How & why to take on an adversary


I was recently listening to a Women's Enterprise Scotland event where Clare English, a BBC Radio 4 producer spoke about giving interviews to the press. Whether or not that's your space, she mentioned adversarial 'opponents' - a topic I think could benefit anyone's career. 

Having 'adversarial opponents' in a single interview is a dynamic producers sometimes encourage to allow audiences to hear several sides of a story. These types of set-ups, when you are about to speak in a public forum like a panel, or go on air, as was her example, can feel daunting.

However, you actually learn a lot from saying 'yes' when asked.

Years ago, I was interviewed for the BBC with McKirrick, who I didn't know would be on, but I quickly discovered had a misogynistic streak. As I knew a live audience was listening, it felt daunting, but I'm actually glad I went through it as it taught me 4 important things to benefit you. 

1. Ask ahead of time who else is going to be on the panel, and then research them in addition to your own preparation about the topic. I've since done this and been able to quote other panellists back to themselves, with a 'Well, as you told 'The Times....'  This often throws them, and at the very least reminds them and the wider audience that you've done your homework, so to be wary. 

2. Use humour to disarm. Audiences love humour, so in addition to the self-deprecating humour 'confidently competent' people are known for, don't hold back in using humour if you have an adversary on the panel. You don't actually have to crack jokes. The bar for humour in the office is pretty low:) This is a complete bonus for you as it means a well-timed 'So how does that sit with the things you've just said?' or ' But how well does that work in your real life?' with a tongue-in cheek wide-eyed sense of innocence, can actually get an audience on side. 

3. Don't say no to an opportunity just because you fear an adversarial opponent.  If you do that, you'll never get a great opportunity and people will just stop asking you - the worst of all worlds. In truth, it's hard to always estimate who is going to be difficult. For example, having another female business owner argue with me on live television that employers should be able to ask new job applicants if they are planning to get pregnant (currently illegal). 

Equally, I've been pleasantly surprised by the times the business leader who I feared would be my biggest opponent actually says something that supports my argument. When that happens, give them credit to build a public alliance, with a 'well as X just said, I think it important we recognise Y.' 

4. But perhaps, the best reason to say yes to these types of opportunities is because they help you better hone your argument. What the adversary says is likely to be something at least a few other people think, so taking a note of their objections is hugely useful. To this point, one of the best best tips I ever got was to ask for 'objection based testimonials'. People often had concerns, assumptions or objections about hiring me that they may not have told me directly. However, those beliefs are still there, so their still useful to address.

Some of my best testimonials now feature people saying 'You may think coaching is expensive, but what I realised that stagnating in my role for another year was costing me more.'  or ' We thought we could rely on internal people for all our events, but we found that people were most likely to engage when we had an external speaker with Suzanne's humour and specialist expertise'  In short, address the elephant in the room and your creditability will only grow.