by Steve Adubato, PhD
President George Bush's recent press conference provided numerous communication lessons for the rest of us who go into pressure filled meetings, conferences or conference calls. We are always facing difficult, sometimes hostile, questions from bosses or colleagues looking to score points.
The president is at his best when communicating in a relaxed, more conversational, tone. Like any chief executive, he wants to control the environment. That's why the president spoke for 17 minutes before taking the first question. This communication technique is an attempt to get your message out before your audience has a chance to reframe the discussion with questions or commentary built into the body of a question.
But as soon as the Q & A, the president appeared to become more defensive, not just in what he was saying, but how he was saying it. Lot's of "uhms" and "ahs." Stopping in mid sentence to begin a new sentence. This disjointed communication style sends the message to many that the speaker isn't sure what he wants to say. He was also making lots of facial gestures that didn't communicate comfort and confidence.
The president's most difficult moment when he was asked what his "biggest mistake" was since 9/11. No reason to panic, yet, the president stood awkwardly shifting his body weight back and forth not saying anything for more than several seconds. Then, he said he wished he had gotten the question in advance and ultimately concluded, "You just put me under the spot here, and maybe I am not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
Bush looked awkward and unsure of himself, but it didn't have to be this way As Mike Wallace once said, there are no embarrassing questions, only embarrassing answers. Practice with your key communication advisors (or smart, trusted colleagues) by having them pepper you with "worst case scenario" questions. Then respond, get feedback on how you could improve, and then do it again. It's essential that your staff not hold back with either the questions or their assessment of how effectively you responded. To do so only hurts you.
When you do this, there should be very few surprises in such a forum. But if one comes, there are several ways to handle it. The most effective technique is to acknowledge a mistake. This is a powerful communication and leadership tool. When asked about his "biggest mistake," the president could have said, "Like anyone in an executive position, we make a lot of decisions, which means I know I've made some mistakes. But more specifically, the one thing I have learned since taking office is that sometimes you have to be more aggressive, maybe even skeptical, in the way you question the intelligence reports you get from staff. Rest assured I will be doing more of that in the future. I've learned a lot of great lessons in the past three years."
Such a candid response would show that the president is confident in himself and willing to admit he is not perfect. Who is? This isn't a weakness. In fact, it's a strength. Yet, refusing to admit a mistake really ties a leader's hands and forces him to be more evasive and uncomfortable.
This was not a great communication moment for President Bush, but it could have been if he and his communication team had really prepared for this experience--If they had been willing to acknowledge that mistakes were made and allowed the president to be introspective and direct. It's not too late for him and definitely not too late for the rest of us who need to perform when the heat is on and the questions are really tough.