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Even with the commission’s additional declaration that “time taken up during any interruptions will be returned to the other candidate,” Trump’s interjections seem inevitable, leaving Biden with the unpleasant task of deciding how best to respond to them. This week, I asked several communication experts what they’d advise Biden to say and do if they were on his debate-prep team. They didn’t share any magic words—on the whole, they were pessimistic about Biden’s ability to stop Trump’s interruptions—but they did have some ideas.
In everyday conversation, it can be helpful to talk about the effect someone’s interruptions have on you, according to Norah Dunbar, a communication professor at UC Santa Barbara. She suggested saying something like “I feel you don’t respect my opinion when you interrupt me before I’m done talking.” When she herself is interrupted, Dunbar prefers to use a bit of tension-lowering self-deprecation, along the lines of “Let me finish my thought, or else I might forget it in a few minutes!”
While Dunbar thought those particular suggestions wouldn’t be of much use in a combative context such as a debate, some of the experts’ tips applied both to political confrontations and more mundane interactions. One was to “step outside the frame” of the conversation by remarking on the interrupter’s communication patterns, as suggested by Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. So in a debate scenario, perhaps Biden could say something like “Why are you talking over me? Are you afraid to let people hear what I have to say?” “I do wonder if … calling attention to what Trump is doing might throw Trump off,” Tannen said.
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Another potentially effective strategy is to try cutting the interrupter out of the conversation, denying them the attention they desire. This is something that Biden did occasionally during the first debate, by turning toward the camera and addressing viewers directly. “The full shift in body position, eye position, tone, etc., really excluded Trump from the conversation,” said Jim Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business who studies workplace communication. He’d recommend more of this: “In a case where it may be impossible to deter someone determined to be a bully from interrupting—only the rules of the game (set up by the debate commission), enforced by the official (the moderator) can do that—Biden could continue to focus on connecting with viewers.”
Whatever responses Biden settles on, he should be careful about not overusing them. “I wouldn’t think that pointing [an interruption] out every time would be effective, nor would just ignoring it,” Dunbar said. “Once or twice, he can make note of it, but other than that, he needs to just [keep talking]—otherwise, he looks weak in comparison to Trump.” Dunbar thinks that Biden is in a difficult position, because his “brand is reasonableness, and he has spent considerable effort to portray himself as a listener, but he also can’t afford to look weak next to Trump’s domineering style.”