how to deal with a defensive coworker (or anyone, really)

It’s hard to work with defensive coworkers — or worse, defensive bosses. Because they argue, don’t hear what you’re saying, and sometimes even lash out, people tend to start avoiding giving them useful feedback … which sucks for both sides, because problems go unaddressed and people feel like they can’t get their voices heard.

But there’s a secret to defusing defensiveness. It might not be your first instinct, and you might not be thrilled with what it takes, but it will work.

Start by understanding that people who get defensive at the slightest hint of less-than-positive feedback react that way because they perceive the feedback as much bigger than it is. For instance, if you say, “I don’t love the way the intro to the report reads,” they hear, “This report is awful, and you’re bad at your job.” Or if you say, “I’d like to communicate better,” they hear, “You never pay attention to anything I say. What’s wrong with you?” In other words, they experience your feedback as an attack, even though it’s not meant that way.

So the key to working around this is to find a way to make the person feel safe. That means finding ways to signal that things are fine overall and that the problems aren’t earth-shattering ones. If you establish a basic sense of safety, the person won’t feel they have to defend themselves and can instead hear what you’re saying.

Let’s say that want to talk to your defensive manager about ways you could work together better. If you just launch into your suggestions, she’s likely to go on the defensive and even criticize you to ward you off. Not only won’t you get heard, but your attempt to talk will just further strain the relationship. So instead, start by telling her that you like working with her. Even share some of the reasons, if you can. Now that she’s feeling safe in the relationship overall, tell her that you hoped you could talk about some small things that you think will help you do a better job.

Remember, too, that defensive people often expect others to react the way they do. So a defensive manager giving you feedback may be braced for warfare, but you can change the dynamic by using responses that emphasize your openness to the feedback. Saying something like, “I’m really glad you’re telling me this. I didn’t realize that this has been an issue, and I’m grateful to know” can dramatically change the nature of the interaction.

In other words, make it impossible for the person to experience your conversations as adversarial. If they feel safe, even the most defensive people can stay calm, listen, and even become collaborative problem solvers.

Now, you might argue that this is a lot to do to accommodate someone who’s not in the right. And it is! But if you want to have a good relationship with the person, get your voice heard, and get things done, this approach is the path there.

I originally published this at Intuit Quickbase’s blog.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Defensive Lady*

    As someone who is highly sensitive and defensive, I approve this message, especially the part about interpreting anything less than positive feedback as an attack. I hear it as ‘YOU’RE WRONG. YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER. YOU’RE NOT GOOD AT YOUR JOB.’ I am trying to work on that.

    1. Malissa*

      It’s not whether or not you make a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. Is how you fix it and learn from it that matters.
      This statement is what got me out of being chronically defensive.

    2. Anonymous*

      It’s kind of cluche, but knowing you have a problem with defensiveness is the first step in fixing it :-)

      I kinda have a problem with it too, but I think I’ve got a handle on it.

    3. Another Emily*

      This is something I’m actively working on too. My defensiveness stems from a general lack of self-confidence, so I often take “this could improve” or “I need you to do more A and less B” as “you are terrible at your job”.

      I don’t get defensive every time I get feedback but sometimes I find myself explaining errors when I probably should just say “I’ll fix that and make sure not to do it in the future.”

      1. ChristineH*

        Same here.

        Great post Alison! I think this could apply to any situation, not just in the workplace.

      2. Broke Philosopher*

        I do that too!! Like somehow if I don’t explain they will think I am the STUPIDEST when actually they just have a correction for the future. I always feel silly afterwards though, and am working on the brain-to-mouth filter.

