What to Do if Someone Says Something Untrue

By Sam Horn
Published on: July 9, 2021

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” – Don Draper

Did you ever watch the TV sitcom Friends? Remember the blonde, Phoebe? In one episode, she was complaining to Joey about something her brother had done.

Joey finally interrupts and asks, “Phoebe, have you told your brother how you feel?”

She pauses for a moment and then admits, “Well, not out loud!

Sound familiar? Is there someone in your life who’s being rude, hurtful or disrespectful?

Are you telling everyone BUT this person how you feel?

Are you laying in bed at night, rehashing what you wished you had said?

That doesn’t help. 

Yet that’s what many people do because they’re conflict averse. They don’t want an argument, or they’re afraid the person will get angry, so they suffer in silence. 

Unfortunately, silence makes things worse because it sanctions.

 If you’re not saying anything to someone who is behaving inappropriately; s/he assumes it must not bother you too much because you’re not speaking up about it.

As Jack Canfield says, “People treat us the way we teach them to treat us.”

When we “turn the other cheek,” we teach people it’s okay to be rude and crude.

We’re showing them we won’t hold them accountable.

We may think we’re avoiding ugliness. Unfortunately, we’re permitting and perpetuating it.

You have a voice. Use it. 

It’s time to say “No!” “Stop!” “Enough!” Or, “That’s out of line.”

The good news is, there are diplomatic ways to do this. Here’s a sample scenario.

Imagine someone likes to get a rise out of you with taunts like, “You women are SO emotional” or “You always get stressed out.” “Now, don’t get mad.”

If this person is senior to you, you may have felt it was too risky – it wasn’t your place – to let him/her know these passive-aggressive taunts are inappropriate.

Please recognize; it is your place to establish and enforce boundaries. 

As Ann Landers loved to say, “People can’t walk all over you unless you lie down.”

Here are a few Tongue Fu!® techniques you can use to respond when people are accusing you of something unfair, untrue, unkind.

1. Ask yourself if it’s better to address this in private or in public – now or later.

Calling someone out in front of others can cause them to lose face. They will resent you – even if what you’re saying is true. They may feel a compulsion to escalate in an effort to put you down so they’re back “on top.”

If this is an employee, it might be wise to take the person aside and say, “Do you realize how inappropriate that was?” Or, “Are you aware someone could file a grievance against you for saying something that’s (fill in the blank) sexist, racist, illegal, unethical?”

On the other hand, it may be better to interrupt the person in the moment and say, “Take that kind of language somewhere else.” Then, move the conversation to a different topic rather than waiting for them to counterattack with “Just kidding” or “Why are you so sensitive?!”

2. Do NOT disagree with negative or untrue accusations.

Denials backfire. Think about it. If you say, “We are NOT emotional!!” or “I am NOT getting stressed-out” or “I am NOT mad,” now you are.

Instead, put the conversational ball in their court by asking, “Why would you say something like that?” or “What makes you think that?”

Asking a question holds them accountable because they have to give an example of why they feel this way. If they can’t; they’ll often back off or back down.

If they have a legitimate reason for what they said, even if you don’t agree with it, at least you know what’s REALLY going on and you can address that vs. reacting to their attack.

For example, someone may say, “You don’t care about your customers” Refuting what they just said, “We do too!” will just result in a back-and-forth “No you don’t, yes we do” debate.

If you say, “What makes you say that?” they may say, “I’ve called three times and no one has called me back.” You now know what’s behind their complaint and you can apologize for no one returning their call and handle their request.

3. Repeat what they said as a question, emphasizing the offensive word. 

“Really? ALL women are emotional?” “I ALWAYS get stressed out?”

Repeating an over-statement as an incredulous question is one way to point out that what they said is an exaggeration. It requires them to give a specific, more accurate example of what actually happened instead of throwing around sweeping, baseless generalizations.

4. Change the conversation to something you DO want to be known for

If someone says, “Why are women so catty to each other?” and you react with, “We are NOT catty to each other,” you are arguing their point.

Instead change the conversation with, “Know what I’ve found? Women are really supportive of each other. My boss has been a real mentor to me,” or “I belong to an organization of women entrepreneurs and we actively recommend each other and refer each other business.”

Say what you want to go on record with instead of denying and unintentionally reinforcing false claims. Volunteer a more positive, proactive point of view instead of being coerced into contributing to someone’s offensive narrative.

Whatever you do, don’t pull a Phoebe. Responding IN YOUR HEAD helps no one.

From now, speak up in the moment when someone says or does something unacceptable.

Get clear that you treat other people with respect, and you hold them accountable for treating you with respect.

If we all agree to do this, we can create a more collaborative workplace, family and community where we’re giving and getting the respect we all want, need and deserve.

Sam Horn

Sam Horn

Sam is the founder and CEO at The Intrigue Agency and author of Got Your Attention? Her keynote addresses receive raves from Intel, Cisco, NASA, Accenture, Boeing, Capital One, and its why her work has been featured in the New York Times, Forbes, INC, and Fast Company.

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