Sometimes a simple presentation can turn into an ambush.
Hold your return fire, though. A clearheaded response will save you—and limit collateral damage—as this corporate fable illustrates:
An auspicious beginning
Beth’s manager ushered her into a conference room crowded with senior managers. It was quiet, and she broke the silence with an enthusiastic, “Good morning!”
After a chorus of responses, the firm’s CEO offered: “Beth is on the agenda to propose a new service offering. You have the executive summary in your packets, and we have Beth for 30 minutes. We’ll vote later about whether to begin live customer testing. Beth, the floor is yours.”
During the next 15 minutes, Beth outlined the idea, offered supporting evidence and clearly articulated how the proposal would extend the firm’s strategy and solve customers’ problems. Heads nodded, and as Beth scanned the room, the mood seemed positive—except for the professional services manager, who had expressed doubts in their one-on-one session the week before.
She thought she had since won him over by adding a resource for his group in the proposal; today, however, his body language was closed, he was looking down, and his lips were pursed. She knew to expect challenging questions from him.
As the presentation closed, the CEO opened the floor for questions. Some managers offered their support, and there were a few softball questions on timing and risks.
A turning point
The resisting manager aggressively said: “I don’t support this proposal. It’s poorly thought out and filled with assumptions that aren’t backed by the data or real-world experience.”
The mood of the room changed in a blink, and Beth struggled internally with his aggressiveness. Her neck and shoulders tensed up.
Her inclination was to fight back—after all, she had worked too hard on this program to let it fail here. She also understood a verbal fight in this setting was a losing proposition. She had to reboot and secure the high ground.
Lesson 1: Manage yourself in confrontations.
Great workplace communicators understand that challenging confrontations are won or lost based on a real-time response. They work hard at maintaining presence of mind and not allowing the brain’s threat center—the amygdala—to overwhelm the executive control center.
In Beth’s case, she drew upon her training and practice with an internal reset technique that let her process the attack and think logically about how to respond. It went something like this:
- I anticipated that from him.
- It’s interesting that he didn’t take this aggressive tone in our one-on-one talk.
- I wonder what he is after.
- I have to respond appropriately.
- I have to relax and breathe…
- Breathe…one, two, relax my shoulders….breathe…
- How should I respond?
- I’ll use a question…
- Smile and make eye contact around the room and then with him…
After the above sequence, she restarted—with a context-framed question.
“John, I respect your concerns. When we spoke the other day, you shared your reservations about the extra workload for your group. I added a resource as you suggested. Have you uncovered new concerns since we last talked?”
The positive response and legitimate question allowed the entire room to relax. Beth was back in the game.
John didn’t have a great comeback, but the exchange opened up a flood of new questions on risks, and Beth deftly navigated those, drawing upon her pre-session message mapping.
Lesson 2: Own your message.
Moments such as these are mission-critical on your journey to career success. Get them right, and doors open for you. Muck it up, and you lose equity in a great many minds. Remember, too: Someone must choose you to be successful. You do the heavy lifting, but someone else gets the vote.
Great workplace communicators work tirelessly on developing the right story backed by solid examples and evidence. They pre-test their storylines, and they stress test their logic. Once they’re ready for prime time with their proposal or pitch, they’ve won because of preparation.
Beth used message mapping to develop a simple, clear core storyline, strong supporting examples, and fact-based evidence. After ample testing and practice with the message map, she drew upon it to create and deliver her presentation—and field those challenging questions.
After she responded—drawing upon her message map—CEO suggested a one-week delay on the vote while Beth and the resisting manager worked through their disagreement. Beth took this as a victory—after all, it was one step closer to approval—and she focused on the next challenging phase.
Lesson 3: Practice positive persuasion.
The next day, she sat down with John to understand his concerns and find a way forward.
She had done some background exploration and learned that John ran a tight ship for client service delivery and was deeply concerned about both bandwidth and quality. He’d had a bad experience the prior year with an initiative that didn’t work out in the market.
His colleagues said he believed he’d been blamed unjustly for the failures of an ill-conceived plan. His mood ever since was a firm “No” to anything that might create this same backlash.
Beth knew her program was well conceived and carefully thought through. However, she recognized a purely logical pitch would fall on deaf ears. The real issues were emotional.
Beth understood The Persuasion Cycle, popularized by communication expert Mark Goulston. The cycle suggests that people must move in steps, from resisting to listening to considering to doing to being glad they did, and one must appeal to emotions to help people take those steps.
Beth used tools of positive persuasion to melt John’s resistance and begin to move him through the process.
- John, it must be tough to be in your position, having to ensure quality, even as people continually throw new programs at you.
- Help me to help you avoid situations like the one last year. Can you show me how a properly structured program can prevent a repeat?
- If you could mitigate all those risks, might you be discuss a new program?
- Under what circumstances would you be amenable to this program?
- If you own the implementation and I effectively report to you for this project, would you agree to it?
Beth showed genuine empathy, positioned herself as a willing student, and strategically ceded control to John. Ultimately, he defined the conditions necessary for him to be on board. She agreed, and they both presented their revised idea at the next executive meeting.
The program was a hit with clients and became a significant revenue producer as the sales team jumped on board. John and Beth have developed a great working relationship.
A version of this post first appeared on Art Petty’s blog.