5 Graceful Ways to Stop Getting Defensive

If your defensiveness gives a linebacker a run for his money, you’re in luck. Savvy Psychologist offers 5 tips to hear feedback while keeping your cool.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #194

So how can we channel our energy into self-improvement rather than self-defense? According to a study by Dr. Carol Dweck, grande dame of the mindset movement, cultivating a growth mindset can help us make the leap.

In the study, university students were primed by reading one of two fake news articles: one said that intelligence was inherited and fixed from a young age, while the other said that intelligence could be increased substantially over the life span. Then all the participants were given just four minutes to read a long and confusing passage from Freud’s classic The Interpretation of Dreams, which, with its late 1800s language and esoteric ideas, was about as easy to get through as airport security on Thanksgiving weekend.

After they read, they answered some questions that supposedly gauged their comprehension. But psychologists are tricky, so no matter their actual score, participants were told they scored in the 37th percentile. Not good by any measure, but not so bad that they were truly the bottom of the barrel.

The researchers found that those who had been primed to think intelligence was fixed made themselves feel better by comparing their performance to those who did worse than them—a defensive reaction: “Well, at least I did better than those morons.”

But the participants who had been primed to think intelligence was malleable coped by being curious about the strategies of those who performed better. Rather than getting defensive, they wanted to learn how to improve their own performance.

Of course, if you receive criticism that is cruel or insulting, no one expects you to grow from it—go ahead and use your time and energy repairing those wounds.

But if the feedback is meant to help you or is neutral and objective—like scoring in the 37th percentile—rather than channeling your energy into soothing yourself, channel your energy into improving yourself. Adopt a growth mindset and take critical feedback as a chance to get better and better.

Tip #4: In the moment, buy time.

Okay, that is all fine and good, you say—I can affirm my deepest values, interpret feedback as the fact that others believe in me, and trust that I can grow. But what about in the moment? How can I manage that split second when I know I’ll dig myself into a hole if I get defensive, but all I want to do is clap back in epic style?

The answer: your biggest asset is time. Buy yourself a few seconds to let the adrenaline surge crest and to gather your thoughts. You can do this is one of two ways.

One, keep them talking. You could say, “Go on...” or “Oh? Say more about that.” And then, use their airtime to take a few slow breaths and gather your thoughts.

Two, don’t be afraid to stay momentarily silent. A slightly awkward pause buys you time and, as a bonus, throws them off their game. Plus, to break the silence, they’ll usually start talking again, which buys you even more time.

And then? Try Tip #5.

Tip #5: Use a classic: “I” statements.

This is a classic for a reason. “I” statements are key to reducing defensiveness. Why? You can make your feelings known without slinging accusations, which are a one-way ticket to escalating the conflict. Plus, no one can argue with your opinion or your feelings.

For once, making it about you is the way to go, and “I” statements will help you get there without getting defensive.

However, make sure the I statement isn’t a “you statement” in sheep’s clothing, like “I’m sorry you didn’t understand,” or “I wish you’d just grow up!”

Better: “I am not comfortable with this.” “I have a hard time listening when you raise your voice.” “I get frustrated when you remind me over and over. It makes me feel like you don’t trust me.” Sometimes a simple, “I hear what you’re saying,” is enough to defuse the tension and have a real conversation.

To wrap it all up, leave great defense to the likes of Dick Butkus and Bill Russell, not to mention that balled-up porcupine. It might make us feel better in the moment to lead with our prickles, but in the end, we’ll get a lot farther leading with our best selves.

how to be yourself ellen hendriksen bookOrder Ellen's book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Image of porcupine © Shutterstock

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.