By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Everyone loves a second act. In the buildup to the presidential debate on Tuesday, President Obama's supporters were hoping for turnaround from what was widely described as a lackluster performance in the first debate: He needed to find his edge, fight harder, and call out his opponent Mitt Romney more often and more forcefully. One could almost hear the cheerleaders, "Be...Aggressive...Be...Be...Aggressive!" And there is no doubt Romney supporters were chanting the same, betting that their candidate could continue to capitalize on a stronger than expected performance that has buoyed him in the polls leading up to next month's election.
But there was one practical obstacle for both candidates: The "town hall" format that involved questions being asked not by a moderator, but by a cross section of New York area citizens selected by the Gallup organization. Both candidates needed to come out swinging, but especially in the live presence of undecided voters, they needed to find a way to do so without looking disrespectful or rude. In other words, the candidates experience the same conflict that every attorney faces in the courtroom: the need to attack without losing credibility, to unsparingly criticize an adversary while still maintaining an image that is respectful, professional, and courteous. In that context, one wonders whether the need is really for aggressiveness -- for attorneys or political debaters -- or whether it is for assertiveness. The two are close cousins to be sure, and at times the difference can be in the eye of the beholder. But in this post, I will draw from three specific vignettes from the debate to see if we can separate the two.
Aggressiveness or Assertiveness: What's the Difference?
Just to get a sense of why it matters to politicians, lawyers, and others who seek to persuade, let's take a look at a recent study that - based on the title at least - you might not be inclined to just pick up and read: "The Two Pathways to Being an (Un-)Popular Narcissist." That's fitting, based on the tendency for politicians, and maybe some trial lawyers too, to be a little narcissistic, enduring the pressure and criticism in exchange for the attention and the power. Looking into the difference between the positive and negative versions of narcissists that have been seen in the many studies (they're either charismatic and admired or irritating and reviled), a group of German researchers found that the difference comes down to which of two paths these narcissists chose to take in communicating with others. As extroverts, narcissists -- like some politicians and lawyers - in some circumstances take an assertive route (commanding and expressive behaviors), and in other circumstances take an aggressive route (combative, condescending or arrogant behaviors). In two studies, the team discovered an individual's popularity or unpopularity during a group exercise varied not based on their level of narcissism itself, but according to viewers' ratings of the behaviors as either aggressive (unpopular) or assertive (popular).
This sums up one of the more central needs of politicians, as well as trial lawyers: To be commanding and expressive without being combative or arrogant. And whether we see an individual as narcissistic or not, it makes sense to apply these conclusions not just to a defined personality type, but to a communication situation. Whenever presenting oneself to the public, or standing in front of a jury, advocates can choose to project assertiveness and avoid aggressiveness. The definition of assertiveness versus aggressiveness tends to be subjective, but we know it when we see it. The German researchers' list isn't a bad starting point: The difference is between being commanding and expressive (assertive), and being combative, condescending or arrogant (aggressive). And that takes us to the second presidential debate. A few moments are worth reviewing to note where advocates can choose a better or a worse path.
Binders Full of Women: Don't Risk the Perception of Condescension
If Big Bird was all the rage after the first debate, after Tuesday's debate it has been all about Mitt Romney's references to the "binders full of women" he reviewed as Governor of Massachusetts in selecting his diverse cabinet. To be fair, his basic point was one that both Democrats and Republicans should embrace: Search actively and employ flexibility to make sure your team is diverse because there are important benefits to that diversity. The problem was that the way he stated it was inartful at best. After describing his goal to diversify his cabinet picks he said, "I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of — of women." In the day after the debate, that version was questioned by those same women's groups, noting that the initiative, along with the binders, came from the women's groups, not the governor. But setting that aside, the description still conveys a spirit of tokenism - the fungible "women" who can be simply pulled from binders and inserted into staff positions. Then Romney went further, using the story of accommodating his chief of staff who needed to be home at a reasonable hour so she could be "making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school." And again, at an individual level for his chief of staff, that is probably reasonable, accurate, and fair. But used as a general example and a response to the original question focusing on pay equality, it plays easily to the stereotype of women's incomplete work life and gendered roles in the home, the very stereotypes used to justify unequal pay in the first place.
