This is not intended to be a political post. When working with organizations, we see both healthy and unhealthy communication. Like many of you, I tuned in to the recent Presidential Debate, my expectations were not met. It was one of the worst examples of discourse that I’ve seen. However, there were lesson in it about communication and people and teams that I noticed. I’ve definitely seen similar “discussions” break out within companies. So, as an expert facilitator and someone who watches discussions for a living, here is what we can all learn from the debate:

Don’t Assign Intent to Another Person

Nothing shuts off communication more quickly that telling the other person what they are thinking or what they mean. This happened countless times during the debate where both candidates interpreted the intentions of each other (ex: you don’t care about law enforcement / you only care about helping your rich friends). In healthy communication, you don’t have to judge the other person’s intentions because you have the authority on that right in front of you. Instead of assuming what the are thinking, ask them. Even if you are skeptical about the truth of what they are saying, judging another person’s intentions is a sure fire way to shut down the communication.

Name Calling Is Never Effective

Yeah, this one should go without saying, but since both candidates for our highest office don’t seem to know this, let’s go over it again. Calling someone else “stupid” or a “clown” is never a good idea (unless the person is an actual clown, I suppose).

Non Verbals Speak Loudly

The communication was so loud during the debate even when candidates weren’t talking. If you were listening with the sound off, you would get the gist of the tone of the debate. When someone else is speaking, be aware of your non verbals. Smirking or laughing or rolling your eyes are all ways to tell the other person that you don’t respect anything they are saying. Again, if that is true, it’s not helpful to telegraph it so loudly when you are trying to communicate.

Listening is Key to Progress

There was absolutely no listening happening in the debate. Each candidate talked over the other repeatedly and, when the other person was talking, each was just thinking about what they were going to say next (at least during the rare moment when they weren’t talking over each other. It’s easy to play out a conversation in your head and plan how it will go and then try to play out the choreographed chat, but real communication starts by knowing that you might be wrong. Listen to what the other person is saying and truly seek an understanding. Both candidates had good points to make in the debate, but those points were largely lost in the noise.

Find Common Ground

Usually in a debate, the candidates find something to agree on, but there was no sign of that. If you are starting a difficult conversation, start by finding the common ground. What is important to both of you? I would bet that both Biden and Trump are against the Pandemic, but instead of starting with that common thread, they immediately debated about what might have happened if Biden was in charge. That’s just not helpful.

Build Psycological Safety

A debate on live television is obviously not the safest environment for a good conversation. Again, I get that the debate isn’t meant to be a healthy discussion (although I would love to see it become that way). The debates have turned into a “win/lose” discussion. In a real conversation, you want to create a safe environment where things can be said without judgment and where real sharing can occur.

Watching the debate was 2 hours out of my life that I will never get back. I hope these communication tips make that 2-hours worthy of my time, and yours.