I was recently asked how I would handle a controversial question during a leadership training session. What if it is a polarizing question about religion or politics? What if someone is trying to take a stand on a very divisive issue? These questions or comments can be very disturbing and could potentially derail your presentation or meeting… if you are not prepared. Consider the following tips and please share your thoughts.
1. Keep your composure. When the dynamite (controversial topic) is thrown at you, others are watching to see how you will respond. Your calmness under pressure makes a powerful statement. Leaders cannot afford to lose their cool. They must keep calm and carry on.
2. Share the purpose or objectives prior to your presentation. Ask for agreement. When the controversy arises, you can redirect the questioner back to the objectives of the meeting. Acknowledge the person. Then suggest having the conversation after the current meeting is concluded. The key is to set the ground rules prior to the meeting. For example, questions directly related to the topic will be addressed immediately. Depending on time, adjacent questions may or may not be answered right away. Off topic questions will be addressed after the meeting.
3. Acknowledge the person by making eye contact. Do not ignore or dismiss him or her. As you redirect by referring to the objectives or ground rules, casually move away from the person. End your statement by asking something like, “Are we ready to continue?” The key is to ask this question to the audience in general but make eye contact with a friendly face away from the hostile person. The person has been acknowledged but you have redirected everyone back to the agenda.
4. Set a time limit. If the suggestions above do not work and the person persists with the question, consider addressing it by setting a time limit for the topic (e.g. 3 minutes). Ask the person to share their perspective on the question. Afterwards, ask how many people agree. Ask how many disagree. Share the results (e.g. based on our informal survey, it appears as if 40% of the people agree with you. I want to thank you all for your input. But in the interest of time, let’s return to the original topic.) Caveat: If you have provided ground rules, just know you risk some credibility by breaking your own rules.
5. Seek an expert. A variation of #4 is to ask the audience if anyone is well versed on the suggested topic or question. Caution, this can be tricky if both people have a controversial nature and have very strong and opposing views. As with #4, a time limit must be imposed.
There are other things that can be done. However, these tips offer a good place to start. If you have suggestions, please share. To learn more presentation tips, please contact us. At Apogee, we work with entities to strengthen their pipeline of leaders. We specialize in helping others lead through change. We welcome the opportunity to help you grow your team and/or you personally in the area of leadership.