Monday, March 21, 2011

Do you react or respond? How not to get caught in an answer

I've spent plenty of time as a spokesperson and as counsel to spokesfolk. No matter who's front and center for your company or organization, your first job is to do what a psychologist would advise--remember that most of the time, the only thing you get to control is how you react.

Despite that, far too many communicators (and their leaders) opt to react, rather than respond. Reacting means you might get caught. Responding means you take control, in the form of taking the time to pause, think and answer the question--or explain why you can't. Perhaps, best of all, you've taken time well in advance to anticipate tough questions and how you'll respond, should they arise.

Choosing to respond rather than react also means not letting your emotions get the best of you. You'll see plenty of cautionary tales in this NPR story on Twitter gaffes, some of which got folks fired, but you need not involve social networks to broadcast your blunders. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley resigned this month after calling the Defense department's treatment of the accused Wikileaks leaker "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." He spoke at MIT in front of a "tiny" crowd that included a BBC reporter, who reconfirmed the remarks were on the record before blogging them. And while I don't recommend "no comment" as a response, this journal editor could have benefited by using that--or almost anything else besides "None of your damned business" when asked by a reporter why a research article had been retracted.

It's not just a word problem. Physical reactions aren't as uncommon as you may think. 60 Minutes recently released this reel of interviewees storming off the set to end their interviews:


Some tips to help you think fast on your feet and avoid reacting instead of responding:
  • Remember what you get to control: That would be your reactions. Reminding yourself of that before you respond will help keep things in line.
  • Look to your physical reactions first: A scowl (even the kind you wear when you're just thinking hard), clenched fists, eyes rolling to heaven and other physical reactions are fair game even for reporters who aren't toting a camera...and can undercut any smooth words you've got prepared. Instead, take a deep breath and control the reactions of your face as well as your words.
  • Use active listening while the questions come out: Use the time in which the question's being posed to listen with care, thinking of your response rather than reacting immediately. If need be, use this time to pose questions to your questioner to clarify. You'll slow yourself down and respond better.
  • Plan ahead for the situations you can anticipate: The best way to avoid getting caught is to think through and practice the questions you want, expect and fear, and how you'll respond to them. This is how I shape my media trainings, and it's a great time to work out the kinks and surprises before you're caught unprepared.
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