While I was watching the president’s recent State of the Union address, I couldn’t help but think there was a subliminal pro-wrestling match going on between Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi. Their disdain for each other, which has been described all over the media (Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times says, “He declined to shake her outstretched hand. She omitted his ceremonial introduction and ripped up her copy of his speech”), was there for all to see. At first glance, it might just simply have been partisan politics on display or more likely a way for each of them to use the State of the Union to speak to their base.
Clearly, the president wanted to speak to the people who got him elected. He was shoring up their support, telling them they picked a winner…pick me again. Pelosi, who just a short while ago signed the impeachment papers, clearly did not want Trump in the room. It created drama, and it also taught us some lessons about communicating and remaining professional despite differences.
Here are three ways that what we saw that night highlights the need for more respectful and impactful communication:
1 – Management meetings matter. People are often in situations where there are conflicting viewpoints on what middle management should say to upper management (while we have three equal branches of government, clearly the role of the president is upper management). Some people may want to tear down recommendations by attacking a person’s ideas, or worse yet, the person who is making the suggestions. It’s a way of lifting someone up by tearing others down, which is not productive. I have found it more effective to listen to what the other side is saying, then suggest how I would approach it. It’s better than stepping over another person to push through your ideas and agenda. We should be influencers who effectively communicate to a decision maker while not diminishing our own reputation (think about Nancy Pelosi’s comments regarding the stunt of tearing the president’s speech. Besides, she has a net worth of $120 million, so you would think she could afford a paper shredder).
2 – Everything is visual. While people were amused or bewildered when speaker Pelosi tore up Trump’s speech at the end (Ledyard King and Christal Hayes report in USA Today that she told a reporter she did it “Because it was the courteous thing to do considering the alternatives”), it was an obvious visual for millions to see, and it got significant media attention. Just as interesting were the reactions from members of Congress: some were checking their phones or chewing gum, and some appeared totally disinterested, while on international television. Their reactions pretty much went against what I learned growing up: sit up straight, pay attention, and don’t chew gum. Whatever kind of behavior got attention that night, good or bad, it demonstrated that it is important to focus on what you are visually communicating. The president was able to verbally and visually share his ideas, while the members of Congress could only communicate through what people saw. When we are in a challenging situation, we also have to think about what we are showing people if we don’t have the option of using words.
3 – People tell stories, not speeches. Throughout the evening, the president talked about his accomplishments, as he was probably convincing people to reelect him. He told stories about children striving to achieve, or people who have sacrificed for the country or have significant accomplishments. He didn’t just discuss these important points; he told interesting stories about them. A highlight for me was when he was talking about the sacrifice of a wife and her children because their father is in the Army, and they have not seen him in months. Then, to the surprise of his family and the entire audience at the Capitol and around the world, the president brought the soldier into the room. Everyone applauded, even Trump’s opponents. It was an incredible emotional moment as part of a story that had a sad beginning with a happy ending. Creating stories like that as part of a powerful presentation can make everyone cheer, no matter how people feel about the presenter’s position.
Each of us will always have our own bias when presenting our ideas, talking about politics, running a business, or dealing with workplace issues. It does not matter if our activities are local or international, big or small; it is vital that we are perceived in the best light. Our reputation can be affected if we do not consider how our actions affect others’ perceptions of us.