President Obama has received some criticism for smiling at Hugo Chavez, but I think it’s rather short-sighted. Regardless of how you feel about Chavez, or Obama for that matter, no one can disagree that both America and Venezuela will benefit from a better relationship. Obama’s smile may just be the best way to get one.
Neuroscience has taught us that our mirror neurons will mimic both the actions and intent of others, and experiments in social psychology have shown that we will assume the emotional state of those we interact with. If Obama frowns and feels displeasure when face-to-face with Chavez, there will be more reason for the President of Venezuela to continue his criticism of the U.S. The relationship is liable to get worse.
When Obama is open and friendly in his greeting, however, Chavez is unconsciously prompted to be open and friendly in return. Not only does that undercut his motivation to criticize the U.S., it makes it far more likely that a good working relationship can be created and conflicts resolved.
But those with a more Machiavellian turn of mind might see Obama as naive and Chavez as the kind that is quick to take unfair advantage. They would insist that Obama display his toughness. However, that point of view ignores one of the most powerful strategies for managing an adversarial relationship.
I was once the target of a frivolous lawsuit. When it came time to depose the person suing me, I eagerly looked forward to my lawyer having at him. Instead, my lawyer was easy going and friendly. When I expressed my displeasure, my lawyer explained that his approach was the best way to get someone to drop their guard and make mistakes. Sure enough, his strategy worked and the lawsuit was dropped.
It may feel good in the moment to express our anger, but it’s a costly indulgence. It’s much smarter to keep our goal in mind, and behave in the best way to accomplish it. Besides, when you’re tough, you don’t need to advertise it.