meditation.

I recently started using the meditation app, Calm. And as part of their free trial, they have this program called “The 7 days of Calm”. The one reminder you will hear the most during the program is that your mind may start going to work on thinking about things, and when it does, notice it without reaction or judgment and go back to focusing on your breath.

Meditation is indeed practice. It is practice at being without evaluating or judging. It is a practice at being present to what is happening now vs. What has happened in the past or what will happen in the future. I couldn’t think of a better way to practice hearing someone criticize something I have said or done and not launching right into an explanation or argument.

My theory: given enough practice, I can insert a pause between hearing and saying.

Listening Badly

Listening badly is another key ingredient of defensiveness. How often has it happened that I hear a person say something and my mind comes up with exactly one possibility for what the speaker meant, but upon asking the speaker to go into it a bit more deeply, I find that we lacked a fundamental agreement on definitions? (answer: I try not to assume I understand anyone anymore unless they beat me over the head with what it means)

Developing better listening skills is something I have been working on for at least a couple years now. My practice includes:

● trying not to formulate responses while another person is speaking

● saying “let me think about that” if what they have said requires a response

● asking questions to validate and deepen the conversation… get curious about why they think it’s important

I am usually only trying one of these out in any given conversation at a time. Since they are in a sequence, I place my focus on the first skill and add in the next bit when I feel some comfort with the one I am working on.

Listening better and drawing out a person’s meaning can be crucial preventing misunderstandings. And many defensive cycles are well-engineered misunderstandings.


Your ideas or beliefs can be a huge source of trouble for you if you are trying to change the way you deal with defensiveness. This is the part that I have the easiest time reasoning about, but the implementation is tricky when you have a real-time conversation happening because there is a difference between conscious beliefs and the ones that have been programmed into your fast-twitch brain.

I had identified above two examples of beliefs that create problems for me:

● Believing that a criticism of some idea/action is a criticism of you

● Believing that you are responsible for what others think of you

How I go about applying this is usually self-talk (silently, of course). Believing that a criticism of some idea or action of mine is also criticism of me causes me to feel angry and defensive. So I remind myself that my ideas and actions are not automatically perfect and are not expected to be.

I believe thinking on these things is rehearsing them. And doing so equips us with these tools for when we need them most. Over a large enough set of rehearsing an idea, it is possible for a criticism to go from being an attack to being an opportunity to reflect and possibly to change course.

A further bit of self-talk I have begun to adopt is the notion that my idea of a person (i.e. who another person is and what their character consists of) is just that: a set of ideas. It is truly hard to get a full view of another person. We really only ever have incomplete impressions.

I can think of perhaps one or two people that have a long enough history with me that I don’t have to provide a lot of background when I talk about the emotional difficulties I have had to face. I’m sure there are things that are so shameful that I have never let them see the light of day, even with these closest of friends.

It is an enormous challenge to really understand another person’s decisions in any given situation. I have a particular stance that I adopt when in a situation that a friend is considering making a choice that I think they will regret. I try my best to dissuade them only one time. After that, I must either accept my friend and his bad choice or I must opt out of the friendship. I usually don’t do the latter. The bad choices are an opportunity to learn and grow and I wish this for my friends as much as I wish it for myself.

If we are going to accept our friends as they are and forgive their bad choices, perhaps we can decide to do so for ourselves as well. I can accept myself and release any notion of control over what perceptions others may have of me. When someone shares their critique of me, I can pause, say “I see…”, and make an attempt to see the truth is there. If it is a fair critique, I can admit that they are right and ask them about it.

Working with your beliefs will reduce the number of things you can get defensive about. In concert with deferring reaction and listening, I believe I can keep a hold of my senses and work toward the end goal.

Goal: Climbing The Ladder of Clean Communication

The end goal is clean communications under pressure and criticism. I don’t want to be able to be so easily hijacked by my emotions. And it proves much to easy at times when the pressure and the criticism come from multiple directions. Life in the hot seat is unpredictable.

But knowing what you strive toward helps you to make it a reality. And with that in mind, here is the paradigm that I use: it is a ladder that I am attempting to climb:

1.  Worded with good will, delivered with gentle/empathetic tone

2.  Clumsily worded, delivered with gentle/empathetic tone

3.  Unambiguously worded, delivered with stiff/stunted but neutral tone

4.  Badly worded, delivered with harsh tone

5.  Worded to wound or defeat, delivered with harsh tone

This ladder gives me a vision of where it is I want to spend most of my time. I am giving tone more priority over wording/intention because that is the greater challenge that I face.

I will know I am minimally successful when I never resort to the bottom of the ladder.

I will know I am enormously successful when I no longer have to apologize to my friends and loved ones for my tone.

The Art of War (on Defensiveness)

Defensiveness is something that undermines anyone who has something to say or share. It makes it really hard for people to listen with an open mind and heart. It undermines the authority of leaders.

The best defense we can arrange for ourselves is a good offense. We can equip ourselves to avoid acting out of defensiveness first by knowing that arriving there makes us communicate badly. We can apply better communications hygiene by really listening, thinking about things, and digging deeper. We can discard the beliefs that aren’t serving us and add new ones that help remind us that there is much to be grateful for.

It is my hope that, as people who choose to be leaders, our mindfulness can be applied to a practice that results in real changes in how we do things so that we can really achieve a life that feels to us as brilliant and happy as it reads on paper.