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What to Do When Your Audience Takes Offense

Address criticism outright to avoid later conflict.

By Jesse Scinto, MS, DTM


It was meant to be a fun activity for our club. At officer training one year, our president heard about something called a “backward” meeting, in which members go through the normal agenda but in reverse order. Closing remarks are given at the beginning of the meeting; the welcome message comes at the end. Evaluators deliver feedback pretending to have already heard the speeches. It keeps people on their toes. 

We decided to give it a try. Things went awry, however, when one member strongly objected, concerned that her prepared speech would get short shrift. She stormed out of the room, and we didn’t know if she’d be back.

In Toastmasters, we cherish our mutually supportive environment and the opportunity to learn and grow in a safe place. Mentors, evaluators and grammarians do their best to provide constructive feedback. Fellow members cheer each other on. Most of the time, things go without a hitch. But what happens when someone objects to something we’ve said or done? 

As we transfer skills from Toastmasters to the outside world, public criticism can come our way. Maybe we misspeak or make an innocent error. Maybe we hold a controversial view. Or maybe we offend someone. What we say next can shape the way people see us and determine the outcome. Sometimes a good mea culpa goes a long way to restoring trust. It helps to know our options. 

Public criticism can be handled in four ways: avoid it, pivot, deny it or own it. Each has its uses.


Avoid It

Avoidance means refusing to either confirm or deny our words or actions, like when people say “no comment” in response to criticism. This approach makes sense when there is a legal necessity involved, but reputation experts generally advise against avoidance. The reason is simple: If we don’t tell our side of a story, people will make up their own story about us, and it’s usually not a good one. They assume we’re hiding something. Social psychologists call this tendency to malign others’ intentions a “fundamental attribution error.” It arises when people don’t have enough context, or backstory, to understand our actions.

Even when we feel we’ve done nothing wrong, avoidance closes off opportunities for discussion and leaves aggrieved parties feeling unacknowledged. For these reasons, addressing criticism outright is often the way to go.


Pivot

Pivoting is when we switch to a more comfortable subject. Politicians and pundits do it all the time, usually so they can deliver talking points they’ve planned and rehearsed.

Pivoting has its advantages. It allows speakers to coordinate messaging and run down the clock on hostile interviewers. Sometimes it reduces gaffes and unfortunate soundbites. The main drawback to this kind of subject-related pivot is that alert listeners may recognize the avoidance of the issue.

Other kinds of pivots, however, are less risky and more useful. One is the pivot toward the future. Here attention is shifted away from past failures and blame, with a focus instead on possible solutions. Aristotle called this “deliberative rhetoric,” and conflict-resolution experts agree it’s the most fruitful arena for compromise and consensus. It can be as simple as asking, “How do we fix this?”

The other pivot is one of perspective—examining the problem from the viewpoint of a different set of stakeholders. For instance, in the case of the backward meeting, our president could have shifted focus from the individual member’s needs to the needs of the club as a whole. New activities help keep members engaged, which can lead to better attendance, stronger evaluations and more durable relationships. From this perspective, the backward meeting is a good thing.


Deny It

Denial is just how it sounds: “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.

A recent example of strong denial came from Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the ruling body of global soccer. Responding to corruption charges earlier this year, he said, “My enemies want to make me look greedy. I have not stolen anything. And everything that I have earned in my life has been thanks to work. I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth.” Strong emotion lets people know you’re willing to stake your reputation on what you’re saying. (Infantino was later cleared of wrongdoing.)

Framing, or word choice, is important in denials. If you repeat the charges, using the same words, what may stick in people’s minds are the charges, not the denial. 

For instance, in 1973, when United States President Richard Nixon famously said, “I’m not a crook,” people remembered the “crook” part. A more positive framing would be: “I’m a good citizen.”

If you really have done what people say, don’t publicly deny it. The truth may eventually be revealed, and when people find out you lied, they stop trusting. You lose your credibility and your ability to persuade—or even tell your story.

Instead, consider owning it.


Own It

Owning it means taking responsibility for your words and deeds, whether right or wrong, and saying you’re sorry if you’ve done something wrong. Audiences see an apology as a sign of good will. It shows you care enough about them to admit the harm you’ve caused. It’s often the only way to put things to rest.

Going a step further, owning it also means taking responsibility for how others interpret your words. It’s not just about what you say; it’s about what they hear. If you’re careless, you may unintentionally offend someone. Nothing alienates an audience more than feeling discounted or belittled. The only way to get them back on your side is to apologize for the unintended harm.

Finally, there’s a third type of owning it that has nothing to do with remorse. When you really think you’re in the right, owning it can mean standing by your position, no matter the consequences.

Politicians call this doubling down, as when President Obama responded to critics of Obamacare by proclaiming, “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 an opponents’ skin, so use it with care.

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 Amy Cuddy notes in her book Presence. It’s all about integrity.


Looking Back

Trying new activities was a priority for our club, and because of that our president decided to double down on the backward meeting instead of addressing the member’s concerns. We stayed true to our mission but we lost a member.

Was there another way to handle it? Perhaps. An apology and a perspective pivot may have smoothed things over. Audiences can be very forgiving when we admit our faults—especially in ¬≠Toastmasters. 




This article was adapted from one previously published in the July 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.