Have you ever been confronted by a hostile, angry person? How did you respond? Calmly, with level-headed control of the situation? Or defensively, with hostility to match your attacker's?
We've all been on the receiving end of confrontation - sometimes a bit too frequently. And we sometimes don't handle it too well. It's especially difficult when you're speaking to a group: there you are, concentrating on the speech, when someone attacks you out of the blue. You become tongue-tied and defensive, or hostile and aggressive, or all of the above. And you gnaw on it, and it gnaws on you, for days.
But you can't quite put your finger on what went wrong. You can't quite figure out why the perfect response didn't hit you until the middle of the night three weeks later.
The reason for this is explained by the Iceberg Theory of Confrontation: 90 percent of the dynamics of a confrontation take place below our rational awareness. The Titanic sunk, not by the visible 10 percent of the iceberg, but by the 90 percent hidden below the surface of the sea. So, too, can unconscious factors bring down even the most polished speaker.
But with a little effort, these factors can be understood and tamed. Here are some tips on handling confrontation in a positive way.
1. Know your audience. Learn as much as possible about them. The more you know about your audience, the more you'll understand how they view you. This can help you anticipate challenges and avoid unpleasant surprises.
Why have they invited you to speak? Are you representing your state's Health Department to some outraged homeowners regarding a toxic waste dump contaminating their water supply? You may be the scapegoat for their rage and frustration. If you know about these feelings ahead of time, you can plan accordingly.
Also try to learn why they hold their position on your topic. Beliefs don't just suddenly leap into people's heads. They have been thought out to some extent, probably with some unexamined assumptions to bolster the arguments. The more care you devote to understanding the foundation of their beliefs, the more easily you can anticipate objections and get your own ideas across.
2. Know your confronter. There are several different kinds. One is the audience spokesperson, whose questions represent your audience's beliefs. A question or comment from this person may elicit applause. If you've researched your audience, you'll be prepared for such a response.
Then there's the audience embarrassment: the person who is either using you to draw attention to him or herself, or exercising some obsessive fanatic tendencies. This may be through a question designed to demonstrate superior knowledge or moral stance; it may be through a diatribe against your position. If this person is obnoxious enough, it might actually work to your advantage: the rest of the audience could be so embarrassed by the whole thing that they'll become more sympathetic to you (hoping desperately, as they sink in their chairs, that you won't think they have any connection with The Pest).
3. Know yourself. This is the most important, and the most difficult means of handling confrontation. You need to understand and work through your own feelings about the subject matter, as well as your feelings about those who hold opposing views.
You also need to understand how you feel and respond when confronted by an angry or arrogant person. What are your buttons? How can they be pushed? Ideally, you'll have done the personal work necessary to deactivate those buttons. For example, you may have been raised by authoritarian parents who controlled you through guilt and shame, tolerating no response or disagreement. As a result, even 30 years later you may become speechless, terrified and overwhelmed with guilt or shame when confronted by someone with an angry, authoritarian demeanor.
If you know that someone's angry, authoritarian manner may trigger fear and helplessness or rage and hostility in you, you're better able to choose a different response. You can say to yourself, "Here is someone whose posture and tone of voice hook into memories of my domineering parents, and this would normally trigger a response of rage or helplessness in me. However, in this situation I will choose a more productive response."
Remember this fundamental but little-known fact of human psychology: We all think and say what we do because of our own personal make-up – not because of what anyone else thinks or says. If someone confronts you, it is not because of what you said, but because of who that person is. You are not responsible for that person's thoughts or responses to you. The person may be responding to your words (and certainly you should be circumspect), but his or her interpretation of your words and the nature of the response - pleasant or hostile - are entirely up to that individual.
And the flipside of this is that how you respond to a confrontation has nothing to do with your attacker; it has to do with who you are and how you choose to behave. Your attacker doesn't force you to respond angrily or fearfully - that is your choice. But it is a conscious choice only if you know yourself and know the alternatives.
