“You’re being defensive.”

These three magic words are virtually guaranteed to start a fight (or the only real alternative, where the person resigns to silence and quietly decides to despise you).

I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I don’t believe there is a less useful, more combustible thing you can say to someone. If you tell someone to fuck off, it should be clear enough to the person you’re acting emotionally and they can brush it off with a grain of salt. And I’m not one to let personal insults get to me, as I’m aware that they generally signal more about the giver. 

But when you accuse someone of being defensive? It’s the ultimate trump card; you’ve backed the person into a corner and made it clear you have no intention to have a constructive conversation.

Think about it. 

Firstly, being “defensive” is not a statement of fact, but an opinion–it all depends on your interpretation of a situation. The person may actually be acting defensively, or they may just not agree with whatever it is you’re saying.

Secondly, what can the person really say in return that can lead to a constructive conversation?

If they do not agree with you, even for the most valid of reasons, you will just be reaffirming your hypothesis: the mere fact that they do not agree with you is because they are being defensive in that moment. It is circular logic: you’ve given them no space or opportunity to respectfully put forth a different point of view. Giving someone one option–to agree with you–does not typically foster a constructive relationship anyone would voluntarily be a part of.

So next time you are inclined to accuse someone of being defensive, be a little more thoughtful. Dig a little deeper, until you can find a statement of fact. Acknowledge that you are interpreting the actual facts in a particular way, while leaving open the possibility that you may be seeing only a partial view.

To leave it at “you’re being defensive” only serves to show your own closed-mindedness and inability to communicate effectively.

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