Stop Playing the Game – Managing Defensive Behaviour

Managing Defensive Behaviour

Stop Playing the Game – Managing Defensive Behaviour

Everyone’s triggers are different, and there are numerous reasons why someone reacts and behaves defensively.  The problem with being defensive is that once triggered, our natural stress response takes over and we become even more defensive.

Defensive relationships impact more than feelings. In developing his world-famous FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation)  theory, Will Schutz established the ‘C=P Effect’. Compatibility — the ability to work well together — is directly related to productivity. But Schutz also discovered that only about 75% of teams put together on the basis of compatibility, could also be judged as productive. What about the other 25%?  His research finally concluded that the reason groups still got stuck, even when they are compatible, is because one or more people become defensive, and rigid in their behaviour. Defensive behaviour in relationships is therefore not only difficult and uncomfortable – it negatively impacts results.

We get stuck because negative energy is much stronger than positive, and when triggered, we feed it – with doubt, negative self-talk, skewed perceptions of others behaviours (for instance assuming poor intent behind actions), even a perception that threat is everywhere.  In her book, ‘Flourishing’, Maureen Gaffney describes how it takes only 4 pieces of information to turn a positive to a negative, but it takes 9 pieces of information to turn a negative to a positive. In short, being defensive is easy, because negativity takes less energy and our brains are hard-wired toward the negative!

As social beings, we have become highly competent at reading other’s non-verbal signals and connecting with others’ emotions.  This is emotional contagion, and it has ensured the survival of animals in social groups for millennia.  It can also be the catalyst for transferring defensive behaviour from one person to another, as we read each other’s signals and our limbic system takes over. Everyone’s triggers are different.  The problem, is that once one person gives off defensive signals, our emotional centre responds and becomes triggered into defensiveness, and we all start to play the game.

Most of us have ‘trigger people’ in our lives – those individuals whose mere presence can trigger us, with whom we can never seem to connect, dislike or feel disliked by, always disagree with or even have open conflict. Reflecting on Schutz’s notion of compatibility, it is possible that such people are in fact simply very different to us, and we therefore have low compatibility.  Our discomfort feeds the perception that the other person is the problem however, and so we engage in playing the same roles every time we meet – often before we have even interacted.

We may respond by being ready to confront (fight), avoid (flight) or ignore (freeze). Worse still, this is not confined to personal relationships – once our perception is formed, it may latch on to a particular trait that we see in entire groups of people. Allowed to grow into a belief, this becomes the foundation for full-scale prejudice.

So how to stop playing the game? How to manage defensive relationships?


  1. Check-in with yourself: When you have a challenging interaction or relationship, it is very easy to blame the other party and take no responsibility for our part. But it is rare for conflict to operate one way. A key question then, is what was YOUR role in the last (or indeed every!) interaction? You cannot control someone else’s defensiveness, but you can control your reaction to it. What was the trigger? Did you feed the negative?


  1. Recognise your default role: Most of us adopt one or more of the four ‘dramatic’ roles when defensive, and this generates an opposite response. If we play persecutor, people may be pushed into the victim role.  If we play the victim, we may perceive persecution in others’ actions. Participating without invitation, dishing out advice or becoming too involved, results in us playing the role of rescuer. Others may respond by playing rebel and ignoring us or refusing to engage, if they did not ask for help or invite us in.  Check-in with your actions – are you assuming one of the dramatic roles?


  1. Focus on actual behaviour: Perception does not prove intent. Once we mentally label someone as ‘difficult’ or ‘defensive’, we apply that label every time we meet them and focus on actions that confirm our biased perception. We may even attach meaning or intent without proof.  What do you pay attention to in others that triggers you? Is it objective? Is it real? Is it fair?


  1. Choose a different reaction: We become stuck by falling back into the same defensive routines each time we meet. By checking in with ourselves before the next interaction, when we are more rational and have the ability to flex, we can choose how to show up. If the other person demonstrates behaviours that usually trigger us, by consciously practicing a non-defensive response, over time the dynamic can genuinely be reset.


  1. Clear the air and choose to reset: Taking the actions outlined above on your own, won’t go far if you don’t engage with the other party to reset the dynamic. Plan how you can share your observations of the relationship dynamic without apportioning blame, focusing on what can be changed or different, rather than what has happened in the past and who was at fault. Create an agreement of how you will both show up in future. If it helps, ask a neutral third party to help mediate the conversation.


    1. Last Resort: Choose not to play: Sometimes, no matter how much we adapt and flex, it’s possible that the other person is simply so defensive, perhaps in response to triggers outside of the immediate situation or relationship, that they cannot or will not manage their reactions and responses. If this is the case, and you have tried all avenues above to reset the relationship, it may in fact be the case that the dynamic cannot be improved.  In such a situation if may be best to accept the lack of compatibility and disengage from the relationship. Note that this will also require you to let go of how you felt in the relationship and move on objectively – otherwise you may find yourself encouraging others to play the game on your behalf.
Paula Nugent

With over 25 years’ experience in Learning and Development in Retail, Financial Services and Customer Services in Ireland and the UK, Paula has held a number of Consultant and Management roles. She has extensive experience in the fields of consultancy, learning design, facilitation and coaching and prides herself on a partnership approach with clients. Paula has expertise across a broad range of individual, organisational and team development interventions, and is highly skilled in bringing objectives and goals to life through creative, authentic and engaging design and facilitation. Paula specialises in programme development in the areas of Leadership and Management Development and Retail Service and Sales skills and behaviours.

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