National Public Radio recently suggested that the remarks of Secretary of State Clinton comparing North Korea to "small children and unruly teenagers" exemplified the use of "soft power" because she did not threaten military action. But according to political theorist Joseph Nye, "soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment" and "the right words can produce it; the wrong words can destroy it." Our nation's leaders can benefit by implementing proven communications practices routinely used outside of the political sphere to promote cooperation rather than ruffle more feathers.
At home and abroad, the words of our leaders obviously matter. Why then do presidents, congressional leaders, and heads of state so often say things that make matters worse instead of better? Secretary Clinton's reference to childishness, Vice President Biden's description of Russia's "withering" economy serving to bend their will in our direction, and President Obama's remark that Cambridge police "acted stupidly" all caused repercussions requiring serious backpedalling. These messages also offer teachable moments, however, for illustrating how such issues might be addressed to better serve the nation and beyond.
Fortunately, powerful yet simple communications tools for dealing with difficult people and situations can be found within a range of professional disciplines. While straightforward, these methods are not always easy to apply, especially when emotion runs high. Still, our leaders are capable of mastering them and need only willingness to learn these highly-effective techniques.
When children throw tantrums or teenagers act out, experienced family therapists would usually avoid describing their behaviors as such, but rather focus on the desired conduct. While acknowledging economic difficulties, a skilled negotiator seeking to solicit cooperation from national leaders would be likely to make a point of expressing respect for that country's strengths rather than highlighting its weaknesses. And a cognitive psychologist might reframe the criticism of "acting stupidly" as something like "acting in ways that led to unanticipated consequences."
When an employee is not meeting standards, human resources professionals guide supervisors to describe performance as it relates to work goals while steering clear of critical attributions, personality traits, and name-calling. Low key, goal-oriented communications in hospital emergency rooms, where conflicts and high stakes stressors are common, can routinely affect the outcome of a life and death situation. Techniques used to deescalate crises with the mentally ill, in dealing with domestic squabbles, or to negotiate hostage situations can also prove relevant.
As self-centered attachments to one's ideas can lead to national as well as international gaffes, anticipating the response a remark might elicit beforehand can also serve as a powerful communications tool. Considering what any self-respecting gang leader (aka head of "state") might do upon being "dissed" by another gang's leader or member can illustrate how criticisms are likely to be perceived. (It is doubtful he is going to introspectively consider the merits of the feedback, take personal responsibility, and apologetically reach out to address the misunderstanding.) And before directing someone to do something on a national or international front, it might serve to imagine the child's sassy retort, "Who made you the boss of me?" to help weed out any hint of condescension or patronization in the message.
Our leaders often put our nation in the position of the "world's coach" entitled to tell other countries what to do. These expressions of power can produce resentful recipients who will most likely resist any demands. Masterful sports coaches have discovered why it is important to let a player know what they want rather than what they don't want (i.e., "hit the ball in" rather than "don't mess this up!"). We can make our requests and carefully discern and articulate our responses if our needs are not addressed (while staying open to alternative possibilities not yet considered). Most of all, we can accentuate the benefits of our proposals from their perspectives.
Our national and international interests are too important to risk due to easily avoided verbal missteps. Without the application of best communications practices, our leaders cannot optimally serve our nation or the world. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words also cause damage -- yet, the right words can make a world of difference.
Colleen Turner, Ph.D. is a communications analyst, trainer, coach, and speaker who focuses on transformational communications. She is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel who has designed and evaluated terrorist defense scenarios and conducted research on "Best Practices for Inspiring Pro-American Sentiment - Exploring Methods of American Masters for Winning Hearts and Minds Around the Globe": See University of Southern California, USC Center on Public Diplomacy -- She served as Chief of Strategic Communications for the Iraq-Afghanistan Joint Interagency Transition Planning Group in 2006 and as a Senior Analyst and Deputy of the Joint-Cross Service Team of the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). In the sport of volleyball, she was a member of the USA team and her jersey was retired at UCLA where she obtained her Ph.D. in Social Welfare. Website: colleenturner.com