When Your Brain Moves Slower Than Your Mouth: A Lesson in Communicating with Intention
“My brain was slower than my mouth.” Everyone has moments like this. We say something unfiltered. We speak without thinking. We communicate things without a clear intention. We all fall guilty of this from time to time—after all, we are only human.
However, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage’s recent ‘slip up’ was not his first and it came at exactly the wrong time.
On January 6, 2016, Gov. LePage spoke at a town hall meeting in Bridgeton, Maine, hoping to persuade the people of his state to support his legislative agenda. About 30 minutes into the meeting, Gov. LePage was asked to address the state’s growing substance abuse problem. During his response, Governor LePage spoke about how heroin is coming into Maine through out-of-state drug dealers.
“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty—these types of guys—they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go home,” said Gov. LePage. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”
Oops. Not only did Gov. LePage not support this outlandish statement with any facts, but it was quickly interpreted as playing into long-standing racial stereotypes: black drug dealers knocking up young white girls.
This was certainly not the first time Gov. LePage said something offensive or inflammatory. He once famously told the Maine NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and said that a Democratic lawmaker has “no brains” and was, “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”
Within hours, Gov. LePage’s latest inflammatory comments spread like wildfire across social media, and were quickly picked up by major national media including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Huffington Post. And Gov. LePage’s comment quickly reached the national political stage as part of the 2016 presidential election.
Marlon Marshall from the Hillary for America campaign commented, “LePage’s racist rants sadly distract from efforts to address one of our nation’s most pressing problems.”
Michael Tyler, Director of African American media of the Democratic National Committee, admonished not only Gov. LePage for his remarks, but also Republican presidential candidate and New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, for not renouncing Gov. LePage, who had endorsed Gov. Christie in his presidential bid. “Paul LePage’s comments are disgusting, racist, and represent the worst form of conservative politics—one that plays to the darkest elements of the Republican Party’s base,” said Tyler. “By remaining silent, Gov. Christie condones LePage’s racist comments and his world view.”
The day after Gov. LePage’s comment, Gov. LePage’s Communication Director Peter Steele said that the governor’s comments had nothing to do with race. “What is relevant is the cost to state taxpayers for welfare and emotional costs for these kids who are born as a result of involvement with drug traffickers. His heart goes out to these kids because he had a difficult childhood too,” said Steele. “We need to stop the drug traffickers from coming into our state.”
However, this was not enough to stop the firestorm of criticism coming the governor’s way inside and outside of his state. On Friday, January 8, Gov. LePage held a press conference to address the comments he had made two days earlier.
“I made one slip-up,” said Gov. LePage. “I was going impromptu, and my brain didn’t catch up to my mouth. Instead of saying ‘Maine women,’ I said ‘white women.’ I’m not going to apologize to the Maine women for that, because if you go to Maine, you’ll see that we’re essentially 95 percent white.” He then, despite his earlier words, apologized to Maine women twice for using the wrong word, saying, “my brain was slower than my mouth.”
Despite LePage’s non-apology/apology for his remarks, it didn’t stop the story from spreading across the US. When The Daily Show with Trevor Noah covered the story on Monday, Noah mocked Gov. LePage’s statement about how these drug dealers impregnate a young white girl half the time: “What happens the other half of the time? What, are you accusing them of being lazy? What—you think they are just driving back and they’re like, ‘Oh snap! That’s what I forgot: impregnation?”
Beyond the national criticism and media attention around Gov. LePage’s statement, the governor faced serious problems in his own state. At the same time as Gov. LePage was being scorned nationally for his racist comment, a group of nine Maine legislators were getting ready to push for Gov. LePage’s impeachment. This would be the first time ever in Maine’s history that a sitting governor would be subject to impeachment proceedings. The impeachment motion was not about any of the governor’s inflammatory comments, but rather accusing him of abuse of power, citing eight incidents of alleged misconduct including a secret investigation into the Maine Human Rights Commission and a threat made that cost Gov. LePage’s political opponent, the Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, a private-sector job.
In that final week before the group tried to impeach Gov. LePage, the governor lost some support in the House because of his racist comments. Rep. Ben Chipman (D-Portland), sponsor of the impeachment motion, said that some of his colleagues had decided to support the impeachment motion or became more open to it because of the governor’s comment. 
Rep. Chipman said earlier that week that, “There’s some people that might have been on the fence, and this might be enough to sway them and say, “You know what? It’s time to hold the governor accountable.” That’s what this whole thing is about.”
The effort to impeach Gov. LePage a week later ultimately and predictably failed in a 96- 52 House vote. The governor celebrated this ‘victory’ by calling the impeachment effort “foolishness.”
Although the impeachment order failed, there is a lesson here. Gov. LePage, in a moment when he was already under scrutiny in his state by his constituents and Maine’s House of Representatives, made an unplanned, offensive, inflammatory comment that earned him national criticism. His comments and the statewide impeachment effort became a national story. Gov. LePage lost support in those final critical moments before the impeachment vote. And he gave his opponents more ammunition to use as they continue to admonish him and his actions as governor. Though for now Gov. LePage remains in his role, what will this mean for his legislative agenda? How will this affect his already low approval rating?
Whether a politician, a CEO, an activist, or anyone else in the public eye—when our brains move slower than our mouths, it can come at a serious cost and make it much harder to achieve our goals. When we develop the discipline to communicate with intention, to have our brains move faster than our mouths, and to communicate in ways that provoke a reaction that will help us achieve our goals, we not only achieve our goals faster, but also minimize the chance of self-inflicted harm.
This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.