Communication apprehension is welling up in you. You are meeting with your boss and presenting your proposal for a new project. You believe you’ve created something that will advance the company and your career. It’s carefully researched, it’s innovative, and the numbers make sense.
And your boss hates it. She challenges you at every turn and you can’t seem to muster any counter-arguments. Your discomfort and anxiety grow and the meeting crashes and burns. You just want to crawl under the desk.
Being in the hot seat is no fun. Maybe the project wasn’t as great as you thought. Or maybe you lacked the power of persuasion.
Recently, I facilitated a discussion about communications with up-and-coming real estate executives. The topic they most wanted to talk about was how to think on their feet, and how to come back from challenges, sometimes hostile, from an investor, community member, or another colleague.
Here are six tips to help you navigate these situations with confidence, and composure while conquering communication apprehension:
- Don’t take it personally.
Your boss berating you for not doing your homework or an angry community member calling you a greedy developer can sting. Try not to see it as a personal attack, but rather on the project. When people get angry, it’s often because they feel afraid, concerned or threatened. Maybe your proposal is really good and your boss feels it might make her look bad. Or the community member is concerned that your project might price them out of a neighborhood they have lived in for years. Understand the motivations behind the challenges and separate it from your self-worth.
- Pause for clarity.
Take a minute to think before responding so you can take a calming breath to regain composure and clarity. Silence is uncomfortable. But it can help you get your bearings and give the challenger some time to cool off.
- Probe to understand.
If someone continues to attack you, instead of countering every charge, stop and ask for more information. You might say something like, “This proposal seems to have hit a nerve. Tell me more about what isn’t working for you.” Notice the neutral language. Avoid framing the question in terms of why, as this can sound aggressive. “Tell me more…” or “In what ways might we improve this proposal…” opens the door to conversation, instead of confrontation. Listen carefully to the concerns and adjust if appropriate. And if they don’t engage in a professional manner, you may have to end the discussion.
- Own your space.
When we are being verbally pummeled, we tend to want to make ourselves smaller. We might slouch or cross our arms. When animals are threatened, however, they often make themselves bigger. Think of a cobra stretching upward, a peacock spreading its wings, or a bear standing up. Make sure you maintain a firm and confident posture and stand or sit up straight, with your arms at your side.
- Stay calm and neutral.
Your facial expressions can give everything away. Practice in front of a mirror to adopt a neutral expression—and feel what neutral looks like. I’ll never forget the counsel my boss and I got from a well-known political figure before a press conference with national media. “I will probably get a lot of tough questions. You should look like you are on a Sunday afternoon walk and not react.” The politician stayed neutral and got their point across clearly, while we sat behind them and pondered how to look like we were on a calm walk.
- Don’t take abuse.
If a situation deteriorates and becomes abusive, extricate yourself gracefully. You might say, “I think we are at a point where it is best that we end this conversation and talk again when everyone is calmer.” Again, use the third person. I remember a boss erupting in anger at something I had written in a speech. Her face turned purple, veins bulging as she yelled about why I had missed the point. listened for a while and then when she stopped to take a breath, I quietly asked, “Are you done?” When she stopped, I then told her, “If you want the best from me, you won’t yell at me because I don’t do well with screaming.” I didn’t attack her but told her how she could win and how I wanted to be treated. She never yelled at me again—even when I could tell she wanted to if I politely offered a viewpoint that differed from her own.
By implementing these strategies, you can confront communication apprehension head-on, paving the way for effective communication, productive discussions, and professional growth. Remember, control can be regained through preparation, the right questions, calm certainty, and a cool demeanor.
What’s worked for you in a confrontational situation?