How do you criticize a defensive person?

Quick Answers

Criticizing a defensive person can be challenging. Some quick tips include:

  • Pick the right time and place – criticize in private to avoid putting them on the defensive.
  • Use a gentle tone and remain calm.
  • Focus on the behavior, not the person.
  • Suggest solutions or alternatives rather than just criticizing.
  • Listen and empathize – try to understand their perspective.

What does it mean when someone is defensive?

When someone is described as being “defensive”, it typically means they are quick to react negatively to perceived criticism or attacks. Some common signs of defensiveness include:

  • Becoming irritated, angry, or hostile when given feedback
  • Making excuses or playing the victim
  • Blaming others or lashing out when criticized
  • Denying responsibility for mistakes or errors
  • Refusing to listen to negative feedback
  • Having a closed off or stubborn attitude

In essence, defensiveness is about protecting the ego. Defensive people have difficulty separating themselves from an issue or behavior being criticized. They view the criticism as a personal attack and react emotionally, even when the feedback is meant constructively.

Why do some people get defensive so easily?

There are various reasons why someone may be prone to defensiveness, including:

  • Low self-esteem – People with poor self-image tend to interpret any criticism as confirmation of their negative beliefs about themselves.
  • Perfectionism – Perfectionists hold themselves and others to extremely high standards. Feedback about mistakes is seen as failure.
  • Lack of trust – Those who have been hurt or mistreated in the past may view criticism as a sign you cannot be trusted.
  • Need for approval – Some people tie their self-worth heavily to praise and validation from others. Criticism represents rejection.
  • Control issues – Defensive people may resist being told they need to improve as it represents losing control or power in the situation.
  • Communication style – The perceived tone or delivery of the criticism can elicit defensiveness, even if none was intended.

In many cases, a person’s defensiveness is rooted in deeper emotional issues like insecurity, fear, distrust, or the need for approval. This causes them to make internal attributions about the intent behind criticism.

How to Give Constructive Criticism to a Defensive Person

If you need to approach a defensive person about their behavior, here are some tips to deliver the message effectively:

  1. Pick the right time and place – Do it in private to avoid putting them on the defensive. Don’t criticize when emotions are already high.
  2. Frame it as helping them succeed – Make your positive intentions clear. “I want you to succeed, and I have some feedback I think could help you improve…”
  3. Focus on observable behavior – Don’t judge their personality. Stick to specific examples of problematic behavior.
  4. Use a gentle tone – Your body language and tone of voice communicates much more than your words. Remain calm and non-judgmental.
  5. Suggest solutions – Offer constructive ways they could handle things differently, rather than just pointing out flaws.
  6. Give them space to respond – Don’t lecture. Give them a chance to explain their perspective without interrupting.
  7. Find some common ground – Point out anything they are doing well before moving to criticism. We all need affirmation.
  8. Focus on understanding – If they get upset, empathize with their feelings before continuing. “I can see this upsets you. Help me understand why.”

How to Handle Defensiveness During the Conversation

Despite your best efforts, the person may still react poorly. Here’s how to handle defensiveness if it arises:

  • Stay calm and don’t match their tone – Arguing will only escalate things.
  • Hear them out if they need to vent or explain their side.
  • Acknowledge their feelings – “I understand why you would feel upset about this.”
  • Reaffirm your positive intentions – “I brought this up because I want you to succeed.”
  • Don’t take it personally – Their reaction likely says more about their own issues.
  • If they blame others, redirect the focus back to specific behaviors.
  • If they deny responsibility, ask clarifying questions rather than arguing.
  • Let them know you are open to continuing the dialogue later when things settle down.

With a defensive person, you may need to have several talks in order for the message to sink in. Stay patient and understanding, rather than frustrated.

Long-Term Strategies for Coping with a Defensive Person

When dealing with someone who is defensive on an ongoing basis, here are some long-term strategies to help communicate effectively:

  1. Build trust over time – Developing a strong relationship takes the edge off criticism. Focus on areas of common ground.
  2. Praise publicly, criticize privately – Give positive feedback in front of others. Constructive criticism should happen one-on-one.
  3. Change your framing – Phrase critiques as questions or suggestions to avoid seeming attacking.
  4. Don’t label – Don’t call them “defensive” or refer to their attitude. Stay objective.
  5. Follow the criticism sandwich – Open with praise, give constructive feedback, close reaffirming positives.
  6. Set rules of engagement – Agree you both can share feedback respectfully without it being a conflict.
  7. Remain detached – Focus on the issue, not making it personal. Don’t get hooked into an argument.
  8. Limit feedback – Only address the most important issues. Too much criticism can backfire.

You won’t be able to eliminate defensiveness entirely. But disciplining yourself to communicate effectively can help minimize those knee-jerk reactions over time.

When to Back Off and Postpone the Conversation

Sometimes it’s better to step back and continue the conversation later. Postpone if the person:

  • Is highly emotional, angry, or irrational
  • Starts making personal attacks
  • Won’t let you get a word in edgewise
  • Is under a lot of stress or dealing with bigger issues
  • Has a pattern of getting defensive every time you talk

Pushing the issue when emotions are running high will only make it worse. Give the person space to cool down. Set a time to revisit the topic when things are calmer.

Signs the Conversation Went Well

Although difficult, criticizing a defensive person can lead to positive change. Look for these signs your message got through:

  • They apologize or acknowledge the problem behavior
  • They ask clarifying questions about your feedback
  • They make statements about wanting to improve
  • They actually implement your suggestions
  • Their future reactions to criticism become less defensive
  • Your relationship grows closer rather than deteriorates

Growth and change takes time. But even small positive effects indicate your criticism made an impact. Stay consistent in holding them accountable while also encouraging their progress.

When to Involve a Third Party

If you’ve tried all these strategies but their defensiveness persists, it may help to loop in a third party. Some options include:

  • Their manager or supervisor
  • A counselor or mediator
  • A trusted friend you both respect
  • HR department (if a colleague)

A neutral third party can give unbiased feedback about the situation. They may be able to get through where your own efforts failed. Be sure to inform the person first before involving someone else.

Setting Boundaries with a Toxic Person

In some cases, defensiveness crosses the line to verbal abuse or other toxic behavior. If the person refuses to change and communicating with them takes an emotional toll, you may need to set firmer boundaries. Options include:

  • Limiting your interactions or contact with them
  • Refusing to discuss certain problematic topics
  • Calling out and disengaging from their toxic communication style
  • Making your relationship contingent on them seeking help
  • Cutting ties altogether if they remain destructive

You should not have to suffer constant mistreatment or toxicity. While patience and compassion have their place, your mental health comes first. Set the boundaries needed to protect your emotional well-being.

Table of Strategies for Constructive Criticism

Strategy Example Benefits
Pick the right setting Criticize in private rather than publicly Avoids putting them on the spot; less risk of embarrassment that leads to defensiveness
Frame as helping them succeed “I want you to improve because I believe in your potential.” Positions you as an ally, not an adversary
Focus on observable behaviors “When you interrupt people in meetings…” Factual examples are harder to argue with


Criticizing a defensive person takes awareness, tact and patience. Avoid putting them on the spot. Frame feedback constructively. Remain calm in the face of emotional reactions. Build trust and praise character when you can. With time and consistency, defensive barriers can slowly come down, allowing your criticism to be heard. Just stay committed to commenting with care, taking the high road and bringing out the best in the defensive person.

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