We’ve all been there – whether we are talking about a difficult work colleague or the one we love – every so often an issue arises and we know that a simple conversation would help to resolve things.

We just need to explain why it bothers us, ask them to change the way they are acting and then we can both move on.

Except there is a problem.

Every time we approach the discussion, they erect a ten foot wall of defensiveness. Instead of hearing and understanding our point of view, they resort to anger, deflecting or even turning the situation around and pointing the finger of blame at us instead.

Why can such a straightforward conversation be so incredibly hard?

To find the answer, let’s cover some basics in communication.

When two (or more) people enter into a conversation, they are sharing different realities. There is my reality based on my own perceptions, filters and beliefs and then there is their reality. Communication flows very easily when those two versions of reality are similar. I may look out of the window, observe some white flakes falling from the sky and declare ‘it’s snowing‘. If you are also familiar with the concept of snow, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll be in agreement with me and we can smoothly have a discussion on our concept of snow. We have a joint frame of reference (a shared reality) of snow.

Now, let’s say that you are finding an aspect of my behaviour irritating. Perhaps I always interrupt you without letting you finish your sentences. This time we might have very different realities. You may have labels for this behaviour – that I am not listening properly or that I am rude. Whereas my reality could be completely different. Perhaps I get so enthralled in what you are saying that I get over excited and want to share my experiences with you. In this example, we have different frames of reference. And our viewpoints can be so different that we can’t comprehend what the other person is saying. We just cannot understand or appreciate their version of reality. This, of course, is the basis of all conflict.

Often expressed disagreements are easier to handle. At least there can be some recognition of the differences in viewpoint.

But how do you handle the person who automatically goes on the defence?

How do you have a civil conversation if you can’t get close enough to share the issue?

Before we can even attempt to explain our frame of reference, we have to better understand their reality.

What has to be true in their model of the world to create such defensiveness?

Defence is an inbuilt response to a perceived attack. You might be using the kindest words and the gentlest tone of voice in your communication but in their reality, the red warning flags are waving. Despite your niceties, they are feeling threatened and up come those defensive walls for protection and safety. Your conversation has just become a no-go zone.

We can argue that their response is inappropriate, negative or childish. But as long as they are firmly fixed in their frame of reference, your explanations will fall on deaf ears.

If you want to be heard, you have to first seek to understand. Why are they feeling threatened? Are they insecure? Do they need reassurance? Is there something unrelated that they are holding back and not telling you? You’ve got to get into their reality and see the world through their eyes to really appreciate the validity of their defensive response.

Take your agenda off the table for a while. Become an attentive listener. Defensiveness is always a product of unmet needs. Rather than forcing a conversation or your point of view, be the source of fulfilment for those needs. Focus on developing the relationship rather than trying to resolve problems. Ultimately, this will be the foundation for any future discussions. And there will come a time when the relationship is strong enough to handle any difficult or challenging conversations.

It’s unlikely that you will see improvements immediately. This isn’t a strategy for getting what you want. Rather it is an ongoing commitment to the deepest level of understanding. No happy or content person is ever defensive. Defence is always a request for compassion and reassurance. Are you going to arm yourself for battle or wave the flags of peace? We can make this a kinder and more loving world. And isn’t that a shared reality we can all get behind?


Tiffany Kay helps people to resolve conflict and difficulties in personal and professional situations. If you are struggling with a relationship issue, get in touch.

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