The Polarization Model at Work

The YouTube link below demonstrates how someone can use open hostility to change the opinions of others in their favour.

Within my media training program, I teach a polarization model for handling hostility that can arise during media interviews and public meetings. The goal is to help my clients understand how to use someone else’s hostility to their advantage.

Normally I’m preparing spokespeople to deal with journalists. In this case, it’s the spokesperson who gets hostile, and the journalist who manages the situation brilliantly.

The story begins with a radio interview at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) studios with a band called The Boxmasters, who feature drummer Billy Bob Thornton. The CBC’s producers were told not to mention at any time during the interview that Mr. Thornton has had a life outside of music, most notably as a successful screenwriter and actor. Two small mentions of this previous life are made during the interviewer’s introductory comments. Mr. Thornton becomes increasingly hostile during the interview (with fireworks erupting at about the 7:00 mark for those who like to skip ahead) and basically remains hostile for the remainder, despite the best efforts of interviewer Jian Ghomeshi.

There are a couple of lessons here that all spokespeople can learn from when dealing with real or perceived hostility, whether from journalist or someone at an explosive public meeting.

First, keep your cool. Interviewer Jian Ghomeshi is brilliant. I suspect his heart was beating a mile a minute, but you’d never know it. He was able to maintain civility and politeness throughout the exchange. Pause and think before you talk.

Second, try to find common ground. Mr. Ghomeshi negotiates with Mr. Thornton a number of times in a series of attempts to get the interview back on track. “If we can call a truce,” Mr. Ghomeshi says at about the 10:00 mark, “then I can ask you about music.” This puts the interviewer on solid moral ground, which will not be lost to those observing.

Third, when all else fails, recognize that people (even those closest to the person displaying hostility) will draw their own conclusions about what they’ve witnessed. The rest of The Boxmasters looked uncomfortable with the exchange. From the looks on their faces during Mr. Ghomeshi’s introduction, they knew what was coming, and they tried to contribute to the interview early on.

However, it would have been an interesting ride to the airport. The remainder of The Boxmasters’ dates in Canada (including their opening gigs for Willie Nelson) were abruptly cancelled.

Finally, remember that the more reasonable you are, the less reasonable they become in the eyes of others. This can be a powerful force in changing opinion in your favor. It won’t always happen as quickly as in this short YouTube clip, but it will happen if you give it a chance.