How to run a meeting where everyone is mad at you

Advice for when not everyone is your friend.
Advice for when not everyone is your friend.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg goes before the US Senate Judiciary Committee today to give much-anticipated testimony on his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

It’s not going to be a comfortable setting. Zuckerberg runs a giant company whose business model has been accused of undermining the health of democracy. His prepared remarks leave many key questions unanswered. Many of his questioners will be justifiably outraged, and not a few may be looking to score some political points of their own by making the tech boss squirm.

Most meetings won’t be as high-profile as a Congressional hearing, but facing a room full of people who are unhappy with the situation—or with you—and unafraid to ask questions is not an easy experience in any setting. Here’s how to deal with that predicament:

Take a deep breath

Being grilled is stressful, and stress activates the “fight or flight” response that hijacks the part of your brain that’s capable of constructing a rational, productive response. To prevent this, take a deep breath before each question and before each answer. It’ll calm your nerves, reduce the tense and defensive mannerisms that can undermine your message, and help you hear and process the speaker’s comments.

Think beyond the questioner

Every answer in a public Q&A is for two audiences: the person who asked the question, and the broader crowd of listeners. (In Zuckerberg’s case, that crowd will extend quite far.) Remember to keep the rest of your audience engaged while handling an intense one-to-one discussion. Reframe the question if necessary to make sure everyone has heard, keep your answer as focused as possible, and check back at the end to ensure that the question you answered is the one the person thought they were asking.

Be wary of “switchtracking”

Often in public Q&A sessions, questions aren’t queries so much as statements: I am smart and informed; You are foolish and running things poorly. As Quartz At Work’s Leah Fessler has written, when receiving feedback it’s important to watch out for “switchtracking”: responding to the way that a person is offering feedback, rather than the substance of the feedback itself. Try too listen past a speaker’s hostile or accusatory tone to identify the issue underneath. (This is where that deep breath helps.) If you need to clarify the question (“So that I understand, what you’re asking is . . . ?”) do it.

Answer the actual question

Everyone will notice if you squirm away from a direct question, or veer off into unrelated territory. “Nothing erodes the credibility you’ve built with the audience or makes them doubt your message more than avoiding the question,” executive coach Eric Holtzclaw has written.

Ultimately, the most important advice is the simplest: Answer the questions, and always tell the truth.