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I was recently asked what to do when a panelist’s opening comment is a volatile hypothesis – that they hadn’t talked about during the planning session.

Other than being surprised, here are some ways to respond to this verbal grenade to maintain control of the conversation and ensure it remains constructive and on track.

What to Do When a Panelist’s Opening Comment is a Volatile Hypothesis:

  • Acknowledge: Briefly acknowledge the panelist’s comment to show that you’ve heard them and to prevent them from feeling ignored or marginalized.
  • Refocus: Steer the conversation back to the agreed topics. You can say something such as, “That’s an interesting point, but let’s focus on what we planned to discuss today.”
  • Reframe: If the comment is potentially useful but off-topic, try to reframe it within the context of the discussion. For example, “That’s a provocative idea. How does it relate to our discussion on [related topic]?”
  • Redirect: Invite other panelists to share their views, which can help balance the discussion and bring it back to the central themes.
  • Humor: Lighten the mood with a touch of humor (if appropriate), which can diffuse tension and help redirect the discussion.

With any of the above strategies, stay calm, cool, and collected. Keep the tone friendly and cooperative, encouraging a dialogue that respects different perspectives while adhering to the session’s objectives.

Finally, for future panel discussions, consider preparing for such scenarios by discussing potentially controversial topics with panelists beforehand and agreeing on how to handle them.

Handling such volatile situations requires a mix of quick thinking, control of the session’s flow, and ensuring all panelists feel respected and heard – all while serving the needs and interests of the audience!

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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.

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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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