by Steve Adubato, PhD
There are a lot of denials in the headlines. Congressman Gary Condit is denying that he had anything to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance. Before that, he said he "never" was romantically involved with her. Lizzie Grubman, a New York PR executive, is denying that she intentionally drove her SUV into a crowd of people at a Long Island night club injuring 16 people.
Did Gary Condit have anything to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance? Did Lizzie Grubman intentionally drive her car into that crowd? Who knows for sure, yet clearly the majority of people believe that either or both of these current media targets are communicating in a less than candid fashion. In virtually every situation I have found that up front, honest and direct communication is usually the most effective approach. It clears the air and allows you to move on even if there is some pain in the process. This is not only true in high profile media cases but also in our every day professional and personal lives.
However, the question remains, what do you do when you have been accused of doing something you actually didn't do? This happens all the time. It happens with kids ("Why did you hit your little sister?"), in school ("Did you cheat on that test?") and in work ("Why did you mess up this project?"). When we are inaccurately accused of something, our first reaction is to communicate our innocence by emphatically denying the charge; "I'm NOT controlling. Really, I'm not."; "I am NOT a self centered person."; "I am NOT manipulative."; "Our company did NOT engage in price fixing and collusion."
Among the more infamous denials came from Richard Nixon; "I am NOT a crook." And what about the then 26-year-old model Anna Nicole Smith who married an 89 year-old auto tycoon but insisted "I did not marry him for his money"? Did you believe her?
The problem with denials, regardless of whether you are innocent or not, is that when we repeat the negative charge in our denial, most people can't or don't actually hear the denial. All that registers is the repetition of the negative accusation. When Richard Nixon publicly declared that he was not a crook, most American's associated Nixon with the word crook. The more emphatic the denial, often the more likely we are to repeat the charge. ("I repeat, we do NOT treat our customers like numbers.") In business or in our personal lives, in terms of human dynamics denials are a communication trap to be avoided.
Communication is not an exact science. Our words are often interpreted in ways we never intended. When a company executive casually says at a Chamber of Commerce reception, "No, we don't plan any layoffs," what happens? By the time the rumor mill or "telephone game" get played out, employees at the company are standing around the water cooler talking about when the layoffs might start and how many people are going to get canned. All this from an executive's denial that no layoffs were planned.
Regardless of the venue, the key is to become more aware of how to respond to an inaccurate accusation or charge. Some simple but effective phrases include, "That's just not true" or "I'm sorry you feel that way, but that's just not the way it is." If you notice, these phrases make it clear that you don't accept the premise of someone's charge, without you actually repeating the charge itself.
This isn't about playing games with words or manipulating other people. Rather, it is about understanding the way the communication game actually works and how perceptions are fostered. Effective communicators understand this and communicate accordingly. Remember that next time you are accused of something you know you didn't do. How did you handle the last time you were accused of something? Write to me.