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Sue Shellenbarger, one of my favorite columnists, recently wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal about overcoming personal terror when giving a speech. She made some excellent points, but she missed one critical source of apprehension: There is always at least one person in your audience looking back at you with a grim look or arms folded, ready to disagree with almost anything you might say.

I remember an incident many years ago in Boston when I was waiting backstage with my boss to speak before a large group. Al Doyle was thirty years older than me and had delivered many such speeches, but he was shaking visibly with nervousness. When I asked him why, he replied that he was all right when he finally got on stage, but that he always worried about some things in advance, including the possibility of a negative response from some individual in the audience.

When making a presentation, have you ever had the feeling that someone in your audience dislikes you, even though youve never met? Well, youre probably right. When you enter a room filled with strangers, do you sometimes get that same uneasy feeling? Right again.

Anyone who has to deal with the public, sell a product or convince upper management to okay a project needs to understand that not everyone will like you.

The feelings of those who dont know you can be negative for no obvious reason. Thats a given, and theres not much you can do about it. The best response to this irrational animosity is to press on, like Mr. Doyle, with whatever youre doing. Find a friendly face, direct your attention to it and relax. That may take some practice, but its worth the effort.

Complete strangers may unconsciously see you as someone they once knew whom they didnt like. Maybe its your physical appearance, your voice, the way you tilt your head, the way you walk, or whatever-you name it. Their own subliminal feelings are usually not recognized by those who project them onto you, and they will probably give another explanation if questioned.

Which brings us to the other side of this human phenomenon. Have you yourself ever had negative feelings about someone whom you really didnt know because they reminded you of another person or situation? It happens all the time.

My wife and I once had a dishonest landlady who spoke with a heavy foreign accent. For years after our experience with her, we put her face on anyone who talked the same way. It wasnt fair, of course, but those negative feelings arose so subtly that we couldnt always spot what was happening. Fortunately, we finally realized how irrational this had become, and the problem, once identified, disappeared.

It might be difficult to change those who dislike us for no apparent reason, but we can learn to be more tolerant ourselves when similar negative feelings creep into our own view of others. This may require some introspection, but we should give it a try.

Jack Goodhue, management coach, may be contacted at

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