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Defensiveness: Addressing Barriers to Communication

Donna Soules
Soules Consulting Ltd.
5092 Brenton-Page Road
Ladysmith, BC V9G 1L6


  • Introduction
  • Definition of Defensiveness
  • Face-Saving
  • Observing Defensive Behaviors
  • Theoretical Frameworks
  • Mediator Interventions
  • References


My interest in this topic began with a personal interaction with my husband. We were having an emotional discussion about a subject that now escapes me. In the middle of the dialogue my husband said, "You're being really defensive." I very skillfully responded, "No, I'm not!" After an exchange of "Yes, you are" and "No, I'm not," I managed to become more skilful, shifted to a place of curiosity, and asked him an open question: "What does 'defensive' mean to you?" (It was becoming clear to me that we did not see this interaction in the same way.) His response surprised me because it was quite different from my definition. He thought defensive people were "covering their butts" and "lying through their teeth." I responded that I felt judged, blamed and falsely accused, so it made sense to me that I was merely protecting myself. The excitement of this realization about how differently we view this very complex distinction between denial and protection directed us both away from the emotional issue at hand. Our focus became my thesis topic for my Masters degree. We left our conflict behind--it did not seem as important any more.

I was excited since I had seen versions of this conversation many times before in mediations where people abandoned the conflict issues and became distracted with defensive behaviors. It seemed to me that defensiveness was a key piece in resolving conflict. People seem to become entangled or caught up in this emotional complexity where walls and barriers start to go up and communication becomes misunderstood. For most people, including myself, the most powerful sensation surrounding defensiveness is confusion and feeling misunderstood.

My enthusiasm was confirmed even more when I started a literature search and found that little has been written about defensive behaviors in a mediation context.

My intention in this paper is to draw together the underlying components of defensive behaviors for the benefit of practicing mediators. An important focus will be to explore interventions mediators use to address defensiveness and to shift communication to a more constructive mode. As mediators, our focus is not to determine if the parties are acting in denial or self-protection because our interventions do not depend on our assessment of the rightness or wrongness of their respective positions. Our goal is to eliminate barriers to communication and increase understanding.

What I will be sharing with you comes from a descriptive rather than a prescriptive perspective based on two years of research into the literature, discussions with a focus group of conflict resolution practitioners, and in-depth interviews with ten experienced mediators.

Defining Defensiveness

In defining defensiveness, Senge (1994) draws an analogy to medieval times when "alchemy was a symbol for transformation of what is most common (lead) into what is most precious (gold)." In mediation, parties "practice a special form of alchemy, the transformation of potentially divisive conflict and defensiveness into learning" (p. 257). While the alchemy of defensiveness is not about converting lead into gold, it is a useful metaphor for thinking about transforming the heaviness and inertness of defensiveness into lightness and understanding.

Mediation practitioners Bush and Folger (1994) also use the word "transformation" for describing the mediation process. They state, " In this transformative orientation, a conflict is first and foremost a potential occasion for growth in two critical and interrelated dimensions of human morality. The first dimension involves strengthening the self... [and the second is] reaching beyond the self to relate to others " (81).

For the mediator, defensive behaviors can be a valuable clue or key to assist the parties to explore and gain better understanding of what motivates their actions. Seeing defensiveness as a valuable, if not precious component that can be transformed into deeper understanding is a positive way to reframe defensive behaviors.

Sigmund Freud first used the term defensiveness in psychoanalysis in 1894. He defined defensiveness as a behavior or defense against unbearable ideas. Freud and his daughter Anna generated a list of behaviors called "defense mechanisms" which will be discussed in more detail below. While often considered to be outdated, Freud's pioneering research has made an important contribution to how we think about defensiveness.

For the participants of the focus group, a working definition of defensiveness was crafted as "behavior to protect oneself from a perceived threat or attack."


This definition brings up the question of what is under threat or attack. When people feel judged or blamed for something they do not believe is accurate or true for them, their identity or self-esteem is challenged. Face-saving becomes the dominant interest of the party under attack. The communication shifts away from the issues in conflict to a secondary issue of the negotiation of that person's "face". "Face is the communicator's claim to be seen as a certain kind of person" (Folger, Poole & Stutman, 1997, p. 127-8). Face-saving is closely linked to defensiveness because a defensive behavior is protecting one's self-image with another person who is challenging how we see ourselves. Goffman (1968) defines face "as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact" (p. 226). For Ting-Toomey (1988), "Face, in essence, is a projected image of one's self in a relational situation" (p. 215). When a judgmental statement threatens the person's perception of self and the two perceptions are incongruent, the defensive person may be inclined to justify, explain, or rationalize.

