Monday, November 14, 2011

10 Tips for Handling a Hostile Audience

This morning C-Span’s Book TV featured an Oct. 27 talk by Gilad Sharon, son of the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. The former was in Boston at Suffolk University to talk about authoring his father's biography, Sharon: The Life of a Leader.

Following the lecture, Sharon participated in a Q&A with a mostly hostile audience. It was not surprising; the Middle East is a polarizing topic and Sharon is equally a polarizing figure. Despite this, and despite his personal stake in portraying his father well, Sharon handled the questions impressively. His handling of the situation left me with some important communication lessons about a key topic - because on-camera or not, all of us have to deal with hostile questions at one time or another:

  1. Be an expert in the subject matter, not just “well-prepared.” Sharon effortlessly reached back into decades of history to respond to every question fully, putting them into historical context. Lesson learned: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t talk.
  2. Stay calm. The hostile question is designed to provoke you to lose control. When you fall into that trap you lack credibility no matter how accurate your answer is. The viewer/listener is saying to themselves, “If this person were right, they wouldn’t be so upset.”
  3. Show respect for the questioner. Even if you disagree or are offended, never trivialize what the person is saying. Being larger than the conflict shows the audience that you must be in the right, or again, you wouldn’t be so composed.
  4. Humanize your side of the story. When asked about Israel’s security measures, Sharon responded (paraphrasing), “You are young, you probably don’t have kids yet. But our children are being attacked in their yellow schoolbuses. We have to protect our chidren.”
  5. Know when to stand your ground. Where historical fact was at issue, Sharon simply said, “that is not true.” Period.
  6. Know when to agree to disagree. There was a point where a questioner accused Ariel Sharon of saying something outrageous, claiming that it was reported on Israeli radio. His son said flat-out, my father did not say that. They went back and forth a couple of times, then dropped it.
  7. Admit mistakes. Gilad Sharon said that Israel had made mistakes in the past and of course would do so again. He did not pretend that the country was perfect. Nobody is perfect.
  8. Be open to all questions. Sharon did not try to censor anyone. He simply answered.
  9. Ask questions of your own. At times, Sharon confronted people with questions of his own, questions that revealed logical inconsistencies in what they were saying. You have a microphone; use it.
  10. Know when to stop talking. Sharon did not try to dominate the microphone. He simply answered the question, then let it go.

As I write this I can’t help but think: We are so fortunate to live in a democracy, where we can use words instead of weapons to advance important goals. I don’t take free speech for granted at all. Here’s praying that we can find a way to think, write and talk our way out of the problems that face us all, and achieve lasting peace and prosperity for everyone around the world.