So the question remains; How best should you deal with someone like Donald Trump in a political debate? This was posed to me after my last blog article.
While this is a difficult question with no easy answers, it is worth mentioning that Donald Trump tends to use two basic tactics to disrupt and distract his opponents. Firstly, he attacks the person. Secondly, he stirs up emotions, in order to reduce or lower the intellectual component (which is his weakness) of the debate. Understanding this, and drawing on ideas about what it means to be mentally tough in the heat of battle in the sporting arena, some guidelines about how to deal with such a forceful, self-opinionated energy in a competitive debating context can be formulated.
In elite competition, the opponent may attempt to unsettle you psychologically, by distracting and disrupting your focus. In rugby, for example, there may be off-the-ball incidents, such as a punch or a jersey pull. In cricket, a batsman may have to deal with sledging (verbal abuse) by the fielding team between every ball that is bowled. The challenge in the heat of the battle is to have an internal focus, to remain clearly focused on what your goals are. On a simple level, you need to keep your eye on the ball and not get distracted by what you cannot control. Any mental energy that you use worrying about what your opponent is planning, saying or doing, will undermine your effectiveness.
In sport, there is an energy flow between competitors as the match unfolds. There are upward and downward spirals of energy flow, resulting in periods of effortless performance or times of intense struggle. It is important not to panic when you are struggling. To do this, it is necessary to connect with your breathing so that you can consciously ensure that your breathing has an even rhythm and is relaxed. Check to see that you are not holding your breath or are breathing in a rapid, shallow way. Being emotionally composed and balanced underpins exceptional performance.
The fundamental tenet of tai chi (a slow moving martial art) is to know how to use and re-direct an opponent’s aggressive energy in such a way as to physically unbalance him/her. In tai chi, you never meet force with force. Instead, you learn how a slight deflection of an opponent’s action can result in you gaining a major advantage. A slight shift in stance or position helps to give you the upper hand on which to base your counter-attack. Learning how to yield to pressure and then to quickly counter-attack is at the heart of tai chi.
George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it’. It is important not to get pulled into activities that strengthen your opponent and weaken your resolve and focus. I remember consulting with a cricket team who had difficulty in dealing with one particular individual in the opposing team. The fundamental issue was that this individual enjoyed talking and would constantly be trying to initiative a verbal exchange with any member of our team, in order to distract you. He was self-opinionated, and at times verbally abusive. He performed best if he could have an audience to listen to him. As a team, we decided to ignore him completely during the match. No player was allowed to acknowledge or speak to him while on the field. A super-inflated ego thrives on being acknowledged and listened to, and the strategy of ignoring him, removed the source of his egotistical self-validation. Without this validation, his performance dropped significantly.
In sport, an athlete should not attach his self-worth to his performance, but instead should work on detaching himself from his performance. In this way, the athlete will be able to focus on the unfolding process and not be obsessed with the final outcome. Being able to separate the sense of self, from the results in performance allows the athlete to perform in a relaxed, uninhibited and creative way. More importantly, the athlete will be able to think quickly and effectively when dealing with stressful moments during competition. Poor performance is not taken personally and instead, failure is considered to be an opportunity to learn and to grow. This type of attitude reduces the fear of failure during performance.
A political debate is full of ‘attacks and defends’ as the participants try to gain the upper hand so as to increase their support and vote of the electorate. In order to beat your opponent on the debating stage, the lessons of competitive sport suggest that you should:
- have a clear, internal, focused strategy regarding the issue at hand
- work on not getting distracted and side-tracked by generalized, emotive, contentious statements
- remain emotionally balanced and composed when conveying your message
- not try and match force with force in a dominant way, but instead unbalance your opponent by asking intellectually, insightful questions that highlight the absurdity of the emotive opinion being forwarded
- do not take an attack on your person, personally
In his book, The four agreements, Miguel Ruiz states that ‘you should not take anything in life personally’. Anyone’s actions or comments that are directed at you, has nothing to do with you. Instead these comments are a reflection and projection of who they are. Political debates highlight this point so well.