Coaching Techniques

How To Work with A Defensive Coaching Client

Tools for identifying coaching client defense mechanisms in a session, along with practical strategies to support them in making the shift to a growth mindset.

Tools for Diffusing Defense Mechanisms In A Coaching Session

As coaches, part of our role is to hold the mirror and flashlight of self-awareness up for our clients, what’s reflected back may not always be easy to digest. Seeing ourselves clearly is not always an easy, fun, or comfortable business!

So what happens when we’ve reflected back a pattern of behavior or belief for our client that is triggering or uncomfortable for them to hear? Often, this is where you’ll encounter defense mechanisms.

VeryWell Mind describes defense mechanisms as “unconscious psychological responses that protect people from feelings of anxiety, threats to self-esteem, and things that they don't want to think about or deal with.”

Simply put, defense mechanisms are our mind’s attempt to rid itself of stress or negative emotions. They are hard to trace since they happen underneath the level of conscious choice and are often habitual. What this means is that your client may not be aware that they are deploying a self-protection strategy, or “being defensive.”

The challenge with such defenses in a coaching context is that in order to grow and change, a person needs to be open to gaining awareness around the behaviors or beliefs that may be undercutting their ability to achieve their goals and aspirations. After all, that's brought them to coaching in the first place!

If this hasn't come up already in your coaching practice, it's bound to rear it's head sooner or later! It will likely feel uncomfortable, and that's OK. It doesn't mean you are doing anything wrong. Defense mechanisms are a natural human response, and there are ways to work with them productively.

As coaches, what do we need to know when defensiveness takes center stage? In this blog we'll take a look at how to identify and navigate client defenses as they arise.

Spot The Defense Mechanism

Defense mechanisms are sometimes useful to us when encountering emergency situations. However, under normal circumstances they limit our ability to adapt well in life because they distance us from crucial self-knowledge, creating an overall decrease in self-awareness and emotional intelligence. (Glossary of Defence Mechanisms, Tumblr) 

As coaches, we begin by learning to spot defensiveness in ourselves and others and approach the conundrum with empathy and self-compassion. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common: projection, displacement, denial and undoing. For a complete listing, see: Defense Mechanisms in Psychology Explained (+ Examples).


If a client’s traits or feedback/learning about their behavior threaten their self-concept, then the client may:

  • Fail to recognize that they possess these traits and or behaviors
  • See these same threatening traits in other people - thereby projecting the threat to their identity onto others

Example: A person who has a hostile nature might attribute this hostility to a colleague and say she has an anger management problem. 


When a client displays displacement, they change the original target to another, similar target (Baumeister et al., 1998). The displacement occurs because the client feels that the initial target is considered unacceptable or impossible for discharging their feelings, so a more suitable pressure release valve is found.

Displacement shows up in the way that we act towards others, or even a project at work.

Example: A manager yells at an employee, and the employee keeps their cool and doesn't yell back or otherwise escalate the situation. But later that night, they lash out at their spouse, kids, or the dog about something unrelated.


Denial is the client’s refusal to acknowledge certain facts about a particular situation (Baumeister et al., 1998.)  Beyond facts, this can also be the existence of specific feelings, thoughts, or even perceptions (Cramer, 1991, 2006).

By not acknowledging the facts, the brain hopes to protect itself from a particular state of the world and its consequences. Or, the protection may even be from themselves in terms of how a client’s behavior may be showing up in ways they don't want to face.

Example: An employee receives feedback about his inability to communicate empathetically with colleagues. The employee believes he communicates effectively and dismisses these negative evaluations using several arguments:

  • He argues that his manager is wrong, and jealous
  • He rationalizes that the behavior was a one-off because he was stressed one day with a colleague
  • He argues that the other party was being unclear, and it was actually his colleague who was being hostile

A great way to spot denial is when excuses seem to circle the issue without addressing it in terms of personal accountability. This is especially true when multiple sources of feedback point to the fact that the client may have some reflecting to do.


