Part 2: Maintaining trust with a hostile audience

How often does strong arming someone into doing something work out in the long run?

Last week’s post talked about situations that involve communicating ideas to a skeptical audience and the need to sometimes force trust quickly, rather than earning it over a longer period of time. This type of approach carries a price — forced trust and attention often have a short lifespan, quickly reverting to skepticism.

This weeks’ post acknowledges this challenge by summarising 3 concepts that can help maintain and evolve trust long enough to get key messages across and hopefully establish a stronger enduring relationship with your audience.

The approaches outlined below may be uncomfortable choices at first, because they involve situations where we need to push back or say no. What’s worked for me is starting with one area, getting used to the discomfort and expanding from there. Above all use your best judgement for any given situation.

Idea 1: Your time is important

In situations where you may be presenting to a difficult audience, you can use “time” to further elevate your status, namely by conveying that your time is precious.

People with status are often considered “busy” people. Mirroring this back to a challenging audience can often put you across as someone worth listening to.

For example, sometimes you’ll find your audience warming up to you as they start to understand your perspective, and this may lead to tangential questions or deep dives into specific areas. Consider deferring these discussions to a future meeting, and emphasise that you have a hard stop — avoid lengthy overruns. This may be uncomfortable at first, but definitely worth trying out.

Idea 2: Don’t sell

Once you’ve gained trust, there’s a natural impulse to start selling your idea, essentially trading what you have for your audiences money or support (i.e. stakeholder support).

Your audience may even expect this from you – it’s part of their job to hear requests, and they’re often well practiced at saying no, or at least delaying a positive response.

Rather than selling, consider steering the conversation towards asking whether your audience is a good fit for what you bring to the table? In Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff describes this approach as prizing:

Who is the prize, or who is chasing whom, is one of the underlying social dynamics that influences most meetings.

The answer establishes a person’s motivation and tells us how they will probably behave in the meeting.

The basics:
– If you are trying to win your target’s respect, attention, and money, he becomes the prize.

– When your target is trying to win your attention and respect, you are the prize. (This, of course, is what you want.)

Prizing is the sum of the actions you take to get to your target to understand that he is a commodity and you are the prize. Successful prizing results in your target chasing you, asking to be involved in your deal.

… Your pitch is first going to register in the target’s croc brain … and the croc brain would like to ignore you. But if you are dynamic enough—giving new and novel information—you will capture the croc’s attention. Once that happens, the croc is going to have one of two primal reactions:

  • Curiosity and desire, or
  • Fear and dislike

If you trigger curiosity and desire, the croc sees you as something it wants to chase. You become the prize.

Does this really work?
In my last post I described a situation in which I had to rearrange the desk of a skeptical executive to temporarily gain trust.

In the early stages of the meeting I was genuinely concerned that his situation, wasn’t a good fit for our offering. So I took a chance and expressed these concerns, suggesting that perhaps the best use of time, ours and his, was to follow up with him in the future, when his circumstances may have changed.

Each time I withdrew, he leaned foward, emphasising his interest in our offering and correcting assumptions I was making about his situation. Essentially maintaining that his company “qualified” for our attention (and our time).

Idea 3: Focus on relationships, not details

This final idea is fairly tactical, but is likely to have broad application when it comes to supporting the points above.

Even during early stage meetings with executive level stakeholders, it can be common for experts — people with detailed knowledge — to be invited in to observe, so they can provide the executives with feedback after the meeting.

Sometimes these experts will depart their observe only mandate and voice questions during your meeting, creating a number of potential problems:

  1. You likely don’t have the time to respond — getting into details in an executive meeting goes against the idea that your time is precious
  2. Detailed Q/A may frustrate executive decision makers who don’t want to get into the weeds
  3. Engaging in detailed discussions can sometimes lower your status in the eyes of key decision makers
  4. Answering detailed questions can sometimes make you come across as defending your position weakening your “prize frame”

A useful approach is to instead leverage situations, where questions are raised too early in a relationship, in order to reinforce your high status.

For example, when facing detailed questions you could offer to connect their experts with yours in a follow up meeting. Emphasizing that at this point you’d like to focus on determining whether this partnership is a good fit — essentially pulling away and inviting them to lean forward

Parting thoughts
These approaches have made a big difference to some of the most challenging situations I’ve been in. I’ve generally found that when I’ve been brave enough to try them out, it’s resulted in a stronger relationship. I think this has a lot to do with being authentic and focusing on relationships early on, rather than technical aspects.

It’s important to be genuine — these approaches rely on having something to offer that is worth prizing and worth your time and your audiences. Keeping things conversational and avoid confrontations are important considerations, as is starting out with small changes to your regular approach at first.

How do you typically maintain trust in difficult situations? Have you ever noticed being on the receiving end of approaches like the ones described above — how have you dealt with that?

Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you.