Image Credit: © The NY Times
The purpose of this article is not to weigh in on the candidates or politics, but instead, to use the cringeworthy interrupting and mudslinging of the debates as an example of communication failure. The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was most notable for the fact that it was not actually a debate at all. Instead, it was on the one hand, a fight to get a word in, and on the other, an attempt to dominate and bully the opponent, and prevent the opponent from completing a thought. The number of interruptions and insults was hard to keep track of, but it boiled down to an all-time-low in “presidential” (if you could even call that) “debates” (if you could even call this an actual debate). I don’t think we need to revisit all of the instances where communication was at the level of a typical schoolyard tussle to understand how bad it was. The poor moderator got himself trampled in his futile attempts to moderate.
The VP debate, with Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, while much better in terms of composure and discourse, still suffered from the same problems. Pence interrupted Harris at least a dozen times and in doing so, distracted from the topics at hand. However, I will give credit to the fact that unlike the presidential debate, you could consider this one an actual civil debate. But although the interruptions were more subtle and less frequent, they still had the same effect of derailing the train of thought.
To be clear, it could be said that the purpose of interrupting is to dominate and gain control of a conversation at the cost of the conversation itself. It is a tactic that most people use without thinking about it, but the core motivation for interruption comes from a desperate need to be in the center of attention, disrespect for the person who is speaking, and disregarding everything they say. Instead, the interrupter anxiously feels they need to monopolize the conversation and “win” at all costs. Interrupting does not increase ones’ charisma in the eyes of others; in fact it diminishes it and therefore, somewhat ironically, devalues whatever the interruptor does say. The focus then becomes less on the topic at hand and more about the disrespect felt by all involved.
The debates also provided a glimpse, for men like myself, into what women and minorities often face at work. Twitter was rampant with commentary from women watching the debates. Comments such as how the moderator of the first presidential debate now knows the pain that women feel during meetings. Or how the same kind of forceful and aggressive behavior as observed coming from these men could manifest itself as a woman being called derogatory names. Or another being the lack of discussion surrounding issues that significantly affect women, people of color, transgender, nonbinary Americans, and other minorities.
As we witnessed, the moderators of the debates were struggling to reign in the interruptions. That’s why live AI-based technology and real-time engagement and metrics to accurately measure diversity and inclusion in communications are so important within the workplace. We observe and are exposed to discriminatory and misogynistic behaviors on a daily basis to the point that these same behaviors are adopted or become normalized when they need to be corrected. In addition to this, many of these behaviors are done unconsciously, and are so second nature, that oftentimes we’re not made aware of it leading to an undercurrent of toxicity at work.