Fighting Back

Picture the following scenario:  You are in a meeting.  Your boss and her boss are both present.  During your presentation one of your peers begins to attack your basic thesis, aggressively calling into question everything you’ve spent months working on.

How should you respond?

  1. Do you passively accept the criticisms, permitting the peer to score his points without opposition?
  2. Do you calmly try to explain to the peer (and the rest of the audience) that he is “mistaken?”
  3. Do you aggressively defend your work, pointing out how foolish the comments of your peer really are, and even lob a few criticisms back his direction?
  4. Do you lose your cool and start shouting down your opponent while still (loosely) relying on logical arguments?
  5. Or do you dispense with logic and just start cursing and throwing things?

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It’s a fight, not a debate

Normally, I’d recommend a calm, cool, and collected approach, but when someone is clearly going after you in a public setting, the gloves need to come off.

In my experience, option 4 is your best bet, with option 3 a close second.  Options 1,2, and 5 should be avoided.  In fact, if you can only manage to muster an Option 1 or 2 response, I suggest you immediately halt your presentation and sit down, demanding that “someone” get the hyper-critical commentary under control before you’ll continue.

Why would I (a normally passive and logic-driven person) advocate such an aggressive approach?

Because it’s a fight, not a debate.

In a fight, you need to rely on street smarts rather than logic, on trench warfare rather than scoring intellectual victories.

Everyone in the audience will quickly recognize the attack for what it is – an attack.  In my experience, the presenter is often the last to realize what is happening, focused as she may be on trying to get her point across.  By the time you’re aware someone is gunning for you, everyone in the audience will likely be waiting to see how you’ll respond.

And most people will respect a fighter more than a victim.

In one such instance, a subordinate of mine was attacked by a peer in one of our staff meetings – the subject:  When we should hold a large distributor meeting.  The attacker had “laid in the weeds, waiting” while his opponent made plans, raising objections only at the last minute.

The target was initially on the defensive, trying to justify why the meeting should be held as originally scheduled.  It wasn’t until he returned the attack – accusing his tormentor of intentionally trying to undermine him with his sleezy tactic – that I ended up interceding.  In the end, the attacker did far more damage to himself by launching this offensive, while my respect for his victim actually increased.

It really doesn’t matter who’s lobbing the grenades

A peer-based attack is the most common, but I’ve seen plenty of instances where the attacker was a subordinate (usually of someone else in the room, not the person presenting), or a superior (often from another chain of command, but sometimes the presenter’s own boss).  No matter who is attacking, an aggressive push back is warranted.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. People respect a person that is willing to defend themselves (think of all those schoolyard bully films and the appeal when the victim fights back).
  2. Future attacks are discouraged when you respond aggressively.
  3. Most organizations value your passionate commitment to your values, beliefs, and opinions.  You’ll be demonstrating that with a retaliatory strike.

There are a couple of notable exceptions to this rule, and even then I still recommend toning down your response only slightly.

  1. If your attacker is the most senior person in the room, you might want to back off a bit.  There’s no need to make this person an enemy when there is no one present of equal or greater organizational power as an offset.
  2. If your attacker is a low level flunky that is acting more out of stupidity than craft.  No one likes a bully, and under these circumstances you’d be in danger of looking like one even though you didn’t launch the attack.

I once witnessed the CEO of one of my employers assert during a meeting that “we’ve never done a good acquisition.”  The VP of Corporate Development, who was sitting in the audience, felt he was being directly attacked (I don’t think that was the intention of the critique, but I can see why he felt this way).  He responded by angrily asking “What about X?” and “How about Y?”  Eventually this lead to the making of list of successful and unsuccessful deals done over a span of many years.

As it turned out, the VP was right – there were a number of very successful acquisitions.  In addition to proving his point, the stock of the VP went up in the eyes of everyone in the room – it took a lot of guts to stand up to the CEO.

In that instance, the VP did “tone it down a bit” in recognition of the fact that he was going up against the top dog.  But not too much.  Backing off more would have seemed like a concession, one he wasn’t (and shouldn’t have been) willing to make.

It comes from the gut, not the head

I personally have always found responding to be tough when it comes to fights.  I don’t like confrontations, and rely almost exclusively on logic and persuasion to get what I need/want.  Generating and focusing the emotional energy needed for a battle, without becoming flustered, is something I find difficult.

Case in point:  In a senior management retreat, I was on the stage for more than an hour taking a grilling from one of my peers before I finally began to lose my cool.

It was too little, too late.  In retrospect, I would have been infinitely better off aggressively pushing back from the beginning, rather than allowing the extended torture session to continue.

One additional thing I learned in that instance – it is much easier to criticize someone else’s work than to advocate your own solutions.  My approach should have been to demand the critic advance his own recommended solutions and then shot them down myself.  Under such circumstances, I would have at least had a chance to bring everyone back to the ideas I was trying to advance.

Like most people, the details of that particular failure roll around in my mind as I think of all the ways I could have handled it differently.  Almost all of those afterthoughts begin with a much more aggressive response to my opponents.


When confronted with a battle, there is no glory in a passive approach.  Cast yourself as bravely fighting back against an unfair bully, and you won’t go too far wrong.  33.3

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To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, concerned about how a "deal" the company is negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, things are not exactly as it seems....

 My novels are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.  Most were inspired by real events.