How to defend yourself in a discussion

Published on and tagged with communication

In some rare cases it happens you get attacked in a discussion. How should you react?

I think the most important point is to ask yourself whether it is really an attack. Most often, it is not an attack but feedback (it helps to take some time to think about what was said). Whether something said is seen as feedback or an attack depends on three factors :

  • me — what is for me acceptable that someone else says to me?
  • the other person — who said it?
  • the context — in which context was it said?

So depending on those factors the same comment can be seen as feedback or an attack. If I see something as feedback, then the other person will (usually) get a normal answer. But if I see it as an attack, then I will switch (probably unconsciously) to a defensive mode and try to defend myself. You want to show the other person that you are stronger/better/smarter/whatever and that it is a bad idea to attack you and he should go away. That’s the goal.

To accomplish this goal, everyone uses his own strategies. Some of them are:

  • Ignore the attack and do nothing
  • Say you don’t accept such an attack and he should go away
  • Use the judo principle, i.e. analyze what the other said to attack you and use it against him
  • Surprise the other with an answer he wouldn’t expect, e.g. by thanking him
  • Start an attack, too

I think there is no strategy for every situation, in one situation you may have to use strategy A, whereas in another situation strategy B is more suitable, and so on. This may sound easy, but in such a situation it is difficult to keep cool and so you may act irrationally… So, be warned!

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, such attacks are very seldom. Still, it is always good to be prepared ;-)

9 comments baked

  • Beth

    I think you found a new calling! Maybe a new focus for your blog, i.e. leadership, HR, psychology, problem resolution issues ;)

    A friend once told me about an oriental proverb. If a problem can not be mutually resolved, you cut off the head! Why? So that the problem can no longer be seen or heard :) No idea why that has always stuck with me. Anyway, his version was eloquent.

  • The Mullet

    ok, Daniel, so you’ve still not gotten over getting kicked from the core team. But I don’t see the point you are trying to make in stirring up the community over and over again.

    Actually, if this keeps going on, I’d wish you switch to rails. If you’re goal is to destroy things, find another place to do so, please.

    But taking out the very private problem you have with yourself and the core team on the community is very unfair: the community has not done you any harm – and no one else either. So, why can’t you keep this whole matter behind doors and take it out with the core team, PLEASE.

  • BurntSushi

    “You want to show the other person that you are stronger/better/smarter/whatever and that it is a bad idea to attack you and he should go away. That’s the goal.”


    If you’re being attacked, why retaliate? Ghandi said it best… “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

    What would you be trying to prove anyway? The only person you’re satisfying by trying to prove you’re better than your attacker is yourself. It’s called insecurity.

    If you want to be professional, then you always maintain your dignity and keep calm. If someone attacks you, then it is usually not worth a retaliation. As you end up tarnishing yourself as well, 99% of the time.

  • Tim Daldini

    BurntSushi, I still think it depends on the situation. In some specific circumstances I think it can be OK or even necessary to retaliate. Sometimes you have to prove what you are worth for example, but I think that should be possible without putting someone else down, or prove yourself to be actually “better”.

  • BurntSushi

    Well yes… There are times in extreme cases when you should retaliate, however 99% of the time, it really isn’t necessary and is usually a silly attack in the first place.

  • Brendon Kozlowski

    “Retaliation” might not be the best form of the word. Although Dan’s blog posts are following a semi-understood path as of late, they are also meant to be able to stand up on their own. Sometimes people are just plain wrong, and they should be educated – in the proper meaning of that word. Informing them, with facts and showing compassion and understanding with the rebuttle.

    Sometimes attacks are simply from an uneducated source that would be better off as an informed person. :)

  • cakebaker

    @all: Thanks for your comments!

    @Beth: Yes, it is possible I will write more about such topics in the future as those things are as important as coding.

    And thanks for your proverb, there is much truth in it.

    @The Mullet: Sure, this article is inspired by that event and the discussion it caused. But I really don’t see those negative things you try to interpret into this article. What I described here is a pattern you find in communication, and it is also self-criticism resp. self-reflection. Did I react correctly? Did I overreact? And to answer those questions you have to know what’s going on in your mind.

    @BurntSushi: I agree with you that staying calm is often the best solution (I mentioned it also as one of the strategies). On the other hand what do you do if the attack is more subtle? For example, someone says something bad about you that could be true. Both you and the attacker know it is wrong, but for an outsider it may sound reasonable…

  • Tom

    It’s a good and valid question, which applies to the whole world, nowadays.

    Why is everyone so … picky.. and every spoken word equals an attack against the own person?

    The world is oversaturated and people are more into robotting to make some money then into looking inside or taking care of their “true nature”.

  • cakebaker

    @Tom: Thanks for your comment!

    To which question do you refer?

    I think many people don’t take the time to analyze a statement and to wait a bit with an answer. They just have to react. Unfortunately, the first reaction is often not the best reaction.

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