Dodging Difficult Conversations

We’ve all been there. It’s your first performance review, your first meeting where a senior leader is in the room, or the first presentation that you’ll be giving solo. And you’re a little nervous.

The performance discussion starts off okay, but very quickly you start to get some feedback you weren’t expecting. Your presentation is going well at first, until you start to see some skeptical looks from the senior leader in the back of the room. And when both of these conversations start to become more difficult than you were expecting, you make the mistake that many young professionals make: as a listener, you look away from the communicator, and as a communicator you look away from the listener. 

Difficult conversations are never fun. We avoid them whenever possible in our personal lives, and so it’s no surprise that they make us uncomfortable in our professional lives. And when young professionals get uncomfortable, one of the most common things we do is to trade-off the person we’re talking to or who is talking to us. When your manager surprises you by giving you some hard feedback, the last thing you want to do is look them in the eye. And when you sense that your senior leader is losing interest or isn’t buying into your presentation, you turn back to your slides to try and remember a key data point or graph that might change their mind. 

But this isn’t a mechanical piece about how to make eye contact with someone. It’s about the importance of connection and what it means for your personal brand.

When young professionals are placed in communication situations where we are less confident our greatest tendency is to physically avert ourselves from the individual who is making us feel off-balance. But this behavior has some negative consequences. As listeners, when we look away, down, or to the side of our manager in the first scenario, we can come across at best as being indifferent to the feedback we’re receiving, and at worst, defiant. This is because while you may think you’re just looking away from your manager, your body is actually signalling your disconnect to your manager. Your head may even follow your eyes, which can come across to your manager as if you are disinterested in what they are trying to explain to you.    

On balance, as communicators, young professionals often try to trade-off the listener for their own materials when they’re giving a presentation or leading a discussion. But when we do this, we actually lose our best indicator of how our material is being received. We’re not there to simple regurgitate information. The basic intent behind a meeting or presentation is to convey information to an audience, and then have that audience respond to and/or act on a recommendation or strategy. But when we remove our physical connection with our audience, we lose our best avenue  to influence them and come across as unsure or hesitant.

The unfortunate aftermath of both of these scenarios, is that we don’t come across as confident or engaged professionals. And as a result, our manager, our peers, and our senior leaders can leave these communication situations with an unfavorable impression of us. And while communications situations like these are a pretty common occurrence, most young professionals don’t spend much time thinking about how they can influence how others form impressions of them. 

The truth is that people are always forming impressions of one another. We do it all the time in our own lives, even when we’re not aware of it. And the same is true in the workplace. Whether you’re the center of attention in a meeting or sitting in the very back of the room with no-clue why you were included on the meeting invitation, your co-workers, your manager, and your manager’s manager will all form impressions of you. It matters if you’re slouched over in your chair, daydreaming about the weekend, instead of listening to the financial analytics presentation. And people will notice if you spend the entire meeting taking notes, instead of actively engaging with the communicator. 

And while that might sound daunting, it can actually be a great means for young professionals to establish themselves as an invested employee early on in their careers. Being mindful about your personal brand goes beyond “sitting up straight,” and “looking at people while they’re talking to you.” Influencing impressions means establishing a thoughtful and engaged presence that lets a communicator know that your are actively listening to them, and lets a listener know that you’re not only engaged in your own material, but that you’re engaged in making it relevant for them.     

Engaged doesn’t mean dominant. In order to establish yourself in a conversation or presentation, you don’t have to dominate it, but you do have to present. More often than not young professionals are placed in settings where they don’t have a speaking role. But you can establish a presence for yourself without being the center of attention. Someone who is settled in their seat, is interested in what is being discussed (regardless of whether or not it effects their immediate role), and who is attentive to a communicator, can actually draw a speaker or presenter to them and be seen as contributor in the conversation, even if they don’t say a single word. 

But apart from immediate impressions, does the concept of connection and personal brand really matter down the road? 

Absolutely. In addition to improving short-term impressions, taking ownership for how others see you can have lasting effects in your career. When we interviewed executives for Sally Williamson’s book, The Hidden Factor, we found that 89% of executives said that having an established presence helps employees get ahead, and 79% of executives said that the lack of presence could hold employees back.  

So, not only do co-workers, managers, and senior leaders form impressions of you, they hang onto them as well! What do you think your colleagues would say about your brand? Would they say that you try to dodge difficult conversations or would they say that you’re an engaged communicator and listener?

We want to know what you think about the concept of personal brand. Head back to Base Camp to join the conversation! 

Get to the Heart of the Matter with Q&A

One of the best ways to get a sense of someone’s speaking style is to ask them about previous presentations. You’ll understand the intended impact of the approach if they can tell you what they were trying to accomplish and how they reached their objective with an audience. You’ll also understand the result of the approach by asking them what questions the audience asked during and after the presentation.

While the presenter’s input tells you how focused the planning was, the audience’s questions tell you how effective the message was.

And, in fact, this is a great coaching tool for managers. If you don’t observe presentations given by your group, you should ask for feedback after presentations and follow the format above. Balance how the presenter felt with what the audience asked. The two concepts together provide an accurate read on the impact of the presentation.

As you can see from this scenario, Q&A is critical to the success of a presentation. It gives the presenter a sense of the audience’s reaction and takeaway from the presentation. And, it gives the presenter the opportunity to respond to concerns or misconceptions that a group expresses. In fact, we coach executives to “force” Q&A if a group isn’t forthcoming with questions. Often, internal politics may keep individuals quiet until the more senior person in the room has spoken.

You can “jump start” Q&A by asking your own questions.

-One question that I’m asked often is…
-Most groups want to know more about…

You can also engage the group by asking for feedback.

-Of the ideas you’ve heard today, what do you think will be most effective in your organization?
-Are you concerned that any of the ideas will be ineffective?
-What concepts in the presentation best align with your objectives?
-If we move forward with these recommendations, what would you like to see as the first priority?

While Q&A is a critical part of a presentation, it takes practice and planning to respond to questions effectively. And unfortunately, it’s the most overlooked part when preparing for presentations. A presenter can anticipate over 75% of the questions from most audiences, and yet few presenters take the time to identify the questions and plan great responses.

Preparing for Q&A involves two easy steps: anticipate the questions and prepare the responses.

Prior to any presentation, write down the ten questions you think the audience will ask. Consider the tough questions, not just the easy ones. Then, write out your responses to the questions using the format below.

To answer questions effectively, outline three parts to your response.

First, give a one sentence answer. Be direct in answering the question right up front. The first part of your answer will get the most attention from your audience.

Second, expand the concept, if possible. Provide 2-3 additional sentences to support the one sentence answer.

Third, provide an example. Share an example or illustration of your initial point to help the audience buy in to your response.

The three-part response gives the presenter an opportunity to broaden the question and include the entire audience in the expanded response and example. This prevents one member of the audience from monopolizing the Q&A.

Planning responses in advance gives the presenter a chance to think through ideas and key messages around the topic. So, even if the exact question isn’t asked, the presenter will have ideas and examples developed around the topic that would cover a broad range of questions.

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