Getting defensiveis never a gooddefense

Fight, flight, or freeze:

When threatened, people often revert to one of the three biological responses: fight, flight, or freeze. It is almost always an over-reaction, and no one does their best work when they are getting defensive, running away, or frozen in their tracks. These archaic responses block thoughtful action, shut down the conversation, and lead to shirking of accountability (excuses, blaming, scapegoating…).

But what if you really are threatened? What if you really need to defend yourself, your record, your reputation? Say for example that your boss tells you that you suck at your job—and it takes you by surprise and really hurts your feelings. Should you get defensive—defend yourself?


Getting defensive is almost always a bad defense.

Getting defensive on the spot, i.e., when you are challenged and feeling defensive will probably suck you into (i) fighting fights you are not prepared for, and (ii) a bunch of embarrassing emotionally unintelligent behavior.

So what can you say?

If you are being criticized, or feel you are being attacked, a much more mature, wise, and productive approach than getting defensive is to say, instead, that you are surprised and disappointed to hear it; that this is obviously very important and you need a few days (or hours) to think about it; and that you want to schedule a meeting to discuss it.

That is, even when you really are under attack, reverting to fight, flight, and freeze responses will do you more harm than good. You need time for deep, rational reflection, and a strategic, value adding response.

What if your boss is right? What if your boss couldn’t be more wrong? What if it was a simple misunderstanding? What if your boss is just having a terrible day and taking his anger out on you? Whatever the case may be, a solid, thoughtful response is in order.

When reflecting on what the person has said, no matter how unfair it seems, it is crucial to reflect not only on what is false in his or her claim, but also on what might be true—however tiny or insignificant that truth. Looking at both sides (trying to walk a mile in his or her shoes) will help you craft a far better and more relevant solution.

If you really have no idea what they are talking about, you might need to do some research. Before your formal meeting—before you have to respond to their complaint (or accusation)—you might need to conduct a little interview. Simplest question to ask: “I am not sure exactly what you were referring to. Can you please give me some specific examples so I can really understand what you have on your mind / what you are looking for?” There is no obligation to sit there and be abused, of course, but if the person is offering you examples, and being relatively polite and reasonable about it, then listen up. Take notes. Don’t respond on the spot. And certainly don’t get defensive. Thank them for their time / input, and then go to a private place to figure it all out.

A few notes on defensiveness:

Your lizard brain has taken over, pushing aside the higher cognitive functions, and slamming you into fight, flight, or freeze. Your ability to think, plan, and respond rationally is greatly diminished. Fight, flight, and freeze behaviors shut down the conversation and undermine thoughtful dialogue, action, and collaboration. Not a good time for negotiating, career planning, or goal setting.

Behavioral Examples:

  • Fight:      defensiveness, excuses, blaming, scapegoating, attacking…
  • Freeze:      procrastination, analysis paralysis, losing perspective…
  • Flight:      hiding, work avoidance, procrastination, absenteeism, distractions…

If your work has really come into question (or you are being challenged in some destructive way), you need a much better response than “I was feeling sick that day,” “It wasn’t me,” or some snappy comeback.

If you really need to defend your track record, then you will probably need time to collect some data / think of the right examples to share—which is very tough to do on the spot.

Fight for what you believe in but also remain open to constructive feedback and opportunities for improvement. But do it thoughtfully and intentionally—not in anger or knee-jerk reaction.

Even if it hurts, don’t lash out. Don’t get sucked into fight, flight, or freeze. Pause, reflect, and then respond.

See also this blog (“4. Asking for Feedback”) for a few important words on receiving feedback with gratitude.

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