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Let’s Talk About Diffusing Defensive Communication

At certain times, we all rely on defense mechanisms to get us through difficult circumstances. These automatic, mental reactions keep us from fully feeling painful or threatening emotions. Defensive communication is one of the most prevalent, and unfortunately destructive, types of defense mechanism that addicted individuals may use.

Defensive communication happens when a message triggers a sense of threat, and therefore defensiveness, on the part of the listener. Defensive communication involves not only the actual verbal message, but also body language, tone of voice and perceived meaning and intention as well. As a person becomes more defensive, he or she becomes less and less able to perceive accurately the message and the motives of the speaker. On the other hand, supportive, non-threatening communication reduces the likelihood of distorted perceptions on the part of the listener. It results in greater likelihood of the listener actually hearing the message, and being able to fully understand and evaluate it.

So how does one engage in effective conversation with an addict who may already feel shamed, blamed, and easily threatened?

Don’t Evoke the Fight or Flight Response

When someone feels threatened, they respond with a “fight or flight” response. In communications, the “fight” response would take the form of yelling, arguing, and expressing aggressive behavior. These are signs that the person does not feel emotionally safe. Anger and aggression may indicate that the person is feeling a loss of control and is seeking to re-establish it. Or they may be feeling fearful or hurt and helpless to change it. In either case, the yelling and aggression are triggered by their perceptions, and not the actual content of the communication. Such perceptions often are deduced from the speaker’s tone of voice, the volume or pace of their speech, and their body language.

Pay attention to your delivery.  Avoid sending “condescending” verbal or nonverbal messages in the way you speak and deliver your communication. Strive for calm, neutral language that conveys your message in a respectful manner. It is helpful to imagine that you are speaking to a coworker or boss, where you must manage your own emotions and place emphasis on delivering the content of your message without offending the person you are talking to, no matter how you may feel about them.

Avoid “challenge words”.  These are words that imply that you are questioning or diminishing the value of the other person’s point of view. Words like “however”, “but”, “although” or “instead” can elicit defensiveness and shutdown collaborative communications before your message has been processed.

Listening is Key to Diffusing Defensive Communications

Instead of evoking a “fight or flight” response, your best bet for achieving effective communication and cooperation is to be a good listener in the communication process. In contrast to “challenge words”, “ownership” words help facilitate collaborative and cooperative communication by reducing feelings of defensiveness and perceived threat. The number one “ownership” word is “I” (vs. “you”). By using “I” messages instead of “you” messages, you automatically increase the likelihood that your message will be heard. By stating what you are thinking and feeling and how it affects you, you are, of course, placing the emphasis on you. Then the person who would normally tend to be defensive becomes less so, because the message is not about them. Therefore, it cannot be perceived by them as threatening or condescending, or as minimizing them in any way.

For instance, instead of saying, “You need to stop spending money on booze because we need it for the mortgage payment,” you might say, “I am worried. We may not have enough money to make the mortgage payment this month.” The latter message keeps the conversation going, and if threat can continue to be avoided, a solution will more likely be forthcoming.

Communications That Lead to Defensiveness

To have effective, productive, non-threatening communication, avoid these other common types of defensive communication:

  • Messages that appear to be judgmental or accusing: (ex: Have you been drinking today?)
  • Messages that imply that you wish to control or direct the behavior of the listener: (Why don’t you….?) Such messages are often perceived by the listener as implying that you view them to be inadequate, unwise or incompetent.
  • Messages that appear to have ulterior motives: If a listener feels that your communication has underlying motives for your benefit, he or she will feel that the communication is manipulative and therefore not worth paying attention to. (Ex: Let’s skip cocktails and order dinner right away.)
  • Messages that convey a sense of superiority by the speaker: If a listener is made to feel inferior or inadequate by any part of a message, he or she will reject the entire content of the message. (I know more about how this, so let me give you some tips.)

 Communications That Diminish Defensiveness

Instead of the types of communications above, try the following strategies:

  • Use descriptive vs. judgmental messages: (I’d like to hear about your day.)
  • Speak messages in ways that give the listener more sense of control: (I have a request…)
  • Use language that conveys empathy and respect for the listener: (Would you mind if we skipped cocktails and just ordered dinner?)
  • Use communications that imply equality between yourself and the listener: (Can we troubleshoot this problem together?)

3 Steps for Creating Change Using Non-Defensive Communications

When engaging in negotiations with a person who is prone to defensive communication, it is often difficult to ask for changes that you desire. Use the following formula to minimize defensiveness and encourage successful communication when negotiating for change:

Step # 1: State an Observation

Start the conversation in a non-defensive way. Avoid blaming, making character assassinations, or condescending generalizations. Instead, focus on observations – what you see or hear.

Instead of saying: “You must have stopped at the bar after work!”

Say: “I see you are home later than usual.”

Step #2 Describe Your Feelings

Follow-up your observation by telling the person how the circumstance or behavior made you feel. Identify your feelings and expand on your definition of these feelings.

Instead of saying: “I am upset with you.”

Say: “I am frustrated and feel that I have no influence in this matter.”

Step # 3: Make a specific behavioral request

The final step in achieving change using non-defensive communication is to make a request regarding how things could be done differently in the future. By making a specific request, you are letting the other person know that you are not interested in holding grudges or complaining. Rather, you are interested in working towards a constructive solution to a common problem.

Instead of saying: “I wish you wouldn’t always leave your newspaper on the kitchen table.”

Say: “Could you please remove the newspaper from the kitchen table before dinner?”


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