Dark Horse in a Hostile Meeting

In a recent post I talked about how to view creativity in light of data and testing. One thing I touched on was dealing with negative feedback to your designs. As a follow-up on that topic, I want to offer some insights on how to handle those meetings when they get really really negative. Here are my seven tips on approaching a hostile meeting when you’re the little guy/gal.

Dealing with angry people is hard. Dealing with angry people you’re working for is even harder. It can feel like you’re already starting from a losing position. No matter how right you may be, they’re big, you’re small, and you’re getting ready to meet on their turf and take a beating. You may even get fired.

  1. Understand intent, don’t assume it. Your first step should be to understand. Most likely your opponent doesn’t want to destroy you. Instead they’re looking for some concession. There are probably also deep, individualized reasons why they want those concessions. Don’t get too far into the mind games, but spend the time and effort gauging intent. Plan how you’ll handle the most probable driving forces behind the hostility.
  2. Don’t forget your manners, and be sincere about it. Laughter and using social capital can be disarming. Use them. Indirectly reminding everyone that there are reasons you all are together in the first place and that you share commonality can cool a heated situation. Don’t open with a knock-knock joke, but be the first person to laugh at yourself.
  3. Stay Small. Don’t take over the meeting. Having a reactionary role can be a luxury. You know the tools and effort it would take you to rectify specific grievances better than they do. The more they drive the conversation, the better you’ll understand what they really want.
  4. Listen to understand, not to reply. When you hear something you disagree with, you’ll tend to immediately formulate a response while frustration and anger well up inside you until you can vent it. This hijacks your ability to fully understand what your opponent is communicating. Instead, intentionally listen until it’s your turn to reply, then formulate your response while you repeat back what you heard and understood.
  5. Center your replies and efforts on the most hostile opponent. If you can single out your most angry opponent and address him directly and calmly, you have the best chance to diffuse him while causing other meeting attendees to distance themselves. If one opponent is misbehaving, simply focusing solely on him with measured replies can ostracize him in the eyes of his counterparts. Nobody wants to side with the jerk.
  6. Ignore exaggeration. Be ready to validate legitimate complaints. You’ve done things you would do differently if you could. Owning that fact will go a long way in helping your angry opponent feel heard. At the same time, don’t stoop to discrediting exaggerations. For example, whether you were late by 6 business days or “two weeks” on your design delivery isn’t the issue. The cause of the delay needs to be understood, and the path to rectify the damage your lateness caused (while avoiding further late deliveries) is what needs to be discussed.
  7. Rebut your opposition, at the same time let them feel like they won. These hostile meetings aren’t a zero sum game, you don’t win or lose at the expense of your opponent. As the saying goes, you’re looking for a win-win. You will almost never get to a win-win by letting the big guy beat you up. You have to go on the offensive at some point. Check your opponents’ unreasonable position while validating their reasonable criticism. It’s ok to employ your emotional intelligence to the best of your ability and attempt to manipulate your opponent into a mutually beneficial outcome.

These are the rules and tactics that have helped me most in my most volatile meetings. There are a wealth of good, and surprisingly terrible, resources on how to handle hostile meetings. Links to my favorite good advice are below.

References and further resources: