by Arielle Essex

Decontaminating hot topics

A key charismatic skill is knowing how to handle or deflect potential conflict – how not to get shot! A hot topic, in this context, can be any piece of news that might be construed as negative by your audience. Either it contains indigestible facts, bad results, arduous work demands, unpopular topics or an overwhelming amount of information. Just bringing it into the meeting creates an air of resistance.

So, how do you deflect negative energy? Whenever you have bad news to disclose, or whenever the communication gets heated, remember this quick way to deflect the energy.

Whether you have to cover this information or not, start with ‘getting it off to one side’, preferably in some visual form. Capture the information on a piece of paper; write it on a white board or flip chart, or pretend it is contained in a report you have at hand. Put the item on a far wall or, if you have a written report, place it on a table or chair at some distance from you.

Focus all your attention on this paper – looking at it, pointing to it and holding it away from your body and preferably away from your listener too. Match their seriousness, concerns and level of passion. Verbally match the resistance of the group’s reaction by making some statement about the item while referring back to it from this safe distance.

For example: while keeping your focus directly on the visual item, say something like ‘If we don’t turn this around, the company will have to downsize.’ Pause to let your statement sink in, still focusing on the item, until everyone starts breathing again. This keeps the negative feeling connected to the facts and not to you.

Avoid looking at your listener(s) while talking about anything negative. Use a credible, level voice tone. Then separate yourself from this item – put the paper to one side, or walk away from the flip chart before making eye contact with your listener(s) and discussing possible solutions. Turn to the group and say something like, ‘And what can we do about that!’ looking back at the item. Then prescribe a plan of action.

Psychogeography – power spots

There are power spots in each room and preferable positioning between people for best interaction. The power spot of a room will be the place that has best vantage point. From this place, the person has his back protected, usually by a solid wall; also from here, he can see the doors and windows, and is able to watch who enters and leaves. When choosing a seat at a table at your next meeting, look to see who sits in this most powerful seat. Note that it may or may not be at the head of the table.

Most business and public meetings use a face-to-face across the table arrangement. Since this is conventional and expected, there may be many occasions where you must use it if people are to feel comfortable. However, when people are sitting opposite each other, they also become conversational opponents, batting ideas across the table and forced to look straight in each other’s faces.

Whenever possible, seek arrangements at 90 degrees instead. This allows you both more air space for your eyes and more possibility of placing ideas out into that neutral space. The things you place on the table can then be ‘decontaminated’ by separating them from the relationship you have with the person you are talking to.

In the western world, the standard polite distance is usually one arm’s length apart, but this can vary depending on the person. Some people also have a preference to face you or have you stand or sit on one side more than the other. By finding out a person’s preference, you can help to put them at ease and increase the rapport.

Positive alliance and disclaimers

At any meeting you can influence who gets more credibility through acknowledgement and ignoring. Of course, if you align yourself with powerful leaders in the group who will support your cause, you’ll get better results. You can directly acknowledge the person’s expertise about an issue during your talk, or indirectly make a statement about ‘what experts know’ – and gesture towards that person. Similarly, you can diminish a person’s importance in a group by responding to their communication briefly, without looking at them.

The reason we’re successful, darling? My overall charisma, of course.

Freddie Mercury

Should you ever make a gross error in your choice of topic – for example, a bad joke – and you realise the mistake from the reaction in the room, you can save your skin by using a ‘disclaimer’. Like decontamination, you separate yourself from the offensive remarks using both physical distance from that spot on the floor and by what you say. Looking back at that point as if it was stuck in space, you can say something like, ‘but, we’re not here to make bad jokes about this, we need to come up with a serious solution.’