How to Beat a Bully in a Debate

On Sunday, technicians set up the stage for the presidential debate. On Sunday, technicians set up the stage for the presidential debate. Patrick Semansky/AP

When Hillary Clinton steps up to debate Donald Trump on Monday, her situation will be utterly unique in several respects. Not only is she the first female presidential candidate to be nominated by a major US political party, she is also the first Democratic candidate to face off against a nominee quite so repellant and bullying as Trump.

But although going head to head with Trump will be a spectacular challenge, many women can likely relate to Clinton’s position. Sure, we haven’t had to defend the future of democracy from a racist, ignorant demagogue. But unfortunately, working women find themselves all too often pitted against pompous, blustering, yet bizarrely popular men in the office. And, like Clinton, we’ve had to grapple with how to defeat such men without being pigeonholed as shrill, bitchy or snide.

In my view, traditional advice about how to deal with the office bully tends to be altogether too high-minded. Just as Clinton can’t simply ignore Trump in the debate or report out-of-line remarks to human resources, sometimes such steps are impractical in everyday life. Instead, what women would really like to do is puncture the bully’s bluster and deplete that massive ego, albeit ever so slightly, in pubic.

One useful tip is inspired by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. In his 1980 debate against then-president Jimmy Carter, Reagan memorably sighed, “There you go again.”

Denise Graveline, a public speaking coach, former aide in the Clinton administration and author of the blog, “The Eloquent Woman,” encourages all women to make use of this line.

“There’s always that person who likes to needle you, is constantly trying to show you up or bait you,” she says. “The perfect way to deal with that person is to smile, be very non-anxious, don’t take the bait and say, ‘Oh Bill, there you go again.’”

If the line is well timed and delivered, everyone will laugh, which gets the rest of the room on your side. It also highlights the other person’s bad behavior without stooping to their level and getting enraged over small points. “It’s a way of calling out the other person without getting into the weeds. You’re not getting into the details saying, ‘Well, two paragraphs ago you said something wrong,’” says Graveline.

She adds that it’s crucial to stay relaxed when dealing with a loudmouth like Trump. “Generally speaking, you’re not the problem and the problem isn’t yours, it’s theirs. You need to be able to put the anxiety back in their laps,” she says. To help keep a cool head and replenish your energy levels, it’s best to spend some time alone before a planned encounter with the office bully.

There are also certain habits to steer clear of when dealing with someone like Trump, according to Caroline Goyder, voice coach and author of the book Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority. She says that Trump often exhibits “blamer” behavior, meaning that he’s quick to point fingers and accuse others of wrongdoing. But when a bully tries to shift responsibility for a problem on you, it’s important not to blame them back. “It doesn’t take you anywhere and both parties look equally bad,” she adds.

On the other hand, if women are too high-minded in their response, others may seem them as meek or timid in comparison with the office bully’s boisterous behavior. “You as an adversary have to match that energy without the blame,” says Goyder. “You have the emphasis, your voice has the same power, you have the same kind of passion. But you’re just doing it in a more reasoned way.”

She points to the advice of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who says that it’s very important to avoid repeating the metaphors chosen by your opponent. “If you follow their metaphor you’ve lost, because they’re in control of the framing,” says Goyder.

Finally, public speaking coach Ruth Sherman says confident behavioral mannerisms can help you beat the office version Trump. Lean in when someone’s attacking you, look right at them, and don’t smile. This body language shows that you’re not intimidated by their bombast. She also suggests using a moderate tone to question a Trump-like blusterer on a few specific facts, which should help take the air out of their rant.

This same advice should work well for Clinton in the debate against Trump. And, fingers crossed, she’ll inspire women in the audience with some of her own strategies for defeating a mean-spirited, unfathomably popular bully.

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