Source FastCompany : By JESSE SCINTO
If your job involves speaking to people, it’s bound to happen: You get called out for something you say. Maybe you’ve misspoken or made an innocent error. Maybe you voiced some provocative views. Maybe you’ve even offended someone.
The backlash can be swift and unnerving.
We saw this in Melania Trump’s recent plagiarism scandal. Critics scolded her for giving a convention speech that too closely resembled a previous speech of Michelle Obama’s. Her spokespeople denied the charges, suggesting it was mere coincidence. But those denials only added fuel to the fire, and they eventually had to admit that portions of the speech were inadvertently copied. By that time, though, the damage was done.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And while most instances aren’t this egregious, what we say in response to critics can shape the way people see us. Sometimes a good mea culpa goes a long way toward restoring a questioned or damaged reputation. The trick is knowing what to say when.
There are four ways to handle public criticism as a speaker: Avoid it, pivot, deny it, or own it. Each has its uses.
Avoiding it means refusing to confirm or deny your own words or actions. We’ve all heard people say, “No comment” or “I plead the Fifth” when confronted with unpleasant allegations.
This approach makes sense when there are legal concerns involved, but experts generally caution against avoidance. The reason is simple: If you don’t tell your side of the story, people are free to make up their own story about you, and it usually isn’t a good one. They assume you’re hiding something. Social psychologists call this tendency to malign others’ intentions the “fundamental attribution error.” It arises when people don’t have enough context or backstory to understand your actions or remarks.
Even when we feel we’ve done nothing wrong, avoidance cuts off the opportunity for further conversation, allowing grievances to fester. Addressing criticism outright is often the way to go.
Pivoting means switching the subject to one we’re more comfortable with. Politicians and pundits do this all the time, usually so they can deliver talking points they’ve planned and rehearsed.
There are advantages to pivoting. It helps speakers coordinate messaging, maintaining “discipline.” It also runs down the clock on hostile interviewers and helps control the agenda. Sometimes it reduces gaffes and unfortunate soundbites. The main drawback to this kind of subject-related pivot, though, is that alert listeners may think we’re skirting the issue—and assume we have an unspoken reason to.
There are, however, other pivots that are less risky and more useful. One is the pivot toward the future. Here we shift attention away from past failures and blame, focusing instead on possible solutions. Aristotle called this “deliberative rhetoric,” and conflict-resolution experts agree it’s the most fruitful approach for compromise and consensus.
The other pivot is one of perspective. We examine the problem from someone else’s point of view, even (and especially) if we disagree with them. Perspective pivots inherently privilege certain groups and interests—usually those who your critics may have objected you didn’t originally consider.
Denial is just what it sounds like: “I didn’t do what they say.” If you’ve really done nothing wrong, then go ahead and deny the accusations. If you can muster some righteous indignation, all the better.
One example of strong denial was NFL quarterback Peyton Manning’s response to charges last year that he used human-growth hormone. “It’s completely fabricated. Complete trash, garbage,” he told ESPN. “There are some more adjectives I’d like to be able to use, but it really makes me sick.” Strong emotion shows that you care, that you’re willing to stake your reputation on what you’re saying. It evokes sympathy.
Denials can be tricky because of how they’re framed, though. If we repeat the charges as leveled, using the same words, what sticks in people’s minds are thecharges, not the denial of them. For instance, when Richard Nixon famously averred, “I’m not a crook,” people remembered the “crook” part. A more positive framing would have been something like, “I’m a good citizen.”