Deer In The Headlights

1 May 2018

How To Think On Your Feet: Cold Calling And Euphemisms

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder Of Atomic Tango + Professor Who Loves To Cold Call His Students; photo by Fabrice Florin via Wikimedia Commons…

Picture yourself in a class or business meeting. You don’t have a pressing thought or opinion on the current topic — indeed, your mind is wandering to what you’d like to have for dinner — when suddenly you hear your name called along with the question, “What do you think?”

For some, that’s reason to panic — subtly, of course (i.e., you don’t run screaming from the room). Your heart revs up, your face heats up, and you somehow blurt out a response. One of three outcomes ensues…

  • In your worst nightmare, your classmates or colleagues snicker, and your professor or boss rolls his eyes and says, “See me in my office after the meeting.”
  • In your best fantasy, your classmates or colleagues give you a standing ovation, and your professor or boss smiles and says, “You should really have my job. I mean it.”
  • In reality, if you’re prepared, your classmates or colleagues will nod in agreement, and your professor or boss says, “Good point,” and the conversation continues.

Note that the operative condition here is “if you’re prepared.”

As an MBA student, I got to regularly practice responding to cold calls by professors and random questions from presentation audiences. That taught me how to prepare — and how to avoid surprise questions in the first place. (Hints: In class, speak as often as possible — professors don’t tend to cold call students they hear frequently. In presentations, anticipate questions and have answers ready, both verbally and visually.)

Those extensive dress rehearsals have proved invaluable in my career, which now entails presenting to students and clients, and responding to their questions.

Now It’s Your Turn…

If you haven’t had much practice thinking on your feet, a recent article in Harvard Business Review provides some solid advice. “How To Respond When You’re Put On The Spot In A Meeting” by corporate trainer Paul Axtell contains pointers that could also apply to presentations and job interviews. I plan to share this article with my students — before they get hit with all the cold calling I do in class. (They’ll dread me now, thank me later.)

I particularly liked Axtell’s suggested set responses, such as, “I do not have that information. I will get it to you by 1:00 PM” (obviously, more useful in a boardroom than in a classroom). My favorite is how to disagree:

“I think I’m clear about your idea, and I see it differently. May I tell you?”

I’ve never heard disagreement phrased better. Other seemingly “polite” options, such as “I respectfully disagree,” still put the recipient on the defensive. No disagreement ever feels respectful — it still sounds like, “You’re wrong!” But saying that you have a different perspective shifts the emphasis from negating their ideas to submitting your views for consideration. Requesting permission to share your ideas shows further deference.

I now plan to use that set response with clients whose ideas I disagree with — or on social media, where the word “disagree” can set off a flame war.

In addition, it made me think of other euphemisms I use:

Criticism: “That’s bad. You have to fix it.”
Euphemism: “I see where you’re going! Here’s how to make it stronger” (or “even better”).

Criticism: “That won’t work at all.”
Euphemism: “We could give it a shot. Now, here’s how we might boost the odds of success.”

Criticism: “You have major problems.”
Euphemism: “We have a few issues to resolve. Want to discuss the options?”

Criticism: “That idea is so outdated. Where have you been?”
Euphemism: “Yes, that worked great just a few years back. Now, have you heard the latest?”

Some might argue that those euphemisms sound contrived or insincere, but they really do remove tension from a conversation. (Simply saying “we” instead of “you” avoids putting the other person on the spot.) The emphasis can then shift from egos and defensiveness to solving problems — I mean, issues.

In other words, thinking on your feet isn’t just about making yourself look good. It also entails making others feel respected so that, together, you can focus on getting the job done.

Or do you see it differently?

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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6 years ago

Was just talking with a buddy of mine about how one has to do this at work. Had a boss whose reply for everything was “fantastic!” In b-school when a class had a participation component to the grade, I learned to come in prepared with my own talking points and made sure to pipe up, even if I was sitting in back with the “back of the bus” type of crowd ? And yes, if one spoke up proactively, one didn’t get the dreaded, “And what do you think?” in the middle of distracted daydreaming. Another thing that helped me was randomly deciding to try improv for a couple months. They threw in the newbies with regulars who’d gone for a decade. I kept bombing scenes, and at least recognized it. There was some knowledge I didn’t have about the unspoken rules of improv. Then I found it, this excerpt apparently from Miss Bossypants. The “yes, and” approach is helpful in general. Plus improv taught me not to have an agenda, listen and respond in the moment. Recommend.

6 years ago

This is great advice. I’m going to try some of these phrases. People never listen to new ideas and approaches if they they feel they are being attacked. Kill ’em with kindness and you win for sure!

6 years ago

Great advice. And I love the photo.
Thanks, Freddy.

Mark Armstrong
6 years ago

Excellent. I’ve had that “best fantasy” many times. Great header. I could identify with the deer, even tho he looks a lot more alert than I usually do… ?

Wonderful suggestions, one and all. I especially liked your own favorite, “I think I’m clear about your idea, and I see it differently. May I tell you?” which was completely new to me. Let’s hope I can remember it!!

Also liked your use “we” instead of “you” strategy. Great insight about removing tension– that’s gotta be a key factor in having a respectful and productive conversation. One of your best posts– thanks!