Have you ever gained face with your critics by defending yourself to them? Have you ever gained the respect of people who mock you or question you by telling them they’re wrong about you?
It’s tempting to mount a defense when people criticize you. The older I get, though, the more I realize that defending yourself – with words at least – is counterproductive.
Defensiveness for most human interactions is a sign of weakness. It begins with an implicit admission that the accuser is worthy of a defense from you. The critic becomes worthy to sit in a place of judgment over you. To become defensive and to justify yourself is to allow your accuser to choose the battlefield and set the benchmarks of your innocence or guilt.
Let’s go back to high school for an example. If someone calls you uncool and you spend time explaining how cool you really are, you pretty quickly prove to everyone listening that you are not.
Look to the business world, too. If someone accuses you of not being effective enough as a team member, do you gain more by protesting and rattling off reasons you’re great? On the contrary: you look desperate.
Dealing with accusation seems like a rigged game. Words are empty when you would really expect them to count. Fortunately, there are far better things to do than to defend yourself or justify yourself. Critics are not bad, but you should engage them on a level playing field.
Perhaps the most powerful story where we see how to deal with accusers is the story of Jesus standing trial before Herod, as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke.
“When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer.”
Jesus maintains a similar Stoic calm throughout his trial. He doesn’t speak up to justify himself. He acts nobly and speaks the truth, which only amounts to a few words throughout the course of his conversations with Herod and then the Roman governor Pilate.
In all of this conduct, we see Jesus successfully throwing back the criminality of the trial and the baselessness of the accusations against his accusers. He is ultimately killed, but even Pilate is unconvinced of his guilt by the end of the trial. Jesus succeeds in transcending accusation through action.
To paraphrase one saying from Jesus, wisdom is vindicated by the deeds of her children. Likewise, the wisdom, strength, or goodness of your character will be vindicated by your actions, not by your words.
If you are accused of lacking integrity, gain and deploy integrity in your decisions in ways that are undeniable even to your accusers.
If you are accused of immaturity, don’t defend yourself. Grow and use wisdom in ways that are undeniable even to your accusers.
If you are accused of lacking skill, or efficiency, or work ethic, don’t defend yourself. Just act. Become what you are not, use what you have, and let the accusations ring hollow. This is the way of people who don’t give up their power to critics.