How to deal with a defensive person

Photo credit: graur razvan ionut

A common theme in my stepmom support group is how defensive some husbands get when their wives attempt to address an issue regarding the kids.

Most of time, the issue never gets addressed, because defensiveness usually leads to one, or both, parties shutting down.

If someone gets defensive when confronted, it’s usually because they’re taking your issue as a personal attack. Getting defensive can be a way of trying to protect themselves by not hearing what you have to say.

It’s also a way to throw you off track, so you get confused and they don’t to have actually address the issue.

This article is intended to give you tips on how to go about confronting  someone who might get defensive.  And at the end of the article is a great little tool that gives you the exact language to use!

Although the examples I use are geared mostly for stepmoms and their partners, these tips are effective in any situation!

1. Ask the person for their opinion on how the situation can be remedied.

This shows them that you value their opinion and want to make joint decisions; if it’s your husband you need to talk to, it lets him know that you’re not just here to complain about his child.

Your marriage is a partnership, so be sure to treat it like one.

“Little Johnny has been leaving dirty dishes in his room again, how do you think we should handle this?”

2. Address the issue when you’re in a calm state of mind, not in the heat of the moment.

Don’t tell your husband that you’re tired of little Johnny peeing all over the floor when you’ve just stepped in a puddle of it.

Wait until you’ve cleaned up, calmed down and you no longer feel the intense urge to rub little Johnny’s nose in it.

3. Remember, often times,  when you have an issue with your husband’s child, he’s going to feel that it’s an attack on his parenting.

Meaning, if the child is doing something you don’t like, it must be because he’s not being a good father. And if you read my article on communicating with men, you’ll remember that men need to feel supported and valued at ALL times.

So make sure you preface it with letting him know what a great father you think he is, and also what a great kid your stepchild is (when he’s not peeing on the floor!).

4. Counteract defenses by redirecting him back to your original point.

If after all this he still gets defensive and says something along the lines of  “Oh, I guess I’m just a horrible father!” then redirect him back to your original point.

” I think you’re a wonderful father. What I’m talking about here is me needing ___,”  then restate your original request.

He may also try the infamous turning-it-back-on-you defense:

“Well, YOU’RE so busy you never have time for ___” If this happens, try to redirect him by saying something like,  “If you have an issue with me, we can talk about that at another time, right now I’m trying to talk to you about ___”

Don’t fall into a defensive trap by saying “Don’t get all defensive now!’  — that will just put him more on edge and add to his defensiveness.

When I do couples coaching, there is something I like to use called a non-defensive speaking tool. I picked it up at the Relationship Coaching Institute; it’s a great little gem.

And this is how it works:


Before confronting the person you have issue with, plan what you’re going to say.

Keep these 5 questions in mind and try to use this language:

A. What did I see/hear/physically feel? What is the issue you want to discuss?

“Little Johnny tracks mud through the house and it gets all over everything…” (Make sure to keep your judgment out of it. Just state the neutral facts.)

B. What did I make that mean? This is an opportunity to own our interpretations.

Things are just things until we make them mean something. (A child tracking dirt through the house is just dirt in the house — until we make it mean that they don’t respect our things or us).

“…I make it mean that little Johnny doesn’t respect me, our property or our rules…”

C. What I feel about that is: Our feelings make sense when our interpretations are understood.

“What I feel about that is…I feel hurt/angry/frustrated.”

D. What I need from you is: a global need, related to what we are making it mean.

“What I need from you is an understanding of how difficult it is for me to live like that…”

E. What I would like instead is: make a simple and specific request for a change in behavior.

“What I would like instead is for us to make a rule about taking our shoes off when we enter the house,” or “What I would like instead is for you to enforce the rule we have that we are to remove our shoes when entering the house.”

Do you see how by owning your interpretations and feelings it takes the “offense” out of the discussion? Although it sounds robotic at first, it can be very effective!

And don’t get discouraged if this takes time to perfect. Sometimes people need to be redirected more than a couple of times before they’re willing to look at the real issue.

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  1. Owning your anger, frustration, irritation is a great place to begin. I know in my own experience as a custodial stepmom, getting to the root cause of whatever was gnawing at me, was incredibly helpful in any discussion I had with my husband about Junior. Often the same things that irritated me about Junior irritated my husband as well (and his mother, and his siblings…)

  2. Hi Peggy, yep we must own our feelings if we’re to get anywhere. Otherwise, we’re just blaming others and expecting them to change something they can’t change; OUR feelings!

  3. Little Johnny just seems like a problem child to me.

  4. So tired of feeling like he blames me for the way his kids act. It’s their mother turning them against me. I don’t feel happy in my home anymore when they come over. :(

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