What Is Defensive Listening And How Does It Hurt Communication In My Relationships?

Updated April 2, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

If you are unfamiliar with defensive listening, it is entirely possible that it is present in your relationships, and you have not realized the damage you might be doing. While this is something difficult to consider, it is a good idea to understand defensive listening so that you can prevent it from happening now or in the future.

To put it simply, defensive listening is taking something that is said as a personal attack, no matter the intention or real meaning behind the statement.

Have you ever done this or experienced this in a conversation? If so, it can be fairly easy to identify. If you are a defensive listener, there are ways that you can make improvements. Keep reading to learn more about defensive listening and what you can do to combat it.

Ilona Titova/EyeEm
Improve communication in your relationships with an online therapist

Effects of defensive listening on relationships

You might be able to imagine the effects that defensive listening can have on your relationships. It may feel exhausting, create anger, and even add a sense of anxiety to every conversation. By exploring the effects that defensive listening might have on relationships, you may be better equipped to put a stop to it. 

Puts you and your partner at odds

Your partner is supposed to be your teammate. This means working together, attempting to understand one another, and asking for help when needed. When one or both partners are getting defensive during conversations, being a team is much more difficult. Instead of thinking about how you might react as a teammate, defensive listening creates an opponent. How do you work to act as a teammate instead of an enemy?

While it is not an immediate solution, it is important to remind yourself that the person you are communicating with is not the enemy. By thinking of this person as a teammate, you can approach the discussion in a different headspace. For example, if communication reaches a point at which emotions are high and it's difficult to stay level-headed, it can be a good idea to take a breather and regroup. A few minutes apart can help both of you to calm down and remind yourselves that you're on the same side.

Rather than aiming to win an argument, attempt to understand. Don't try to get your way but try to find a solution that works for both parties. Avoid making assumptions and communicate more with the other person. Doing these things are just a few ways that you might treat your partner as a teammate. 

Note that defensive listening can happen in all types of relationships, not just romantic ones. Even so, you can approach communication with a sibling, parent, or friend in much the same way—see the other person as a teammate.

Defensive listening can become a cycle

If you are having a conversation with someone who is listening defensively, it is easy to get defensive yourself. For example, if someone reacts defensively to an innocent comment, you might feel the need to defend yourself or tell them that they are being defensive. Doing so may only set off further feelings of defensiveness. Once that occurs, it is easy to fall into a pattern of back-and-forth defensiveness that is hard to break from.

Instead of pointing out his or her defensiveness, it is often a better option to say, "I am sorry it seemed I was saying that. Can I try to explain better?" Attempting to clear up the misunderstanding is a good way to stop the cycle before it starts. Try to recognize their feelings about the subject and ask if they are comfortable continuing the discussion. If they need some time to process or cool off, it is best to give it.

Forcing communication when one or both parties are emotional or upset can be a reason for both individuals to get defensive. You might sit in silence for several minutes, leave the room, or even go for a walk and revisit the issue an hour later. It is important to inform the other person of what you are doing to avoid further miscommunication.

Miscommunication leads to arguments

Getty Images

Arguments and fighting are not fun activities in a healthy relationship. In fact, although arguments are a normal aspect of any relationship, it is important to remember that it is important to resolve them. Leaving arguments open-ended can give rise to an easy way for the same argument to come up again in the future.

Although many arguments result in an "agree to disagree" situation, some should not be left in that way. In fact, sometimes, people default to that solution far too often, leaving far too many disagreements unresolved. Agreeing to disagree should be done after all discussion on the topic has been exhausted, especially if the topic is one that both parties find important. Sometimes these kinds of disagreements stem from a misunderstanding that could be cleared up with a more in-depth discussion.

When an argument is the result of miscommunication, it might have been easily avoided. Although clear communication can fix misunderstandings, there are often things said in an argument that cause further damage. Learning to listen without a defensive outlook or reacting to defensive listening can be crucial tools for communication in any relationship.

Causes someone else to solve the defensive listener’s problem

If you're a defensive listener, chances are you require the other individual to lead you back on the right track. You might assume that he or she means something because you tend to listen defensively and then leave it up to them to fix it. In truth, what was said may not have been intended the way that you took it. Instead of realizing the other possibilities, defensive listeners tend to wait for someone else to do it.

If you respond to something defensively, the first step to becoming a good listener is to become self-soothing. Having the ability to self-soothe when feeling defensive is the best way to have more stable relationships and clearer communication. Instead of waiting for the individual to correct their innocent remark, you must be able to see it from another angle.

When you're listening defensively, how do you slow down enough to see the statement from another point of view? Firstly, you have to identify that you are feeling defensive. From there, it is best to stop and breathe. Breathing often makes you calm enough to listen.

If you are unable to relax, taking a break is key to revisiting the issue later and in a less defensive frame of mind. Seeking clarity is important for both parties. What triggered the defensiveness? What did your partner truly mean by that statement? Once this part of understanding has been reached, you might find common ground. Practicing self-soothing techniques allows you to lean less on your partner to fix the issue.

Seek help for improving your listening skills in therapy

Put yourself in your partner's shoes for a moment. Loving a defensive listener can be difficult, as it makes communication far more complicated. A person speaking with a defensive listener might have to censor themselves much more than they should to prevent any negative reactions. It is not always possible to avoid these kinds of reactions, as it can often be hard to avoid the trigger completely. Additionally, attempting to avoid defensive listening can cause a whole other kind of communication issue, in that not everything that needs to be said is getting said.

By working on your defensive listening, you can drastically improve your communication skills. Since communication is one of the most important aspects of any relationship, you must stop defensive listening before it potentially destroys your relationship. If you find it difficult to stop this habit on your own, it may be a good idea to seek professional help.

Getty Images
Improve communication in your relationships with an online therapist

A counselor or therapist should have the skill set necessary to help you identify the triggers that cause you to be defensive. Once those triggers have been identified, your counselor can help you work through them for better communication with your loved ones. 

Online therapy has helped many individuals and those in relationships to work through communication issues. An online environment can be more convenient, less costly, and just as effective as in-person therapy. It doesn't matter where you live, as long as you have the internet, you can find support from an online therapist.

Regain is an online therapy platform through which licensed relationship therapists can meet with individuals or participants of a relationship. Sessions can be held via chat, phone call, or video call. Regain therapists may be able to help you get to the bottom of any communication issues you may be having and help you practice new skills.


Communication is the key to many relationships, and learning how to approach conversations in a manner that isn’t defensive may greatly improve all the relationships in your life. 

For Additional Help & Support With Your ConcernsThis website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.