“When we are stressed, our brain downshifts.” —systems scientist Peter Senge
As you climb the ladder in your career, you inevitably encounter situations where a colleague disagrees with your ideas or approaches. For high-stakes topics involving strategy and investments, you’re in competition with others for attention and resources, and not everyone wants you to win. When faced with a direct or passive-aggressive attack on your ideas and character, your response speaks volumes about your maturity and leadership to everyone involved. Learn to navigate meeting room confrontations with diplomacy, grace, and a good bit of psychology, and you will go far.
This article offers a strategy for successfully turning a meeting room confrontation into a significant career victory.
You’re Fighting Nature More than Your Adversary
For all sorts of good reasons, we’re wired as humans to quickly recognize dangerous situations and respond accordingly. Our brains shift precious resources away from the slower, smaller processing center and trigger a flood of chemicals preparing us for fight or flight. Drunk with adrenaline, we’re apt to either lash out or look for the first exit, including shrinking and withdrawing.
When faced with a meeting room confrontation it’s essential for you to interrupt the brain’s natural process and effectively retain your wits. Dr. Mark Goulston, writing in Just Listen, suggests we run through a simple mantra that allows us to derail the amygdala hijack and maintain our presence of mind. I’ve adapted his fabulous ideas for my use with clients in these spontaneous challenging conversations. (Also, see my article: “Fear, Self-Confidence, and Challenging Conversations.”)
A Real-Time Reboot to Keep Your Wits About You
My mental reboot process goes something like this:
Once it happens, acknowledge internally, “It’s here.” An appropriate “Oh _ _ _ _” is fine as well. (I use “heck,” not sure what you were thinking!)
After responding to the shock, vocalize (internally) your acceptance: “OK, I’m in it now.”
From acceptance, assume ownership: “This is mine. I’ve got it.”
From ownership, offer an idea, or to gain processing time, ask clarifying questions. “Here’s what I’m hearing… is this right?” Or “Here’s what I think I am hearing. Is this correct?”
The deliberate move from recognition to acceptance to ownership to action is often enough to regain or retain control of your logic center and stop the flood of chemicals that might find you flying or fighting. Tagging on a question gives you more time to discover motive and think through options.
Learning to simultaneously relax your body by letting your arms fall to your sides versus folding them or waving them menacingly, is helpful. Some of my clients find it helpful to look away from the source of the verbal assault and focus on the reboot while breathing.
Your goal is to gain a few precious seconds and work your reboot process. Time is a funny thing in these settings. Everyone else is processing, and no one will think less of you for taking time to compose your thoughts.
In a recent program on challenging conversations, I provided the following real scenario as described by a coaching client and several others present in this situation. I took liberties to create the narrative. All names are fictitious.
Amy had just finished her presentation to top management on a new business investment idea for her division. In her mind and judging by the body language and heads nodding in the room, it had gone according to her advance plan. Everyone except her counterpart in another division, Rob, seemed to be interested in the idea.
While everyone else was engaged, Rob seemed to be sitting on his hands. He would not make eye contact with Amy, and his body language was closed and defensive.
The backstory: Rob and Amy had joined the firm at the same time and ended up on similar tracks until Amy’s recent promotion to director level. Rob’s response at the time was less than gracious. He believed in his words that, “he had been overlooked.”
The questions the meeting participants asked were great, and it appeared as if Amy’s pre-event message mapping work was paying off. Just as Amy thought the session would come to a successful close, Rob interjected: “Amy, I have a question. What makes you think the results from this idea will be any better than that disastrous program you and your team presided over last year?”
Amy did not expect this type of a verbal attack and for a split second, panic set in.
Amy recognized the “challenge” from Rob and immediately went into her reboot. While her instinct was to tense up and then verbally rip his head off for this aggressive tactic, she knew that her response would determine the fate of her proposal.
Amy’s Internal Reboot:
• “Oh crap!”
• “OK, I’m here.”
• Breathe! Again!
• “I’ve got this.”
• “I’ll use judo on this.”
She also focused on relaxing her posture. Instead of glowering at Rob, she relaxed her facial muscles, made certain her arms were comfortably at her side and momentarily looked at the ceiling and then back at her audience, but not directly at Rob.
“Rob, thanks for raising this issue. As everyone recalls, we spent a good deal of time with this group looking at the challenges and risks we encountered with that project. It was humbling. However, the changes we made . . . with some great input from your team, Rob, have helped us navigate even more difficult challenges since that time. The team is experienced, successful and eminently capable and prepared to succeed with this initiative.”
The CEO jumped in with: “Rob, Amy’s right. We learned our lessons, and it’s time to put that project in our past. I can vouch for how well Amy’s team has performed since that initiative.”
The meeting adjourned after management gave Amy the go-ahead.
7 Lessons from Amy
Personally, I think Amy’s handling of the situation was masterful. I believe I might have immediately counter-attacked, and once you respond with verbal force, the chemicals kick-in and logic takes a timeout. Here are seven key takeaways:
- Amy recognized the emerging signs of a confrontation. She noted the body language and engagement of everyone in the room. And while our assumptions can be wrong, she was at least mentally prepared for something from Rob.
- She ran through her reboot process in short-order while those in the room were still processing Rob’s aggressive questioning.
- She turned breathing and body posture into allies to stave off the adrenaline surge.
- Amy successfully fought off her urge to launch a forceful verbal counter-strike.
- She neutralized Rob’s verbal attack by using his energy against him. “Thanks, Rob… .” This simple, but powerful maneuver also allowed everyone in the room to relax a bit, garnering emotional support from the crowd. The group mirrored her own relaxed, comfortable state and maintained their logical thinking abilities.
- Instead of excusing the problem, she honestly acknowledged it and highlighted the lessons learned.
- Finally, instead of taking a final shot at Rob, she praised his (team’s) help during the problem project he was referencing.
Game over. Amy wins.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit how many times I didn’t handle situations as effectively as my coaching client, Amy. Nonetheless, I learned, and so can you. When faced with a spontaneous challenging conversation, your first order of business is to control your emotions, fight-off your instincts, and then navigate forward, striving to use the attacker’s energy to your advantage.
Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.