Three tips for handling people who put you on the defensive

Yesterday, I had an experience I’ve had many times in the course of my career. Someone said, “I wish you could be with me in situations when I don’t know what to say, get completely flustered, and end up down the rabbit hole of a conversation that is either difficult, contentious, or unproductive.”

Spurred on by that comment, I want to offer you a few easy to remember techniques to help you navigate challenging conversations.

The problem we have when we feel put on the spot with a difficult question, or we feel conflicted and confused about something and not sure how to answer in the best way, is we overthink our response. Instead:

  1. Ditch your cognitions and focus on your physical reactions in the moment as well as your emotions. This means you tune in to what you’re feeling in your body. For example, somebody says something that puts you on the defensive. You quickly assess how that feels in your body. Does your chest suddenly feel tight and heavy did your jaw tense up is your stomach fluttering?
  2. Then, ask yourself what am I feeling right this minute? Am I anxious, angry, resentful, guilty, or overwhelmed? Now, respond to the person’s question by saying how you feel both physically and emotionally. For example, say something like: When you say that to me, or when you ask me that, I feel my whole body tense up. I feel overwhelmed and afraid that whatever I say is going to disappoint you or create some dissonance between us.

This is a very straightforward practice, but it is difficult for many of us because our natural default is reaching deeply into our pre-frontal cortex to find the exact right thing to say. We think we can think ourselves out of any situation. Often, when we search for the right words, while simultaneously assessing how we’re feeling about the question, we get completely flummoxed and derailed. This technique allows you to be honest and explain how you’re feeling physically and emotionally, while buying you time to really think about the question.

A corollary of this method is applying conscious delay (#3). There’s no law of the universe that says you can’t respond to a question, even one that sounds more like a demand, with the response: I wish I could answer that right now, but I’m still figuring out how I feel or what I want to do. I think I need to take a little more time to let it percolate inside me.  I’ll get back to you as soon as I have some clarity.

Most of us, probably because we spent so many years in school situations where specific responses were expected of us when questions were asked, think we must respond immediately with something. If we do that before we’re ready we can get ourselves in a bit of a mess. We might say things we haven’t fully thought out, or make comments that negatively trigger the other person. Even worse, what we blurt out when feeling pressured and on the spot can easily complicate and obfuscate the issues, as well as our relationship with that person, because we don’t really know what we want yet.

These techniques: focusing on your emotions and physical feelings, honestly sharing those with the other person, and asking for time to reflect on the question, are incredibly empowering. It’s easy to feel stressed and think you must respond immediately when someone requests something of you. It takes guts and skill to use these tactics to change the focus of the interaction and buy yourself more time. Almost immediately, you will notice a greater sense of personal agency, as well as the inner groundedness that comes from being true to yourself while not becoming defensive…or offensive.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.