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A Clear (Deniable) Message

I was struck by parts of an article in Sunday’s New York Times about the firing of David C. Iglesias, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico. Iglesias is among several U.S. Attorneys the Department of Justice has fired in recent months and the story has been widely reported. This article had to do with the pressures that were brought to bear on Iglesias by some of his former political patrons including New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. An excerpt follows:

“Are these going to be filed before November?” the senator asked, referring to charges in the courthouse case, Mr. Iglesias said. “And I said I didn’t think so. And to which he replied, ‘I’m very sorry to hear that.’ And then the line went dead.”

Mr. Iglesias said the message was clear. “I felt leaned on,” he testified to the Senate this month. “I felt pressured to get these matters moving.”

Mr. Domenici has apologized for making the call. “However, at no time in that conversation or any other conversation with Mr. Iglesias did I ever tell him what course of action I thought he should take on any legal matter,” he said in a statement. “I have never pressured him nor threatened him in any way.”

Yeah, right.

The fact is that nonverbal communication—how we say what we say—is extraordinarily rich in meaning. It is what makes spoken language differ so profoundly from written language. In writing, the meaning is in the words on the page. We might underline or italicize or use punctuation to emphasize certain words to steer readers toward a particular meaning. When we write, we are (or should be) mindful that others may also read it so other opinions as to the meaning can be garnered.

When we speak, however, we shape our words by assuming a particular tone and style of delivery. We intend to influence perception by using these strategies; sometimes we are successful and sometimes we are not. Furthermore, once the words have left our lips, there is no retrieving them. There is also no record of them (most often) so there is no way to review. And, if they are spoken in private, as in the case of the conversation between Senator Domenici and Mr. Iglesias, no opportunity to get a second opinion. There is no evidence.

Which brings us to the issue of deniability. We have all had the experience of being spoken to in a way that sends a clear message that is not contained in the words alone. Then, when we become confused about or question the meaning of the words, the speaker, who has had time to reconsider, backtracks or flat-out denies that what you heard was what he or she said. Interestingly, deniability does have its place in the communication landscape functioning as a kind of escape hatch. We all say things from time to time we wish we hadn’t and being able to deny meaning can serve to prevent many unimportant or passing conflicts from escalating (children are masters of this skill). But it can also function in the other direction and this poses a real danger. For example, if a person consistently makes nonverbal threats but then is able to deny them, trust is eroded and the working relationship (or any relationship) is doomed.

David C. Iglesias said he felt leaned on. Senator Domenici said he never pressured him. Iglesias did not do what he felt Senator Domenici and others wanted him to do on a particular case. Iglesias, who, like all other U.S. Attorneys, serves at the pleasure of the President, was fired.

So who got it right? Iglesias, who said the (nonverbal) message was clear or Domenici, who denied there was any such message. I know whom I believe.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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