Donna Brazile and contentious meeting tactics

Think about the last time you were in a contentious meeting. You are in a room with a bunch of smart people representing various constituents and not everybody agrees on how to proceed. Arguments ensue, some of them are civil while others are heated. Now, imagine that meeting was nationally televised, live.

Oh yeah, and the outcome directly effects an election for the leader of the free world.

This is what happened to Donna Brazile on Saturday. I’ve been in my share of contentious meetings and what I learned early on in my career is that getting emotional during them doesn’t work. Nobody likes to be yelled at, even if they are horribly wrong and you are incredibly right, so you end up derailing yourself and your argument if you can’t keep your feelings in check. Three things have worked better for me:

  1. Get to the meeting early and lighten the mood – You probably know who it is you are going to argue with before the meeting starts, so make nice up front on an unrelated topic so you can begin with some positive feelings. This is where I’ve used LinkedIn to find conversation starters, for example. If you can get in a self-deprecating joke (I like to refer to my baldness), which signals you don’t take yourself all that seriously, that’s even better.
  2. Start with what you agree with – Especially in a meeting where you all are working towards a common cause (ie: profits for the company you all work for), it is usually pretty easy to figure out some things you agree on. Enumerate as many of those as you can at the beginning of the meeting. That not only gets feelings going in a positive direction, but demonstrates that in the overall scheme of things you may not be as far apart as you think you are on the topic at hand.
  3. Overwhelm with facts, mine for them – You have a reason for your opinion, list out all the facts that contributed to that reason. That’ll show your opponent you aren’t just pulling rationale out of thin air and expose what factors you are trying to optimize. That part is easy. The hard part is challenging yourself to extend the same courtesy to the person who disagrees with you. Why do they disagree? What facts are important to them? What aspects are they trying to optimize? Getting all that on the table will reveal motivations and reduce the argument scope even more, as you are likely to uncover even more places you agree than you did in #2.

I’ll admit that those tactics don’t always work, but it is a non-combative approach to a difficult situation. The most common resolution I see in meetings where the contentiousness escalates beyond these tactics I propose above is when the the most influential person in the room, typically the highest ranking manager and rarely me, lets people argue for awhile before simply announcing what the answer is. When all else fails, that works.

Enter Donna Brazile’s Saturday. Ms. Brazlie is a long time Democratic Party strategist and, as NBC Political Director Chuck Todd declared, is one of the two most influential people on the party’s Rules Committee. As you may know, this is the committee that stripped Michigan and Florida of their delegation during the presidential nomination process because both broke party rules by moving their primary elections prior to February 9, 2008.

On Saturday, the 30 member committee held a meeting which was nationally televised live during which they heard arguments from party leaders from both states as well as representatives of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns in an attempt to find a way for Michigan and Florida to retroactively receive some presence at the national convention later in the summer. While I didn’t get a chance to watch all of it, the two and a half hours I watched reminded me of many contentious meetings I’ve been to.

Florida was discussed first, I suspect in line with my #2 above. Florida had simply voted early and all the candidates names were on the ballot, but none of them campaigned there. The state party leaders, and representatives from both campaigns all seemed to agree that the votes of the delegation should simply be halved.

Michigan was more complicated because several candidates had their names removed from the ballot there (where removal was allowed by law, unlike Florida) since they were told the election wouldn’t count. Now that it does count, the Clinton campaign was arguing that the delegates should be apportioned according to the vote that took place, the Obama campaign was arguing that they should be split evenly since some people stayed home and others voted for different choices given what was on the ballot, and the state party suggested that the difference between those two views be split. Michigan party officials presented their case first, Obama second, and Clinton last.

The meeting was running way over on time, but at the end of the pre-lunch session, Ms. Brazile unleashed this on former Michigan Governor James Blanchard, who was representing Hillary Clinton at the session and tried my tactic #1 at the beginning of his remarks by telling a story about his mother’s birthday:


I’ve seen this 4 times now and that stare-down, with its extra long pause, still gives me the willies. I doubt you’ll find a better example of “most important person in the room simply tells everybody how it’s going to go”, seeing as the committee’s decision was not the position the Clinton campaign advocated.

No meeting I’ll ever be in will the most important person reference the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though 8).


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