The scenario:

My first lecture to a new group of 86 professionals in an executive MBA programme.

Breathe”, I coax myself as I rid my face of a slowly materialising scowl. I look at the source of my irritation.

The offender, Ms X, whose fixed gaze is an iota short of a glare, continues in a voice that’s resigned to see our clash to the bitter end.

“Excuse me”, she mouths in a tone that stills the rest of the discussion in class, “I wasn’t finished”.

I take another deep breath. I then graciously apologise and wait for her to make her point. She proceeds to do so succinctly and clearly —  devoid of any ambiguity.

Despite her defensive body language and cold gaze, my inner communicator commends her for an articulate, concise argument. 

Not the most likeable individual but one with a sharp mind, I note distractedly.
As I remind myself to breathe steadily and to keep my tone pleasant, I realise handling this difficult professional would be important to how I’m perceived by the rest of the group — a set comprising 85+ executives in a packed lecture room. I would also be required to have one-on-one coaching sessions with them at a later date.
Knowing what is at stake, I approach Ms X. Stopping a respectable distance from her seat, I wait for a few seconds after she stops talking and ask in an even tone:
“OK. Have you finished?”

“Yes”, she sniffs, as her colleagues gaze back at me. I nod.

“That’s an interesting point that Ms X has made…” I  declare as I return to the centre of the room to proceed with the lecture.

The rest of the session goes smoothly with participants engaging in an interesting debate and asking questions.
After that session, I reflected on the lecture. I had been warned that the executive batches usually consist of professionals with at least a decade of experience. In that set, most held managerial positions, and many were older than me. I realised that I’d need to use a more collaborative approach to develop rapport. I also knew that their collective experience and intellect meant that I’d learn from them as the sessions became livelier.

I however noted that I’d need considerable patience dealing with Ms X in the future.
And I was right.

A few months later, Ms X attended her mandatory one-on-one session with me. It quickly became a tense episode. At some point, she declared in a frustrated voice that I wasn’t listening to her. In response, I quipped that she was being defensive (not my finest moment). It was a remark she didn’t appreciate. She then made a comment that reminded me of my role as a communications coach.

She calmly explained that if I were to help her in improving her writing, then I needed to understand her point of view so that I could advise on how best she could write content the reader would understand.

And that was the turning point.

We proceeded to dissect her piece sentence by sentence, and each time, I asked her to explain to me in the simplest terms what she wanted to say. Once I understood what she wanted to express in writing, I was able to advise on sentence structure, grammar, language, etc. to ensure that the content made sense and that her thoughts translated to a coherent document.
I also came to accept the fact that her personality was hers alone. I reckoned that she needed solid interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to influence positive outcomes. But it wasn’t my job to change her character. Nonetheless, I did wonder how far she’d go in her career if she continued to be abrasive, curt or disagreeable. That was when I decided to ‘insulate’ myself against her anticipated criticisms.
Some months later, she interrupted me to complain that I had changed the details of a question I asked all participants to answer. I wasn’t offended. In fact, I acknowledged that I had added some complexity to the scenario for more engaging discussions. I made no apologies for doing so.
In another session, she grumbled about not having the time to read the question distributed before the exam. In response, I handed her a printed copy of the question. Later, she whined about how she didn’t know what to do. I simply smiled. She finally settled down to write the exam. Ironically, she scored the second-highest grade in that assessment.

Ms X nevertheless taught me a few lessons to apply when dealing with maddening professionals:
1) “Seek first to understand, then to be understood

As a speaker, coach, presenter, leader or in whatever role you find yourself,  prepare for a sharp disagreement with your client or a member of the audience before any event.
Some disagreements might not be civil. In fact, you might perceive them as personal attacks. Resist the instinct to defend yourself.
First, listen to what isn’t being said. Behind that rude statement, grating voice or infuriating whining lies exasperation. The offender challenges you at every turn because he/she either doesn’t understand the concept, or he/she requires more convincing. There may also be myriad reasons for being difficult that you’re not privy to.
Next, ask the most straightforward question to understand what the other party wants to know. You won’t solve the problem until you attempt to address the offender’s concerns. Charm won’t do it, nor will some battle of wits.

Finally, get to the root of the problem and try to fix it. Provide context or offer more information privately. You may or may not disarm your ‘opponent’ with this approach, but your credibility will survive the onslaught.

And if you’re wrong, admit your error, state that you’re happy to learn something new and move on. We all make mistakes. You can’t be right all of the time.

2) Keep your cool

Irksome people could turn a speech, presentation, lecture or an address into a disaster if you allow them.

Convince yourself before your programme that you won’t react emotionally despite whatever attack you’d face. Annoyance or distress clouds judgement. Even the most knowledgeable of us will struggle to give an intelligent response when relentlessly provoked.
Whether the offender is the devil’s spawn is irrelevant. If you cannot keep your cool, you’d lose your hard-earned reputation before the session ends. 
On the other hand, keeping a rein on your emotions allows you to be clear-headed enough to de-escalate the situation by asking the right questions so you can offer solutions.
If, despite your efforts, the offender refuses to co-operate, then agree to disagree and change the subject.
It will become evident to all present that he/she is the problem, not you.

You can’t always win them all.


So I’m actually grateful to Ms X for teaching me how to deal with an exasperating professional. As a result, I’m better equipped to handle opposition in my coaching and training sessions.

What I’ve also realised is that the winning formula for dispassionately addressing a volatile situation is finding common ground. Remain open to new reasoning and keep your emotions in check when fielding biased assumptions or deliberate digs at your credibility.  Deal with the source of the problem and disregard the unpleasant symptoms.

If all else fails, hold your head high and move on with quiet contentment that you did all you could. And live to do it again another day.


Over to you:

How did you handle a maddening professional? What did you learn from the experience?

Kindly post your comments below.

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First image is courtesy of Iosphere, at Second, fourth and fifth images are courtesy of Stuart Miles, at Third image is courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, at

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