Verbal sparring 101: Acts of extreme self-flagellation are very useful

At the end of the previous school year, a colleague was upset with me for my failure to strictly comply to a policy related to her department. When she called to discuss this issue, one of my students answered the telephone, and because I was in the middle of a lesson, I told the student to take a message. The colleague insisted that she speak with me, so I instructed my student to hang up on her. Nothing comes between me and a good math lesson.

As you might expect, my colleague was exceptionally angry and with good reason. I knew that she would be calling back at some point, so I carefully planned my defense.

When she called back the next day at lunch time, I was ready. Before she could speak, I launched into an explanation about how I was entirely at fault in this situation and accepted full blame. I went on to describe myself as an awful, inappropriate, unprofessional, disrespectful  person who didn’t deserved to be treated with a even a modicum of respect. I said that I was a bad person, a bad teacher, and a terrible role model for my students. I went on and on for a full five minutes, finding new and creative means of self-flagellation, until my colleague was forced to interject and defend me against myself.


“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You’re an amazing teacher. Your kids love you.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not. The way I treated you in this situation makes that obvious. I’m despicable.”

“This isn’t a big deal, Matt. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

We went back and forth for a while. I insisted that I was a rotten person. She insisted that I was making a big deal out of nothing. I offered enormous and outrageous concessions. She refused each one, insisting that no concessions were required.

In the end, my colleague never had the opportunity to lodge a single complaint about me. She never expressed a single negative emotion. She spent the entire phone call insisting that I was a good person and a great teacher.

When you can force your detractor into defend you against yourself, you have won the day.