4. Treat everyone - audience, confronter and yourself - with the utmost respect. Most people are sincere in their beliefs and have what they consider good reasons for holding them. The person behind that "ridiculous" belief is usually an intelligent, thoughtful human being. If you sincerely believe this, it will shine through, doing much to defuse hostility. Besides, if you take people seriously, you're more likely to consider their ideas carefully, and think more deeply about your own position as well.
5. Stick to the subject. Don't be led away from the matter at hand. If you do, you've given up control of the discussion, which could be disastrous. Perhaps you are uncomfortable saying something like, "That is not really related to this subject; I think it would be more appropriate in another discussion." Again, this discomfort may be from a fear of authority, or of sticking up for yourself.
Think of it as verbal judo, using your attacker's weight against him or her. And, just like judo, you need to practice in a safe setting. Say it aloud over and over again to a trusted friend until you're totally comfortable with it.
6. Make the confronter responsible for the confrontation. You're not a mind reader. If you don't understand the question, don't be afraid to admit it and ask for clarification. If it could be interpreted several different ways, say that you find it ambiguous and ask for some elaboration. If possible, rephrase the question in a way that reveals the questioner's orientation.
For example, someone may ask you, "Don't you agree that laws regulating the dumping of toxic chemicals are really a Communist plot?" You might reply, "If I understand correctly, you're saying that you feel people should be free to dump whatever they want wherever they want, and you feel that attempts to regulate this practice will seriously undermine our basic freedoms. Is that a correct understanding of your question?"
Such rephrasing helps you maintain control of the discussion and avoid being manipulated. You reveal hidden assumptions and possible absurdities in your attacker's position. You also make the confronter responsible for the content of the question, while at the same time demonstrating that you're taking the question, and the questioner, seriously. And finally, you gain a better understanding of the question, and perhaps discover a productive line of response in the process.
7. Mentally separate yourself from your subject. No matter how deeply you believe in your cause, or how active you are in your group, you yourself are a separate entity. If you remember this, it will be easier to stay detached when someone in the audience launches an attack — you'll better understand that the attack is not on you personally, but on what you represent.
It will also make it easier for you to acknowledge your group's mistakes. In some instances, this might be an effective tactic. Not pleasant, certainly, but your openness about your group's shortcomings might actually make your audience more receptive to your ideas.
8. Be very clear about your own agendas — stated, hidden and buried. Your stated agenda may be to inform your (potentially hostile) audience about your organization's purpose and activities. An environmental activist, for example, might be addressing a convention of oil executives on the fundamental reasons for environmental activities and the focuses of different environmental organizations.
A hidden agenda might be to persuade your listeners of the "rightness" of your cause and the "wrongness" of theirs. If so, be very clear about it in your own mind and don't let it reduce the effectiveness of your presentation. The clearer you are about your goals, the more effectively you can deliver a persuasive presentation.
9. Listen for verbal traps from your confronter. "Don't you agree that...?" "Don't you think that...?" "I'm sure you would concur in saying..."
Don't accept anyone else's assumptions about the subject or about your beliefs; if you do, you give up your power. Instead, rephrase the statement in such a way that its maker has to accept ownership and you can step out of the loop: "If I understand correctly, you're saying that you believe..., and you wonder if I share your feelings."
10. Listen for sweeping generalizations. People will look at some specific behavior in a few instances and generalize from this to encompass the entire group or cause at all times and in all places.
For example, it's true that some teenagers belong to vicious street gangs. But to claim that all teenagers are drug addicts and thugs is bad reasoning and leads to faulty conclusions. You can employ verbal judo against this "reasoning" to throw off the attack: "Yes, you're quite right, some teenagers do belong to vicious gangs. But I personally know three teenagers who spend 10 hours a week tutoring disadvantaged children." You have agreed with part of the attacker's premise, while at the same time undercutting the generalization with contradictory evidence.
The key to handling confrontation productively and successfully is being able to handle the most important factor in it. That factor is you.