The final face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Wednesday night could well be the most scorching confrontation in the 56-year history of televised U.S. presidential debates.
To learn how both candidates could benefit from a little performance coaching from an expert, ThinkAdvisor interviewed Alden Cass, clinical psychologist and coach, on how he’d help Trump and Clinton overcome their weaknesses in presentation. Half his international practice consists of financial advisors and traders.
In the interview, Cass provides observations of the traits and behaviors that hamper the two candidates. However, since he has treated or worked with neither of them, it would be unethical for him to provide clinical diagnoses.
Cass, whose Competitive Streak Consulting practice is based in New York City, is known for conducting pioneering research on male retail brokers in the late 1990s. The study showed that 23% of the group was diagnosable as suffering from major depression – four times the incidence of men in the general population.
Here are highlights from our interview:
THINKADVISOR: How could Trump and Clinton benefit from your coaching?
ALDEN CASS: We’re dealing with two of the least liked presidential candidates in the history of politics. Both of them need work! They have blind spots, and not changing their behavior is limiting their connecting with voters.
What’s Trump’s biggest weakness in his presentation?
Trump’s Achilles’ heel seems to be emotion. How easily he gets amped up on stage and his larger-than-life personality have gotten him his base audience; but he’s never been able to get the rest of the independents and undecided voters. He needs to temper his emotions for the debate. Independents are looking for someone who’s much more conservative, calmer and even-keeled. More people might have gone his way if he’d given the world that image.
What’s Hillary Clinton’s worst weakness?
She shows no emotion. She needs to sound more emotionally connected with independents — more genuine and less like a machine. Her Achilles’ heel has always been that people don’t trust her.
Clinton has a habit of often starting sentences with the word, “Look.” Sounds condescending.
Authoritative. I think she’s trying to be assertive. She’s battling somebody who in his own head is very authoritative. Maybe she feels the need to up the ante a little by using that word.
Trump’s typical mode is attacking on a personal level. Should he change that approach?
He’s trying to really get under Hillary’s skin. But she’s a machine, and I don’t think it’s going to work. He needs to come across in a milder manner, focusing on the issues, not on personal life.
Isn’t Trump harming his chances by insulting and discrediting people, and insisting there’s a conspiracy against him by Clinton’s campaign and the media, and that the election is rigged? Sounds like he feels persecuted.
He probably does. He’s gotten more bad press than any candidate in the history of politics. I would feel persecuted if I were Trump. But if you’re running for president and have skeletons in your closet and did things you wish you hadn’t, [be ready] for [fallout].
How should Trump respond when, more than likely, Clinton will raise the issue of the sexual assault allegations against him?
She’s baiting him each time they bring up an allegation about his sexual past, or his taxes. Then he attacks and makes himself look that much worse. So the strategy of the Democrats is working.
What’s a better way for Trump to respond?
He should first question her on why she’s said nothing publicly to attack him about the [sexual misconduct] but used her “hired guns” to do so. It appears that she’s tried to avoid taking a strong stance for fear Trump may have more damaging information relating to Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affairs, and that could make her look hypocritical. She’s playing “prevent defense” to avoid being knocked out.
What approach, then, should Clinton take during the debate?
She has an opportunity to get past politics and bring out the sexual assault and harassment of women as a major problem in our society and that if elected, she’ll work to eliminate it. If she doesn’t speak out about this issue, she’ll be letting women down as a gender. But she should be wary of accusing Trump directly and instead focus on the problem in society and how it may have impacted her life and career.
How else could Trump respond in the debate about the assault claims against him?
He could talk about the Constitution and that we live in a country where everyone is innocent until proven guilty but that the media isn’t allowing him this right. He should show regret that this issue is clouding the election and vow that the allegations will be disproved, if they are indeed untrue.
What should Trump say about the bragging he did on the “Access Hollywood” video?
“I was being really childish. I wasn’t being appropriate. I regret those comments.” That’s it. He doesn’t need to deny them or water them down. That’s been the problem. Anytime he minimizes something, it makes it worse. Hillary suffers from that too when it comes to minimizing the mistakes she’s made.
When Trump brings up Bill Clinton and what Trump says was Hillary’s treatment of women who were with him, she’s not taking ownership of anything she had to do with that or how it affected her on a deep level. I’m sure people would love to hear how it made her feel and how she stuck it out in their marriage for this long.
What’s your advice to Trump concerning the ownership issue?
He’s shown an inability to take ownership for things at an emotional level, like showing sadness or regret. The bravado needs to be toned down. Independent voters would like to see more humility. His reactions aren’t improving his likeability. Both he and Clinton deny everything, and that rubs the American people the wrong way.
During the second debate, Trump was walking around close to Clinton when she was speaking. Later, she said she felt he was trying to stalk her. That’s how it appeared.
He’s doing everything to create intimidation. In some circles, that would be a tactic to throw the adversary off-guard. He’s not exactly playing by political rules; he’s playing by street rules, it seems. That caters to his political base who wants things to be done differently in politics going forward.
