How to Defend Yourself Without Appearing Defensive

Seven do's and seven don'ts for the hard art of self-defense.

Posted Jun 12, 2020

When you’ve been attacked, you’re already at a huge disadvantage. Anything you say in response can be dismissed as mere defensive retaliation. 

When you’re not trusted, it does you little good to say, “I know you don’t trust me but trust me you can trust me.” They don’t trust you. That’s their point.

You will be flustered by precisely this bind. You’ll be prone to flailing impotently to regain the credibility you’ve lost, however unfairly.

So what’s the alternative to flailing impotently?

To answer that, it’s worth revisiting Aristotle’s distinction between three aspects of rhetoric or the art of presenting ideas. 

There’s your logos or logic, your reasons, the facts of the matter as you see them. 

There’s your pathos or emotional appeals to listeners.

And there’s your ethos, not your ethics but your identity or posture—what kind of person you portray yourself as being such that listeners would want to cozy up next to you to visit how you see things. 

Your ethos has been dinged. Your audience is expressing doubts about you as a credible person. They’re beginning to read between the lines of your logos and pathos, not listening as they would if they still trusted you. 

Before, your words meant something. They gave you the benefit of the doubt. Now, they’re beginning to suspect your word means nothing. They may even be falling into what I call an infallibility battle, a black-and-white, all-or-nothing, fight-to-the-death-off-all-credibility competition in which opponents will either prove right about everything or about nothing, a mindlessly desperate battle for absolute infallibility, the last word none of us can have though naturally, we’d want it. Infallibility battles are what you hear in brats bickering, “LOL you think that song was by the Beegees?!! You don’t know anything do you?!”

You will feel the urge to prevail in such infallibility battles but given your lost ground, you’ll only confirm their suspicions if you try. “You’re being defensive” is not something you can defend against without proving their point. 

Do not fight for infallibility. Instead, defend everyone's fallibility. We all make mistakes, though it’s worth getting more specific than that. We all bet fallibly. We can place a good bet that turns out wrong. Obviously. If you bet on the 80% odds with an outcome that falls within the other 20% you didn’t bet wrong. It just came out wrong. 

You will regain credibility most efficiently if your ethos is one of fallibilism. Your posture should not indulge a pretense of infallibility. Posture as a learner, not someone last-word learned. You can often shame an infallibility warrior into a return to reality. We all make mistakes. We all make good bets that can turn out wrong. Expressing that in your presence is how best to try to get folks to cozy up to you again.

Even at your most fleet-footed, it will take a moment to adopt a fallibilist ethos, much as it takes a moment at minimum to grieve the loss of anything you hold dear. Give yourself that moment with silence. You’ll be tempted to rush to your defense which will only appear defensive. 

Once you’ve taken that moment, exhibit some fallibilism.

Here are some ways to start:

  1. Make your doubter's case against you. Give voice to it such that they feel heard and can see that you’re not just spitting out the bitter pill of their attack without considering it. Show that you’re brave enough to visit the possibility that you’re wrong and wise enough to know that hearing and agreeing are different. Show that you can give voice to their case independent of whether you think it’s right.
  2. Give voice to their doubts about you thereby providing evidence that you get it. You too would have doubts about you if you were them.
  3. Identify an error you’ve know you’ve made or something you’ve learned from their feedback, and let them know you’re thinking about their argument against you. Restore credibility by apologizing in specifics and take pride in your apologies. Stand corrected. That’s how you show that you identify as still learning, not last-word learned.  
  4. Try to slow the pace of the debate to afford you both time to think about things. Often resolution isn’t as urgent as it feels. 
  5. Evoke the human predicament: We’re all always shopping among interpretations, trying to guess which fits best. 
  6. Admit to miscalculation, a bet that didn’t turn out as you thought it would. Don’t insist that you were right or feel pressure to concede that you’re a bad person. Try saying “I miscalculated. I can adjust in response to your feedback.”
  7. Honor their right to decide for themselves whether to believe you. Though when deciding something practical together you may be cornered with finding common ground, in many situations you only feel like you’re cornered. Often, it’s OK to come to different interpretations.

Here are some ways not to start: 

  1. Don’t just give any of the above suggestions lip-service. Feel them in your bones or they’ll see through it. Don’t just say “Nobody’s perfect,” or “I never said I was perfect.” That’s vacuous hot air. It buys you no credibility.
  2. Don’t offer empty apologies. Don’t say “Sorry if I annoyed you,” “Sorry that you’re so sensitive,” or “Sorry for everything.” 
  3. Though you may feel like retaliating (“Well, what about when you did X?”), don’t. It’s not going to buy you any restored credibility.
  4. Don’t state “the facts.” There are no interpretation-free facts and your interpretation has been called into doubt. 
  5. Don’t pretend to be the supreme judge adjudicating the case in which you are the defendant. Don’t posture as fairminded. It won’t work. That you care about unfairness to you does not make you appear fairminded. 
  6. Don’t guilt-trip them for doubting you. We all have to earn trust. Trust isn’t owed to us. There’s no shame in distrusting people, even in distrusting our intimates, partners or close friends, relatives and collaborators. Especially not our intimates because the costs of trusting the untrustworthy go way up with intimacy.
  7. Don't get emphatic as though your emotional displays prove you're right. When defensive, everyone's emphatic. It proves nothing. 

And whatever you do, have an exit strategy: 

Maybe you were wrong in ways you can’t afford to admit. Maybe you were right and they’ll never admit it. Maybe they’re addicted to an infallibility battle to prove you wrong about everything. 

Take good care in the debate, knowing you may have to withdraw in the end. If you take good care, you can withdraw with the consolation of thoroughness. Though you tried hard to restore common ground, you didn’t succeed. 

If you have an exit strategy, a way to explain to yourself why you didn’t restore common ground, you won’t feel panicked and tempted to coerce them into restoring trust in you.

Tomorrow is another day. You will still be you. That’s what counts. That’s why you’re trying to live and learn. 

Check out my podcast, "Negotiate with yourself and win!" It's all about such matters as these.