Dealing with negative vibes in the room

Jane Sheffield
Lead Trainer & Owner
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As many of us head back to work today,  I’m fast realising that everyone is dealing with emerging from lockdown very differently.

I thought post-lockdown last year resulted in pretty high levels of anxiety in many workplaces, and a general feeling of uneasiness. Things are different this time around (thank goodness), however I think we can safely assume that many of us will still be on edge over the next few weeks.

So, when it comes to presenting to a group either online or in person, it will be helpful to stay objective, keep our cool, and try not to react to different moods and reactions in the room.  Because as well as our audience members potentially feeling distracted or on edge, we all may  be feeling a little sensitive!

So today I want to share with you my technique for staying objective when picking up negative vibes from your audience.

I call this the ‘put it to the universe’ technique.

To explain how it works, let me tell you about a senior Police officer I trained some years ago.  I was fairly new to training, and I found him to be quite an intimidating character. He was fairly senior in my mind.  Very sullen.  Not one to smile, or to talk to the group.  And he gave me nothing – not a smile, not a laugh, or a nod of the head. Nothing. 

By the morning tea break I had started to freak out.  My head sounded like this: 

“Maybe he doesn’t agree with me?”; “Maybe this content is just not relevant for him”; “Have I upset him?”; “He thinks I’m the worst trainer in the world and I shouldn’t be here”! Round and round it went. All day. And it was exhausting. 

But that happens, right?  It’s a natural reaction to take any negative vibes in the room and make them about us.  And this often results in distracting and potentially harmful internal dialogue, which is not helpful. And most of the time, is also not true. 

A good ‘get out of my head’ technique I use to get more of an objective lens on the situation, is to ask myself this: 

“If I asked 1000 people what was going on with that person, what would they say”?

E.g. Someone yawns. Repeatedly. 

My natural reaction? I am boring them.  Time to throw in some jazz hands. 

Now, if I asked 1000 people what was happening when a person in the audience was yawning, what would their answer be? Probably that the person is tired. 

So, stop the jazz hands, and maybe open a window. 

Someone is frowning. Shaking their head, sighing. 

A likely interpretation: I am annoying them. They disagree with me.  Time to start doubting myself, or maybe throw in some passive aggressive responses.

But, if you asked 1000 people what was going on, a likely interpretation would be: they are not feeling comfortable. They are not at ease. (Remember this does not mean you are making them feel this way. That is an important distinction).

It’s time to focus on helping them feel more comfortable, rather than on how you are feeling – and that calls for a proactive rather than reactive response. 

Now back to my frowning Policeman. 

At the end of that exhausting training session (where I spent 8 hours avoiding eye contact and internally beating myself up about my general incompetence as a trainer), his parting comment was: “That was great Jane. Really valuable”. 

(!!!). I nearly fell over.  Say what?!

He didn’t disagree with me. Just because he wasn’t jumping up and down and kissing my arse, it did not mean he had an issue with me. It was just his way – which had no doubt served him well in the often-challenging environment of his profession.  

I learned a valuable lesson that day: that audience reactions are often not about you. And when we stop interpreting what is going on in the room as being about ourselves and deal with it objectively, it is much more helpful to us as a communicator. 

Many of your colleagues are going to be distracted, anxious and on edge over the next few weeks. So, in your next meeting or presentation – try not to over analyse any negative vibes.  Because guess what? It’s not all about you. 

Stop presenting. Start talking, Jane.

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