Thursday, October 20, 2011

From the vault: Stay civil, but disagree with your audience

(Editor's note: A challenge from the audience can set many a speaker on her heels. This post from the vault has been updated with additional information to help you navigate difficult questions with care in speeches, media interviews and other speaker situations.)

It might happen in a meeting, during a media interview or in the question time after your presentation. Do you kick into defensive mode in a discussion? Find yourself feeling attacked or challenged and want to strike back, at least sometimes?  Then it's time to figure out how to civilize your responses.  Along with my 17 reasons to welcome audience questions to remind yourself why you do want questions, these 5 tactics for civil disagreement from Altitude Branding blog will help you avoid reacting, and just respond. These are particularly helpful if you face a difficult audience or have a particular challenger listening to your presentation, but in fact, these approaches can help you calm down when handling any kind of  Q&A. Here's my speaker's perspective on the 5 points:
  1. Make sure you heard correctly.  And make sure you do so with respect, rather than a "You talkin' to me?" tone. "Help me understand what you just said" is a nice neutral phrase to use.  There's a big chance you misheard or misunderstood, especially if the question is short, pointed or loaded with code words, so ask for help to break down the issue.
  2. Ask questions instead of retorting.  Sometimes it's irresistible to answer with a quick quip--but not if you are disagreeing with the questioner. So ask questions to get at her intent, and make sure they aren't leading or loaded questions.
  3. Depersonalize.  It's easy to feel like a target when you are standing up there alone, but in fact, most questions are posed to raise issues or express what someone else feels. Maybe your role is to let them do that.  This time, it's probably not about you.
  4. Listen, listen and listen again. (The original was "Read, read and read again," which works for email and social media.)  That's what asking questions of the questioner will help you do--and if you really listen to the answers, you may find out why it's not about you and information that will help you handle the questioner better than your first impulse.
  5. Call a truce.  You don't have to come to agreement, and your audience need not always agree with you--shocking but true.  Don't feel you have to bring everything to a peaceful conclusion.
Altitude Branding's piece is a good one to keep in your file on graceful ways with Q-and-A. If you find yourself getting caught up in the arguments and reacting to them, especially in anger or frustration, check out these tips from our sister blog, don't get caught, on how to respond rather than react when answering a challenge or tough question. The tips are designed for those doing media interviews, but are applicable to speakers with large or small contentious audiences.

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