What Can You Do When A Political Opponent Attacks You? Pt 1
Argh! Yoik! Gak! The spate of negative political ads coming from the McCain campaign has turned into a tsunami of nastiness. I guess the idea is that the best defense (against having the reality of your record and running mate exposed) is a good offense. And now the toxicity of it has poured itself into our state race.
Watching Saturday Night Live this weekend, (Tina Fey’s send up of Sarah Palin was pitch perfect!) we were barraged by ads from our U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, plus a couple more from two different 527s – interest group based tax exempt political organizations that are unregulated by the Federal Elections Commission or state elections commissions, and don’t have the same contribution limits as regular political action committees or PACs.
The ads used inference and implication to paint Smith as somehow heroic and Smith’s opponent State Senator Jeff Merkley as, well, I’ll say this as delicately as I can, an unfeeling child rapist and anti-senior power broker whose sole interest in office has been redecorating and hiring more staff, so that he could better hurt vulernable people in the state. Ouch. After watching such trash, you can’t help but have the thought that Smith thinks Merkley is not only not qualified for the office, but should be arrested!
What’s the saying? Whenever you point the finger at someone outside yourself, you have three fingers pointing back at you. Not that I’m saying this could mean that Gordon Smith is the unfeeling child rapist supporter and anti-senior power broker whose sole interest is staying in office! I’m simply saying what I’ve stated before in this blog. That when somebody is pointing the finger at someone else, he’s probably not wanting anybody looking at himself too closely. I would love to see an end to the negative campaigning. I’m convinced that an intelligent campaigner can make that happen, and earn the respect and appreciation of voters for it. No matter what the polls say, voters decide, pollsters are often just playing their part in the spin.
This post is the first part in a three part series about how to deal with an opponent who is inclined to use negative attacks.
Attack As Opportunity
If you find yourself under attack, I think it a useful assumption that the more personal it seems, the less personal it is. And the main idea in persuasive communication is this. If an attack is succeeding in besmirching your image or story, you can’t afford to ignore it. But you can take charge over your image and narrative. The key is that you don’t let an attack turn into a confrontation. Instead, turn it into an opportunity!
The opportunity is to turn negative voter attention into a bright light, and shine it where you want that attention to go. Chances are, when you’ve been attacked, people are waiting for you to respond. So your response is, “While I have your attention….”
Let’s pay a little attention here to the reasons behind attacks. There are a few, and each reason can help you shape your response if a response is actually needed.
Legitimate Reason and Response
One reason for an attack, the only legitimate one in my opinion, is that your opponent has a legitimate grievance.
Hey, it happens. People make mistakes, or get it wrong, or at least fail to come up with the PERFECT decision (mostly, because there is no such thing as a perfect decision!) The best response when your opponent has a point?
That depends. Just because someone has a point doesn’t make it a point worth responding to. If it isn’t hurting you, leave it alone, don’t take the bait, and use your response time to carry your agenda forward. “The real issue is…” Hold your focus on what you want to have happen, instead of reacting to your opponent, wasting time and resources, and giving strength to the negativity. I’m sure there’s some zen koen for this, something to do with the stillness of a lake or the flexibility of a branch. If you know it, please provide in the comments!
If the attack is hurting you in the eyes of the people whose support you need, and you know that for a fact, your response depends on whether or not you have a good answer to the accusations. If your best answer would be a weak one, filled with defending, explaining and justifying yourself, it is better to focus on your agenda, rather than being drawn into the detail of a mistake or bad result.
Of course, you can still acknowledge the legitimacy of the grievance, “My opponent raises a valid concern,” or “…has a good point,” before you refocus on the issues that matter most to you!
Politics, Politics, Ain’t it All Politics?
I plan to continue exploring this subject in my next post, and to my friends running for office, I hope you find it helpful. But if you’re not in politics, you may be thinking this has no relevance to you.
My response is, you think you’re not in politics? Are you kidding? People with agendas interact with you every day. And on occasion, your agenda may come into conflict with theirs. When that happens, going after you may be how they seek to gain an advantage. Any time you face outright opposition and attacks on who you are and what you stand for, I believe that this persuasive communication advice can be helpful to you.
I wish none of it were necessary, that politics avoided the personal, gave people the benefit of the doubt, and focused on creating tomorrow by learning from yesterday instead of fixing yesterday as the path to tomorrow. But I’m a realist enough to know that such is an unlikely outcome. So until my next post on the subject, I’d love to hear your comments on the tone of the campaigns where you live, and your own ideas on dealing with opposition as well!
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.