Trump can get incensed and overwrought. What would be your advice to him about that?
He’s got to go contrarian to make people think, “Wow, maybe he actually can be presidential.” He needs to do the exact opposite of what everyone expects — that he’ll be unhinged. He’s thin-skinned because he’s already tightly wound. He needs to control his emotions.
What specific technique could help him?
Before the debate, I’d use the “Calm Reminder” exercise with him, which would allow him to skip the insults and come across more collected and not be down-and-dirty. I do this exercise with my trader coaching clients to bring down their anxiety and [hence] trade with less emotion.
What’s the exercise?
It’s progressive muscle relaxation in which you visualize numbers while tensing and relaxing specific body parts.
Would you advise Clinton to do an exercise?
Yes: The Mental Success Highlight Reel in order to conjure up emotions from her childhood or teenage years, when she felt really connected to someone. This would help her re-experience those powerfully strong emotions before she walks onstage and appear more emotionally connected to independent voters.
What about Clinton’s body language? How could that be improved upon?
She comes off as being very stiff – the whole robotic nature of being a machine. The way she dresses plays into that too. She’s a good talker, but I would coach her to talk from her heart, not just from her head.
In contrast, Trump typically targets people on a personal level.
He’s coming from a different world. He’s not playing by typical traditional political rules. Those voting for Trump want the whole political system to go under and be rebooted and restarted completely. Political correctness isn’t something they care about when it comes to changing what they think is a rigged system. But you can’t reboot something until you’ve destroyed it. There’s got to be a vehicle for that. To some people, it would be Trump.
If he’s elected and reinvents the system, how do you think it would impact the country? That’s the thing – he’s unpredictable, and that’s what would keep an independent voter away. Someone who wants to make sure that things are a little more stable and predictable in the short term is likely to vote for Hillary.
How should Clinton respond if Trump again accuses her of being heedless regarding the Benghazi attack, when she was Secretary of State?
She should just focus on the findings of the investigation and pivot away from the discussion.
And what if Trump again confronts her about issues concerning her private e-mail server?
She has referred to that [decision] as a mistake. In the debate, maybe she needs to beg for the American people’s forgiveness on this topic, and call it a day. That would take the ammunition away from her adversary.
It seems that Clinton has to walk a very fine line between showing emotion and not descending to Trump’s level of personal attack. Many praised her response when, in the second debate, she reacted with humor to his boasting about his temperament and judgment by going, “Whoo!” and doing a shoulder shimmy.
If I were Clinton, I’d show positive emotion and laugh at him. I’d say, “Donald, you’re so funny.” That would completely take the wind out of his sail. He wouldn’t know what to do with that.
In what instances might she use that tack?
If Trump brings up his [idea of pre-debate] drug testing, she could make a joke out of it and say that [what with] all the partying it looks like he’s done over the years, maybe he should be worried about the results.
How else could she use humor?
If Trump brings up his perception that there’s a conspiracy against him, she could say, “Hey, Donald, we both knew what we were signing up for when we decided to run for President.”
What’s the mood of your financial advisor and trader clients concerning the election cycle? Are they worried?
They’re mostly entertained. But they have very strong opinions on the economy because this is their bread and butter. They want predictability. I believe that the leaked speeches they’ve been reading about — Hillary speaking to Goldman Sachs [and so on] –have calmed them down regarding her stance toward Wall Street.
That [will] help her win over many more Republicans and undecided voters who work on [the] Street.
How can she explain, largely to Bernie Sanders’ former base, why she said what she said in those speeches about the financial services industry?
That it was nothing more than a way to open the dialogue between Democrats and the banking industry. She can use this to further show that she can cross both sides of the aisle.
Who do your clients want to see elected president?
They’re focusing on their livelihood and what each candidate would do to the stock market and the impact that will have. My clients are mostly centrist Republicans who believe that nothing really will change with Hillary and that there’s more of a risk if Trump is elected. They don’t like his unpredictability and what that could do to the market. They want to see the market continue doing as well as it is. So it’s whoever is going to keep things status quo.
Why do some of your other clients say they’re voting for Trump?
It’s almost as if they like the novelty of it. They say, “I want to see what he’ll do to the country.” Trump’s antics are appealing to a certain group of voters.
But Trump’s Tweets in the middle of the night and some other actions seem not to be in the best interest of a person hoping to be elected president.
For some people, that’s the likeable quality they see in him; for others, it’s a deterrent. Trump’s base isn’t going to be changed by any of those behaviors.
A week or so ago, he suggested that Hillary Clinton isn’t “loyal” to her husband. So I’m wondering what he has up his sleeve.
Trump is probably not done bringing skeletons out of the closet. As we’ve learned throughout this entire election cycle, with Donald Trump, you always have to be prepared for anything. If he’s cornered, it seems that he’ll do anything it takes to win any battle. Both Trump and Clinton need to show more compassion toward the world and less about their battle with each other.
— Related on ThinkAdvisor: