When former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel addressed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense, he used a technique that’s often as effective in communications as it is in football: the best defense is a good offense.
Hagel knew that he would face a barrage of criticism for his past positions on Israel, Iran, Iraq and other issues. For example, he once complained about the “Jewish lobby.” And he appeared on Al Jazeera and didn’t challenge a caller who accused Israel of war crimes, and appeared to agree with the assertion that America is “the world’s bully.”
So, in his opening remarks – literally right after his “thank you’s” and other pleasantries – he addressed the inevitable criticism head on, saying, “But no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs or my record.”
We advocate and teach this technique – especially in our Public Anger workshops. For a simple reason: it works (Hagel was confirmed by a vote of 14-11). By acknowledging a difficult situation or mistake at the outset, you can take the wind out of someone’s sails. It’s a way to show your critics that you’re not clueless – that you understand their position. In short, the technique can prevent or minimize unpleasant encounters.