By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
It is the season for strong denials from powerful men in entertainment and politics. To pick just one from the crop of current examples, the U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama, former judge Roy Moore, has recently been accused of a number of inappropriate relationships when he was in his early thirties with girls who were as young as 14 years old. Predictably, Moore has denied it all, calling the accusations "completely false." Sometimes the better course is to admit what is true. The comedian, Louis CK, took that route recently by responding to reports of harassing behavior by saying, "These stories are true." But that, of course, depends on the facts. If it is true, you're taking away some of the punch by admitting it. But what if it's not? Whether we are in the public eye or part of litigation, how do we credibly deny what isn't true without it being dumped in the skeptical category of, "Well, of course he's denying it"? How do we escape the bubble of distrust that is created by the force of accusation alone?
It isn't easy and there are no automatic ways to make a denial sound truthful and not just defensive. At the same time, there are a few things to avoid and a few things to include whenever you are denying something that isn't true. This post will share a few thoughts about credible denials, and offer some practical suggestions that should differentiate the effective from the ineffective denial. And to provide more focus, let's use a running example of a products company that is accused of hiding negative test results.
Here are a few things to avoid. Broadly speaking, don't rely on...
The first impulse is to be as emphatic as possible. Roy Moore, for example, has called the accusations "unbelievable," and his supporters have added that they're the work of political opponents, including Satan. While there is a place for the emphatic denial, when the message is perceived as only emphasis, then it is predictable defensiveness. When the products company says, "We absolutely did not hide test results," that is okay, but there had better be more to it.
Roy Moore says the accusations against him are "very hurtful" to him personally. It is understandable, of course, for the target of an accusation to feel insulted if the accusation is false. But for that accusation to seem credibly false, then there needs to be substance behind the reaction. When the products company, for example, says "That accusation is an insult to the hardworking scientists and product developers that have worked for us for decades," a jury can be expected to internally reply, "Show us that it's false, and then and only then will we agree that it's an insult."
When asked directly whether he had "dated" girls in their teens when he was in his thirties, Roy Moore's response was, "Not generally, no." Naturally, everyone seized on that word, "generally." It doesn't win huge amounts of trust to say that one "generally" hasn't been a pedophile. Don't weasel. If the product company says, "As far as we're aware, there was no hiding of test results," the focus is going to be on the level of awareness, not on the honesty.
So what does it take to make denial credible? Ultimately it is a sustained campaign and not a single magic phrase. But there are a few common ingredients.
The most credible denials are those that are linked to...
This is the most important one: They hear your denial, but what reason do they have for believing it is honest? It goes beyond just the tone of communication, there has to be some support for it. In the case of the products company accused of hiding test results, it would help if the company has a central computer system where all research is logged. In that case, it would be impossible to hide results, and that's a good reason to believe the company's denial is accurate.
Focusing on the reasons to take a denial as honest often requires you to broaden the focus. What surrounding facts do we have that bear on the credibility of the denial? For the products company, that may require that fact finders have a more complete understanding of everything that goes into product development: What role does testing play? Who runs these tests? When are they conducted? How are the results stored and reported? How do the results influence product revisions? A complete flow chart of the full integrated process can make it less plausible that one step in the process could get buried without the other steps getting wind of it.
At a basic level, credibility is a statement about character. The question for the audience deciding whether the denial is truthful or not is whether you are the kind of person who would do the thing you're accused of, and whether you're the kind of person who would lie about it later. If there are trustworthy signs that the answer to those questions is "No," then that is a useful response. The products company, for example, can point to what underlies and motivates their testing program: An internal and external commitment to safety that demonstrably goes beyond mere words.
Ultimately, the answer to whether the denial is true or false can seem to be in a black box: We weren't there, and we can't know for sure. So one thing we will often do in those situations is look for external cues, and consistency is one of the biggest. If the denial has been consistent, or if the accusation has been inconsistent, then that helps the target. The products company, for example, can point out: "Every time the plaintiff has brought this up, we have consistently pointed out the transparency of the research process and the fact that there is no evidence that shows any hiding. And, it is hard to keep track of what we are actually being accused of hiding, since their explanation keeps shifting."
Even with all of this, it is probably inevitable that at some level at least, a denial is going to feel defensive even when that denial is absolutely true. Still, when your credibility is at stake, you'll want to use all the tools available.
Other Posts on Credibility:
- Guess You Had to be There (Prefer Present Witnesses Over Absent Ones)
- Don't Overthink Your CredibilityAssessments
- Smile (For Credibility and Affect)
Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license