What Would You Do If An Audience Member Opposed You?

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What Would You Do If An Audience Member Opposed You?

December 14, 2008 Dealing with Difficult People Persuasion 4

There are many ways to develop your skill in the art of persuasion.  One of my least favorite, but most effective, is learning from mistakes.  Today, I’m going to share a story with you about an experience I had with an audience member early in my speaking career.  It was a tough night, and the learning of it has stayed with me for years.  I hope it serves you as well.  It’s a story about dealing with someone in opposition.

Opposition.  To oppose, stand against, seek to undermine or eliminate.  Ever heard these challenging words?  “You’ll never change my mind.”  “I wasn’t born yesterday!  Who do you think you’re kidding?”  “Save your breath.  We’ve got better things to do than listen to another of your foolish ideas!”

The biggest mistake that you can make when faced with opposition is to turn the encounter into a confrontation.  It’s not hard to do.   Talk down, put it down, or go round in an argument.  “Yes, but…” will surely deepen it. “You’re wrong!” forces others to choose sides.  And what becomes of you and your ideas? You wind up weakened where you might have had support.

I speak from experience.  I learned this the hard way, in the beginning of my professional speaking career.  And I had an audience for the lesson.  I’ll never forget the queasy feeling I got as the group turned against me.  I’ll never forget my astonishment at how easily everything I said seemed to turn into something else.

It was an evening seminar on lasting love in a fickle world.  The audience was mostly single.  There was a young man in the audience, sitting between two young women, and trying to impress both.  He was talking each in turn, back and forth, and loud enough to disrupt and distract everyone else, and me in particular.  Ever so politely, I asked him to please lower his voice for the benefit of the people around him, or take the conversation outside.  He took that as a signal to get louder.

Then I asked him what his problem was.  He replied, “What’s your problem?”  I defended my position.  “I’m trying to do my job up here, and what you are doing isn’t working for me or the people sitting around you.”  His reply, “Maybe I’m doing them a favor.  Because you don’t know what you’re talking about anyway.”  It went straight downhill from there, as everything I said made it worse for me, and better for him.  By evening’s end I was exhausted, most of the group had left, except those who stayed to watch the conflict and see how it ended.  The good news is that it did end.  The bad news is that it ended badly.  I asked him to leave.  He wouldn’t.  I had the full experience of dealing with opposition, and I hated it.  The guy kept at it until the program was just about over.  He left in triumph, laughing and chatting with his two gal pals.  I ended in defeat, half my audience gone, the other staying, I suppose, because it was the compassionate thing to do.

The funny thing is, I had other choices that evening.  I might have had an entirely different experience if I had gotten the group involved.  I could have been curious as to why he was there and how it was working out for him.  I could have pointed out that he seemed well on his way to finding lasting love, what with the two lovelies sitting beside him, and invited him to tell us all what he knew on the subject of healthy relationships.  I could have called a break.  I could have asked the facility manager to send security.  Any of these options would have been better than turning his behavior into a confrontation.

I don’t know if this guy had a legitimate grievance, just wanted some attention, or was trying to impress the two women.  I suspect the latter, but what difference does it make?  If he had a legitimate problem, he had plenty of opportunities to express his position, but he never did.  Sometimes difficult people are not opposed to you or your idea – they’re just intentionally annoying to draw attention.   Here’s what I do know.  Difficult people are a test of your flexibility and self-control.  And persuasive people refuse to be distracted or derailed by difficult behavior.  Persuasive people don’t just react, they manage these relationships.

Got any experiences of opposition you’d like to share?  I won’t try to stop you because your comments are always welcome.

be well



4 Responses

  1. J.D. Meier says:

    Great story!

    Keep your friends close and your enemies closer right? 😉

    I think we learn the most from those that challenge us.

    I think knowing is also more than half the battle. Here’s some quick points that helped me:
    1. Find a way to agree, it takes the wind from their sales.
    2. Don’t take it personally — it rarely is about you (it could be an ideal, a trigger, whatever)
    3. master your stories — the stories you tell yourself — to switch from emotional response to objective learning
    4. involve the critic/opponent in the solution — through a question
    5. fight or flight puts you in your primal brain — limiting your ability to leverage your prefrontal cortext (the smart part)
    6. Be open to being wrong — divorce your ego and trade the short-term for learning for the long-haul.
    7. If you get knocked down, get up again … but stronger. Carry forward lessons learned.

    I can safely say that before I knew how it worked, a confrontation for me would quickly spiral down into a debate of “truth” knowledge. I would increase preceision, peel away, go deeper, argue the accuracy, … at the expense of any chance of connection. I was good at logic and good at arguing, but what I didn’t know at the time was that character trumps emotion trumps logic. I was playing the wrong game and winning a battle to lose the war.

    A little knowldedge goes a long way. In fact, it feels almost like having some Cliff’s notes on life. I still make mistakes, but it’s night and day in terms of effectiveness. For the most part, now at least I can recognize patterns, and stop spirals and shift gears — with more tools under my belt to choose from. It’s skilled vs. unskilled.

    Blog commenting is a great example where people get to practice their conflict skills. On one of my posts, one of the commenters had a negative reaction. I could have taken it personally and tried to prove how Covey was awesome. Instead, I posed a simple question – what have you found to be effective and who have you learned from? I can easily imagine how if I chose a different response, we would have spiraled down. Instead, it was a nice crisp exchange. You can see the exchange here – http://blogs.msdn.com/jmeier/archive/2008/04/04/stephen-covey-at-microsoft.aspx. What I liked about it was it was a quick example of a successful interaction and I think my choice of words actually made a difference.

    I haven’t boiled it down yet, but I think part of the formula for breaking a potentially negative reaction on the spot is asking ‘what do I want to accomplish?’, ‘what’s my most effective response?’ and asking questions over making statements. If nothing else, questions help change focus. I think this helps nip the fight or flight and keep me in a more resourceful mode. A related part to this is knowing what’s valued by reading the situation and knowing the culture.

  2. Gary C Smith says:

    Dr K,
    Here’s an odd piece of opposition, a teammate acting as oposition. I was speaking as part of a team doing a follow up program to a popular ‘Opening Up’ workshop. There were three on the team. The Opening Up trainer and company founders wife or ex-wife, a local female trainer, and myself. We were in Santa Barbara and one of my roles was to explain how the ego works. Before the start the Santa Barbara trainer asked, “Ever fry on stage?” “Surely you jest I responded. I hadn’t even thought about frying, going blank, forgetting the information but that day I did-fry.
    I started my role with, “This is how the ego works” and that was it. I stood there in front of the group with the blank mind I have tried for in meditation for 4 decades, and looked around the room and there was the Santa Barbara trainer chuckling to herself. I was frying less than a minute that seemed a lifetime, and then the answers came to me:
    I have to be right
    I can’t make a mistake
    I already know that
    From rapport training’s I had taken in the past I just keep breathing, making audience contact and got acknowledged as such a great demo of how the ego worked. When there is no where to hide, just surrender.
    Gary C Smith

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