Another important distinction in the definition that people in the focus group wanted to address was the word "perceived". They thought it did not matter whether the threat or attack was real or imagined. If a person perceives a threat, the response can be defensive. Making assumptions is also a factor in this framework and one mediator saw defensiveness as a preemptive strike that is based on an assumption that the defensive person is going to be attacked or feels unsafe in some way. People may assume they are being blamed or accused unfairly.

The word "protection" also bears mention as some mediators define defensiveness as a protective mechanism or survival instinct. They feel this stance is normal when people are in conflict and trust levels may be low or non-existent. People may feel the need to protect their egos or to preserve something that they are afraid of either exposing, losing, or revealing. One mediator thought it was important that people felt they had permission to protect themselves. Defensiveness can be an indictor that something needs attention.

During the focus group, mediators stated that when people are attacked, they can often find it difficult to admit being defensive because they feel justified and therefore do not perceive themselves as being defensive. People seem to believe it is "righteous indignation" that promotes the act of defending their good name. Some people would define the behavior as self-protection, something they deem a necessary function. Some mediators made a correlation between power imbalances and defensiveness. When people perceive that they are deficient in power, defensiveness may occur. This feeling of powerlessness may result when people feel they are not equal players, or have fewer resources in the conflict. The fear that their interests will not be met can motivate the feeling of defensiveness.

Observing Defensive Behaviors

Defensive behaviors can be recognized verbally as well as non-verbally. In the literature review, the focus group and the interviews, the difficulty of observing the behavior was frequently noted. Context and type of conflict are important variables in determining the nature of the behavior. Even laughing could be a defense during an anxious moment in conflict.

When people become defensive there are a number of steps they go through. They first approach the situation from their own perspective, whether or not they feel threatened or falsely accused. They then communicate this perception in a verbal and/or non-verbal manner. People can respond defensively in a number of different ways:

  • passive: to shut down or withdraw
  • aggressive: verbally or physically attack or judge and blame another
  • assertive: establish clear boundaries and express what is wanted or needed

People who are defensive often cannot empathize with or understand another point-of-view that is different from theirs. They can be unwilling to take in new information or learn about a new perspective.

Non-verbal defensive behavior can have both passive and aggressive forms: Passive Forms: crossed arms and/or legs (closed or shut down posture), rolling the eyes, shaking the head, frowning, flushed face, refusing to speak, fidgeting, turning away, looking away, walking away. Aggressive Forms: slamming doors, leaning forward and glaring, pounding a fist, throwing something .

Verbal defensiveness can be demonstrated by:
attacking back, denying, explaining, raising voice tone, interrupting, dominating, repeating, swearing and name calling, arguing, rationalizing, and justifying.

While not specifically concerned with the question of observation, Fine notes that the cataloging of defensive behaviors has extended far beyond Freud's original list to "include virtually any dynamic process in which there is anxiety and a way of warding off the anxiety" (p. 313). He sees this ever-growing list of defense mechanisms as a problem, since literally "anything can be used as a defense against something else" (p. 297). In his own analysis, Freud seems to suggest that it is not as important to name a defense mechanism as it is to understand that a defense constitutes a response to anything that the ego feels anxiety about. We can extend this same principle to the observation of behaviors: it is not so important that we name all the observable behaviors as to recognize that defensiveness is observable.

Theoretical Frameworks

When defining the different theoretical approaches to understanding defensive behaviors, mediation may appear to be moving into territory that resembles therapy. One mediator commented that addressing defensiveness is outside the realm of mediation; therefore, a distinction between the purposes of mediation and therapy might be in order.

The purpose of mediation can be one or more of the following:

  • to resolve conflict issues for the future
  • to illuminate the past, not solve it
  • to create better understanding between parties
  • to improve relationships
  • to empower the self

The purpose of therapy in simple terms could be seen as a process to heal the past by exploring issues that are causing difficulty for people in their day-to-day lives. One goal may be to eliminate the troubling issues or to treat the psychological or socially maladjusted behaviors in order to rehabilitate people into society. Therapy is often thought to be a systematic structure of theories concerning the relation of conscious and unconscious behaviors, or a technical procedure for investigating the psyche. While mediation seeks to enhance understanding, its primary goal is not to change defensive behaviors as therapy might do. Parties may choose to change their behaviors after gaining increased understanding; however, they are not directed to do so. The primary focus of the mediator is to illuminate the past, rather than heal it. Once illuminated, the issues of the past are refocused for the future.

