While it’s often true that the best defense is a powerful offense, that’s not enough. You also want to keep cool and present yourself as a confident, fair-minded executive. Here’s how:
Wait ‘em out. When you’re scolded by your boss or criticized by a colleague, your instinct might be to jump in and give your side of the story. Just don’t dive in too soon. Never interrupt a speaker in order to defend yourself. No matter how right you are, your decision to talk over the other person is in itself an act of aggression that will create a rift. It’s better to wait for the speaker to finish. Then count to three—in silence—before you respond.
Launch your defense with a question. There will be time for statements later. For now, the first words out of your mouth should be a question, such as, “Are you aware of. . .?” or “When is the best time for us to discuss the whole story?” The best defense should flow naturally out of a two-way dialogue when the other person is ready and willing to listen, not when your anger or outrage takes over.
Send nonthreatening signals. When criticized, many managers flinch, shake their heads or appear to be in pain. Control your facial expression so that you remain outwardly neutral and attentive. Don’t fold your arms across your chest like a drill sergeant. Maintain open body language, and try to align yourself physically with the speaker. The fact that you can “take it” without losing your composure will work to your advantage.
Take responsibility. Preface your defense by accepting responsibility—not blame—for the issue at hand. If someone chastises you for an apparently careless error, say, “It’s my responsibility to ensure 100 percent accuracy, and. . .”
Ideally, you want to share the attacker’s concern and subtly ally yourself with the very person who’s criticizing you. This allows you to defend yourself by joining in a fact-finding mission to find out what really went wrong. You can save face by agreeing to fix whatever’s broken.