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Unlike Most Presidential Couples, the Obamas Actually Listen to Each Other

The future president and First Lady display a new kind of equality and respect.
 
 
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In an earlier post we commented on positive aspects of the relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama. Fresh from having watched their recent 60 Minutes interview, we'd like to bring to your attention one remarkable bit of body language we can all learn from. Specifically, if you watch their body language carefully, you'll see that Michelle and Barack communicate with each other in a way that is rare among presidential couples: when Michelle Obama is speaking, Barack makes eye contact with her and listens with interest to what she's saying.

If you want to see just how rare that is, look at old footage of interviews with Laura and George Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton and the elder Bushes. Go back a little further and look at footage of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Pat and Richard Nixon and any others you can find. Here's what you usually WON'T see: the President looking at his wife when she's speaking. You'll see lots of footage of presidential wives listening, usually with an adoring smile locked firmly in place, to their husbands, but it's rare to see it the other way around. When Michelle Obama is speaking, though, Barack looks at her and listens. When he's speaking, she looks and listens. It's a refreshing exception, and a key to the respect that flows between them.

When we first noticed this unusual bit of presidential body language, it brought back a memory of a moment that still gives us a chuckle. Some years ago we were doing a round of television talk shows at the time our book, Conscious Loving, was first published. Our publisher had arranged the tour so that we did the big national shows such as 'Oprah' first, followed by appearances on regional shows in various parts of the country. We were on a show in Portland, Oregon when the following event occurred.

Just after the show ended, the affable host tapped Gay on the shoulder and said, "Could I ask you a personal question?"

"Sure," Gay said.

The host said, "I couldn't help but noticing that you do something very unusual when your wife is talking."

Gay felt a stirring of anxiety, fearing that the host was going to take him to task for violating some aspect of talk-show etiquette. The host continued, "We have relationship experts on this show all the time, and many of them are couples, but there's something you do that I haven't seen any of the others do."

"What's that?" Gay asked.

The host said, "When your wife is talking, you actually appear to be interested in what she's saying! You look like you're really listening when she's talking." He paused for a moment then asked, "How do you do that?" It became clear that he thought it was some sort of technique, designed to give the appearance of keen interest, and he wanted to learn how to do it.

Gay said, "Well, it's pretty easy to do, because I'm actually interested in what she's saying."

"Oh," the host said, his eyes glazing over as he backed away. Apparently the idea of genuine interest either didn't appeal to him or seemed too alien a concept to grasp.

Here's a question that's come up in recent interviews we've give on the quality of the Obama marriage: Is it possible to fake the kind of affection and interest that Michelle and Barack seem to have in each other's communication? The question brings to mind Lawrence Olivier's famous remark about acting: "The main thing about acting is honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made." With Michelle and Barack's relationship, their level of ease, affection and respect carries a deep sense of authenticity about it. After nearly 40 years of counseling couples, individuals, business executives and others, we've seen just about every form of concealment, subterfuge, defensiveness and guile there is to see. If you've been watching presidential couples for a few decades, you've also seen just about every form of concealment, subterfuge, defensiveness and guile there is to see. Maybe now we're embarking on something new and long overdue: a role model of a healthy relationship in the White House.

 
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