Why Hillary Clinton will succeed as president: She listens


When you think of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, chances are you think of her at a scene like the one above.

In a diner or a cafe. In someone’s living room or kitchen. In a small group or on a small stage. Around a table, taking people’s questions and listening to people’s concerns.

Listening is a skill that most women have had to master, because too many men tend to interrupt, seldom giving women a chance to put in their two cents. Not everyone is a good listener. Hillary Clinton, however, is very good at listening to people.

Some candidates have large rallies with wildly cheering supporters. Hillary Clinton certainly has had her share of rallies and speeches. But Clinton has always preferred the smaller venue, the town hall meeting, the sitting-around-the-table talk. Instead of just telling people what she wants to do, she asks people what issues affect them, what topics she should tackle, what actions they want her to take. Then she uses those answers to broaden her policies. As a story in The Atlantic put it, the strategy is to “build the candidate’s credentials as one that connects with voters, knows the issues they care about, and makes it clear she isn’t taking anything for granted.”

When Clinton was considering a 2000 Senate run, she famously went on a “listening tour” to all parts of New York state. She started in July 1999, traveling from New York City and its suburbs to upstate New York and all points in between. She visited all 62 of the state’s counties and talked to all kinds of residents on farms, in diners, in venues small and large. She always carried a notebook so she could take notes on what people were saying.

Clinton and her constituents-to-be discussed issues ranging from taxes to jobs to health care to education to college tuition to dairy price supports. At the time, the approach was derided by many in the media, but it worked. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani abandoned the race, and Clinton beat GOP Rep. Rick Lazio by 12 percentage points.

Clinton used the same approach in her presidential campaigns for 2008 and 2016. Her 2008 campaign was launched with a video in which she looked straight at the camera and said, “Let’s talk. Let’s chat. Let’s start a dialogue about your ideas and mine. … Let the conversation begin.” In the more sophisticated video launch for the 2016 race, the message was, “I’m doing something new, too. I’m running for president … So I’m hitting the road, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”

In this election, how many photos, videos, and ads have we seen from the Clinton campaign that started with a question from her audience, often from a young girl or teenager? Sometimes the questions were about bullying. Sometimes a girl asked if Clinton would be paid the same as a male president. Sometimes a teen asked about body image. Clinton’s answer was often followed with a quick hug.

When Clinton was secretary of state, she visited 112 countries, spending 401 days on the road. It was her own State Department listening tour, learning about the concerns of America’s allies and not-so-allied nations. It was aimed at repairing the damage done to America’s reputation and relationships during the years of the George W. Bush administration. According to a separate story in The Atlantic:

The secretary, despite all the telecommuting options available to her, reinforced the power of being there — in a place, in a context, in a moment.

A July story on Vox by Ezra Klein explored what he called “the Gap” between the negative public image some hold of Clinton and the real human being known by her friends, staffers, and colleagues. Klein interviewed many who know Clinton well, and here’s his conclusion:

Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns. …

Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens. …

The first few times I heard someone praise Clinton’s listening, I discounted it. After hearing it five, six, seven times, I got annoyed by it. What a gendered compliment: “She listens.” It sounds like a caricature of what we would say about a female politician.

But after hearing it 11, 12, 15 times, I began to take it seriously, ask more questions about it. And as I did, the Gap began to make more sense. …

Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination by forming a coalition. And part of how she forms coalitions is by listening to her potential partners — both to figure out what they need and to build her relationships with them. This is not a skill all politicians possess.

A 2005 academic paper (published version gives only the abstract; this is a pdf) from the International Journal of Listening by University of Maryland communications professor Andrew D. Wolvin described the benefits and effectiveness of Clinton’s listening approach as it applies to different styles of leadership. As Wolvin said in the abstract: “Public leadership has been conceptualized as the leader who has the ability to shape a vision and to articulate that vision. Before the leader can shape a vision, however, he/she needs to listen to constituents to know how that vision should be best framed and best implemented.”

The listening leader communicates with his/her followers in order to understand their needs, motivations, and issues. These understandings serve as the foundation for solid decision-making to further the relationship/organization to its goals. “Good leaders are good listeners.” …

Leaders who are good listeners “do not fake attention, pretend to comprehend, or ignore members. Instead, they work as hard as they can to better understand what members are saying and how those comments affect the group and its goals.”

Sounds like Hillary Clinton, doesn’t it?

When Hillary Clinton is sworn in as president, she’s not going to have time to go on a new listening tour of the country. She won’t have time to do one as a transition project, either. But as a start, according to a Politico story, she’s planning on reaching out to listen to allies that have been “rattled by Trump’s candidacy.”

In a way, Trump’s outlandish comments — demanding Mexico pay for a border wall, questioning U.S. support for NATO allies, and so much more — gives Clinton cover to be unusually direct about her desire to shore up global faith in U.S. leadership in the post-Obama era.

We hope the new President Clinton will continue President Obama’s practice of reading 10 letters each day that were sent to him via email or snail mail. The letters, chosen by staff in the Office of Presidential Correspondence, aren’t necessarily positive or negative. They just represent issues that the country is thinking and talking about. They might be from children, veterans, people out of a job, people who need health care, people with problems, people with ideas, and just everyday Americans who want to get something off their chest or share something with the leader of the free world. Reading those 10 letters each day can be Clinton’s way of listening to the American people.

I like the idea that our president will be a listener in chief, as well as a commander in chief.

After all, when has Donald Trump ever listened to anybody?

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Oct. 23, 2016.

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