Not surprisingly, the comments were viewed by many, including women's groups, as condescending, dated, and out of touch. The perception of being talked down to blunts assertiveness, and even as it doesn't contain the hostility we normally associate with aggressiveness, it nonetheless reinforces the notion of a speaker's superior position that lies at the core of the dark side of narcissism. As we've written before, persuaders, including attorneys, have a strong need to assess their message and avoid both the reality and the appearance of condescension.
Labeling Libyan Terrorism: Make Sure You've Got Your Facts Straight
Responding to a question on the attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including our Ambassador, Romney went on the attack. "It was a terrorist attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people." Obama responded that, "the day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going go find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror." Thinking that he had the President in a lie, Romney took aim, "I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the President 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror." "Get the transcript," Obama responds, but moderator Candy Crowley didn't need it, saying to Romney, "He did call it an act of terror," but then to be fair, she clarified what should have been Romney's larger point, "it did as well take two weeks or so for this whole idea of there being a riot about this tape to come out. You are correct about that." Romney could have left it at that, but he returned to his original point saying "It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act" then questioning himself, "am I incorrect in that regard?" Turns out he was. The transcript of the President's remarks the day after the attack confirms that Candy Crowley and the President were correct. The mistake obscured what, for Romney, would have been the better argument about the misleading information on the attacks being due to spontaneous demonstrations over a YouTube video.
In this case, an aggressive swipe was answered by an assertive command of the facts. The moral here is as obvious as it is difficult to put into practice: Especially when you are on the attack, be factually correct about everything. The smaller inaccuracy will overcome the larger point every time.
Forty Seven Percent: Pick Your Moments
One of many criticisms of the President after his first debate was that he failed to mention what had been the campaign's sharpest weapon in recent weeks: the secretly recorded comments about the "47 percent" who "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them..." leading up to "so my job is not to worry about those people - I'll never convince them that they should take responsibility and care for their lives." While Obama's campaign had been pounding the challenger's campaign in advertisements, it went unaddressed in their first meeting, perhaps because Obama wanted to personally take the high road, or more cynically, because he wanted to deprive Romney of the opportunity to make a high profile response. On Tuesday, however, the 47 percent did get its mention.
"I believe Governor Romney is a good man, loves his family, cares about his faith," he started out genially enough, "But I also believe that when he said, behind closed doors, that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about." He went on to mention those receiving social security, veterans, students, and people with incomes low enough that they pay substantial payroll and sales tax, but not income tax. The critical point may have been the timing of these remarks. By coin toss, Obama was speaking last, so he saved those statements for the very end of the debate when Romney would not be able to respond. Of course, Romney had already responded saying he "cares about 100 percent of the American people" and returning to that "100 percent" figure three additional times in the debate. Still, the President strategically chose his moment for that one. He not only preceded it with a compliment to blunt the aggressiveness, but also left that message hanging in the air as the debate closed.
By thinking about examples like these, advocates can learn a fair amount about how to strike the balance: to seize the assertive high ground without being seen as taking the aggressive low road. A rough checklist for advocates in making sure they're on the right side of that line would include the following:
- Am I on firm, clear, and accurate ground?
- In attacking, have I communicated understanding and respect for the other party?
- Is my verbal and nonverbal tone consistent with that respect?
- Have I positioned the attack in such a way that a fair and reasonable audience should care about it?
- Will I still end up ahead once the other side responds?
The 2012 Presidential Debate Series:
Other Posts on Persuasion in the Public Sphere:
- Beware of the Jury's "Filter Bubble"
- Address Fundamental Skepticism on Rule of Law
- Become a Two Minute Expert: Robert Reich Explains What's Wrong With the Economy
____________________Küfner AC, Nestler S, & Back MD (2012). The Two Pathways to Being an (Un-)Popular Narcissist. Journal of personality PMID: 22583074
Image Credit: The Other 98%, Facebook Share on 10/17/12.