Avoiding Indictment by Innuendo

A microphone
A microphone

When you go public with your opinions, you are apt at times to ruffle some feathers, intentionally or otherwise. Among the feather owners are chickens with large talons, and pointy beaks. They are likely to assault you -- be it on television, or Twitter -- with a fairly standard two-step method. Step 1 is the deft and veiled conversion of what should be a content-based exchange into an ad hominem attack. Step 2, in the service of step 1, is indictment by innuendo. This takes the form of such leading questions as: "So, Dave -- Isn't it time you stopped beating your wife?"

I have dealt with this -- on television, on Twitter, and elsewhere -- many times. I have some suggestions for how best to dodge these bullets should you ever find yourself in similar crosshairs.

1. Deserve to dodge the bullets. The primary strategy for avoiding indictment by innuendo is not to deserve indictment by any other means. Do good things, for only good reasons. We all care about money, for instance -- but whenever money becomes your primary motivator -- and this is true whether you have plenty or not nearly enough -- you are almost certainly paying more than you are earning.

2. Be forthright and transparent. I have cared for patients for 25 years, and heard many views on "defensive medicine," approaches to patient care less about the patient and more about the lawyers lurking in the shadows. I have always ignored such suggestions, and focused instead on what I considered the best defense: a good offense. In other words, I have always taken the best care I could of my patients, and ignored the threat of lawyers. I have told my patients what I knew, and what I didn't know; and why I thought we should do what I thought we should do. When I was uncertain, I said so; and I listened when they spoke, so I knew what mattered to them. This strategy has served me -- and more importantly, my patients -- well.

A similar approach is, I think, the best response to hostile innuendo. Address it with a robust dose of "Here's what I do and why I do it," and leave it to the jury.

3. The Admiral Nelson Approach: Go right at 'em. One effective response to any disingenuous question is the direct frontal assault. Meet it with: "That is a totally absurd question and an inexcusable way to start an interview about (whatever the topic is)." Just let that hang there, and say nothing further. The shoe is now on the other foot, and that foot is now in your antagonist's mouth.

4. The "I'm Rubber, You're Glue" Response. In the right context, and if you really feel like mixing it up, you might fight fire with fire and reply with the right variant on the theme of, "Well, Tim, isn't it time YOU stopped beating your wife?"

5. The Socratic Method. As you may recall from your long-ago interludes with Plato, Socrates never failed to answer a question with a question (it got annoying at times). In a difficult exchange, the method can be a highly effective shield. "Gee, Lance, are you actually implying I have ever beaten my wife?"

6. Don't give up your SOCO. If you have ever done any media training, you will have heard of the SOCO, the "single, overriding communication objective." In other words -- the thing you want to say. Politicians are the masters of this, and in my opinion, take it too far. They often blatantly ignore a question and talk about something else, while also ignoring the fact that they are ignoring the question (and often a perfectly good question), and presumably hoping none of us will notice. I recommend a more nuanced approach. By all means preserve your SOCO, but let the audience know that you know that they know that you are doing just that: "Tina, that's an odd question. What I'm really here to talk about is..."

As it turns out, certain chickens do have large talons -- and this being America, they probably also have guns. With the right choreography, however, you need never be a victim of -- well, fowl play. Deserve to dodge the bullets, and know how to dance.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP isn't 'The One,' but he did have chickens once. His wife, whom he has never beaten, approves this message.

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity