As a worker, it can be useful to avoid sounding defensive (even if one feels defensive). As a manager, it can be useful to accurately discern defensiveness in someone else. Whether trying to offer reasons for a given situation, or listening to someone else's reasons, what are some good qualities of language or patterns that distinguish "defensiveness" from "explanation?"

As a worker, what can I do to avoid sounding defensive, even if I feel attacked? (So that I can help solve the problem, instead of defend my position).

As a manager, what can I look for to signal that someone feels defensive? (So that I can reframe the conversation in a way that's easier for the employee to receive).

  • If this isn't closed for being too broad, it's going to be a very interesting read.
    – Max Sorin
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:27
  • 2
    see: "Defending Oneself or Being Defensive" at edwarddreyfusbooks.com/psychologically-speaking/… Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:28
  • 2
    and: hbr.org/2010/04/defend-yourself-without-being Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:38
  • Use of the term "my solution" tends to be used more than "the solution" when one is defensive.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:48
  • These are good answers, but they seem to be focused on the manger's/supervisor's perspective. I'd like to get both, if I can. I'll edit my question to be a bit more clear.
    – mHurley
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 21:01

3 Answers 3


As a manager how you introduce it makes a big difference.

Are you asking because you think it is wrong. If so that will come out and the are likely to get defensive.

If you really want to know about a design decision then ask in an open way.

Why was this design selected and were only other designs considered.

Don't even say why did you select this design.
Make it a discussion about the thing and not the person.

If they get defensing and starting using I, my, or why are questioning. Tell them straight up not questioning it (yet).

What I have noticed is some people like the questions in writing in advance so they can review if needed. I get frustrated by managers or business people that think I have instant recall of design decision. And there are some people that would rather take questions on the fly. If they tell you they need to do some research and get back to you then respect that.

Unstructured people will want to do it on the fly and structured people want structure. Unstructured people won't even know the questions but they are going to call meeting an get to the bottom of this.

As a worker if you are being questioned then still avoid the use of I and my.

These are the factors considers and this design was selected.

If they go into why was such and such not considered. If you have an answer then respond. If it was not considered then just say so. If they press then ask them how the option is better.

One of my favorites is "why could it not be done with such and such?"
My response is "a lot ways it could be done."

I am techy that works with a business design team and they think the are software designers. We have competitors that have unstable slow products that don't scale. They will give me functional designs of it need to look like this for almost every feature. And I have told them like at least 100 times but because of the design it does not scale and is slow. We have to try and back into a functional requirement and let me do the design. Even if they do let me lead they expect a design decision then and there and I may need to looks at bringing in 3rd party controls or utilizes.

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    I especially like the suggestion of offering the questions in writing. I realized that I often feel the same way.
    – mHurley
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 15:22

You're likely not going to get your clues from verbal language, you're going to need to pick up on body language. That tends to betray feelings much more often.

Things like crossing arms, clenching fists, flexing muscles all tend to show that the person is being defensive, especially when there is a question if they are or not.

They are non-verbal ways of putting up shields, and cues that can be helpful. If the person is saying things that may come across as defensive, but they appear relaxed and have their hands in their pockets, it likely is just an explanation.


In its simplest terms:

  • an Explanation - Why I did a action and what factors influenced that action
  • Defensiveness - What someone else did wrong that caused that action

A lot has to do with how the response is presented and the tone of voice that is used. Also using "I" language changes how it is perceived.

"I made that choice after considering that Bob's portion was still in process and could be integrated later"
"Bob's part wasn't ready yet so I just released mine"

Apologies to any Bob who took offence.

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    I agree about your "Defensiveness" definition. I had a coworker that, when presented with a bug, would first determine why it wasn't her fault and whose fault it was, and then would help to fix it. I say let's determine fault when things cool down, but let's fix the problem first. Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:35
  • I like to know up front if I'm the one who introduced a bug, because then I know whether my fix is likely to violate assumptions someone else made and break something somewhere else. Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 20:47
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    I'm a Bob, and I approve this message.
    – mHurley
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 21:26

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