How can the average citizen prepare themselves for having to speak to a hostile audience? The best people to answer these questions, of course, are politicians and former politicians, so I got Michael Dukakis, the three-term former governor of Massachusetts and the 1988 US Democratic presidential nominee, on the phone.
Don’t Be Morally Bankrupt
My words, not the governor’s.
Using US senator Marco Rubio's town hall meeting appearance earlier this year after the Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting as an example, what he said was: “If you take the position Rubio’s taking, don’t be surprised that people are angry. It’s a dumb position — it’s a disgraceful position.”
In other words, don’t defend the indefensible. If you’re going into a meeting or a forum, make sure you’re secure in your mission and your position — that it’s tenable and that you can live with yourself at the end of the day. If you know in your heart of hearts that you’re fundamentally in the wrong, the meeting is going to be that much more brutal.
In that case, the question becomes less “how can I survive this meeting” and more “how can I rethink my life?” Dukakis says, “If a guy like Rubio wants to defend this pro-gun position, then he shouldn’t be surprised that people are outraged. I’m outraged. Kids and parents and teachers are outraged.”
Be Prepared To Listen More Than You Talk
Assuming that you’re meeting in good faith — a big assumption, but stick with me — it’s better to listen to what other people have to say than simply assert your own position over and over again.
Ask questions, says Dukakis. “I wasn’t the world’s greatest listener when I started in politics. Over time you become a better listener, and you discover two things: One, listening is less tiring than talking, and two, you hear things from people — in many cases people who know a lot more than you do.”
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Have Some Answers
You know what the meeting’s about, and you likely know why your audience is pissed. If you’re the boss or otherwise in a leadership position, you need to be prepared with solutions. (This obviously goes double if you’re an elected official.)
Dukakis said, about the Parkland massacre and the town hall, “If a terrible thing has happened, and you don’t have some answers for these kids... don’t be surprised if people are angry. They want answers.”
Sometimes the hardest part about having a difficult conversation with someone is getting it started. If you need an extra nudge, reframing the conversation in your mind from a more positive perspective can help.
Enlist Your Audience’s Help in Problem-Solving
If you actually care about addressing your audience’s grievances and solving problems — again, a big if, but let’s assume you do — you need to work collaboratively.
Dukakis suggest a problem-solving task force. “[When I was governor], we never went down the policy road without putting together a working group of people who many times didn’t agree with each other when we started the process. But over time, it was amazing, in many of these cases, the consensus we could come to.”
If you’re in a professional setting that’s turned hostile, or a tense family situation, getting others’ buy-in to solve problems is critical. Dukakis is optimistic that, in most situations, there is more common ground than we think.
“The vast majority of us have many of the same views [and once we recognise that], we can then begin to work on solutions. How can you look at this [gun] situation and not be appalled? The answer is to sit down with folks and say ‘what do you think we should do? What’s reasonable? What would be effective?’”
He continues, “The great thing about being in a position of political responsibility is that you can do that. I don’t remember anybody who I asked to be part of these working groups who said ‘Screw you, governor, I don’t want to participate.’ Americans don’t do that. They want to solve problems.”
“If [Rubio didn’t do this], he made a serious mistake.” He pauses. “Of course, if you do do that, you’ve made a commitment to come up with some solutions.”