By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
Two friends started bickering last night and I realised it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
It was an old and well-worn pattern of communication. That favourite track on a Vinyl LP worn deep in a groove. Their disagreement wasn’t about the topic at all, it was a deeper emotional wound.
It sparked my anxiety because there was alcohol involved and I felt it might end in violence. Ghosts of Christmas past. So it got me thinking about the social survival techniques I’ve used in sticky moments.
As family and friends come together after a two-year Covid-enforced absence this ‘festive’ season will be particularly fraught. A heady cocktail of old arguments, old pain and a world of frustration luring you to the rocks with an irresistible Siren song.
Usually I separate my communication analysis and control tools from regular conversation - because unless they’re paying for it no one really wants to hear the truth. And sometimes not even then.
But a strong communicator can step in and change a conversation if they need to. Remember that, like a media interview, a Christmas gathering has an aim: Usually to celebrate connection. While verbal sparring and even biffo are a dark form of connection, make a conscious choice about how you engage. You have three options, calm it down, walk away, or enjoy the fireworks.
If you do engage, here are three useful techniques to keep you, and your relationship, safe over Christmas.
Calm by validation
Most people just want to feel heard. When you’re being hammered by a challenging journalist you know to acknowledge their question and bridge to a key message. The same rules apply with your homophobic uncle or racist granny. You don’t have to agree with the premise, just show you hear them.
Bridge from a universal truth
The universal truth is an elegant defence in a tough interview, particularly in live TV, but it does take practice. If the rant is political, e.g., how useless the Government or Opposition is, try something like “I guess we all want social justice and a strong sustainable economy, and that's worth fighting for, but I would say …”.
Use the dead cat strategy
I love this one and used it regularly with my shrink because it always draws attention and redirects the conversation. The dead cat is a political strategy - picture a heated dinner party conversation and suddenly a dead cat appears on the table. Everyone’s attention is on the cat - where did it come from, how did it die, who’s going to clean it up? Useful dead cats include house prices, high profile affairs and leaked nude photos. Keep, two or more dead cats up your sleeve for when ever you need a distraction.
And when the hard work of Christmas is done you’ll be free to wallow in those blissful tension free days between Boxing Day and New Year.
See you on the other side.
Still hunting for survival tools? Try these
A feel-good short vid on the power of postive words
Want to make the pot boil over? Take a leaf from Trump’s playbook
Need to apologise? Land it with this technique
From all the Clarity team, thank you for your company this year. We're always on call if you need us, and we look forward to working with you again soon.
By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director
Watching the ‘’leaked” video of Boris Johnson’s former spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, in what looks like a media training session has been pretty triggering. Mostly because she is floored by the simplest of questions - who on earth did her training? - but also because I’ve sat through nearly 50,000 hours of sessions like that and the breach of trust in releasing that video should be every trainer and participant’s worst nightmare.
I say 'should be', because clearly it isn’t always so.
I worked with one trainer in Sydney who kept copies of every interview - mostly Labor politicians and hapless staffers - and used them occasionally in the training to get a laugh. Why the clients didn’t twig and walk out I have no idea.
In my own sessions I’ve had two Top 100 CEOs break down in tears while being prepped for interviews on their company’s financial stability and leadership challenges. Bizarely one Finanical Services CEO admitted to having an affair with a staffer who was actually in the room, and even more astonishing was the high-profile fundamentalist Christian Minister who confessed, during a crisis training session, to an extramarital affair.
Rest assured not a scrap of that footage ever left the training room. Although it has made me reflect on how the sessions with the greatest breakthroughs come from that place of trust.
But like I said in my lead, I was aghast not at the idea of another politician’s Covid breach, but by the incompetence of one of the world’s highest profile and best paid spokespeeps, and the blathering nonsense her helpful colleagues proffered. Not surprising she felt compelled to resign from her high profile £125,000 (A$232,000+) job the next day.
So how could she have handled it? If she'd had a minute of credible training she would have stood back from the question and realised it was just a gift to get to her key message.
In this case the question makes it clear that these were breaking (and fictitious) reports on Twitter, so she couldn’t have seen them. My go to is to ‘Anchor’ by explaining that you haven’t seen those tweets and you’re not going to speculate, then bridge to a statement about to the need adhere to Social Distancing guidelines, slather on some empathy around how hard it is at Christmas blah blah blah, wrap things up and we can all move on.
It’s media training 101, yet Ms Stratton failed completely despite a being an experienced Broadcast journalist who worked as political editor of BBC Two's Newsnight for four years, then as national editor of ITV News from 2016 to 2018 with another two years as co-presenter of Peston on Sunday, ITV’s flagship political discussion program akin to our own Insiders.
It’s a timely reminder that our reputations are always on the line when we engage with media and that a proven and trusted media trainer is an investment in your personal and professional reputations.
Just because they've been on telly doesn't mean they can train in high stakes communication. And don’t get me started on actors or talking heads who think they can deliver critical training; I’ve had to fix their messes in the past and it’s done some damage, especially the cowboys who ambush participants with a doorstop style camera in their face as they walk in the door.
If you need it, I’ve put together some guidelines on how to choose a media trainer and if you’d like to know more just drop us a line.
You might also like to read
Never argue with an idiot
Derailing a hostile reporter
Train Wreck Interview Decides UK Election