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 the charges, 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."
Of course, if you really have done what people say, then don’t publicly deny it. The truth so often comes to light, and when people find out you lied, they stop trusting you. You lose your credibility and ability to persuade—or even to tell your own story.
Instead, consider owning it.
Owning it means taking responsibility for our words and deeds, whether right or wrong.
If you've done something wrong, that means saying you're sorry. Audiences often interpret an apology as a sign of goodwill. It shows you care enough about them to admit the harm you’ve caused. And it’s often the only way to put things to rest.
Owning it also means taking responsibility not only for what we say but for what others hear. I learned this lesson from my graduate writing teacher, and as debate swirls this election cycle about the place of political correctness, it’s becoming more important than ever. Sometimes our words can be hurtful, even when it’s not our intention. We may think people are too sensitive, but nothing alienates people more than when they feel discounted or belittled. The only way to get them back on your side is to take responsibility and apologize for the unintended harm.
Finally, there’s a third type of owning it that has nothing to do with remorse. When we really think we’re in the right, owning it can mean standing by our position, no matter the consequences.
Politicians call this doubling down, like when President Obama responded to critics of Obamacare by saying, "I have no problem with people saying Obama cares. I do care. If the other side wants to be the folks who don’t care? That’s fine with me." Doubling down shows conviction and rallies support, but it can get under your opponents’ skin, so use it cautiously.
In each of these cases, the rhetorical power of owning it comes from the alignment between words and deeds. Influence researchers have found that when we demonstrate commitment and consistency, audiences perceive us as trustworthy, which enhances our reputation. Alignment between emotions and body language is also important, as Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy has noted. It’s all about having integrity—and communicating it.
If Melania Trump and her speechwriter had accepted responsibility for the lifted lines on day one, more people might have excused the error. Plenty of politicians have made similar mistakes. But we'll never know. People can be very forgiving when we admit our faults—and merciless when we don't.
Jesse Scinto is a lecturer in Columbia University’s graduate strategic communication programs, where he teaches media, public speaking, and persuasion. Follow him on Twitter at @jessescinto.