Do Presidential Debates Make You Squirm?

Did you watch the presidential debates? I tried, but frankly, they made me uncomfortable, so I bailed. Maybe you found them unsettling as well? I wondered why I reacted this way, given that I really do care about the outcome of this election . . .

Because I’m a decided voter and already know where my candidate stands, I didn’t feel a strong need to watch the theatrics of pretend dialogue.

And therein lies insight into my discomfort.  The debates seem like monologue competitions without much listening or true discussion. Clearly there’s no desire to understand each other’s positions or positively address (much less resolve) the conflicts that exist. For me, the debates are mostly a painful reflection of the political polarization pervasive around us.

Wouldn’t it be awesome to see these two men model empathetic listening, make genuine concessions or even voice sincere agreement on ideas?  A girl can dream . . .

Last week I coached a group of managers through the use of a conflict resolution process during their annual leadership training. We talked through situational conflict management, specifically the Thomas-Kilmann’s approaches for dealing with others with whom we disagree. The good news is that we have choices. We can:

  • AVOID – either delay addressing the conflict for a better time or place, or ‘pick our battles’ and not confront the situation. Of course the conflict may come back to bite us later.
  • ACCOMMODATE – yield to the other person’s viewpoint in order to maintain the relationship, realizing that it might not produce the best resolution to the situation.
  • COMPETE – hold firmly to our position with the goal of ensuring the outcome is what we want – but that need to ‘win’ often comes at a cost related to the other person’s feelings and acceptance.
  • COMPROMISE – Find a middle ground with ‘give and take’ on both sides, yet the outcome might be less than ideal, and the sacrifices made by both parties may undermine support.
  • COLLABORATE – work towards ‘win-win’ solutions where both sides feel satisfied with the outcome and relationship, however, recognize that extra time and effort will be required to get there.

No one approach is best all the time.  Rather than falling back into our most comfortable default style, we can choose based on the situation and the needs of the involved people, team and organization. This was a real ‘aha’ moment for one leader in the group.

So, what outcomes might be possible if political candidates felt they had choices as well in terms of dealing with their differences?  What if we created new expectations of candidates that included facing conflict empathetically, engaging in authentic dialogue (asking and listening to understand) and working toward solutions?

That would be leadership in action — and surely something we’d all watch with intense attention and awe.

Elise Cary is a partner with PeopleResults. You can reach her at or Twitter @EliseCary.  Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.