You Tawkin' Ta Me?

You know that moment. You’re in a meeting (or worse, on stage) and someone says something that hits you right in the solar plexus. Your face heats up, your heart races, you feel rage, or fear, or embarrassment, or sadness—pick your poison—and before you know it, you’ve missed the last 3 minutes of the meeting, lost in your own reaction. If you’re someone whose default reaction is to fight back, you consider your counter-attack. Or your default reaction may be to get out of the meeting as quickly as possible, and stay as quiet as possible in the meantime.

Either way, from my perspective as a communication coach, you are in a death spiral. Once you go into default-reaction mode, it is unlikely that anything good will come out of your mouth.

This is a moment I love helping clients to reimagine, because if you can step out of instinct and into a place of choice, it can transform how people perceive you as a communicator.

Lofty goal, right? The funny thing is, it all starts with one simple shift in perspective:

Take Nothing Personally. Not ever.

When you are in the throes of conflict, or even under a full-on verbal attack during a meeting, presentation or conversation, try this: Resist the temptation to make it about you. Even if it IS about you.

Whether or not a comment (or gesture, or facial expression, etc.) is intended to be a personal attack is absolutely irrelevant here. I’m not interested. I’m only interested in making sure you stay strong and effective in the midst of this exchange.

Now why would a communication coach direct you to not take someone else’s communication personally?

Because it has real physiological and psychological consequences. When we take something personally, we will experience conflict or disagreement as an attack. What happens when our brain registers an attack? Our limbic system takes over and the only responses possible are FIGHT, FLIGHT, or FREEZE.

Incredibly, the brain doesn’t distinguish between a verbal attack and an actual physical attack. Under attack, adrenaline pumps through our bodies, making our hearts race and our breath shallow. Under attack, we lose access to the part of our brain we need most if we’re going to be able to THINK our way through a challenging situation: the prefrontal cortex. That lovely part of our grey matter is the most highly evolved, the keeper of all things human—executive function, creativity, problem solving, compassion.

So if you give in to your instinct to take something personally, you’ve just said goodbye to your ability to intelligently manage the conversation.

Now, let’s contrast instinct with choice. If you can CHOOSE NOT to take something personally, you will be able to focus on what the next correct action might be. And HOW do you stop yourself from going into full-fledged flight, fight or freeze mode? You take a breath. A good deep belly breath slows the heart rate down, and allows your prefrontal cortex to get up off the bench and join the game again.

You may be thinking, “Wait a minute, if someone is giving me grief, I need to take it personally! I need to respond!”

I hear you. Even communications coaches have their triggers – so I speak from personal experience on both sides of this technique! But know that if you respond from that place of feeling attacked you will not be communicating with great skill, or with an emphasis toward a mutually beneficial conclusion.

You may also be wondering, “How do I NOT take things personally? Is that even possible?” Like any new skill, it takes practice. Here are some things to consider as you begin this practice:

It’s All About Perspective. Too often we go into meetings or conversations as if our lives were at stake. By keeping a healthy sense of perspective, you remember that this is just a meeting. This is just a presentation. You prepare for it well, but then you keep you sense of humor and your perspective intact as you walk into the situation. When we let every meeting become a life or death moment, it’s like living in a glass house – you live in fear that some jackass will throw something that will shatter your world. By being able to laugh at a situation or at yourself, you have less to defend, less to be defensive about. When you can remember that this is a great big life you are living, and this meeting or presentation is just one tiny part of it, it creates an opening and lightness where there seemed to be none.

Find Common Ground. Look for something useful in the perceived attack, or find something about the comment that you can at least understand, even if you don’t agree with it. This always takes the tension down immediately. It removes the me vs. you dynamic and allows both parties to feel like you’re on the same team—just having a small disagreement.

Double Down on Listening. The last thing we feel like doing in a tense situation is to listen more closely to our perceived opponent. But if you can tune in, probe a bit deeper, and ask clarifying questions, you will be shocked at the data you can gather—data that becomes a critical part of your response. It informs that glorious next correct action I mentioned above.

When Harsh Comments Happen to Nice People

Several years ago, I was brought into a large company to work with the Executive Leadership Team to help them become better presenters. In this particular session, I was working with just two of the executives, having already met with most of the others. I was about 3 slides into my Audience Empathy workshop, which emphasizes the importance of presenting in a way that is brain friendly—in other words, no more death by PowerPoint. I was about to click to slide 4, but I could tell one of the executives was growing more angry and annoyed by the minute. His facial expressions were practically screaming at me.

I decided to check-in. “I can tell you’re having a strong reaction to this,” I said. “Can you tell me about that?”

He responded in a hostile tone, “I don’t know who you think WE are, or WHERE you think YOU are, but we don’t operate this way. I would be laughed out of the building if I presented this way—with so many images and hardly any text. I feel like this is a huge waste of my time.”

Of course, my instinct was to take it VERY personally. This workshop is my BABY — It’s one of my favorite workshops to give! His comments also played upon my worst nightmare—having a client tell me I’m not providing value to them just when I’m standing at the front of the room giving it my all.

Luckily, I had done the work on not taking things personally myself, so I took a deep breath and I found the one thing in his statement that I could get behind and understand.

“You know, you are making me realize that no one gave you any context for my presentation. I didn’t properly introduce myself or my relationship with your company. I really apologize!

“I’ve been brought in by your CEO to work with everyone on the Executive Leadership Team, and this approach will be rolled-out company-wide over the next year. So while it does seem like a huge departure for you, please know you will not be the only one trying these ideas out! Does that help at all?”

“Yes. It does,” he said, hostility gone. “Let’s get back to it.”

From there, we had a great session together, and he became one of my favorite presenters at the company.

Had I taken his comments personally, I probably would have fallen apart standing right there in front of the room, and I would have had a hard time recovering. And I probably would have fantasized about sticking pins in a doll with his face on it.

By choosing NOT to take his comments as an attack, it gave me the space to see where he was coming from, and to help him through his concerns. It preserved our new relationship. And it kept me at my A Game for the rest of the session.

Now, to be clear, I’m not sure that anyone achieves perfection in this practice – unless of course you are the Dalai Lama. But, once you get started, you’ll find that it’s actually quite freeing to stop reacting to every comment and facial expression during a presentation or meeting. In fact, you might find allies and new friends where you least expected to.

Now let’s go back to that hideous moment when someone says something that hits you right where it hurts. If you’ve decided that you won’t take anything personally, you notice the perceived attack, and instead of reacting, you take a deep belly breath, remind yourself that this isn’t personal, and begin the work of finding common ground, gathering more data, and determining the next right action.

You stay grounded, authentic, curious and creative.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take those qualities over panic, embarrassment, or outrage any day.