Undoing takes place when a client ruminates on previous events, replaying them as a way to change what happened and, as a result, help protect themselves against certain feelings or behaviors (Baumeister et al., 1998).

Example: An employee argued with a customer, lost her temper, and lost the contract. She is very angry about the outcome. She relives the argument, ruminating on how she should have responded.

In this case, the reimagining doesn’t change the scenario, but it may make her feel like she was better equipped to deal with the argument. All this actually does is activate the nervous system by replaying the stress without discharging it. The sense of control is false, and comes at a high cost.

How To Support A Defensive Client

Ultimately, all of the above points to one simple question: Is your client LEARNING as they have new experiences and move through life?

If not, how can you support them in facilitating growth in a manner that is compassionate and supportive?

The key to doing this well is in cultivating an attitude of treating your client’s difficulties, challenges, obstacles, missteps, mistakes, and failures as OPPORTUNITIES to learn. 

When a client learns to work with their awareness in this way, the outcome is that a whole new world opens up because: 

  • They are no longer blind to their reality
  • They learn to become more accepting of the natural defenses within themselves, without being overtaken by them.

Addressing defense mechanisms helps to calm inner conflict, and frees up mental energy to problem solve instead.

Working with Client Mindset

Reflection is a necessary part of our learning process because cultivating an awareness of what we DON’T want is equally as important as holding an awareness of what we DO want. 

In coaching, we characterize this as the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  

With a growth mindset, a person is able to harness reflection-fueled self awareness in order to understand global truth over personal truth. This, in turn, helps them decide how they may wish to do things differently in the future.

A fixed mindset, in contrast, is the belief that our skills, intellect, talent or circumstances are set or unchangeable. For folks with this kind of mindset, the situation is binary. When you operate from a fixed mindset, you’ll most likely end up limiting your opportunities.

When coaching a client, how can you determine if they are operating from a fixed mindset? By paying attention to what they’re saying, and looking for patterns in their perspective. Some tells include:

  • If they always see the glass half-empty.
  • If negativity keeps creeping in.
  • Black and white thinking, or an "all or nothing" mentality.

These things are some of the many markers to note to help confirm whether your client is operating from a fixed mindset. 

Once you notice it, what do you do next?

You begin by validating your client.

A good coach is always there to say, “Hey, you’re not alone.” Avoid labels or judging them. Praise their effort to gain awareness, then begin to ask “what if” questions to encourage a growth mindset.

Questioning feeds growth.

Teaching your client about neuroplasticity is another great tool at your disposal. Neuroplasticity is the capacity of our brain to change and grow.

With repeated practice, your client can alter how they think, which in turn impacts their way of life. Doing so isn't a quick fix, however. It takes time and dedication to rewire unconscious habits of mind!

Coaching Strategies

How can you help a client shift from a fixed mindset to adopting growth-oriented strategies and beliefs? 

It can be tricky to coach someone with a fixed mindset. You may experience defensiveness, or a fixation on the correctness of their own thoughts and ideas. But once the idea of shifting mindset is on the table - and your client agrees they'd like to move in this direction - it’s your job to work with your client's resistance and strategize with them as a non-judgemental partner. 

To that end, here are some tools you can share with your clients:

1) ‍Learning to hear their "mindset voice." This may take a while! Invite your client to pay attention to their internal commentary, and draw their awareness to whether it’s fixed or growth.

2) Identify the thought (whether it’s fixed or growth) and flip it to see what happens. Encourage your client to play with seeing the world from a different perspective to discover where they have the power to choose their interpretation of circumstances and events.

3) Act in line with the desired mindset. Challenge your client to identify actions that would reflect a growth mindset. Moving from thought to action is where real growth occurs.

Rewiring how we naturally think and react is BIG work, so be generous in providing encouragement, positive reinforcement, and praise to your client at each step along the way!

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