    4. Another defensive lady*

      Yeah, that’s me! I do literally hear “You are stupid, worthless and I hate you” instead of whatever it is they are saying. I’ve just about trained myself to be able to listen, hear it out and thank them for letting me aware of this issue… and then I go away and work out what is going on, how I can modify, improve – and sometimes it’s just a preference, or something that is not really something I can work on. But I can’t sort something out in one go – I have to take it and think about it. And actually, I’m much better with feedback at work than I am in my personal life, for sure. The ‘safety’ thing really helps by the way – but of course I’d rather not be so defensive in the first place…

  2. Anonymous*

    This is a little long so bare with me…

    I had a situation with a supervisor a few months ago. First of all she was not the best supervisor. She was very indirect and nonconfrontational. And she just didn’t like certain people, at least I and others felt we got that vibe from her. But even with that vibe she acted professional and I always got good reviews from her. Then one day she sent me an e-mail asking me “how I felt” about taking over so-and-so’s duties of doing X moving forward. X was not something I was really comfortable doing so I was honest since she asked how I felt about it and said that I wasn’t comfortable doing X and would prefer not to. She said something to the effect of “Well I’ll run it by upper management and see what they say.” I thought that was weird but just ignored it. If she wanted to “force” me to do it by getting upper management to back her fine. She could have just not given me a choice and told me I had to do it and since she is my supervisor I would have had to comply.

    Next thing I know she asks me to have a meeting with her where she tells me that I disobeyed what she said and that I was being insubordinate and if I continued to do so I could be terminated! I don’t know how I was being insubordinate because I never refused to do anything. I answered honestly how I felt about doing X because she asked me how I felt about doing X! I did not say that I would refuse to do X. She told me that I was supposed to step up and show initiative by taking on task X. That that’s what she expected of me. Well I’m not a mind reader! She asked me a question and X was something I was really not comfortable doing so I answered it honestly. Just because she didn’t get the response she had hoped for makes me insubordinate? Then she tried to get me to sign a write up really slyly, not telling me what it was. Just a “Oh and I need you to sign this regarding our meeting today.” I flat out asked her if it was a write up and she couldn’t deny it and answered with a weak “Yes…” I refused to sign it. I know that signing a write up doesn’t mean you agree with it and that was even worded in the write up but I still was not comfortable signing it.

    She was really defensive. We also had a 2nd meeting which was pretty much the same thing and she was also very defensive. Now her grandmother had just died and though I felt for her and she was obviously having a very difficult emotional time, that is no excuse to damage an employee’s reputation by taking something and construing it and trying to get them written up plus threatening termination! I had never been written up or threatened with termination ever!

    Fearing my reputation and employment I spoke to HR and per HR’s request, forwarded the e-mails between my supervisor and I which clearly show she asked me how I felt about doing X and I just answered her honestly but never flat out refused to do it. I was a little skeptical of HR even helping because when I spoke to the HR lady on the phone she kept saying “But can you see where your supervisor is coming from?” And I’m thinking yeah I can see how she overreacted and got angry and defensive because I didn’t answer the way she had hoped I would! If she knew how to manage she would have put her foot down and said something like “While I understand how you feel, I really need you to take on X.” I said it a bit more nicely than that to the HR lady.

    Anyways, upper management and HR called me into a meeting and appologized and said the write up would not be happening. My supervisor never appologized. And we did have our monthly meeting where she goes over performance with us and that was fine. But she never brought the situation up and appologized and I certainly wasn’t going to. She has been very creepily overly friendly whenever she sees me, saying hi and asking how I am. Shortly after this happened I was moved to another project and another supervisor. Not because of this incident but because the project we had been working on was discontinued.

    The fact that this situation even happened still baffles me…

    1. Anon*

      I’m facing something similar. My manager is similarly non-confrontational. He asks my input and complains if I’m quiet, but now and again he suddenly gets quite upset with me and won’t say why. He just says, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea if you reported to someone else?” Actually, I’d much rather correct the problem and amend my behavior, if only I knew what the problem was. We’re having an especially bad spell and I’m concerned that I could go on report. I’m sure he thinks the problem is obvious but it isn’t to me. The defensive one here is me; I’m on tenterhooks waiting to see if we just get over it this time or not, though I know defensiveness can only make things worse. But thanks for showing me I’m not alone!

