Something to Know About Defensiveness

Published on December 17, 2023 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

You’re probably familiar with it—you’re suggesting, requesting, or criticizing something, and the person you’re interacting with gets all defensive—“defensive” in what’s commonly understood to be defensive, that is, not offensive *.

That’s usually bad for the person acting defensively. Very bad, according to some, as you can tell by this quote from David J. Lieberman (in Get Anyone to Do Anything):

The first rule of effective debate, argument, or heated conversation is to never, ever, get defensive. The minute you begin to defend yourself against an accusation, you’ve lost. Now you’re fighting uphill.

When someone gets defensive, “they’ve lost.”

But is this really so?

As an observer (and as someone who has also been said to respond “defensively” at times), I’d submit a different idea. I think we get something wrong around defensiveness:

If someone acts defensively, then they do so because they feel attacked.

The response to someone feeling attacked—and perhaps to them actually being attacked—cannot be to add insult to injury and suggest “they lost.”

The response to someone feeling attacked should be to first, stop the attack (no matter whether it’s actual or perceived).

Someone defending themselves against an attack has nothing to do with the “merit” of the attack, but everything to do with feeling attacked.

That is, there’s no data point, no truth in defensiveness other than getting a reaction, to an action.

That is, too, that someone struggling to understand they’re not being attacked does not mean to put all burden on them, or to request them not to struggle (!)—it means to help them in and out of their struggle. (We can always ask, what would help someone.)

And that’s it—any story about defensiveness that doesn’t acknowledge and respect a sense of being attacked, that doesn’t understand that defensiveness responds to offensiveness, and that doesn’t consider stopping the for all practical purposes real attack, isn’t a complete story—and perhaps not an empathetic one, either â€ .

* I define “defensiveness” as concern, skepticism, or hesitation here, because that’s what I’ve experienced to suffice for people or their reactions to be labeled “defensive.” That is, I expressly disagree with and exclude definitions that defensiveness meant “to turn the attention away from [oneself] and toward the faults of the other person.” Although it may be closer to the medical understanding, such behavior appears to be offensive itself.

† Therefore also no, the first rule of debate is not not to ever get defensive: It’s not to ever get offensive, because when people get attacked, they will defend themselves—or, when they play Hammers Hurt, counter-attack.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!