We just returned from a week long cruise to Alaska with our children and their spouses. While on the trip I read a book by Drew Weston The Political Brain. It dealt with political campaigning and the election of politicians, but had informative information about persuasion, decision-making and how the human brain functions. While directed at politics I found that most of what he wrote was applicable to us as plaintiff trial lawyers.
For example, I was pleased to read his advice about authenticity of political candidates which was: “if you don’t feel it, don’t use it.” How true for us when we try to use something we read or heard, but haven’t internalized. Weston also supports my conviction about the power of being truthful. He writes: “the central thesis of this book – that successful campaigns compete in the marketplace of the emotions and not primarily in the marketplace of ideas – may at first blush be disquieting to many Democrats. But, the reality is that the best way to elicit enthusiasm in the marketplace of emotions is to tell the truth. There is nothing more compelling in politics than a candidate who is genuine.” He writes that if you’re a politician and you want to maintain the trust and goodwill of your constituents over a long run, tell them the truth – about what you believe. Voters prefer candidates who are clear on what they believe even if it’s not what they believe. That advice applies equally well to trial lawyers.
I want to share with you some of his observations about political responses to attacks during a campaign. As I read the material, I was struck by how the advice applies to us when we are being personally attacked in trial or have to deal with negative issues in our cases. Here are some of the ideas he suggests in that regard.
He says that when you’re hit with a “dangerous emotional punch” in politics – particularly a low blow – the only appropriate response is an equally powerful emotional counter punch. He advises that if a strategist tells a candidate to “avoid that issue” the candidate should avoid that strategist, because he or she doesn’t understand how the human mind and brain work. He says “the basic principle is the same: silence is the surest way to let the other side shape and activate their associations of choice.”
As to the idea of not responding at all and “taking the high road” he says that a non-response allows the opposition to shape voters networks with impunity, creates an uncontested frame and suggest that the candidate isn’t contesting the charge or has something to hide and emboldens the person who threw the punch to follow up with another. Never let an attack linger without responding to it. Never let the other side create an emotional association without responding to it. The idea of responding with something like “he knows that’s not true” or “that’s a lie” creates the problem that it turns the issue into a “he said versus a she said” debate that maintains focus on whether the claim is true or not. Equally ineffective, he argues, is to respond that it was grossly misleading or that it wasn’t fair. That’s because he says such a response has predictable and always unwanted consequences: it reinforces the view that the candidate is weak and establishes the other candidate as being strong.
The most effective device he argues is to inoculate the potential negative attacks. He says: “there’s one strategic principle that can sometimes head off attacks or effective appeals from the opposition before they hit: get there first.” That’s because psychologist’s discovered years ago that a related technique for reducing the power of a negative appeal from the other side is inoculation. Inoculation means building up “resistance” to an appeal by forewarning against it for presenting and answering it before the other side can offer a stronger attack.
He recommends that one of the most potent ways to respond to attacks on one’s character, patriotism or faith is to use the same idiom, refined, to turn the accuser into the accused. Doing so creates a counter narrative that activates the same emotional systems but links them to alternative networks. And even more important is to challenge the frame preemptively – to inoculate – rather than to remain silent and hope for the best, or argue about the smoke after the other side has already made the accusation.
This is a book worth reading.