I had an aggressive interaction at the beach with a guy who wanted to shove a sand toy into my mouth — “Do you wanna’ eat this?!!” he screamed, with bulging blood vessels pulsing in his forehead. 

Major mistake on my part: I borrowed a sand toy without asking. I didn’t want to wake the guy to ask if I could borrow it. Oops, I apologized. But first …

He screamed at me. I felt defensive and threatened. I rose to my feet, standing tall and stiff. It made me feel bigger I guess. He looked like a body builder. I stood still as he shoved the sand pail to within an inch of my teeth. I faced him straight on. “I apologize,” I said.

The incident got me thinking about defensiveness and about how we respond when we feel threatened. 

When we detect danger or we feel (or are directly) threatened, our hypothalamus buzzes, and we get into fight or flight mode. Our sympathetic nervous system and adrenal cortisol activate. We either fight, run, or freeze.

Luckily, we don’t often experience direct physical threats like with Mr. Crazy Mad Beach Guy. We instead often find ourselves on the receiving end of angry customers, stressed-out coworkers, road-ragers, hormonal teenagers, exhausted partners — people being pushed, people pushing. Sometimes we’re the ones doing the pushing.

Any situation where you are interacting with others raises your chances of either dealing with their defensiveness or feeling defensive yourself.

Defensive behavior comes in many forms. Some people react to criticism with defensiveness. They do things like deny responsibility, or they meet one complaint with another complaint. Defensiveness from either side creates tension and anxiety.

More defensive body language I have noticed:

1. Two hands up or one hand out, like in a stop position.

2. Head shaking side to side no.

3. Sitting forward or moving your body backward.

4. Head in hands, rubbing temples. (I do that one a lot)

5. Eye rolling or no eye contact.

6. Laughing uncomfortably. (I do this one too!)

When you spot defensive behaviors in others, it is good to take note and be aware. Maybe you are coming on too aggressively. If you’re on the receiving end of comments or behavior that make you feel defensive, it’s best to hold fast a calm, professional posture and reserve comment for when your emotions aren’t so engaged.

“I” statements are an immediate way to make someone less defensive. If you are the one feeling threatened, I statements are helpful here too. In addition, I like asking someone how they are feeling in response. 

Letting someone know you are interested and invested in them helps to slow down the fight or flight.

  • I statements about self examples: “I am feeling very angry that you made fun of me during the meeting. I felt embarrassed and disrespected.”
  • Or with your kids, “I feel angry and mad that you left the plates for me to pick up. Could you remember to pick up your plate when finished next time?”
  • Asking about them. “I am interested in how you are feeling in response to this. What is going on for you?”

What triggers you?

Know yourself and what triggers your own defensiveness. Why do you think you react in certain ways? In my case,  I can easily go into fight mode when aggressively threatened. I grew up in an extremely passive household and have difficulty not reacting in a way that probably overcompensates for this passivity. Therefore, I have to be mindful of this when someone threatens me. Being aware of your style and how it is useful for you (and not so useful around defensive behavior) is helpful.