Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

If you watched the Comey testimony in front of the Senate committee on Thursday, you saw a few important lessons about communication and keeping your credibility and authority in a stressful setting.

I don’t think that it matters what your politics are, this is an historical testimony. There is tremendous drama around this hearing and a lot riding on what he says and what the impact of his testimony will be.

A fired FBI director, an internal investigation into a member of the Executive branch having colluded with a foreign government, and a Presidency that is clouded in the possibility of obstruction of justice.

(That’s a lot of drama, even for Washington D.C.)

Testifying in this way has a number of serious potential pitfalls. This is especially true for anyone who has been a CEO or a leader of an organization. In this situation, you are not in control of the hearing and you are only there to give your testimony. It is inherently one-sided. Your only source of power is your credibility and your trustworthiness. Given the political climate of the moment, this is about as difficult a task as one could imagine. Here are a few examples of the perceptions that could create problems for him:

  1. This whole testimony is about settling a score.
  2. He cares more about his reputation than he does about respecting the institution.
  3. He is willing to bend facts to win people to his side.
  4. This whole hearing is just a political gambit.

There are probably more, but these were the ones that immediately came to mind, which could make him be easy to disregard. Watching him testify shows me that he is also aware of these perceptions and has focused his communication in such a way  so as to avoid those traps. (Truthfully, people will believe whatever they want, but he isn’t going to make it easy on them.)

In my view, Comey was able to communicate his credibility by embodying and projecting the following elements: authentic voice, honesty and integrity, calm and deference, authority and humility.

Here are a few things that I want to highlight about Comey’s communication style that we could all learn from if we wish to communicate clearly and credibly regardless of the situation. History will tell what this testimony means to our government and to the Trump Presidency, but here are a few of my takeaways:

  1. “I could be wrong.” I’m not sure how many times he said this, but it was more than a lot. This is such a counterintuitive statement for most people, and can feel like a risk to the people saying it, so why does it work? Well for one, he doesn’t put himself in a corner by suggesting that he has to be right in order to win his point. He knows that all he has to do is to be credible. It is, after all, his word against the President. He was just fired. By admitting that he doesn’t know everything (what the President actually intended for example) he is able to make his statement without getting entangled in the interpretation of the facts. If this smelled even a little bit like he is doing this out of spite, then he loses the ability to influence the Senate.
  2. “I guess I’m not strong enough.” I don’t know if I captured this exactly, but he gave a few answers like this when asked why he didn’t stand up to the President in the Oval Office. He even referred to himself as “cowardly” at one point. Again, this may seem counterintuitive to many people, especially those who have been in a position of power similar to the FBI director. He is admitting a personal weakness (lowering his status in front of the group) in order to show (again) that this isn’t about his ego. I often think of this as giving something up in order to win your major point.
  3. “I took it as a direction.” This is in response to one Senator who tried to force Comey to admit that Trump didn’t order him to do anything. I wondered how he would handle this because technically (given the language that Trump used) the Senator is correct, but the important thing for Comey was how it felt. He even went back to this later during another Senator’s questioning to repeat that he “took it as a direction” so as to show that while the language on paper may seem somewhat innocent, the impact was not. This allows people to make their own decision about how they themselves might have taken it.
  4. “I don’t know.” Wow. I wish that more people in positions of power would understand the importance of this sentence. He used it a few times when asked to comment on the conversation and the intentions that the President may have had. Saying that he doesn’t know allows him to assert again what the experience felt like. He also used it to get away from going down a few legal rabbit holes that were intended to get him trapped. By saying “I don’t know” he wouldn’t need to comment on any hypothetical situation. He also used it to deal with the question of whether Hillary Clinton would have fired him if she were President. By choosing not to speculate on what he doesn’t know, he is able to keep his own testimony out of the realm of speculation.
  5. Body language. I will be using this testimony as an example of the importance of body language in tough political situations for a long time. Notice how still his body was and how calm he seemed. That is a grueling experience, not only because the questions are hard (many of the Senators are former lawyers who like to ask difficult questions) nor just because he is constantly made to remember what he said earlier in the day or to recall with whom he had spoken during his tenure. It was difficult because the approaches by the Senators are so varied. One might bring tough, insightful questions that are designed to trap Comey in a lie (or to give the impression of being a liar) while another is just deeply confused (looking at you McCain). To remain so still and calm during that process is a physical marvel. It also goes a long way to increasing his believability and his trustworthiness. His stillness kept his authority, while he also minimized his physical presence (he is 6’8″) so as to keep his status from getting too big. He managed to express deference without diminishing himself. Body language is usually the one thing that we cannot hide, and Comey did a fabulous job of holding his space in a room that was not going to let him catch his breath.

I encourage you to go back and watch moments of the video. You will see these examples many times over, as well as a few more. I am not suggesting that he was perfect (no one is), but what he did yesterday was as close to how I would have wanted to coach someone (authentic, honest, credible, clear and humble) as I could have imagined.

While I don’t know exactly what to think of him as a person, I am deeply impressed with how he handled himself in one of the most challenging political/communication situations I have seen in awhile.

 

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