A literature review reveals different perspectives about what motivates defensive behaviors. In individualized psychological theory (which is when the practitioner only works one-on-one with the identified client), defensiveness is created by an internal anxiety from past experiences based on cause and effect thinking. The work of S. Freud, A. Freud, Alder, Jung, Glasser, and Rogers are examples of therapists working in this tradition. S. Freud saw the purpose of the defense mechanisms as socially acceptable ways to transform negative instincts. Defense mechanisms such as repression, denial, projection and regression are sophisticated psychological strategies for avoiding and distorting reality. Therefore defensive behaviors are an indirect way of expressing these thoughts and feelings when people do not feel secure enough to expose their concerns. Defensiveness is about issues that are buried or repressed.

When discussing the individualized psychological approach, John Locke needs to be mentioned. Most of Western society has been steeped in Locke's perspective, which informs the rules for social norms that allow individuals to perform acceptable and consistent behaviors and modes of reasoning. This philosophy, known as linear cause/effect thinking, is used to solve problems. An example of this theory would be: situation A causes situation B; therefore, A is responsible for causing B, or A may be blamed for causing B. People will question why B happens, and want to assign a cause. Becvar and Becvar (1988) describe the Lockean tradition as the view that "[r]eality is considered to be external to us, to exist outside our minds. Thus meaning comes from external experience and we are recipients: we recognize order rather than create it" (p. 4). This thinking often results in a victim mentality that only one person is responsible for the result or effect of a conflict. This form of thinking results in the belief that there are absolute truths about reality: my reality is right and your reality is wrong if it differs from mine. This thinking sets the stage for conflict. Helping parties in conflict shift to a systems thinking mentality can move them away from a right/wrong or blaming way of resolving a difference of opinion.

In family systems theory, defensiveness arises from social interaction where people mutually influence one another; therefore, a person cannot feel defensive in isolation. This approach does not focus on the individual and individual problems. The focus shifts to relationships and relationship issues, and assigns responsibility to both parties for creating the conflict. There is an expectation that the interdependence between people creates an element of subjectivity about reality, which is non-causal. This results in equal involvement in the interaction, which is reciprocal. Instead of asking why something happens, people will ask what is happening. Becvar & Becvar (1988) outline family systems as when "[s]ubjects and objects...are all involved in each other's destiny. Reality is not external to us but is created by us as we bring our own personal perceptions to bear on it and give meaning and order to it. We are proactive" (p. 11). Theorists such as Bowen, Bateson, Haley, Satir, and Minuchin are examples of systems thinkers who work with whole systems, whether is a family or an ecology. From a communication theory perspective, defensiveness results from how people talk to each other. The theory states that if people are skillful and change their patterns of communication, others will be less defensive. Gibb understands communication as a "people process rather than a language process" (1961 (b), p. 141). He describes how we might accomplish this goal of improved communication in the realm of defensive and supportive climates (p. 143), shown below:

Defensive Climates

  1. Evaluation
  2. Control
  3. Strategy
  4. Neutrality
  5. Superiority
  6. Certainty

Supportive Climates

  1. Description
  2. Problem orientation
  3. Spontaneity
  4. Empathy
  5. Equality
  6. Provisionalist

Categories of Behavior Characteristic of Supportive and Defensive Climates in Small Groups (Gibb, 1961a)

Gibb's communication research on defensive and supportive climates is used as a foundation for most theorists as a starting point to discuss defensive behaviors.

More recently, Stamp, Vangelisti, & Daly (1992) expanded on Gibb's theory about defensiveness in their research. They state that defensiveness is "related to: (1) a self perceived flaw which the individual refuses to admit, (2) sensitivity to that flaw, and (3) an attack by an another person which (4) focuses on an area or issue that the attacker perceives as a flaw in the other" (p. 177). Kempler, who comes from the family systems perspective recommends that practitioners remain flexible and context specific; otherwise the theories can be constrictive and inappropriately applied.

Mediator Intervention

During the focus group and interviews, most mediators said they would not identify defensive behaviors from a theoretical framework. They are more likely to approach defensiveness with curiosity and probe to discover what was underneath the behavior. Some stated that they have a set of practices that are not theoretically coherent, and their practices are more intuitive. Becvar & Becvar (1988) claim that "all behavior in the context of others has message value" (p. 69). Since behaviors usually make sense to the people demonstrating it, mediators can use behavior to explore the underlying meanings.

Mediators from the focus group felt it was not important to determine whether the defensive behavior was an attempt to deny an error, or lie to protect oneself. Whether the person is guilty or falsely accused should not be the focus of the intervention. People thought the truth is more likely to be disclosed if a climate of understanding is established. The intention of the mediation is not to decide a right or wrong point-of-view but to illuminate what is underneath the defensive behavior. The possibility of resolution is greater when this information surfaces. There was agreement from both groups that it was not as important to know what motivated the behavior as it was to address the behavior. Defensiveness adds another issue to the process that needs to be negotiated. Exploring defensiveness allows parties to discover new information. Avoiding this issue can result in an obstacle to reaching a mutually acceptable solution. Most mediators in the focus group and the interviews see defensiveness as normal in a conflict situation and would not judge it because conflict breeds a quarrel-and-blame mentality.

