5 Tips for dealing with hostile people

One of my favorite parts of speaking is the interaction and participation from an audience. It shows me they are engaged and curious. Questions and comments present the opportunity to bring clarity and understanding, and it’s a great way to connect – of course!

While most of the time the interactions are positive (or at least constructive), sometimes someone in your audience presents as antagonistic and can become hostile or even aggressive. When this happens I definitely feel anxious. So, when asked by a participant how to deal when someone is acting hostile toward your idea or contribution to a conversation, I thought about how I try to respond in these situations.

Here’s are 5 strategies I use to de-escalate a potentially tricky situation:

  1. Don’t take it personally. Internalizing hostility is easy to do, but in most cases, the negativity you’re being presented with is not about you. Regulating your own emotional response to an aggressive question by depersonalizing helps put your audience at ease and demonstrates that you are still in control.
  2. Look for an underlying concern. The hostile words said aren’t often communicated with clarity as they are typically driven by emotion. Take a moment to listen for what may be the real reason they are upset. Confirm your assumption by saying something like, “It sounds like you are worried about… is that what’s on your mind?”
  3. Stay Calm. Confronting hostility can trigger an equally emotional response and lead us to provide a snap response, but resist that. Don’t buy into their emotion. Instead, try to shift their energy to a more productive place.
  4. If appropriate, validate the concern. Listen to what they are really saying and give their concern the weight it deserves. If it’s something truly meaningful that adds to the subject at hand, validate the concern and let them know you share it. Otherwise, simply acknowledge what they are saying to make sure they know that you’ve heard and understood their perspective.
  5. Respond. You won’t always have the answer, but you can always respond. Do your best to address the underlying concern, using it to clarify or expand upon what you’ve presented. Let them know what you know and what you don’t. Reassure them you will share information and keep them in the loop. Transparency builds trust. Your response will make them feel heard – sometimes that’s all they are looking for.

Finally, you might not want to hear this, but it’s true – being confronted with hostility and negativity is one more opportunity for connection. Take that opportunity! Empathy in light of negativity is the first step to forging a connection in a difficult situation. This empathetic approach will help you defuse a tense situation and hopefully bring further insight and understanding in your message and relationship.

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