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Thinking on our feet; answering difficult questions – Barry Manilow is the key

I’ve worked recently with a number of people who want to communicate better when their views or knowledge are challenged. Some of them are preparing to face the media; others are grappling with obstructive colleagues. Others still fear the moment a client queries their creative work.

In all cases these people feel threatened, judged, out of control, unable to think on their feet. Their usual response is either to go on the offensive or immediately cave in. Neither of which is helpful. Showing aggression or irritation, pulling up the drawbridge on the discussion will alienate your ‘audience’. Rolling over without a fight will diminish your credibility in their eyes.

But it’s no surprise that we respond thus. There’s neurological evidence to show that attacks (perceived or actual) on our self esteem have the same impact on the brain as physical pain (as one might experience when savaged by a sabre tooth tiger). Hence the body goes into ‘flight or fight’ mode, governed by the brain’s amygdala. This prevents us from logical/analytical thought and creates instead instant defensive reactions.

So what can we do, practically, to perform better in these stressful situations?

1. Acknowledge to ourselves, when the opinion is expressed/the challenge made, that the other person’s viewpoint is every bit as valid as yours. As Sheryl Sandberg says in Lean In, “there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth.” I’ve found this to be very helpful personally. So have others in the training room.

2. Avoid the ‘spotlight effect’. In her fabulous book Presence, Amy Cuddy introduces us to “one of the most enduring and widespread human biases – to feel that people are paying more attention to us than they actually are…and usually in a bad, not good way.” There’s an excellent piece of research on this involving Barry Manilow T shirts! The simple absolute truth here is that the challenge/query/question is not about you. We therefore shouldn’t interpret it as a personal attack.

3. Once we’ve respected their viewpoint and got over ourselves, we can then buy some thinking time by asking questions – seeking clarification of the issue being raised; probing more deeply into the objection (is it the shade of red or red itself which you’re not so keen on?). This serves several purposes. It enables us to actually answer the query better. It gives us time to formulate our answer. Plus it communicates to our audience that we are confident, reasonable and professional. As Steven Covey advises in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “we should seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Never more relevant than when challenged in this way.

4. As we begin to answer the query, we need to pay attention to our verbal and non verbal cues. Basically, we need to ‘lean in’ to our audience rather than away from them (behind the drawbridge). Watch out for crossed arms, poor eye contact, a clipped tone of voice. Aim for a collaborative and open posture, good listening, receptive and rational facial expressions, a low vocal pitch. This will resonate well with your audience and it will also, if we’re to believe the teachings of the ‘father of American psychology, William James, help us to actually feel more rational and collaborative.

James theorised that bodily experiences cause emotions, not the other way round; that we can fake an emotion until we actualize it; that “I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing”. More on that next month ……….. tra la la la