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Handling Hostile Audiences Isn’t Easy, But Is Sometimes Necessary

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Handling hostile audiences isn’t easy, but is sometimes necessary.
I recently had serious fun with senior public servants workshopping the required skills. Specific contexts warrant specific approaches, but the following general points may also help:

  1. Facing hostile audiences is fraught with risk, but sometimes a person of position has to front up. Effective handling probably won’t win everyone, but it will win some and moderate others.
  2. Beware advice from the Internet. One webpage advises telling jokes to lighten a heavy atmosphere. Another says confront hecklers toe-to-toe. Really? Maybe in standup comedy.
  3. Don’t over-formalise: stiffness distances people rather than breaking down barriers. How we set up a room as well as how we dress, sit, stand and speak influences audience response. Let personality and warmth infuse or at least peek through professionalism. Emotionalism hinders, but ignoring emotion is unhealthy and unhelpful.
  4. Communication is about process and timing as much as content. Nut out a simple plan that lets your meeting blend spontaneity and flexibility with purpose, including: a) your meeting aim, b) your key content points and shorthand for any critical detail, c) a rough process or timing and order, and d) action outcomes. Allow some discursive conversation. It’s essential for relationship.
  5. Too many attempts at empathy are token, weak, ineffective. People with over-wrought emotion are not ready to be rational. If the extent of empathy is, “I understand your anger…” some listeners think, “No you don’t.” Replace worn out 1990s phrases with natural, authentic responses, delivery and intent. If we say, “I can see you’re really upset, but, it’s important for us to focus on blah blah blah,” listeners hear the but coming, negating the blip of empathy before it. Try inverting phrase order to let empathy linger, as in: “It’s important we discuss in a moment how to improve the situation, BUT FIRST, on the issue of blah blah blah (pick something real, even if it’s not major or central), I’d really like to say I’m sorry.”
  6. Too often “I can’t help you” or “There’s nothing more I can do” is an excuse. Even if we can’t concede something substantive for policy, resource or other good reasons, we can try to concede something. People who feel powerless or disrespected get angrier. Be creative. Maybe offer to make a phone call, write a note, follow up, or put in a good word. Show care by trying to understand and lighten people’s loads, even when we don’t agree.
  7. Mastery researcher K. Anders Ericsson says skill grows through deliberate practice outside our comfort zones with correct feedback. Don’t leave hostile meetings to chance. Simulation builds experience that fuels your brain when you need to think on your feet.

Keep making the world a better place.

P.S. If you’re interested in activism tactics, you may be interested in my post about Saul D. Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals, also on this site.