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How to Handle a Direct Attack

How to Handle a Direct AttackBusiness is about people, and when people interact, they naturally conflict. They conflict over ideas, strategy, methods, style, you name it, people argue about it.

While that's healthy for business, well, most of us aren't born with the ability to handle it like a pro.

Now, with any luck, your career will be long and fruitful. But sometimes, tempers will be short and volatile. And when that happens, when people go on the offensive with you in their cross-hairs, how you respond makes a big difference.

Like it or not, that's just how it is.

Well, I just happened upon a guest article in Harvard Business Review by corporate presentation coach Jerry Weissman. I knew I recognized the name; having participated in an all-day executive session he facilitated 15 years ago in Dallas. He was good; I remember that.

Anyway, Weissman critiqued the way Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz handled an angry shareholder during the Q&A session of the company's annual shareholder meeting last month. That got me thinking about all the times I've been on one side or the other of all sorts of attacks and conflicts over a long and contentious career.

Well, here's Weissman's advice, along with some commentary of my own, on How to Handle a Direct Attack in any situation:

Address the Issue
You certainly can and should make positive statements, but you "must first earn that right by addressing the central issue in the challenging question or statement," according to Weissman. You can agree or disagree, admit or deny the issue, but don't just ignore it.

Example: Let's say you're pitching to get an internal project funded and get hit with: The last time we gave you funding you completely failed to deliver results.
You can't just say: This project will be successful because ... and completely ignore the issue. You won't get the funded, guaranteed.

Instead, challenge the statement with: Well, that's not exactly true. We didn't accomplish A and B, but we did succeed in X and Y. Then move the conversation forward with: In any case, this project will be successful because ... Or admit you failed last time and then follow up with why this one will be different.

But don't make excuses, as the next pointer explains ...

Do Not Validate the Negativity
A negative statement may be the sad truth, and you certainly can and should be straightforward about that, but don't "validate the negativity by letting it hang, twisting in space," says Weissman. Instead, admit the negative facts, be transparent, then, "immediately follow it with an upbeat counterpunch."

Example: This time you're pitching a customer who chimes in with: Why should we give you new business when we're still trying to recover from your last schedule slip.
Do not respond with: Yes, you're absolutely right. Really sorry about the way that went down, but you know, we had a problem with our manufacturing line ... and on and on until you've run out of excuses and have completely forgotten why you're standing there in the first place.

Instead, try: Yes, you're absolutely right. But now that we've gotten past that and worked out our process kinks, I'm sure that everything will go smoothly from here on and I'm willing to put my neck on the line to prove it to you.
Real-World example to drive the point home
Weissman's pointers work in all sorts of situations, from your boss coming down on you in private or in public, a peer challenging you in a staff meeting, or a direct assault by an angry customer or shareholder, as in Bartz's case.

Here's a quick true story that demonstrates how it works - from my days as a marketing VP / punching bag for a CEO who thought he could defy the laws of supply and demand:

Angry and exasperated, the CEO stood up in the board meeting and exclaimed, "Is that all you marketing &#*$s know how to do, compete on price?!"

To which I responded, "No, that's not all we know how to do. But if we don't cut our prices, we'll be sitting on a billion dollars worth of inventory by the end of next quarter."

We did cut prices, unloaded all our inventory, avoided bankruptcy, and lived to fight another day. I'm pretty sure that wouldn't have happened if I'd handled the attack differently. So there you go.

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Image: Duncan~ via Flickr