When Others Get Defensive, What Do They Do?

What do people usually do when you have been assertive or said quietly what needs to be said or what was on your mind?  They usually do the following….

1. Get Hostile

The finest assertion message is often received as a hostile blow. 

The person usually does not deal with the subject matter of your assertion, but picks an issue selected for its ability to inflict high damage on you with relatively low risk for his or herself.

For instance;

Joan:              When you produce 30% less this month than last month, I feel

annoyed because it lowers the productivity of our unit and I get

less pay.

Mike:               The others sure are right, you are just a castrating female who

is hostile to all males.

2. Ask Questions

Some defend themselves by means of questions. 

A person may not consciously know what he or she is doing, but the subconscious probably knows that the use of questions is a way of derailing assertions in a non-confrontive way.

Don’t answer a question when you have been assertive; reply with a reflective listening response instead.  Every question can be converted back into a statement and reflected back to the other person.

For instance;

Gail:                Did you always do the dishes when you were a girl?

Mother:           You doubt that I lived up to the standards I expect of you.

3. Debate the Issue

Some people respond to an assertion by debating. 

A person relying on this defensive approach often uses mental quickness and verbal ability to win arguments even when they “don’t have a leg to stand on”.

By refusing to engage in a debate and by using reflective listening responses, you can get your needs met and probably strengthen the relationship at the same time.

4. Cry or Shed Tears

For some people, tears are the major coping mechanism when confronted with an assertion. 

Crying is often a manipulative way to avoid confrontations and dodge any behavioural change even though the individual is trespassing on another person’s space.

Just wait for the tears to subside.  Be patient…the crying can’t go on forever.

5. Withdraw

Some people respond to assertion by withdrawal — like the turtle who pulls into its shell whenever it feels threatened. 

This person may sit in total silence following an assertion.  Sometimes the body language is disapproving; sometimes it is despondent.  Often the individual puts on a poker face, making it difficult to read their feelings.

In these situations, provide a lot of silence, reflect what you think the body language is saying, and then reassert.

If the other person continues to say nothing, say, “I take your silence to mean that you don’t want to talk about it and that you will meet my needs by getting the car home at the agreed-upon time.  I’ll touch bases with you next Sunday to make sure this is working out OK”.


The main strategies to use include:

1. Reflectively Listen to the Defensive Response

Reflective listening at this time can accomplish one or more of four things. 

(1)  It helps diminish the other person’s defensiveness.

(2)  The data we receive from our listening modifies our need to continue the assertion.

(3)  You sometimes discover a strong need of the other person which conflicts with your need.

(4)  When you assert to someone you are likely to receive a lot of data about how that person perceives you and your relationship.

2. Repeat the Process

Once you have sent your assertion message, provided the other with silence in which to think or respond, and reflectively listened to the predictable defensive response, you are ready to begin this process all over again.

Because the other was defensive, he or she probably was unable to understand the situation from your point of view.  You send the identical message again.  Follow it with silence.  Then reflect the expected defensive response.  In many situations, it may take five to ten repetitions of the process before the other really understands and suggests a way of meeting your needs.

Persistence is one of the keys of effective assertion.  Typically it takes three to ten repetitions of the assertion message (interspersed by silence for the other’s solution or defence and the asserter’s reflective listening responses) to change the other’s behaviour.

3. Focus on the Solution

One of the reasons assertion messages work so well is that they do not back the other person into a corner.

When the other comes up with a solution, make sure it meets your needs.  It is important to be flexible and open to a broad range of possible options that could meet your needs.  But if your needs are not met by the other’s proposal, it is important to say so.

Don’t insist that the other person be cheerful about meeting your needs.

Paraphrase the solution back to the other.

Say “Thanks”.

Arrange a time when you will check with each other to make sure the solution is working.


Whenever you send an assertion message, there is a high likelihood that the other person will respond defensively.

Defensiveness in one party in an interaction tends to trigger defensiveness in the other’s response.  The result is frequently an escalating spiral of defensiveness which results in aggression or alienation.

Instead, an assertion process designed to help the asserter get their needs met while responding constructively to the expected defensiveness of the other person follows these six steps:

  1. Preparation
  2. Sending the Assertion Message
  3. Being Silent
  4. Reflectively Listening to the Defensive Response
  5. Recycling the Process
  6. Focusing on the Solution
  •  What would it take for you to really learn these responses?
  • How could you ensure that you really knew these steps and could action them the next time that you needed to?
  • What would make you confident about being able to undertake these steps?