Facilitating the Presidential Debates – Part 1

How would you go about facilitating the Presidential Debates between Trump and Biden for the entertainment of a worldwide audience? We watched the debate mostly to see how the moderator, Chris Wallace, managed the conversation (this post has nothing to do with any political affiliations). Facilitating dialogue is a skill that requires excellent listening skills and the ability to guide a conversation to keep it alive, relevant and fruitful. Trainers should be using this skill in most areas of their training to gauge progress, generate ideas and analyse feedback.

One of the things trainers most dislike about facilitating discussions is that ‘there’s always one’! The one who won’t shut up, the one who doesn’t get it, and various other ‘ones’ can make the conversation go downhill. Trump and Biden’s bickering was a huge drawback to having a productive discussion. I wondered if it was the entertainment factor that prevented Chris from stopping their bickering or the feeling that anything stronger than a ‘Gentlemen, please’ was disrespectful. He was very clear to them about his role in the discussion – repeating early on in the conversation that he was the moderator of the conversation, meaning that they should listen to him. He was not there to fact-check, rather to encourage focus on the important topics and give each candidate a fair amount of time to speak. He didn’t stop them from going off-topic, which gave them a chance to show what was important and what wasn’t important to them.

His body language and eye contact was quite noticeable when he was indicating “whoever wins the next election” with no noticeable eye contact with Trump but with some eye contact with Biden and a gesture towards him. Also when he said “and I hope neither of you ( indicating Trump) will interrupt the other (indicating Biden)”.

Fairness – he told them how long he was giving them to talk and he stuck to it. He also let a different candidate speak first each time. There was a little inconsistency in them being able to respond to each other. Being given the chance to respond early on meant that it was expected later and a sense of unfairness was felt.

Hand gestures – The first time he needed to stop the president from getting off topic, he said ‘Mr President’, just as loud as the president was speaking, and repeated it until he stopped talking. Then he held up his hand and said ‘let me ask you the question’. He was smiling kindly while he said this. He often put up his hand to signal to them to stop or to not start talking yet. He would use the same signal when asking them to let each other finish.

‘Gentlemen, do you realize you’re both speaking at the same time?” He said without a rising intonation so it was clear that the question format was simply for politeness and not for an answer. He continued; “I have to give you roughly equal time. Please let him speak.”

Using humor: “you know if you wanna switch seats… (Trump continues to talk).. I know.. You have repeatedly been …. ” continues with question and Trump stops to listen.

Bringing them back to the topic – “We were talking originally about … here.” He then goes back to the next question of the original topic.

Managing segments “We’ve ended this segment. We’re going to move on. Alright, the second subject is an awfully serious subject so let’s be serious about it. In this case the question goes to you first sir.” When the end of the segment came up he was strict with time. When this was contested, he explained “but you only had one minute each”. He then let them finish a few more sentences and moved straight to the next question when he had a second to do so. “Ok gentlemen we are now moving on to… I’m gonna ask a question. ”

Using authority: Being very experienced in interviewing politicians, he knew when a question was being avoided. He dealt with this by stating clearly: “I’m asking you a question.” Trump wanted to explain something that didn’t answer the question, so he said “I understand all of that.”(and repeated, holding up his hand) “NO! Mr president, I’m asking you a question. How much did you ……..”

‘Right, that’s the end of the segment, we’re moving on.’ When the president said they weren’t finished he said no and repeated this, going on to say ‘The answer to the question is no.’ Then both candidates were talking at the same time and he had to raise his voice and say ‘Gentlemen! I hate to raise my voice but why should I be different than the two of you?’ This got their attention and Trump said ‘good point’. Later on he had to repeat ‘stop’ numerous times to be able to switch the speaker. Much later he ended an answer by saying ‘Two minutes is two minutes’. He assured Trump that he was going to be able to continue talking and this helped.

Making rules and their reasons clear: ‘You can say anything you want. I’m going to ask a question about race but if you want to answer about something different, go ahead. But I think that the country would be better served if we allowed each person to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you sir to do that.’ We learn just as much about someone’s intentions by the topics they avoid as well as the topics they talk about.

There is a lot more Chris could have said to Trump and Biden while facilitating the Presidential debates, but he had to be careful not to take up valuable time in the debate and also not to become the focus of Trump’s annoyance. I read in a few articles that they will be trying a different format next time. Maybe they will return to the format of one candidate talking alone first, then the other one, and answering questions at the end. Let’s see!