Defending your choices – or being defensive?

Recently, my eldest brother read my book: Making the leap – Moving from deputy to head.

He is far outside my target audience – now retired, he had a career as an engineer rather than as an educationalist, and leadership never appealed to him.  However, he is a writer, and we often talk about the process of writing, and about what we are reading and enjoying (we are BCoT – ‘Book Club of Two’).  I had sent him a link to some of the Amazon reviews of MTL, and having read them he decided he would read the book himself.  And, having read it, he offered criticism.

I have written here about how I have not always find it found it easy to receive criticism.  On balance, my brother thought the book was well-written, but there were a number of ways in which he felt it could have been stronger.  His main point was that, although I talk a lot about what I think you need to do in order to manage the application, selection and transition process if you are moving to headship, his view was that I did not say enough about how this should be done.  He preferred the later chapters where I did at least give some examples of how I and my research participants had navigated the process of transition, and in which I included quotations from those participants.  He felt the early chapters would have benefited from such quotations, and certainly more direct advice about what you should do to achieve success in the selection process.  And there was at least one occasion where he felt I had not made my meaning sufficiently clear.

I replied to explain why I hadn’t focussed on ‘how’.  I cited the Brenda Despontin quotation, a former head who had said: “There’s only one way to be a head.  And that’s your way.’  I suggested that headship is about who we are as well as what we do, and so each incoming head has to find their own way of enacting the role, though I felt they might benefit from my advice about some of the underlying principles, such as being aware that they both inherit a legacy from their predecessor, and find a way to inhabit the role and make it their own.  I also explained that context is key, and tuning into the context and working out what this particular school needs from its new head at this particular time is crucial.  So ‘how’ to be a head is not clear cut.  My engineer brother wanted a Haynes manual.

And my brother’s response to these arguments was: “Don’t be defensive.”

This made me thoughtful.  It’s interesting that the word ‘defensive’ has negative connotations, rather than simply meaning you’re defending yourself.  What is the difference between defending your choices, and being defensive?  Defending your choices, ideally in a convincing and persuasive way, seems to me to be a positive response to critical feedback.  Being defensive – not so much.

My brother and I talked about this.  I hadn’t said my brother was wrong – that isn’t something I would say.  I did say that I didn’t agree with him, and I explained my reasons.  But when does defending your point of view become being defensive?  I wondered whether one factor was how emotional you are in your response – if you are immediately hurt, offended or angry and your defense reflects this, it could be argued that you are being defensive rather than giving a carefully considered rebuttal.  If your response is aggressive, rather than measured and respectful, this might suggest that your reaction to the criticism is predominantly emotional rather than rational. Another factor might be the time frame.  If criticism is offered and you respond immediately, have you given yourself the opportunity to reflect on the value of the opinions expressed, or has your reaction been an automatic defense and deflection?

Incidentally I agreed with what he had to say about the lack of direct quotations in the first three chapters – certainly in chapter three, on managing the lead-in period, I could have sourced and made good use of comments from my participants.  It would have been less easy in the first two chapters, as, although I thought it would be helpful to readers to consider the headship application process, this wasn’t the focus of my research, which was specifically about making the deputy to head transition once successful appointment had been achieved.  I was writing the book in 2016, three years after my doctoral data generation, so going back to my participants and asking them to recall their application and interview experience three/four years after the event, when they were now fully immersed in headship, wouldn’t have worked, I don’t think.

I also agreed with his comments about lack of clarity and this is something I would change were I given the opportunity to review the book prior to a future reprint.  But the what/how issue was something we just didn’t agree on.

In last Friday’s ‘tes’ magazine, I read a comment by Martin George which related to “the pushback on social media”.  Martin suggested such pushback is “an example of how instant ideological ripostes can trump more thoughtful consideration in debates about education.”  Perhaps this is something we all need to think about.  When someone’s choices and views clash with our own, does an immediate defense of our alternative perspective become automatic defensiveness?  Would more time, reflection and perhaps tolerance enable us to see the worth in another point of view?  Or, even if we still take a different line, could we at least defend our opinions, and choices, in a more considered and respectful way?

What do you think?

Photo montage: John Berry


8 thoughts on “Defending your choices – or being defensive?

  1. Dear Jill, I found this very interesting and thought provoking, I love the concept of your mini book group consisting of you and Alan and I think it is great you read each other’s work. Would love to meet up this Spring, most days are flexible for me except Fridays.
    Do you still like the idea of meeting at Lincoln ?
    Please let me know if you have any available dates and hopefully we can arrange to meet in the very near future, wishing you and John a very happy Easter, love Helen xx

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Thanks for the comment! Happy Easter to you and the family, too. Email me with possible dates to meet in Lincoln? It will be good to see you.


  2. Jill – thank you for the blog – it was interesting to read . I think it’s good to hear another view, this is how we learn and being “defensive” helps both parties understand better the statements . It’s interesting that he wanted more how – because this is exactly what the feedback was from one of our workshops . I wonder if there were less hows because you didn’t want to personally boast – is that a gender issue ? Food for thought over Easter – have a nice Easter break


    1. Thanks, Nicky. My brother’s comments did make me think, and in subsequent writing I’ve tried to give some attention to ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ – though I still believe that it can only be about making suggestions of strategies to consider and not giving instruction. There is no blueprint for how to be a leader – but my brother the engineer likes blueprints!


  3. I like it when a challenge comes our way, one that makes us think. This is a great example of such Jill.

    “Why?” One of the things I have learnt is not to ‘jump’ straight to a defensive position when challenged. I think we assume that those who challenge us have been on the same learning journey and wonder why they can reach a different conclusion or suggest a different course of action to the one we propose. We defend our insights, conclusions, proposals etc by explaining or using ‘argument’ and our evidence in the pursuit of creating enlightenment in others so that they will agree with us.

    My experience has shown an alternative course of action can have benefits for both parties and it is based on sharing each other’s learning journeys. The strategy starts with exploring how the other person reached their conclusion, you don’t defend instead you enquire. If you can master this first step, avoid the instinctive reflex to defend, then the rest of the process follows. To help avoid the trap of trigger and response say to yourself “Leaders are Learners” and start by learning about the other persons point of view, argument or position.

    A natural progression of this strategy is to develop a ‘feedforward’ mentality in the organisation instead of ‘feedback’ (yes there is a significant difference). Feedback starts with what has been done or achieved, it is based in the past. Feedforward is about moving forward, it is based on future actions or behaviours; what can be done next working from where you are now. I go into this in more depth here: for anyone who wishes to explore and offer ‘feedforward’

    I absolutely agree with your last point, especially if we wish to lead others “even if we still take a different line, could we at least defend our opinions, and choices, in a more considered and respectful way?” mainly because it means we remain learners too.


  4. I think it is very hard when one is being verbally attacked to refrain from an emotional response. If offering one’s defense while being passionate about it is defensive, then I think it is unfair to label that as somehow less valid than an unemotional defense of one’s self. We are not automatons, we are human beings with feelings. Is it always to be deemed as wrong if someone defends herself while displaying emotion?


    1. I don’t disagree with you. We are, as you say, humans with feelings and I see emotion as a strength rather than a weakness. But we’re also rational beings so that can sometimes help us to control our strongest emotions to some degree. Thanks for reading and commenting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s