Recently comic actor Russell Brand and BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman sat down and talked, past each other. Watching it got me thinking about the value of rapport in creating understanding. The subject was Mr. Brand's editorial in New Statesman calling for a wholesale revision to the current political system in Britain. Mr. Paxman was in the role of an interviewer, but his questions failed to get below the surface of the comedian's premise, let alone his personality. And the loser in this lively exchange was the audience.
From the start, Mr. Paxman maintains a profound lack of verbal rapport. His main criticism of the call to revolution is that it lacks a practical plan. He is offered high level rhetoric and he responds with low level minutiae in order to reject Mr. Brand's argument, and also Mr. Brand, out of hand. There is sensational value in this limbic stimulation as we watch a host try to trap his guest for entertainment. The authority figure is totally winning the interview, in his mind. This mega-mismatch creates so much conflict that the viewer is deprived of a real discussion. When normal people interact, this is the exact opposite experience we're looking for. We win, when we win together.
Then I started tracking the interview's body lingo. Arm slung over the back of the chair, head back, chest pushed out. If the viewer has two options of who to identify with (literally, see themselves as the same as), who are they going to be drawn to? The man projecting authority with his feet up on his metaphorical desk, or the passionate everyman using humor to skillfully dance with a rigid partner? That the viewer is unconsciously asking these questions is a problem to understanding. If the purpose of our communication is to remove the impediments to our partner's clear expression, so that what's important can rise to the surface, we can create a container for their success.
Still, there is an art to the snark. "How do you have any authority?" asks Mr. Paxman within the first few exchanges. "Why should we be asked to listen to your political point of view?" His hasty generalizations are deployed to discredit Brand without legitimately refuting his argument. This reliance on intellectual objection opens the door for Mr. Brand to swoop in and take the moral high ground.
With a colorful display of pathos, Mr. Brand ties the plight of Mr. Paxman's great-grandmother (a woman who raised her family in poverty) with a woman Mr. Brand had just spoken to. In this brief authentic moment, there's finally some compelling television. Brand upsets Paxman's apple cart. Had the interviewer been interviewing, Mr. Paxman would have been the one to use moments like this to his--or the viewer's, advantage.
As it was, the audience was dragged through an attempted takedown. This may be the mode of sensational broadcast entertainment, but is a poor model for anyone looking to communicate and add value in their relationships.