    2. Anonymous*

      You’re luckier than most…at least your top mgmt and HR had the grace to accept and apologise!

    3. Student*

      One way to approach such a problem is to take a page out of the autism playbook. Since there’s been a huge uptick in autism over the last couple decades, many people will pick up on a few autistic or aspergers code words and start behaving more directly towards you if you imply you’re on the spectrum.

      “I don’t always pick up on social cues very well. It would be a huge help to me if you could spell out the problem more directly when I make mistakes. I know you use the more indirect method to help me take initiative and to be a more collaboration-oriented manager, but it doesn’t work well with me because of my social difficulties. I tend to take everything very literally, so if you’re very direct with me, it’ll be a lot easier for me to understand what you want and improve my job performance for you.”

      The other side of the coin is, you have to admit to yourself that there is some truth in this as well. Not necessarily that you have any form of autism, but that you can’t pick up on the social cues your boss expects you to recognize. It’s quite possible that the boss is being irrational in some cases, but in the working world your boss’s cultural norms always trump your own. This boss wasn’t a good cultural fit for you.

      Once you figured out that there had been a miscommunication with your boss, you should’ve cleared that up with the boss immediately instead of escalating the situation. This does, unfortunately, also call for an apology, even if you think you didn’t do anything wrong. “Oh, gosh, I misunderstood you, Boss. I’m so sorry. I thought you wanted feedback on who would be best for the extra work, so I gave some feedback. I didn’t realize you just wanted me to take on the extra work. I apologize, I really wasn’t trying to be difficult.” Apologies have multiple purposes – one of them is to acknowledge a screw up. Another is to smooth things over socially and not aggravate people who are higher on the totem pole than you are. It’s a way of telling her that she screwed up, but not forcing her to own up to her mistake in order to learn from it.

      1. Anonymous*

        I did try to clear it up with my boss and she didn’t want to hear it. She just wanted to believe her initial perception/overreaction of the situation. And she is the one that escalated it first by reporting me to upper management and trying to get me written up! She didn’t even try to talk to me about it first before doing that. If she was still my supervisor then I would have left for another job.

        She already didn’t support me going back to school, especially changing my work schedule by 1hr. Now normally I would understand that from a work point of view except she’s made exceptions for other people. Also, most people worked earlier than me in the first place and I was just asking to work an hour earlier and get off an hour earlier.

        She wouldn’t commit to anything especially since we didn’t know what was happening with our project which was fine, but she also suggested that maybe my time here was over and I needed to look for something else! What supervisor suggests you quit unless you are in trouble and they are giving you an ultimatum of quit or be fired?

        Anyways, I have a great supervisor now who leaves me alone and is super sweet and nice and I got the schedule I needed for school. My new supervisor even asked if there’s anything more she could do to accomodate me as far as school and an old work injury I have that flares up occasionally. (My other supervisor was not too supportive of my work injury either by the way.)

        1. Anonymous*

          I’m really glad you could get out from under that nut!

          Good luck with school and with your new position!

      2. fposte*

        I would really advise against anybody’s intimating they have any syndrome, disease, etc. that they don’t actually have. It’s really a problematic thing to do for a number of reasons.

        And in this case, we’re actually talking about trying to get somebody to be more direct–being direct yourself, rather than deceiving them into it, would seem to be the only fair place to start.

        1. Jamie*

          Thank you. It’s also a disservice to people who are on the spectrum when people dilute their real issues by co-opting accommodations out of convenience.

          Everyone is entitled to clear communication from their supervisors – no special circumstances required.

  3. Charles*

    forget co-workers, forget bosses even, the best place to use this advice is with freakin’ in-laws!

  4. Anonymous*

    I became defensive at work the other day because my coworker tattled our boss’s boss about me making one little blunder that even our boss didn’t care to reprimand me about. Luckily the boss didn’t care either, but I did chime in as to what happened. But it really angered me, and the only emotion I allowed to come out was being defensive. I could have really lashed out, but I held it in. I swear I’m going to be one of those who will keel over on the job because I keep everything inside.

