Hillary Clinton and the Radical Power of Listening

Hillary Clinton and the Radical Power of Listening July 13, 2016

Image from PBS NewsHour (screenshot via YouTube)

Note: This is a political post about Hillary Clinton. It is not a post about Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or any other individuals who have campaigned for the presidency of the United States recently. Before you start yelling at me about whatever grievance you have with Clinton, consider setting the pitchforks aside for a second and just listen.

Earlier this week, I happened upon a piece by Ezra Klein of Vox entitled “Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees Isn’t the Clinton Colleagues Know.” I admit that I was a bit skeptical of the piece when I first saw the headline because at this point articles about why Hillary Clinton isn’t “likeable” are practically their own genre of political opinion writing, but I was somewhat interested to see Klein’s take.

Klein frames the issue for Clinton in his mind as “the Gap” — the distance between the public perception of her as a political figure and the perception that people have after having worked with her, even those who are her political opponents. But quickly, he gets to an explanation that I found both stunning and at the same time seemingly obvious — and one that I think highlights why she would likely be an effective president.

It isn’t Clinton’s own explanation, either. In her interview with Klein, she essentially blamed the relentless attacks that she has endured for decades now. In some ways, that’s a satisfying explanation because it places the blame on an external source, mostly right-wing media and pundits (although some of it has arguably come from the left this election cycle as well). But Hillary Clinton is far from the only politician to be beset with such a barrage of mudslinging. So what makes her different than Barack Obama or even her own husband in the public eye?

To answer the question, Klein went straight to the people that have worked with Clinton:

The answers startled me in their consistency. Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns. On the one hand, that makes my job as a reporter easy. There actually is an answer to the question. On the other hand, it makes my job as a writer harder: It isn’t a very satisfying answer to the question, at least not when you first hear it.

Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.

But I disagree with Klein here: I find this explanation deeply satisfying (almost too much). While that is normally reason for me to be skeptical, I think there are reasons to suspect its truth.

Campaigning is An Exercise in Directed Shouting

Clinton has never been considered a good campaigner, particularly not when you compare her to President Obama or former President Bill Clinton, both of whom are renowned for their performances on the stump. You could even see a contrast this cycle between Clinton and her opponent Bernie Sanders, who preferred to take his message to large audiences while Clinton often held smaller events (like her intimate discussion in May with families in a coffee shop in Stone Ridge, VA, from which the top image is taken).

This hasn’t been Hillary Clinton’s general approach, and that’s just as well because when she has raised her voice (like she did after winning big on Super Tuesday in March), she has been castigated for shouting while other male candidates on both sides of the aisle have gotten by with nary a word about their yelling.

To put it even more starkly, Klein notes that “presidential campaigns are built to showcase the stereotypically male trait of standing in front of a room speaking confidently — and in ways that are pretty deep, that’s what we expect out of our presidential candidates.”

The amazing part is that Hillary Clinton didn’t play that game of campaigning — and she still won the Democratic nomination. But how?

How to Win Allies and Build Networks

This isn’t the only gendered aspect of Clinton’s campaigning that Klein identified, citing Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen:

Tannen’s research suggests a reason for the difference: Women, she’s found, emphasize the “rapport dimension” of communication — did a particular conversation bring us closer together or further apart? Men, by contrast, emphasize the “status dimension” — did a conversation raise my status compared to yours?

Talking is a way of changing your status: If you make a great point, or set the terms of the discussion, you win the conversation. Listening, on the other hand, is a way of establishing rapport, of bringing people closer together; showing you’ve heard what’s been said so far may not win you the conversation, but it does win you allies. And winning allies is how Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination.

Leave aside the gendered aspect of this for a second, though, and just consider the main slogans — hashtags, really — of each campaign. Clinton’s was #ImWithHer, while Sanders’ was of course #FeelTheBern. Even there, Clinton’s slogan is about rapport, being “with” Clinton in her fight for certain issues and for the presidency, while Sanders’ is about the change in status that Tannen mentions, a gut-level injection of inspiration meant to sway the individual over to Sanders’ progressive platform.

What Sanders supporters largely wanted was for people to hear Bernie Sanders’ message and be moved to “join the revolution,” which (despite its revolutionary rhetoric) is largely in line with the traditional model of campaigning. But that’s not what happened. Clinton won because she had established relationships with communities (like the African-American voters, in the South and elsewhere, who buoyed her campaign) and with political allies in the party, which were derided as her being the “establishment” candidate (or, even less charitably, as her “buying” support from other Democrats).

Again, she refused to play the game, and this time it paid off.

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