Reprinted from Investor's Business Daily
From an interview with Dr. Beverly Potter

Defend Yourself Without Sounding Defensive
Responding To Verbal Attacks With Authority And Grace
By Morey Stettner
Copyright material. See notice below
Go ahead, get defensive. It's only natural when your great new idea meets with resistance or your work comes under scrutiny. But the risk of taking a defensive stance is that it puts you in a position of weakness, experts say.

The act of justifying your actions can undermine your authority at work. Also, according to Beverly Potter, author of From Conflict To Cooperation, "The more you defend yourself, the more attacks you'll invite. A vicious cycle sets in because the attacker thinks you aren't listening. And it's true. The very act of defending involves telling others that they're wrong and you're right."

Still, for most of us, it's tough to resist the urge. Getting defensive is instinctive. What to do? It's not only possible to defend yourself without sounding defensive, it's imperative with Corporate America's current focus on teamwork. Instead of instantly asserting your innocence or contradicting what you hear, it's better to try communicating in a less antagonistic way. The trick is to listen, ask questions and control your emotions.

Here are some tips on standing up for yourself without losing face.

Pose questions that point to solutions
Unless you're careful, the attacker will corner you by asking accusatory questions. Don't feel obliged to answer. "The key is to be as amicable as possible and ask, 'What would you have done?'" said Michael Egan, president of Michael Egan & Associates, a management consulting firm in Amherst, Mass. "This puts the questioner on the defensiveÑnot you," he explained. "If someone says, 'You're taking this team n the wrong direction,' you should ask, 'What's your positive suggestion?'"

Reiterate a shared goal
If you work in teams and introduce a new idea or a different approach, the group may rebel against you for trying to change things. Even if your point has merit, others may gang up on you anyway. If you're under attack, remind the team of its mission. Rather than argue about details, such as whether to install an upgrade to a software program, focus on the big picture. You might say, for example, "Let's step back a moment and remember that the whole point of us working on this project is to serve customers better."

Launch a pre-emptive strike
If you expect others to lash out at you for something, beat the to the punch. Rise the issue before they get around to it. "The trick is to control your own message," said Frank Corrado, author of Communicating with Employees. "When the big tobacco companies hear bad news about themselves, they release it to the public first with their spin on it." For example, Phillip Morris fights off anti-tobacco attacks by running full-page ads in national publicationsÑ billed as company "messages"Ñthat present the corporation's viewpoint.

Continued Corrado: "You need to swat a rumor down ahead of time or deny others the chance to criticize you." Say your new marketing campaign fails to spur sales. Don't wait for others to point fingers, discuss the valuable lessons you learned, which will be used in planning future campaigns.

Interview your attacker
"The mistake many executives make is to keep trying to rebut accusations," said Potter, an Oakland, Calif-based organizational psychologist who advises executives on leadership and communications skills. "But if you get into this pattern of repeatedly defending yourself, you lose credibility." Potter suggests that instead of responding to each attack, start asking questions. "In response to the speaker's harsh critique," she said, "you might reply, 'What did I do exactly?' or paraphrase by fairly summarizing what they just said. By showing that you're listening, you can draw others out so that they become nicer and less aggressive."

Don't spread the blame
Once you start defending yourself, it's easy to wind up pointing the finger at others. Even if you sincerely believe that the accusations leveled against you are unjust, you won't win over your accusers by shifting the blame. "Be hard on issues, but soft on people," said Corrado, a Chicago-based communications consultant. "The worst thing to do is to push blame onto others, because then you don't really resolve anything." A better approach is to shift into an inquisitive, fact-finding mode. Join in the accuser's attempt to learn what happened and why and discuss how best to proceed. "Separate your emotions form what's going on," Potter said. "Hold back so that you don't too wound up or upset. The minute you start defending yourself, you give up listening, and both parties end up becoming more aggressive and vehement as a result."

This article is copyrighted by The Investor's Business Daily, 1996. "The newspaper for important decison makers"