RESPONDING TO CRITICISM: LESSONS FROM THE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES
If you have been following this blog, you know that lately we have been working on becoming masters at dealing with criticism. One important lesson that we have focused in on is that in designing our response to a particular criticism it is crucial that we figure out why the person is criticizing us.
Let’s say, for example, that John, upon entering my home and noticing the TV show I’m watching, criticizes me, saying, “Jeff, you’re an idiot for watching this stupid comedy.” As he says this, I look at him and see from his eyes and the way he says it, that his comment is designed with the genuine hope I might make some improvement in my TV viewing habits. In that case, a reasonable reply to John’s criticism would be to say warmly, “I appreciate your concern, John. I think it does make some sense that I start thinking about how much time I spend watching lightweight shows.” Such a response would show John that I respect what he has to say enough that I’m willing to give it some real thought.
Now, what if John had used the exact same words to criticize me about the comedy show that I’m watching, but I notice that he has a twinkle in his eye and that he watches the same show. I put this together with the fact that I know John likes to playfully criticize people. Under this set of circumstances, a reasonable reply to John’s criticism would be to look directly into John’s eye, give him a light chuckle and then a nod of my head. This would show him that I can take a little kidding around without getting defensive, and that I appreciate his attempt at a little humor.
Just as it makes sense for us to figure out why someone is criticizing us in order to design the best way to respond to the criticism, it makes an equal amount of sense for the president and vice president, as they prepared for their debates, to try to figure out why their opponent in the debate might seek to criticize them.
President Obama versus Governor Romney
Perhaps the president, while preparing for the debate, thought, “My opponent will be criticizing me to convince other voters to vote for him.” But actually that thought would have been too imprecise. More likely, the president thought that his opponent was interested in convincing only a small group of voters to vote for him–those who were still undecided and lived in the “battleground states” such as Ohio and Florida.
An analysis of this group of voters indicated that they hate it when the candidates are nasty and uncivil against their opponents. As Ben Feller of the Associated Press wrote last night, “The danger for the aggressor is that both campaigns know the remaining undecided voters at home want answers for them, not partisan bickering.” And so, President Obama, understanding this, was friendly with his opponent, Governor Romney, and avoided personal attacks.
After the debate, many declared that the president lost the debate. And it is true that nationally, Governor Romney did get a clear bump from his debate performance. But according to Gail Collins of today’s New York Times, in the election-deciding battleground states that matter, most polls suggest the first presidential debate has not had a significant impact. The president had a lead before the debate, he wanted to avoid significantly damaging that lead, and he largely succeeded.
Vice President Biden versus
Now, in contrast to how President Obama acted toward his opponent in his debate, Vice President Joe Biden in his debate with Congressman Paul Ryan abandoned his boss’s caution. He called some of his opponent’s ideas “a bunch of malarkey,” repeatedly interrupted Ryan, and made smirks when he was speaking.
Furthermore, Biden derisively laughed at some of Ryan’s comments and waved his hands in disgust.
This raises the question, “Didn’t Biden want to influence the same group of voters that President Obama wanted to influence?”
Actually, it turns out that this was not an issue for Biden or his opponent. Authoritative analyses have indicated that vice presidential debates simply never influence the outcome of presidential elections. Given that, Biden properly should have asked himself, “Whenever Ryan criticizes me during the debate, what does he hope to achieve?” The most probable answer is that Ryan saw this as an opportunity to gain some respect as a leader in case he wants to run for the president in the future. With that in mind, according to Gail Collins, Biden “spent the entire run-up week listening to Democrats beg him not to be passive. It’s a wonder he didn’t run onto the stage and instantly bite Ryan on the ankle.”
It’s interesting that after the vice presidential debate polls indicate that about an equal number of people felt Biden won and Ryan won. My research indicates that when a typical person, let’s call her Mary Doe, criticizes another person, Mary would lose respect for the person she is criticizing if the person responded like Joe Biden did. And yet about half of those viewing the debate seemed OK about how Biden had acted. How can that be?
Keep in mind that viewers of the debate saw Biden not criticizing them, but rather, someone else. My guess is that some people who viewed the debate said to themselves, “If Biden responds to criticism from Ryan like the way he did, that’s how he would treat me if I ever criticized him.” These people probably ended up losing respect for Biden. Other people who viewed the debate focused in on the fact that they didn’t like Ryan’s answers and loved the fact that Biden had made it absolutely clear that he didn’t like Ryan’s answers as well. This group of people probably ended up respecting Biden even more. For this group of people, perhaps it never occurred to them that if Biden treated Ryan this way he could have just as easily treated them that way as well.
So there you have it, some lessons from the presidential debates. I hope the biggest lesson that you take from this is that to become a master at responding to criticism you would be wise to seek to figure out why someone is providing you the criticism. That can be a crucial guide to help you to design your response.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.