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Speak for Success!

"Be a voice not an echo." - Albert Einstein

How to Deal with Difficult Audience Members and Win Their Trust

Knowing how to deal with difficult people is important to effective public speaking.

Can you achieve trust, even with resistant or difficult audience members? Here's how to handle tough situations and emerge a winner.

How's your emotional thermometer working when you give a speech or presentation?

It's a delicate instrument. And sometimes it's hard to get the calibration right. From the burn of your passion for your topic, to staying cool with the occasional overheated listener, you're faced with a balancing act that goes straight to how well you connect with an audience.

So how do you deal with that latter situation: the emotionally overcharged audience member? What skills will help you negotiate your encounter—witnessed by everyone present—with the unhappy or angry listener during Q & A? 

Whatever your feelings are about the question-and-answer period, it's an essential part of educating and persuading audiences. Most people can give an adequate presentation. But if you handle yourself well in Q & A, you'll really convince people you know your topic and can defend your positions. Get the presenter's guide that will allow your influence to soar. Download my essential cheat sheet"How to Survive the 7 Danger Zones of Q & A." 

It starts and ends, really, with that emotional thermometer. You especially need to know when to allow the reading to go from hot to cool—particularly when the temperature in the room starts to get uncomfortable.

How to handle yourself in Q & A or question-and-answer sessions is a key public speaking skill.

Why You Need to Be Really Good at Q & A

Q & A is the time you'll most often face a difficult questioner, for a simple reason: it's the segment of your talk where a true dialogue takes place. Up until then it can all feel like a monologue: You deliver your talk, and everyone listens passively. (In a successful presentation it's never that way, of course. Here's how you can take your presentation skills to the level of a dynamic performance.)

Audiences understand that they get to be more active participants when you open up your talk to questions. And they will take advantage of the opportunity! 

But here's why I call Q & A "The forgotten avenue to audience persuasion": Everyone knows that although you may have prepared your talk meticulously, you're flying into unchartered territory during Q & A. Since you can't know the questions that will be coming your way, you will be demonstrating at every moment whether you truly know your stuff. You'll need to respond knowledgeably, calmly, and immediately, with composure and preferably some self-deprecating humor. All the more reason that your emotional meter needs to be well calibrated.

Psychologists know how to deal with an angry person, and speakers should know too.  

What Are You Really Being Asked with That Question?

This is where your listening skills come strongly into play. By that, I mean careful emotional listening. The reason you need to demonstrate this skill couldn't be more important: Unless you listen with that level of attention, you may miss what the questioner is really saying. 

In the theater, we call the heart of what's happening in a scene—both the character's individual response and the feelings of the other characters—the subtext. Just as it sounds, that means everything apart from the text that's actually written in the play or the script. If you're thinking that's the essence of what's happening between these human beings in the scene, much more so than the squiggly lines written on a page, you're exactly right.

Isn't the similarity between an actor's subtext and the underlying intent of the person who asks you a question in Q & A obvious? Many times, that is, the person challenging you is venting voicing long-felt anger or frustration at the easiest target: you. What follows may be more substantive in terms of an actual question or position, but none of it could emerge until the volcano erupted first. That may be difficult for you not to take it personally, but that's exactly what needs to happen. And here's the second half of this essential skill: the ability to verbally acknowledge the vented emotion, without admitting culpability or fault. (Here's more on how to achieve emotional power in your speeches and presentations.)

"I'm very sorry to hear about your experience. You shouldn't have had to go through that. Let me share with you what I think the solution to a situation like that one is. . . ." Once the questioner's pain has been acknowledged, they will be much more likely to listen to what follows, which of course should be genuinely substantive and informed on your part.

Stock photo image of a line of matches catching on fire.

The Risk of Losing Your Presentation Cool

So what's the big deal if you don't retain your emotional cool, take it personally, and strike back at the angry questioner? The big deal is that you immediately lose your audience; and you won't get it back.

That's because whatever their individual personalities and preoccupations, audience members identify with each other. How could it be different? There's only one "you" speaking and a collective "them".

An angry and unreasonable questioner voluntarily steps out of line, making it immediately obvious that they're treating the speaker unfairly. People will be on your side in that situation. Your reasonableness and rationality just strengthens your case. But the moment you turn into a jerk yourself, the magic evaporates and it's you against the group. And at that point, you may start wondering who turned off the air conditioning in the place. 

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Tags: public speaking skills,Q & A,question and answer sessions,The Genard Method,Dr. Gary Genard,dealing with difficult people,how to deal with difficult people,how to handle a tough public speaking situation

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