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The Art of Conversation - Part 4: Lessons From a Former President

By John McManamy

It's very simple, really. The art of conversation is all about keeping your ears open and your mouth shut. Listen, just listen. You stand a far better chance of winning friends and influencing people.

All the way to the White House, even.

Cast your mind back to the 1992 Presidential campaign. Numerous commentators have pegged the defining moment as the first George Bush looking at his watch during a key town hall debate. What was Bill Clinton doing?

Journalist Joe Klein in his 2002 book, "The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton," describes how it all went down:

"Toward the end of the debate, an African-American woman asked a confusing question: 'How has the national debt personally affected both of your lives? And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the common people if you have no experience in dealing with them?'"

Bush's answer: "I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren. I'm not sure I get ... help me with the question."

Question: "Well, I've had friends who have been laid off from their jobs."

Moderator: "I think she means recession ... rather than the deficit."

Bush: "Well, listen, you ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear ... I was in the Lomax AME Church. It's a black church just outside Washington DC. And I read the bulletin about teenage pregnancies, about difficulties people are having making ends meet ... "


Then it was Clinton's turn. According to Joe Klein:

"He did something quite extraordinary. He took three steps toward the woman and asked her, 'Tell me how it's affected you again?'

"The woman was speechless. Clinton helped her along, describing some of the terrible stories he'd heard as governor of Arkansas. But his words weren't as important as his body language: The three steps forward spoke volumes about his empathy, his concern, his desire to respond to the needs of the public. Bush, by contrast, was caught gazing at his wristwatch - hoping desperately that this awkward moment would soon be done.

"And indeed it was: The presidential campaign was, in effect, over."

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