Why Do People Get Defensive?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do people get defensive? Can you take steps to stop people from getting defensive during a conversation or argument?

People get defensive during a conversation for many reasons. But the good news is that you can learn to avoid being defensive and stop others from getting defensive during conversations.

Keep reading to find out the answer to the question “why do people get defensive” and how you can help.

Why Do People Get Defensive?

Why do people get defensive? There are a few reasons. But luckily, there are tools you can use to help stop others from getting defensive, while also recognizing when you’re getting defensive.

1. Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. (It makes them defensive and rationalize their actions.)

Why do people get defensive? Criticism is one big reason. Here’s why it’s important to avoid criticism.

  • People don’t criticize themselves for anything, no matter how wrong they may be.
  • Criticizing people nearly always puts them on the defensive. They dig in their heels, rationalizing their actions as just.
    • Even Al Capone lamented that he was just helping others have a good time during Prohibition, and all he got was abuse.
    • Family members of criminals frequently go into denial, blaming the system instead of the person for the crimes.
  • Criticism hurts a person’s pride and sense of importance.
    • “Remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”
  • It may feel good to tell someone off, but this is usually net negative in the long term. People continue to justify their actions and condemn you for the criticism. People can harbor resentments for insults that last a literal lifetime.
  • Consider the information that you don’t have about the situation. Consider the most favorable scenario in which the supposedly poor performance was made, and whether you should think more kindly of the mistake.
    • Don’t criticize them – they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.
    • During the Civil War, as Lee retreated, Lincoln ordered General Meade to cross a river and engage. Meade refused. Lincoln thought to excoriate Meade on how he had single-handedly lost the Union the war, but he instead imagined being on the frontlines of battle – seeing the deaths of thousands of your men, hearing the screams of the injured.
    • It’s common for parents to criticize their children for failing to meet the yardstick of their own years. You ask too much – remember they are just children, and that you once took your parents’ criticism the same way.
  • “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain – and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”
  • Even when someone commits the gravest mistake, consider not lambasting her, but rather encouraging her to rise to her otherwise high standards of excellence.
    • Bob Hoover’s plane crashed when the mechanic inserted jet fuel instead of gasoline. Instead of lashing, he threw his arm around the guy and said, “To show you I’m sure that you’ll never do this again, I want you to service my F-51 tomorrow.”
    • [This maybe works only if the person already recognizes the error.]
  • Before you send an angry email, wait overnight. More often than not you’ll dial back the anger.
  • Examples
    • A wife asked a husband for 6 ways she could improve herself. Instead of listing a hundred, he waited a day to think, then bought her 6 roses and said “I wouldn’t change anything about you – I like you the way you are.”
    • A safety coordinator found employees not wearing hard hats. Instead of rebuking them for violating safety code, he reminded the men that the hat was designed to protect them from injury and that if they cared about their safety, it should be worn on the job. [As described later, this phrases things in the employees’ interests.]

2. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

One way to help avoid having to worry about the question “why do people get defensive” is to admit when you’re wrong.

  • So many people instinctively fight for their right of way that admitting your error is disarming. Few people want to kick someone who’s already down – they may in fact jump to your defense and build you back up.
    • When a person’s importance is acknowledged, she can build her ego further only by showing mercy.
    • [Furthermore, much of the battle in an argument is making sure the other person recognizes her fault – which is why defensiveness provokes further ire. Once contrition is clear, repair can begin.]
  • Say about yourself all the derogatory things the other person is thinking. A forgiving attitude will come and your mistakes will be minimized.
  • Tactics
    • If making a mistake at work, admit it quickly without making excuses. Your colleagues may jump to your defense, minimizing the impact of your mistake.
    • Get over the pride that the other person should yield first and admit her mistake. The other person is feeling the same way. If you care about results, then admit your mistake first.
    • If someone criticizes your work, be gracious. “To be honest, I don’t entirely agree with it myself. Not everything I write yesterday appeals to me today. I’m glad to learn what you think about this.”
  • Examples
    • Dale Carnegie was reprimanded by a policeman for not having his dog on a leash, and while Dale demurred about what the harm would be, the policeman became more aggressive. The next time he saw the policeman, he admitted, “I’m guilty. I have no excuses. You warned me that if I did this again you would fine me.” The policeman softened – already having his importance acknowledged, he could show his importance further only by showing mercy.

3. Get the other person saying ‘yes, yes’ immediately.

Another answer the the question “why do people get defensive” is that they say no too often Her’se why that matters.

  • Every time someone says “no,” they get locked into defensiveness and consistency bias. Inertia builds. It becomes harder to unmire them. Even if they later realize they need to change their mind, their precious pride gets in the way.
  • So don’t start by talking about the areas in which you differ. Start with what you agree on. Get the person saying “yes.”
  • Instead of pushing your conclusion on the person, guide her toward your conclusion through a series of logical questions.
    • Start with areas of common agreement – common goals, standards of measurement. Then build on layers of understanding by asking more detailed questions.
    • This also lets the other person feel the idea is theirs, since you’re not pushing the idea on them.
    • [This can easily sound pedantic to people who realize what you’re doing. It’s better to do this in a genuine, patient tone, instead of in the tone of already knowing the answers. Ask difficult questions with unclear answers so it doesn’t feel like you’re trapping the person in a corner.]
  • Tactics
    • Emphasize that you’re striving for the same end, and that your difference is one of method and not of purpose.
    • Combine this with talking in terms of the other person’s interests. “I understand that X is annoying to do. But wouldn’t you want to enjoy benefit Y?“
    • Ask high level questions they’re likely to agree to. “Are you someone who likes to save money?” “Are you someone who cares about performance at all costs?” “It sounds like you need to balance a lot of considerations here, is that right?”
  • Examples
    • A bank customer came in to open a bank account but refused to answer a few questions about next of kin. The teller agreed: “The information is not absolutely necessary. But picture this scenario. You have money in the bank when you pass on. Wouldn’t you like to have the bank transfer it to the rightful owner of your assets?”
    • A customer of a motor company complained to a salesman about the temperature of the motors. It was burning his hand but the actual temperature was well under regulation.
      • Approach 1: “You’re wrong. Measure the temperature. The guidelines say it cannot be more than 72 degrees F above room temperature. Let me know what you find.”
      • Approach 2: “I agree with you 100% – if these motors are running too hot, it’s our mistake and you shouldn’t buy any more. Now let me make sure I understand. You can’t have motors running hotter than the national guidelines – is that right?” “Yes.” “The guidelines say that the motor may have a temperature at most 72F above room temp. Is that right?” “Yes, but your motors are much hotter.” [Don’t disagree.] “How hot is the mail room?” “About 75F.” “That makes 147F. Wouldn’t you scald your hand if you held it in hot water at 147F?” “Yes.” “It seems that the temperature of the motors makes it hard to hold your hand on.”

Now that you know the answer to the question “why do people get defensive” you can work on your skills to stop this from happening in conversations.

Why Do People Get Defensive?

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  • The 6 ways to make people like you
  • How you can give feedback to others and improve their behavior
  • An essential checklist for handling arguments in a productive way

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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