The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

Offensive defensiveness

People, eh? With our foibles and our peculiarities, how did we ever get to be anywhere near the top of the food chain? Should we be anywhere near the top of the food chain? Sometimes I wonder if we would have been better abandoning the gunpowder and the sharpening of flints and leaving ourselves open to the whimsies of natural selection. It is probably an indisputable fact that the planet would certainly have benefited from somebody saying, “A tool that enables us to vanquish stronger beings from distance? Meh!” Nevertheless, the path of human progress is now well-established and as we tread resolutely towards mutual destruction and desolation, we endeavour to do each other’s head in. It’s like being driven to the scaffold in a tumbril and insisting upon arguing with your co-condemned about who gets to use the armrest.

Defensive people are the target of my withering eye this morning. I used to puzzle over what was meant by this word: defensive – what is wrong with that? After all, is there anything wrong or unnatural with putting forward your take on an issue? Isn’t this just giving an account of yourself? If somebody tells you how they see your actions, what’s wrong with just putting forward your explanation for why you did what you did? 

And yet I find defensive people to be hugely disconcerting. Nothing can be said to them without listening to why they did what they did and, we understand, why they were actually right to do what they did. So, at times when they weren’t right, they completely fail to learn from the experience and are therefore doomed to repeat it. I think that what I find most unsettling about defensive people is that their defensiveness often hides the view that everything that is wrong with the world is because of everyone else who is in the world. Their world view is remarkably binary: there are things that happen and there are people to blame for things that happen. When they mess up themselves, they recognise it but have to offer an explanation of why they messed up and that explanation typically involves pointing the finger at someone else. 

If you recognise yourself in this unflattering portrait, I think my message today is really aimed at you: it is quite OK to get things wrong; it is absolutely fine to have huge oversights and completely forget to do something really important; there is nothing wrong with giving somebody really bad information and causing minor mayhem as a result. This is part of the human condition. The important thing, however, is to learn from the mistake and to try to avoid it again in the future. 

I work with a few people who rarely, if ever, acknowledge their responsibility for getting things wrong. These people are hugely judgemental and put up barriers to effective working relationships because you know that they are judging your every act with a harshly hypercritical judgement. This causes you to feel distinctly uncomfortable because you know that whatever you do, it is not going to be enough. They will interfere in your work because they know that their approach to it is superior to your efforts and they are oblivious to how their interference is seen by other people. In some ways, one has to admire their chutzpah. They are, like the sociopaths, protected by their own lack of concern for what the rest of the world thinks. Who cares what the others think when I alone know how to do things properly?

But education and learning are not about learning how to do things. They are frequently about learning how not to do things. They are about learning how to avoid things happening. And this is why we tell people that it is OK to make mistakes. This is why we positively welcome mistakes in the classroom and, by extension, in the workplace. Mistakes are opportunities for learning. When people are getting things wrong, we don’t need to assign blame; we don’t need to point out their responsibility. It is often enough to simply point out where the mistake is. People generally want to do well in their endeavours. It is rare that they benefit from the subtext that they should not have got it wrong. 

I’d like to wrap this up with some personal thoughts and opinions:

Properly does not exist in the objective world; it typically means the way that I think it should be done. If somebody else does not do the work properly, it is because you have failed to give them the necessary guidance and supevision. Ha! It’s your fault after all!

Mistakes happen. People generally make mistakes on a daily basis. They forget something; they get their priorities wrong. Only a fool is going to try and control all factors at all times. Knowing how to respond appropriately to mistakes is the same thing as being flexible to an ever-changing situation. Put even more simply, this is called living.

You really have no right to judge other people unless you have somehow managed to live their life and know that they have no excuse. On the other hand, you do have a right to sometimes forget this and to go off on one. The key thing is that you always come back to the conclusion that whatever mistake they have made was probably quite understandable -and therefore quite forgiveable-, given who they are and what they do.  

What we need to be on the lookout for is a resistance to learn from mistakes. This can best be overcome by an acknowledgement of how we ourselves have contributed to the mistakes made by other people. That’s right! Other people’s mistakes reveal great learning opportunities for us. Not only do we encourage people to make mistakes because these are good for their development; we welcome mistakes because they are the catalyst for change in our own practice.

Once I can start living my life according to these maxims, perhaps the defensive people will not do my head in so much. I am aware of the irony that this post is a defensive response to the defensiveness of others. But I like to think that I am aware that I see my faults reflected in the actions of others. It’s taken a long time to learn this. Only time will tell how long it takes to really understand it too.


19 Nov 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings

1 Comment »

  1. Yet another thought provoking and interesting post.As I was reading (skimming) your entries I was struck my how many comment-worthy posts there were from ther year. I believe in a recent post you mentioned the lack of comments on your blog. You wrote, “…people tend to come here and read this blog because it tends to chime with at least part of the way that they think… I used to tell myself that I blogged to be disagreed with and have my biases challenged. Then I realised that I am not the kind of blogger who gets much dialogue in the comments pages…” For what is worth I can say that I usually give your posts a second look and I always appreciate your writing and thoughts I don’t always agree. So, I disagree with you about being here to agree with you, I guess.

    Looking specifically at this post here and leaving out any meta commenting comments I will move ahead.

    It seems we have talked about defensiveness before. Such a nice topic.

    I might be a defeatist in this case but I am thinking like, “if people are going to be defensive then what can I do to get my message across in a way that doesn’t trigger a defensive reaction (no matter how silly and unproductive these reactions might be).” Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong and certain people are going to be defensive all the time.

    I am not exactly talking about you or your post really but I remember one time in a training session for an education company I worked for. The woman running the orientation (who later became a friend) said something like “Look there are certain things we ask you to do here. That is the way it is here for this company. We are not saying this is the right way or the best way.It is the way we do it and the way we promised our customers it would be done. You might have other ideas about how to do things and I am sure many of them are great but here we do it this way.” For me (as a potentially headstrong chap who is not always committed to the rules or following orders) I took this very and decided to (mostly) do things their way.

    I felt that this stance of “we are not talking about what is right and wrong” limited a lot of defensiveness that could have arisen.

    Since I haven’t really talked about your post very much and have seemingly talked around it…
    You wrote, “I work with a few people who rarely, if ever, acknowledge their responsibility for getting things wrong. These people are hugely judgmental and put up barriers to effective working relationships because you know that they are judging your every act with a harshly hypercritical judgement.” my sincere question here is about hiring procedures. Are there ways to ensure against hiring such people? How could this be done?

    What you are describing here sound to me to be more than run of the mill human (defensive) nature.

    You talked about judging people and when we have the right to judge others (never.) Are teachers so used to being judged from DoSes and others that everything sounds like a judgment even when it is not and is not intended to be?
    (This is again a real question and not a judgment on you or “your kind.”) 🙂

    Reading this post: of yours it looks like you took some steps to combat defensiveness. Any results on this.

    Sorry for what is probably the worst comment you have ever received.
    I have some excuses but I don’t want to sound defensive.

    Comment by mikecorea | 24 Feb 2014 | Reply

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