Of the ten mediators interviewed, nine said they would not label the behavior as defensive because people will deny it. This could create a double defense mechanism: added to the original defensiveness is denial of the accusation about being defensive. Only one mediator said he would name the behavior as defensive.

When defensiveness occurs, mediators feel it is important to assess the impact of the defensive behaviors. When the communication is impaired by the behavior--preventing constructive dialogue and better understanding from taking place--the mediator needs to address the defensiveness. Mediators in both groups commented on a key point that there is no "cookie cutter" approach to addressing defensive behavior because, if the context or content is changed, the behavior may have a different meaning. The point being that it is not up to the mediator to understand the psychology of the behavior but more important to address the behavior with interventions that refocus the discussions. The goal is to enhance understanding for both parties to resolve conflict issues, or at least improve the relationship. This diagram charts the pattern of defensiveness against a series of interventions alternating between reflective listening and assertion.

(zigzag diagram)

The Pattern of Defensiveness in the Assertion Process (Adapted from a similar chart by Thomas Gordon, in Bolton, 1979, p. 168).

It is not the role of the mediator to change the defensive behavior. Interventions are introduced to illuminate the defensiveness so all parties recognize they have a choice in how they communicate with each other. During the focus group and in-depth interviews, mediators stated unanimously that mediators need to intervene when there is patterns of interaction that result in defensiveness. The ways mediators choose to intervene varies according to the type of mediation and goal of the conflict. A question that was raised by many was whether the relationship of the conflicting parties would be on going. Mediators stated that if the relationship is ending with the mediation, then people will be less concerned about defensiveness. An example of such a terminating relationship would be a landlord/tenant complaint versus an ongoing parenting relationship.

People stated they use different interventions depending on their style and the intention for addressing the behaviors. One person stated that interventions are situational and many variables need to be considered. They cautioned against the practice of just applying interventions without sensing the appropriateness of the context.

Interventions can be categorized by the use of skills such as reframing, or by referring participants to the guidelines of the mediation process to reduce the expression of defensive behaviors. The purpose of interventions can be as simple as sending a message that somebody in the room is listening. The following lists describes interventions mediators use to address defensiveness:

  1. Acknowledge and/or empathize with the defensive person's point with the intention of normalizing the behavior and helping them feel heard
  2. Refocus the discussion to a less conflictual topic on the agenda
  3. Reframe the defensive behavior as a positive unmet need for the future
  4. Probe to clarify with open questions what is underneath the defensiveness
  5. Set a positive climate/tone at the beginning of the mediation with the intention to reduce defensiveness and build trust
  6. Refer to the guidelines of the mediation process
  7. Highlight the defensive behavior in the moment it happens ( immediacy)
  8. caucus with the defensive person to understand the nature of the defensiveness
  9. Explore assumptions that may be getting in the way of communication
  10. Self-disclose by describing what you see happening (feedback)
  11. Educate why people become defensive
  12. Highlight positions to assist people in moving to interests
  13. Allow defensiveness because it is minor or is a protective device
  14. Balance power between parties
  15. Confront and/or direct parties to change their behavior (the one mediator who suggested this intervention saw it as dangerous and was cautious about mentioning it because this intervention might be outside the realm of mediation).

There was a general emphasis that interventions are all useful at different times, in different ways, with different individuals. Mediators need to be strategic and purposeful. Mediators, when asked what they would not do when a person is defensive in a mediation setting were fairly unanimous. The language they used is summarized below:

As mediators they would not judge, label, scold, reprimand, ask parties to stop, make assumptions, want to increase their vulnerability, become negative, reassure, get angry, send a message that defensiveness was inappropriate, corner them, or attack a position.

Six of the ten mediators would not intervene if the defensiveness was minor or fleeting, or if the parties could manage the behavior themselves.

Mediators also commented that if the defensive behaviors continued to impede the communication process even after different interventions had been tried, they would end the mediation session. A number of people said that if the defensive behaviors appear to stem from a deep psychological problem, they would not continue with the mediation. While most mediators seem to be motivated by a desire to help people in times of conflict, they tend to see their role as one of facilitation and clarification, and of managing the emotional climate-of keeping the dispute resolution environment safe and supportive. This role seems to be best served with an approach that is reflective, curious, attentive, and flexible.


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