4 Steps to Stay in Control when Challenged by an Audience Member

If you speak regularly in front of groups, at some point you’re probably going to have your ideas, opinion or control challenged.

And it may not be a perspective you hold lightly. Sometimes audience members can touch a nerve or challenge a deeply held value…if this has ever happened to you, you’ll know that it can hit hard.

Or perhaps you’re not holding a strong viewpoint, but simply feel a bit raw that day: something in your life isn’t working, or you feel vulnerable or unwell. I’ve certainly had to step up and run a group or speak to an audience while grieving, feeling unwell or having relationship challenges – most of us probably have – and the protective layer coating was wafer-thin!

So what works well, and how do you deal with being challenged? This is big area to discuss, and there’s a lot of overlap with conflict-handling skills.

Bearing that in mind, here’s a 4 step process to try. And of course you may need to modify these ideas for your own situation.

Firstly: the over-arching context before we get to those 4 steps?

It’s one word: respect.

Respect is one of my absolute non-negotiables when I speak with an audience; it informs my attitude towards every single person in that room. I always aim to embody respect to every person and every comment and to remember – not always easy – that people are fully entitled to their own opinions!

I’ve also seen audiences turn against a speaker who reacted rudely to a challenge from an audience member, even when they disagreed with that person’s attitude. Tribe mentality is powerful.

So with respect in mind, the 4 steps:

Before the event:

1A. Internally: ideally  know your content very well – and already have considered opposing views or counter-arguments – there nearly always are some. Get a handle on the most obvious/likely ones at the very least.

1B. Externally: practise resilience (you can test this on almost any topic, too) with family, friends or colleagues, asking them to challenge you and be difficult! If this isn’t something you’re used to, familiarise yourself with how it feels when someone disagrees with you publicly.

This will help you in real scenarios to avoid being blind-sided and losing that vital sense of control.

During your presentation or talk:

2. Acknowledge the person’s point of view. With angry or challenging people, all they often want is to be heard; and by demonstrating that you have indeed heard them, this is often enough to settle them down. “That sounds difficult for you”, or “That’s certainly a challenge, I can see that”. “I can see your perspective”. “I take your point.”

3. Now address the whole group and briefly point out why you believe your idea is valid, and the advantages of your methodology e.g. “I recommend you go away and test this out, and here’s why”. Or “Even taking this idea into account, I believe my view still has merit because…”.

This ensures that you maintain authority by not backing down or crumbling. And it keeps you sounding clear and on track. Although of course if what they’re saying makes sense to incorporate, you can be big enough to say that!

4. As you then move on, look at someone else and keep talking. Breaking eye contact from the challenger helps to disengage them from coming back at you again.

Finally, respect the audience as a whole by keeping control of the event; if the challenger doesn’t back down, acknowledge that you appear to have different perspectives: “let’s agree to disagree and unfortunately because of time we need to move on”. [Doing this in step 2 is usually too early.]

You might need to offer to discuss further with the challenger after your talk has finished.

What do you think? Have you tried any or all of these steps, or something similar?

Best wishes with your presentations or public speaking!

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