If you react to a challenging question with defensiveness, your reaction will communicate volumes to your audience, who will then speculate about its cause.
They’ll conclude that your defensive behavior occurred for a reason—you have an unpleasant demeanor, you’re easily threatened, or the accusation being leveled against you is true.
Because defensive reactions are natural, advice that simply says, “Don’t be defensive!” leaves most people without the tools they need to avoid them. Therefore, it may require you to redefine what a challenging question is
—and is not.
Many people perceive challenging questions as unfriendly acts from audience members who are positioned against them and have incentive to make them look bad. Certainly, that happens. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they’re questions from people whose objections are centered on true concerns, rooted in a misunderstanding, or based on a previous experience that has nothing to do with you.
So, wouldn’t it be healthier for you to redefine challenging questions as opportunities to learn from their objections so that that you can offer effective responses? Wouldn’t it be even worse if a skeptical audience didn’t
ask you challenging questions, preventing you from addressing their concerns at all?
When you respond to their questions, you’re actually offering two (hopefully complementary) responses: one through your words, and the other through the manner in which you deliver those words. Responding to objections using the right words is obviously preferable, but in many cases, your tone may be more
important than the words you choose.
A personal experience
That point was seared into my memory a few years ago when I was hired to train a group of 100 military officials. As you might imagine, addressing that room was particularly intimidating, and I was more nervous than usual before beginning my presentation.
About two minutes into my opening, one attendee raised her hand and said, “I don’t think that’s right.” She then proceeded to tell the room why my opening point was wrong.
My internal reaction was immediate and powerful. My adrenaline—already surging—sent my heart racing even faster. I was thinking that just two minutes into my presentation, her comment would undermine my credibility for the entire day
. My internal monologue was full of self-doubt (and a few four-letter words). I was panicking.
As profound as my physiological reaction was, I was fortunate enough to remember to change my internal monologue. I forced myself to change my “four-letter word” reaction to, “OK, I can handle this.” Then I reminded myself of the two words that allowed me to deliver an effective response: “Be open!”
I walked ever so slightly in her direction (physical proximity often softens the tone of a question or comment) and gave her my full attention. As soon as she completed her comment and the eyes of the room turned to me to gauge my reaction, I thanked her, turned to the rest of the group, and said: “I know that other people in this room probably have a similar view, and I’m glad she brought that up. Let’s talk about that.”
My open and non-defensive reaction changed the mood in the room, resolved the tension that had built up during her comment, and enhanced my credibility with the audience.
My handling of that situation didn’t come naturally for me, and it might not for you, either. I had to work hard to quickly replace my instinctive four-letter internal monologue with the essential phrase, “Be open!” When confronted with a similar situation, work hard to remember those two magic words.
Have you had a “four-letter word” moment during a presentation? Please share your story in the comments section below.
Brad Phillips is author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. He is also the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared.