Leaders get involved in difficult speaking situations. Great leaders shape the conversation to everyone’s benefit.
Some conversations are studded with “gotcha” risk. Media interviews. Tense negotiations. Q&A with an aggressive or angry employee. Convincing a group about a major change initiative with significant risks to the status quo. You need to shape the conversation as a leader.
Ineffective strategies: Talking over them, not letting them ask or finish questions, not responding to their question, or spouting scripted talking points which aren’t related to the question. These make a difficult situation worse, and frequently give the “opposition” ammunition to use against you, or your organization. Any behavior which looks like you have an agenda which precludes listening will create a bigger problem to solve. [Note: there are different successful practices if you’re being deposed or testifying in court – consult your attorney.]
Tips for Shaping the Conversation
- Listen to their statement/question. Really listen. Only cut it short if they are repetitive or rambling, and then begin your response by checking your understanding of their question. Also, when people lump together multiple questions, it’s fair to respond to them as a series of questions.
- A 2-second delay before you respond may feel long, but is to your advantage. If they push for a quick response, you can say gently, “You’ve asked me a thoughtful question, and I want to give you a thoughtful response.”
- Responding well is more than simply answering the question. It’s your opportunity to add information, texture, detail, important messages. Multidimensional answers create space to share a story and convey your expertise. Where possible, anchor your response with specifics about people, places, objects, and time. I watched a senior leader at DuPont respond to an employee anxious and angry about budget reductions and layoffs. In five sentences, he spoke about his early role as a plant manager, the colleagues and great work they accomplished. He finished by saying “I loved those people. I loved that operation. Everyone left safely on my watch. And it was no longer profitable, even with our cost-cutting efforts, because the market changed. I made the right–and yet hard–decision to eliminate those positions.”
- Be cautious with humor; it’s hard to predict accurately what humor will play well, and what will mostly annoy. Self-deprecating humor is generally safer.
- Shift up or down a level in your response. You might broaden out from the question to give additional context, or another perspective. You may find it helpful to narrow in on one aspect of a broad statement.
- Gently correct incorrect statements. Don’t allow factual errors to stand. Better to say “misinformed” or “mistaken” rather than flatly state “You’re wrong.”
- Smile. Not the fake smile that looks like a smirk. The biggest tip I can give here is to think about the questioner(s) as intelligent, smart, experienced people that you can learn from. If you think about them as anything else, your facial expressions and body language will betray you.
- Consciously speak more slowly as you respond. They are hanging on every word, every turn of phrase; make it worthwhile for them to do so.
- Find ways to use AND rather than BUT. Look again at the example I gave above: “And it was no longer profitable.” Most of your audiences will react to use of <statement-BUT-statement> conjunction like a tripwire setting off a bomb.
- Keep breathing. Amateurs tend to stop breathing in tense, risky situations. When you stop breathing well your heart rate climbs, you won’t think clearly, and the pitch in your voice becomes shrill.
- Find ways to say, “Thank you” as part of responses, not just the end. Example: “Thanks for asking that, because the issue is important to me, also.”
- Where possible, end a conversation with your response. Summarize or re-state important messages and context.
Resist the ever-present temptation to “take control” and speak over someone with power and authority. Resist it. Great leaders shape the conversation for everyone’s benefit.
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