The Best Defense is... Well... Not Being Defensive!


Defending yourself in a high stakes conversation is a sure fire way to achieve one thing....

You will be seen as defensive.

I’m willing to bet that has never been on your list of “Things I want to accomplish” during a challenging discussion.

Yet… this is the outcome when we justify, over explain, or defend our position. 

If you find yourself thinking, “Great! What am I supposed to do? Let people walk all over me?”… You may be stuck in the type of “either  / or” thinking that leads to more defensive conversations, and the circle continues…

“Defensive” is defined on as:

Excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one's ego, or exposure of one's shortcomings.


Here are a few ways to manage conversations differently, and lay the groundwork for more productive and collaborative discussions:

Don’t Interrupt– People hate to be interrupted. I’m willing to bet you do too. Interrupting leaves the speaker feeling disrespected and may cause them to become defensive as well. 

If you find yourself unable to listen without interrupting, you’ll have a very difficult time hearing alternate points of view. This is a sure sign that you’re not calm enough to have a true conversation. Nothing good comes from two defensive people trying to solve a problem!

Replace “But” with “And”– But is not your friend. Not sure about that? 

Try saying these sentences out loud: 

  • “Hiring a contractor is a great idea Sue, but it would be expensive. How would you propose we pay for the additional help?”  

  • “Hiring a contractor is a great idea Sue, and it would be expensive. How would you propose we pay for the additional help?” 

The use of “but” says to the listener “I don’t really believe the first part of my sentence, the second part is my true opinion”. “But” comes across as condescending and fuels defensiveness. 

Using “and” is much more inclusive and collaborative. It opens the door to discovery and conversation. 

Breathe– Your body will tell you when you begin to feel defensive. Your racing heart, racing mind, and itch to “speak your mind” are a few of the signs that you’re moving away from collaboration and into the danger zone. 

It’s amazing how much a little deep breathing will help to calm your thoughts. 

Slow down your breathing. Concentrate on inhaling for a count of 3 seconds, and then exhaling for a count of 3 seconds. Do this 5 – 10 times and you’ll feel your heart rate slow down and the ability to listen increase.

It only takes 30 seconds, and you can do it while you’re listening to others!

 No sighing… just slow and purposeful breathing.

Discuss Data & Facts– One of my favorite things about data is that it diffuses emotion. When we have the facts, it’s much easier to gain agreement (or at least common ground) and move toward solving problems. 

Instead of saying:

“Our customers are frustrated with the service they are getting. If sales doesn’t start responding to requests for quotes more quickly we are going to loose business to the competition!”

Open the conversation with:

“Our customers are asking for quotes to be answered within 24 hours. Our sales team is currently responding to 60% of quote requests in over 3 days. I’m concerned about this trend and the potential impact to future sales.” 

Asking others for data when stating opinions also helps move conversations in a more positive direction.

Avoid Over Explaining– Most questions can be answered with 1 - 3 sentences. Don’t use more than that, especially when you’re feeling defensive! 

Remember this: Nobody wants (or needs) to hear everything that is going on in your head. If you’re guilty of telling people the winding path that lead to your conclusion, stop over sharing. It’s hurting your rise.

After your 1 – 3 sentence response, if you have additional information you think may be helpful, try asking one of these questions:

  • “Would you like more detail?”

  • “What else would you like to know?”

  • “What questions do you have about <fill in the blank>?”

Then… if you’re asked for more… answer with a just a few sentences.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. 

Reschedule the Conversation – This is a great option when emotions are high, or additional data would help move participants toward a more productive conversation. Be clear on why you’re suggesting that the conversation continue at a later date, and schedule when you’ll meet back up before ending the discussion. 

Your brand is built by everything you do and say. This includes the way you show up in meetings, conversations, and casual interactions. 

Every. Single. Conversation. Matters. 

Learn your defensiveness triggers… and stop when you feel yourself beginning to justify, over explain, or defend yourself or your ideas. 

Become the collaborative problem solver that people Invite to be part of the most difficult conversations in your organization!