by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder Of Atomic Tango + Professor Who Loves To Cold Call His Students; photo by Fabrice Florin via Wikimedia Commons…
Picture yourself in a class or business meeting. You don’t have a pressing thought or opinion on the current topic — indeed, your mind is wandering to what you’d like to have for dinner — when suddenly you hear your name called along with the question, “What do you think?”
For some, that’s reason to panic — subtly, of course (i.e., you don’t run screaming from the room). Your heart revs up, your face heats up, and you somehow blurt out a response. One of three outcomes ensues…
- In your worst nightmare, your classmates or colleagues snicker, and your professor or boss rolls his eyes and says, “See me in my office after the meeting.”
- In your best fantasy, your classmates or colleagues give you a standing ovation, and your professor or boss smiles and says, “You should really have my job. I mean it.”
- In reality, if you’re prepared, your classmates or colleagues will nod in agreement, and your professor or boss says, “Good point,” and the conversation continues.
Note that the operative condition here is “if you’re prepared.”
As an MBA student, I got to regularly practice responding to cold calls by professors and random questions from presentation audiences. That taught me how to prepare — and how to avoid surprise questions in the first place. (Hints: In class, speak as often as possible — professors don’t tend to cold call students they hear frequently. In presentations, anticipate questions and have answers ready, both verbally and visually.)
Those extensive dress rehearsals have proved invaluable in my career, which now entails presenting to students and clients, and responding to their questions.
Now It’s Your Turn…
If you haven’t had much practice thinking on your feet, a recent article in Harvard Business Review provides some solid advice. “How To Respond When You’re Put On The Spot In A Meeting” by corporate trainer Paul Axtell contains pointers that could also apply to presentations and job interviews. I plan to share this article with my students — before they get hit with all the cold calling I do in class. (They’ll dread me now, thank me later.)
I particularly liked Axtell’s suggested set responses, such as, “I do not have that information. I will get it to you by 1:00 PM” (obviously, more useful in a boardroom than in a classroom). My favorite is how to disagree:
“I think I’m clear about your idea, and I see it differently. May I tell you?”
I’ve never heard disagreement phrased better. Other seemingly “polite” options, such as “I respectfully disagree,” still put the recipient on the defensive. No disagreement ever feels respectful — it still sounds like, “You’re wrong!” But saying that you have a different perspective shifts the emphasis from negating their ideas to submitting your views for consideration. Requesting permission to share your ideas shows further deference.
I now plan to use that set response with clients whose ideas I disagree with — or on social media, where the word “disagree” can set off a flame war.
In addition, it made me think of other euphemisms I use:
Criticism: “That’s bad. You have to fix it.”
Euphemism: “I see where you’re going! Here’s how to make it stronger” (or “even better”).
Criticism: “That won’t work at all.”
Euphemism: “We could give it a shot. Now, here’s how we might boost the odds of success.”
Criticism: “You have major problems.”
Euphemism: “We have a few issues to resolve. Want to discuss the options?”
Criticism: “That idea is so outdated. Where have you been?”
Euphemism: “Yes, that worked great just a few years back. Now, have you heard the latest?”
Some might argue that those euphemisms sound contrived or insincere, but they really do remove tension from a conversation. (Simply saying “we” instead of “you” avoids putting the other person on the spot.) The emphasis can then shift from egos and defensiveness to solving problems — I mean, issues.
In other words, thinking on your feet isn’t just about making yourself look good. It also entails making others feel respected so that, together, you can focus on getting the job done.
Or do you see it differently?