Effectively communicating with an angry audience

Earlier this month, I had the absolute privilege of taking a science communication course presented by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (AACCS).  It’s perhaps one of the most enlightening courses I have ever taken!

For PR peeps, the phrases key messages and knowing your audience are thrown around quite often, and rightly so.  Our job is to understand the folks with whom we want to reach so we can tailor those key messages effectively.

But what if someone just outright disagrees with you? Not just sort of disagrees, but wants to tell you to shove it?

The AACCS really focuses on effectively communicating with that stakeholder who just doesn’t buy what you’re selling.

For scientists, it’s extremely tough.  Not only do you have to make the science and biology understandable.  But you also have to figure out how to make someone who doesn’t care…actually give a hoot….as well as get on board!

I wanted to share with you some of the exercises we learned during our three-day course.  Just a reminder….every single thing I am writing about are techniques I learned from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.  (Although I wish I were smart enough to think of these myself!)

Yes, but… vs. Yes, and…

Admit it. We all do it!  I didn’t realize how much I used the phrase yes, but…. when I am arguing with someone.  We get so caught up and passionate in our work, we really don’t want to see or hear where the other person is coming from.  We just want them to shut up so we can get back to the points that WE care about…right?

When someone says to you yes, but…..  how does that make you feel?

It makes me feel like I’m being dismissed….like I might as well be saying “wha wha wha wha wha!” (Charlie Brown teacher voice).  Why would I want to hear you when you obviously don’t want to hear me?

To avoid this dynamic, practice saying yes, and…

It’s really a lot harder than you might think!  To practice this technique, we partnered up and chose any topic to discuss.  The first topic was sushi.  In an impromptu-type exercise, one person makes any statement they want to about sushi.  You reply “yes, and….” then, you make another random statement about sushi.  Your partner then replies “yes, and…” with another statement about sushi.  As the back and forth continues, it gets harder and harder to keep the dialogue going.

The point of the exercise is to try to empathize with the person with whom you’re arguing.  Finding common ground and mutual understanding may help your message get through.

We laughed a lot during this exercise.  Some of the statements were hilarious!  In the future, when I try to reach an understanding with someone, I will definitely try to respond to “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but…”  Is it challenging?  Heck yeah!!  But the technique is an effective one.


Gosh, I love a good rant.  If I’m ticked about something, watch out.  My mouth can run a mile a minute!

However, I HATE being on the receiving end of a rant.  My instinct is to get defensive.  Why is this person all up in my grill??  Is it even worth trying to rationalize with a ranting person?  Before this course, I would have said, nope!

But you can actually learn a lot from someone who is ranting if you choose to pay attention.

In a technique taught by the AACCS, we were asked to choose a partner, and proceed to hear them rant for 90 seconds.  The rant could be about anything…work-related or personal.  An example of a rant by a person named “Jane” is down below.

Jane:  “I really can’t stand my co-worker.  She is always up in everyone’s business.  If I arrive just a couple of minutes late for work, she gives me a dirty look.  She is always trying to catch a co-worker making a mistake so she can tell the boss!  She thinks she’s the best employee in the building!! Why can’t she just mind her own business and worry about her job instead of focusing on me and what I am doing all day???  Who does she think she is?”

Once I listened to Jane’s rant, I was instructed to introduce her to the rest of the group under two conditions:


  1.  Don’t reveal the rant whatsover
  2. Only discuss “Jane” in positive terms.


Whoa!  I can only use positive adjectives to introduce this person?  Sheesh!  So how should I introduce this fellow ranter?  I gave it a shot.

Denise:  “Meet Jane Smith.  It’s important that Jane works in a positive, stress-free environment.  Jane believes in focusing on her work, and she wants her co-workers to feel comfortable around her.   Jane believes that mutual trust among her colleagues in the work place makes for a healthy and productive environment.”

Wow.  Pulling together that introduction for Jane was challenging considering she was so angry.  But you know what I learned?  I learned what makes Jane tick.  I learned a little bit about the values she holds in the work place.  So, if I’m ever in an argument with Jane, I know the POSITIVE things she holds dear.  I also learned that Jane and I have a few things in common.

This exercise really opens up the door to empathy.  If you are ever on the receiving end of a rant, really LISTEN for the POSITIVE things that are driving the ranter’s passions.  Are their passions similar to your passions?  If so, can you find SOME common ground?

I think the answer is yes.

Take the class!

These exercises I’ve described barely scratch the surface on all of the things I learned from this communication course.   If you are interested in training with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, you can find opportunities here.  I promise that you’ll leave as a  better communicator.

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