Some communications lessons from the first US Presidential Debate

We are always keen observers of communications in politics and US politics in particular. Although the first US Presidential debate seems a long time ago given events since then, we wanted to capture some of the lessons we learned last week.

If you stayed up to watch it or watched the highlights the next day what was your reaction? For some it was disbelief, for others fury or hilarity? I personally found myself writhing around in sheer discomfort – especially watching the 7 minute ‘highlights’!

Regardless of your politics, any human being would have had an emotional response in some way to what they witnessed. We’ve been analysing the communication between the two candidates and the lack of respect shown between the two is remarkable. The debate went off the rails, the rules of debate were broken and there was weak moderation to bring it back on track. The result – an unbearable mess to watch.

Here are just a few sins made against the fundamental practice of humane communication:

  • The incessant interrupting and speaking over one another – Trump interrupted Biden 73 times!
  • Personal attacks and shaming –Trump berating Biden’s education and intelligence, Biden calling Trump a liar, a clown and the worst president America has ever seen.
  • The moderator being outright ignored in his interventions.
  • Shutting each other down – ‘will you shut up man?’

These aggressive tactics are a far cry from Michelle Obama’s ‘when they go low, we go high’ doctrine.

One reason that it was so painful to watch is that it tapped into an innate human need to be heard, to be understood, to be acknowledged as a fellow person. It was obvious that Joe Biden in particular was denied that right. It tapped into our inbuilt sense of empathy at injustice. We were able to relate to that feeling from our own experiences when we might have been ignored or berated in public which is what creates that emotional and physical reaction.

It is striking that the communication between two adults pitching to lead the most powerful country in the world could invoke such a primitive response in people. Given President Trump’s illness we don’t know what will happen with future debates. Whatever happens, let’s hope that the human right to be heard is not forgotten.