If you’ve ever witnessed our Emotional Inquiry® research, you’ve seen that when respondents share certain subtle cues with us, Brandtrust®ers sit up and take notice. When someone shifts from speaking about a memory in the past to using the present tense, we prick up our ears. We know this means that the subject of our study has gone from recounting a remembered story to actually reliving an experience as though they were once again in that moment. This is usually a very good sign in our quest to uncover deep truths!
The Hunt for Deep Truths
When a respondent that was telling a story which was flowing smoothly and eloquently suddenly begins to stutter, stumble and give us lots of ummmms, we rub our hands together with delight. Or, when the research subject who was formerly sprawled, half prone, limbs loose, suddenly begins to tense and fidget in their chair, we will grin at each other in anticipation. What this means, we will whisper to each other in the darkened back room of the research facility, our eyes sparkling with delight, is that our respondent is very close to revealing something. They are trying to guard themselves or wriggle away because an insight may well be near.
But nothing, nothing at all, makes us lick our chops like hearing an unsolicited denial. An unsolicited denial is when someone being interviewed spontaneously refutes a statement that was never made. A classic example is when someone says, “It’s not like I was feeling guilty or anything,” when feelings of guilt were not any part of the previous discussion. Where did the guilt in that statement come from? From within! Another personal favorite of mine is, “It’s not like I cared what they thought about me.”
The thing about unsolicited denials that gets us so excited is that they are signposts that point towards the truth. If you don’t care what people think about you, then why did you bring it up? When a person says, “It’s not like…” that means, instead, “It definitely could be like…” We are now sniffing down the trail of truths that may have previously evaded us.
These Truths Are NOT Self-Evident
In all of these examples, it’s not garden variety truths that we’re looking for, that are easy to uncover, if not already self-evident. I’m talking instead about the slippery stuff. I don’t mean behaviors that can be directly observed, such as, “I start each morning by making my family breakfast.” Rather, what I’m talking about are the truths that help us understand the underlying reasons behind specific behaviors, such as, “When I make my family breakfast, I include certain unchanging elements that allow me to feel closer to my dead mother.” To be clear, we’re not trying to get people to reveal the deep, dark, private secrets that they’d rather not share. No skeletons, please! But there are lots of reasons why people do what they do that they are not consciously aware of. When we hear an unsolicited denial, we know we’re probably closing in on one.
I’m a little apprehensive to share the incident that brought this topic to mind, not that I care what you think, but it’s really the best example I can produce. I was talking to a Brandtrust® colleague a few days ago, bemoaning a less than productive afternoon I had wasted, I mean spent, earlier in the week. I said to her, “I mean, I was sitting at my computer the whole time. It’s not like I was in front of the TV, watching soap operas.” After the conversation ended, I shuddered to think that my colleague, well-versed in the Brandtrust® view of the world, would think I had actually watched TV, because I had denied doing so. For the record, my statement was completely, literally true. I was NOT watching TV of any kind. Not soap operas. Not game shows. Not even the Food Network.
Caught In My Own Trap
Why then had I said what I said? The insight for me, and maybe for you, is that you should pay attention to an unsolicited denial, but not take it literally. Unsolicited denials point to emotional conflict, and I was feeling as guilty about my lack of productivity as if I had completely given up on my work and gone off to sit, slack-jawed, in front of the flickering, blue, zombie-maker. That is the more interesting truth that my unsolicited denial showed, not what I was actually doing in front of my computer (which could maybe have involved reading marketing blogs and poking around at zappos.com).
The discomfort that prompts an unsolicited denial is a signpost that we’re drawing close to something that matters, maybe even matters a lot. But it’s really important to understand that unsolicited denials aren’t always perfectly transparent, completely reliable flashes of truth. I certainly forget this myself. These denials live in the inexact realm of Psychology, not the clear-cut world of Mathematics. Don’t think of an unsolicited denial as an X marking the precise location of the treasure on an explorer’s map. Instead, think of it as the map’s vague pronouncement that, off to left and in the middle of an ocean, “here be dragons.”