"Why Are You So Defensive?”

Breaking Barrier of Defensiveness in Social and Behavior Change Communications

By Keneth Gadian

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where your words are hitting a brick wall? Or maybe you’ve tried to “educate” someone on an important issue, only to find yourself in a heated argument instead of a productive dialogue?

As passionate human rights communicators, it can be frustrating when a well-researched and well-meaning message fails to get through. It’s one thing to produce catchy communication materials, it’s another thing to communicate effectively. There’s a lot more to ensuring understanding than data and content production. But here’s the kicker: sometimes, the very strategy and air of certainty behind your message can trigger your listener to shut down or retaliate.

Changing people’s mindsets and behavior through well-crafted communication is tricky, especially when more complex factors outside the simple Sender – Message – Channel – Receiver framework come into play. It’s not just about what you say; it’s also about how you say it. Factors like your audience’s background, motivations, well-being, your relationship with them, and even the context of your conversation all play a role in whether your message gets through or bounces off. 

One typical response when a person is bombarded with persuasive messaging is defensiveness. Defensive behavior occurs when someone perceives a threat in the environment. This heightened defensive state hinders the listener’s ability to focus entirely on the message’s structure, content, and cognitive meanings because energy is rechanneled to scrutinizing and defending one’s image, seeking victory, dominance and admiration, retaliation, or getting out of the perceived threat.

Defensive Communication in MINDSPACE

But first, why do some statements feel threatening to people?

MINDSPACE (Messenger, Incentives, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitment, and Ego), a framework used in Social and Behavioral Change Communications, outlines the potent factors that influence behavior. In this case, defensiveness arises from the interplay of Affect, Messenger, and Ego. 


Emotions are the driving force behind our decisions. We react emotionally to words, images, and events before we even have a chance to think them through.


We give different weights to information based on our feelings toward the source. If we distrust or dislike the messenger, their message will likely be brushed aside. 


We all want to maintain a positive self-image. This means we might ignore or forget a message, compete with the sender, or even feel envious of them when the self-image is in a vulnerable position.

When we try to change someone’s mindset and behavior, one pitfall is that it can come across as if we’re saying, “You’re wrong, and I know better.” Unknowingly, we might be projecting the impression that we perceive them as lacking knowledge, unable to make their own decisions, uninformed, immature, or holding wrong beliefs. This perception can trigger defensiveness. Conversely, communication that affirms the listener’s Ego and builds mutual trust makes them open up and engage more in the conversation. 

Detecting and Diminishing Defensiveness

Jack Gibb, a psychologist who studied defensive behavior in small groups, proposed six interrelated categories of Supportive and Defensive Climates to help us understand what communication styles increase or decrease defensiveness. Let’s break them down:

1. Evaluation vs. Description

When we employ statements that carry a sense of accusation, blame, or judgment, we consequently put others on the defensive. They can perceive themselves as unfairly targeted and criticized.

To reduce defensiveness, choose language that sounds like sincere requests for information or deliver content with minimal emotionally loaded words. Use descriptive communication, such as I-statements, that focuses on presenting your feelings, recounting events, expressing perceptions, or outlining processes without insisting that the other person change.

Instead of saying, “You never listen to me,” try saying, “I feel that sometimes it’s challenging for us to have productive conversations.”

2. Control vs. Problem Orientation

When we come across as having a “know-it-all” attitude, displaying little or no interest in other people’s needs and ideas, defenses are raised. People feel hostile, competitive, and disrespected, making them reluctant to cooperate. Especially in social and behavior change campaigns, advocates often attempt to influence others, whether to change attitudes, influence behavior or restrict certain activities. These control efforts could also appear cunning and suspicious to the audience and increase their defensiveness.

To reduce defensiveness, it’s essential to convey to the listener that we are collaboratively working toward a win-win outcome, where everyone’s input and ideas hold equal importance. This open and inclusive approach fosters a sense of belonging, respect, and productivity among all parties involved. Instead of saying, “I know what’s best for this project,” try saying, “What do you think? Let’s work together to find the best solution for our project.”

3.  Strategy  vs. Spontaneity 

It is the same principle that works with Control; when individuals become conscious of participating in a strategic plan with unclear motives, it tends to trigger defensiveness. Nobody feels comfortable being a test subject or a pawn in someone’s scheme (no matter how noble it may be).  

Conversely, actions that come across as natural and devoid of deception lower defensiveness. Through spontaneous and straightforward communication, you can be seen as genuine and motivated by simple intentions. 

4. Neutrality  vs. Empathy 

We might assume that maintaining a neutral tone in communication is the safest approach to avoid eliciting adverse reactions. However, this isn’t always the most effective strategy. When the listener interprets a neutral tone as a sign of indifference or a lack of consideration for their well-being, it can lead to defensiveness. 

As highlighted by the “Ego” aspect of MINDSPACE, people generally seek to be recognized as valued individuals, possessing unique worth and as recipients of care and affection. Communicators perceived as making an effort to empathize with the other person, connect with them, and provide support reduces defensiveness.

5. Superiority vs. Equality 

It tends to trigger defensiveness when we convey a sense of superiority, whether due to our position, wealth, intellect, or other factors. This communicates a lack of willingness to engage in collaborative problem-solving, an aversion to feedback, and an absence of the need for assistance. It can also imply a potential intention to diminish the receiver’s power, status, or worth. 

Defensiveness in this aspect can be alleviated when we are perceived as open to participative planning built on trust and respect. While differences in talent, ability, appearance, and power do exist, minimal emphasis on these distinctions fosters a sense of impartiality, and that everyone is afforded the same opportunity.

6. Certainty vs. Provisionalism

People who act like they have all the answers and need no input make others defensive. They appear dogmatic and uninterested in differing opinions. Activists, for example, are unfairly stereotyped as opinionated individuals prioritizing winning arguments over problem-solving and viewing their ideas as undeniable truths to defend. 

Those who adopt a provisional stance, investigate issues rather than take sides, focus on problem-solving instead of doubting, and express a willingness to explore and experiment communicate that the listener also plays a role in the shared exploration or idea investigation. When people genuinely seek information and data, they welcome assistance and companionship. Instead of saying, “I’m sure I’m right, so listen,” try saying, “I’m open to different perspectives and willing to adjust if needed.”

Strategic and Necessary


Defensiveness can be a formidable barrier to effective social and behavior change communication, but it’s not insurmountable. Transforming a defensive communication climate into a supportive one begins with recognizing that communication is not simply a language process but a people process. If you want to improve the effectiveness of your communication, it warrants that you improve your interpersonal undertones.

Framing statements that don’t make people feel attacked and devalued go beyond being perceived as pleasant or kind. You may have researched a lot of credible sources, designed stunning visuals, or drafted clear key messages. Still, if you don’t consider how certain communications can make people feel about themselves, it can end up bouncing off a brick wall and not hit any mark. “It is strategic and necessary,” Waymond aptly put it in the film Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. “It is how I fight.” 

Keneth Gadian is a seminarian of the Society of St. Paul and Active Vista Center’s Program Manager for Public Communication. He graduated with a degree in Communication from Saint Paul Seminary Foundation where he studied friendships broken by political differences for his undergraduate thesis. 

COMMUNE is a dynamic program which aims to strengthen the human rights community by providing a safe and collaborative environment anchored on social behavioral change-making.

COMMUNE also seeks to build a resilient force of human rights workers dedicated to advancing the Human Rights Sector as a whole.

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