How to Deal with Defensive People

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It's frustrating any time it happens: You're just going about your business, trying to do your best, when somebody gets it in their head that your questions (or your answers to their questions) are actually an attack of some sort. You have to brace yourself for a torrent of redirected anger, none of which (you have to remind yourself) is really about you.

Defensiveness is just part of working with people, whether it's in customer service, just navigating your coworkers' moods, or keeping the peace with your own household, friends, or family. Psychologists at Australia's Flinders University have just released a study on where defensive behavior comes from, and what we can do to curb it, blunt it, and calm it down.

"Psychological defensiveness includes the many ways that we let ourselves off the hook when we do wrong," as a press release puts it. According to this paper, one researcher says, "our recommendations for reducing defensiveness when dealing with someone who may have done something wrong is to emphasize respect and value for the person, even if you disagree with their views or actions. Also provide opportunity for the person to express their values prior to talking about the specific problem."

In other words, we tend to get defensive when we've screwed up because we know a social punishment is coming for our transgression. By reminding ourselves that we haven't endangered our social standing, just made a mistake, we can defuse a potentially uncomfortable situation, for ourselves and for other people.