  5. khilde*

    In one of my communication classes, we talk about efensiveness. Many times we get into the discussion that defensiveness is not a “primary” emotion. I think it almost always stems from another emotion that is either not understood or not willing to be dealt with by the person who feels defensive.

    When I get defensive it’s because I’m always feeling something else: guilt, fear, lack of confidence, shame, embarassed, frustrated, attacked, etc. I think defensiveness often goes hand and hand with other feelings and if a person can tune into WHY they are getting defensive it might help them better cope with those trigger situations in the future.

    Like when my daughter was a newborn, my husband would just have to look at me wrong and I’d say “do it yourself then!” I was stressed, feeling inadequate, not sure what I was doing. When he actually was trying to help.

    With a coworker I tend to get defensive when she criticizes ideas without offering a solution. And it’s only from her that I get defensive (I welcome that same feedback from others). I think with her it’s because I feel embarassed that I shouldn’t have thought of that suggestion in the first place. And annoyed that she only ever offers up the bad opinions and not good feedback.

    Anyway, I challenge you to think about what other emotions are at play when you often get defensive. I bet you’ll discover something that might help you better understand the situation then.

    1. fposte*

      Excellent point. I think why it’s so helpful is that defensiveness often comes from feeling helpless, and investigating the response gives you a little more power over it. It can also be worth thinking about external factors –not getting enough sleep or enough exercise can really sap my emotional resilence, for instance.

  6. K Too*

    Great tips AAM!

    I’ve dealt with the defensive boss and it did not turn out well during our meeting. In fact, once I told her my concerns during our 1:1 meeting, she became super defensive and started turning the tables on me. It was all about what I did wrong, while comparing me to her golden children on her team. Funny that she had never had a major issue before, but once I asserted myself she had an issue with me.

    Later, I thought that I probably could have”made her feel safe”. It was not the type of meeting that I expected. Once I was laid off 4 months later, I always wondered if I ended up on the list because of that. You live and learn.

  7. Anonymous*

    I’m in a situation similar to what “Vickie” over on the Quickbase blog mentioned: I have become defenisve with my current team, because the relationship has been bad from the very start of my tenure with them.

    For the first six months I was here, I heard no feedback at all, so I thought everything was fine. Come the six-month, review, I was absolutely BLINDSIDED and got nothing but negative feedback. I was bewildered and hurt that no one–NO ONE, not even my manager–had come to me with any concerns. It was like I was set up to fail.

    They then were very hard on me a while later, when I needed surgery and leading up to that time was using a lot of medical leave for pre-surgical testing and appointments. They make me keep a work log now, even three or four years later!

    You can bet the walls have gone up!

    The relationship still isn’t good, and I’m trying to move on to a new, better situation, but I DO approach things with a lot more self-awareness, and I don’t feel I’m as defensive as I was for a while, but still: When you’ve been sneak-attacked like that, you DO start to feel that you don’t do anything right and that nothing you do will matter in the eyes of the people concerned.

    It’s very hard to overcome.

  8. Anonymous*

    It is very hard not to be defensive if you feel a supervisor is criticizing you personally. In a review where a supervisor focuses entirely on subjective personality traits and ignores job performance and this is the standard in the company, how can you be happy? Is this c common with many companies now? I truly felt in my last job where I worked for many years that the place was run like a highschool with the focus on conformity. I did not feel I could quit because I felt I would never get a good enough review to get another job. So I got fired when someone decided that engineering employees should share the janitorial work in this huge company washing windows, scrubbing walls etc and I was not willing and not positive about it. This is despite the fact that my productivity is high and I get along well with coworkers.

  9. coworker*

    Someone who says they re my friend but lashes out at me in a text. Thinks people are backstabbing her so if she doesn’t like what I say she sends a nasty text

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