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5 Ways Deal With Character Assassination (Backed By Science)

Character Assassination is pervasive regardless of what your career or life is like. If you have been attacked, you will want to apply the image repair strategies from science below. If you haven’t been attacked, but you want to prepare, try using the inoculation theory strategies covered in the second section. Finally, we wrap everything up with specific techniques you can use to defend yourself.

What Are Image Repair Strategies?

Image repair is a strategy for fixing your reputation after or during a character attack. There are 5 categories of strategies used to repair your image.

  1. Denial: if accused of a character trait or other negative act, you can just deny that it happened or point the blame towards the person who is actually responsible.
  2. Evading Responsibility: Sometimes a character attack has some truth to it. If so, you can show that the act was justified because it was in response to something done to you. You could also show that you didn’t have control over what happened or that you lacked knowledge. Finally you can suggest that you had good intentions despite how everything turned out.
  3. Reducing Offensiveness: There are size ways to reduce a character assassination’s offensiveness. You can remind people of your previous good acts, minimize the seriousness of what happened, point out a more offensive trait or act to differentiate, reframe the event in terms of a greater context, attack the accuser’s credibility or memory, or compensate victims. Admitting to your imperfection combined with reframing the event in terms of the greater context is a very effective technique if you already have the people’s confidence.
  4. Corrective Action: This means either promising to prevent events like that in the future, or promising to fix the problem. Companies frequently use this strategy to nullify attacks.
  5. Mortification: This is the final strategy and typically is only used as a last resort. Admit responsibility and ask for forgiveness. It should be noted that often this strategy can take the wind out of an attacker’s sail. Sometimes they don’t have any other critiques of you so by admitting to it you remove their only attack point. This is especially effective if the attack focuses on an element of your character that isn’t important for your position.

What Is Inoculation Theory?

Think of inoculation just like a vaccine. To inoculate someone against a character attack, you simply present smaller forms of the attack to the person with counter arguments. Then when a character attack happens, the person is prepared with responses. Keep in mind that inoculation decreases over time so you might need to repeat it every so often. Here are some key components to inoculating people.

  1. First is a threat. The recipient must recognize that there is some level of threat or they will feel no reason to take the information seriously. Simply warning a group of an attack can be an effective strategy by itself. To effectively point out a threat, study what the person values and show how allowing the attack threatens their values. See also WIIFM. This is what reptile theory, a method used by trial lawyers focuses on.
  2. Second is refutational preemption. This is when a person’s mind comes up with counter arguments because of the threat. This step comes naturally if you performed step 1 well enough. You might also give the person counter arguments of your own. Frame the counter argument in such a way as they think they thought of the idea themselves. “You mentioned something that applies in this situation.”
  3. Third is delay. The science is still debating this element. Some think delay makes inoculation weaker while others think it makes the counter arguments stronger.
  4. Finally is involvement. An individual must have personal involvement with an issue or they will not begin the inoculation process. This is similar to step 1.

Techniques For Dealing With Character Assassination

  1. Muddying the water. Also called whataboutism or tu quoque, muddying the water is a way of diluting your attacker’s argument. You simply point out that the accuser has the same character flaws they are accusing you of. For example, if they accuse you of exaggerating, point out a time where they exaggerated a requirement, experience, or complaint. This strategy often causes people to revert back to what their original perception of the two people was. If they can’t make a definitive determination of who is right and who is at fault, people go back to their gut feelings on the topic. This technique can also employ fast and large volumes of information in a hope to overwhelm the recipient.
  2. Us vs Them rhetoric. This strategy works well because it frames the attacker as an enemy. If you can convince people that the attacker isn’t like them, you can typically convince people that the attack is just something typical that an enemy of your cause would do. If you pull this frame shift off, the character attack will backfire and potentially make your support stronger. Make the attacker appear different from your in group.
  3. Draw out the person’s argument. This can be effective if the individual doesn’t have a solid argument. By simply asking them to explain themselves you open up opportunities to attack. If you are particularly confident this strategy can be used in front of an audience. You can also combine this with a two part argument. Two part arguments address the opponent’s argument as well as your own. Studies have shown that arguments like this work better than arguments that only discuss one side. Remember to show how the other side is wrong.
  4. A particularly effective technique is to inoculate people to your attacker’s arguments with thinking patterns. Instead of telling people facts that prove you don’t have certain characteristics, you teach them thinking patterns that will help them come to those facts on their own. For example, you might guess that an attacker would criticize you in the future for not being dedicated to the company. Instead of stopping this by telling people all the times you worked extra or passed up opportunities, use questions to lead them to those conclusions. Try “how many hours do I work compared to other employees,” or “is there anyone who has been at the company longer than I have besides the owner?”
  5. Forewarning is a strategy where you predict that manipulation is coming in the future. This makes people sensitive to trickery and deception. In a 1990 Texas Gubernatorial race, one politician said of the other “If his lips are moving he may be lying.” (See Dirty Politics).
  6. Reframing takes an event that could seem negative and shows how it is actually positive. For example one politician argued that refusing to shake hands with his opponent was actually an act of honor. He argued that integrity meant you don’t shake hands with individuals that display bad morals. (See Dirty Politics).

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