Effective Strategies for Moderators Navigating High-Tension Panel Discussions

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Rachel Sheerin, my colleague at the National Speakers Association (NSA) recently asked our Members Only Facebook group, for advice on managing situations “where people are being aggressive to the panelists during Q&A, open forums, town halls, many of it relating to current world events, changes in the organizations and/or fractured leadership and factions in the culture rising up.”

Sherrin asks, “What do you say when people are out of line but you need to keep professional and positive? What have you seen or done that’s worked well in audiences of 200-800 people?”

Ah….that’s a great question! While Sherrin posed the question for all events, I thought this question was keenly relevant for panel discussions.

There are two sides to this “high-tension” coin:

Side One: The Source of the Tension Is Known Before the Panel Begins

Particularly with panel discussions where diversity of opinion and a bit of tension is preferred, the source of the tension may stem from the topic itself, OR from a divisive, outspoken, high-profile panelist, OR from a potentially hostile crowd (One of my most challenging events I had to moderate hit the trifecta: contentious topic, high-profile panelists, and a cynical crowd!).

The key here is to set expectations, create a format that generates light and not heat, and share clear ground rules to manage aggressive questions during panel discussions. Here is what some of my fellow NSA colleagues had to say:

  • Set Expectations.
    • Marlene Chism emphasizes the importance of setting expectations and getting agreement from the beginning. You can then always remind people of the agreements. Chism suggests starting with a buy-in from the audience, such as asking for a show of hands to agree to respectful discourse. If the agreement isn’t reached, the options are to remove the disruptive individual or to shut down the discussion.
  • Define the Moderator Role.
    • Joe Mull suggests you make it clear “it’s the moderator’s job to address inappropriate or questionable behavior, not the panelists. Prep panelists for this…and come up with a signal/gesture/word for panelists to use if they want the moderator to rescue them, no questions asked.”
  • Create an Engaging Format. Especially when you know there will be tension in the room, create a format that engages the panelists and the audience in a structured and constructive way.
  • Prepare the Panelists. Joe Mull also recommends that panelists are prepped to redirect tense questions by restating them to ensure clarity and understanding. This technique can help defuse emotions. Additionally, having a signal for panelists to indicate when they need the moderator’s intervention can be a lifesaver. Mull also suggests acknowledging the complexity of contentious issues to validate the audience’s concerns while steering the discussion constructively.
  • Share Clear Ground Rules.
    • Tamsen Webster advocates for setting clear guidelines before the Q&A begins. By securing the audience’s agreement on the format of questions, moderators can ensure smoother interactions. Webster usually starts “with some kind of preamble like, ‘With so many people here, I want to make sure we have the opportunity to hear from as many of you as possible, so here’s how this will work:
      • Please ask in the form of a question
      • Please ask only one question and no two-parters!
      • Please ask the question without providing background information. If we need more information, we’ll ask for it.
        How’s that sound? Everyone agree? Fabulous. Let’s start.’ That way, the crowd is on your side if anyone violates those guidelines, and it also gives you a non-personalized way to rein someone back in (‘I’m sorry – what is your question?’)”
    • Norm Hull suggests setting up a “bin” for questions such as TBDL (To Be Discussed Later), or APG (Above Pay Grade) to address inappropriate or off-topic questions without dismissing them outright. This technique shows that all questions are valued but must be addressed in the appropriate forum.

Side Two: Gracefully Intervene

So your preventions (above) may have kept some disruptive behavior at bay, but…..something happens that may derail the conversation quickly. You have a choice: Intervene or let it ride.

  • Take a Moment. Matthew Ferrara provides a direct yet polite approach to dealing with inappropriate behavior: “We don’t need a snappy line or clever comeback to appropriately confront rude behavior. We simply need to politely say what adults politely say to each other [such as] ‘Perhaps you need a moment to compose yourself and ask your question appropriately. We can come back to you. Who’s next?’” This method affirms boundaries without escalating the situation and restores balance for the rest of the audience.
  • Restate the Question. Joe Mull suggests you “Advise your panelists that when tense questions get asked, it can be helpful to restate what they’ve just heard first, in their own words. ‘So what I hear you asking is….do I have that right?’ Sometimes just the act of being heard can lower the temperature.”
  • Lead with Curiosity. Mike Domitrz advises engaging aggressive participants by leading with curiosity instead of judgment. “Play their words back to them for clarity and ask a follow-up based on those words to help everyone better understand the intention of their question. Done right, you can end with a heckler becoming your strongest ally and advocate.”
  • Defer the Question. Webster agrees with Domitrz, saying, “You don’t have to agree with someone to make them feel seen and heard. You can just say, ‘I understand,’ and then stop.” Or you can “proceed to answer it, or say that it’s important enough to give more time than you have here, so [let them know how] how to follow-up.”

For further practical guidance, Rachel Sheerin created a resource that provides additional techniques and real-world examples (including verbal response statements) to handle high-tension events. You can explore it here.

Handling aggressive behaviors or inappropriate questions during high-tension panel discussions requires a blend of pre-planning, clear guidelines, respectful interventions, and strategic redirection. By adopting these techniques from seasoned moderators and experts, you can maintain a professional and positive atmosphere, ensuring that all voices are heard and respected.

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For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

Kristin Arnold

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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