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If Vibes Could Kill…Tips for Dealing With Hostile Audiences

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s-l300A question I get often from clients is “What’s the best way of dealing with participants who are resistant or outright hostile?”

When I ask them “How many participants is that in a typical audience?” the answer is usually “one is enough,” or “none yet, but I know I’ll get them!” Although our fear of hostility in an audience is real, it may take on bigger-than-life proportions. The best presenters are authentic in front of an audience, and therefore personally exposed. That, I believe, is the source of the fear.

I cut my teeth with resistant audiences a few years ago. I designed and presented mandatory classes in supervisory skills for law enforcement professionals in one big-city department. Imagine the crossed arms, squeaking leather and flat affect as the cops leaned back in their chairs and gave me the “vibe!”

This three-year experience boosted my abilities to deal effectively with resistance. I grew thicker skin, became more detached and better grounded. Of course, it was also essential to know my stuff and present with authority and reason. The experience was extremely helpful to my development as a presenter.

Resistant dynamics can be found in any audience. Here are three essential techniques to address it effectively.

Three Steps to Deal With Difficult Dynamics

1. Check Yourself.
Most of our fear as presenters is actually about us. Ask yourself: What am I feeling about this audience? Why? What’s the worst that could happen? How can I get internally balanced and grounded before getting up in front of them?

Prepare yourself emotionally and physically. Make sure you’ve had enough to eat, and plenty of water. If you find yourself going “on stage” expecting the worst and/or not being prepared for as many questions and challenges as possible, you do yourself and your audience a miserable disservice.

2. Don’t Try to “Fix” People.
Your goal is to present to the best of your ability. It is not your goal to “fix” people’s behaviors. In my experience, a participant acting in a hostile or resistant way is a symptom of underlying problems and anxieties in the group. Even if that particular person were to magically disappear, the resistant energy will likely be taken up and voiced by someone else. Acknowledge and respect the dynamics in the room. Detach from them.

3. Present as if Everyone Were Uncommitted.
I borrow from Don Pfarrer’s book, Guerilla Persuasion, for this third tip. I’ve found it incredibly helpful, and so have my clients.

Assume that in every audience, there are those who are friendly to you and your message, those that are hostile, those that are indifferent and those that are simply uncommitted. Addressing the Uncommitted segment provides a sensible strategy to deal with the many simultaneous crosscurrents in the audience.

You’ll only be able to reach the Uncommitted by speaking in tones of moderation, patience, good cheer and reason. You won’t have to feel apprehensive about waves of animosity coming your way, nor tempted to cut corners by assuming support where it might not exist.

All Audience Segments Benefit When You Focus on the Uncommitted.

Audience Segment What Do They Want from the Experience? Dangers of Focusing Only on This Segment? How This Segment Benefits When You Focus on the Uncommitted
“Friendlies” Satisfaction, affinity. Perhaps a pep-talk. Too easy – you may assume too much. Their knowledge and commitment is deepened.
“Hostiles” To see you fail. To hear you say something ill-natured or wrong. Increases your own nervousness and defensiveness. You may come off abrasively and unlikable. They experience human respect, openness and reason from you (and are likely to mirror the behavior.)
“Indifferents” To be left alone and unchanged. To the exclusion of the rest of the audience, you may tie yourself up into knots trying get a response. They may get the message, while not being hammered by you.
“Uncommitteds” To experience a reasoned, well-thought-out, good-natured exposure to the issues. NONE! They get the best of YOU: affinity and reason.YOU won’t cut corners by assuming support where it might not exist.YOU are forced to construct and present your message thoroughly, persuasively and with confidence.

The bottom line is: KNOW YOUR STUFF. Be ready for questions and challenges. By checking yourself, not trying to “fix” audience members, and focusing on the Uncommitted, you take great strides towards more resiliency and effectiveness as a presenter.

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