Have you ever been in a class or seminar—as a student, not a presenter—and found that the instructor argued with his or her students? I have, and it happened again just recently.
I was in a session at a conference, and the presenter had the idea that it would be good if the audience got involved. So, he began asking questions, sort of rhetorically, but half expecting answers. After a little gentle begging, the class began to respond, and one or two students threw out answers to the presenter's question.
"Great," I thought, "now let's see how he handles the classroom discussion."
Unfortunately, there wasn't one.
The presenter "rebutted" what the students said. Not just a tweaking of the conversation, but an outright dispute as to the validity of the students' statements. They responded, and he spit out another argumentative response.
After a while, the furor died down. Following the next break, as the presenter got things rolling again, he posed another question. I figured no one would respond, but I was wrong; there was a response. This time it came in the form of a fairly hostile challenge to the presenter's point of view. Of course the presenter shot back with another reply, and that was the end of it.
And the end of any student interaction with the presenter.
Granted, this was a pretty extreme example, but we've all seen this sort of thing happen before. In fact, I'm sorry to say, I have—on occasion—gotten sucked into something similar. Usually when it happens, I catch myself, and immediately try to soften my response. I hope I don't argue with students as much as I used to.
The whole idea of presenting information to adult learners is to give them something they need, and something they realize they need, and then to make them think about it. One of the best ways to do this is to get an interaction going between your students and yourself, or better still, amongst your students themselves, with you as the moderator.
There is an art to this. The idea is to pose a question that isn't too threatening, at least at the beginning. Something you're pretty sure most of the people in the room would agree on. In that vein, the old speaker's rule to avoid politics, religion, and sex is still as valid as ever.
Pick something that is hard to argue with: the need for enhanced officer safety, the shortage of dollars in the budget for whatever, or some other universal topic. Posing questions related to these types of topics will get people talking, and will make them feel comfortable in doing so because they will also know that most people in the room are on the same wavelength.
As your students start responding to your comments or questions, instead of answering them directly, ask another student in the room to respond. The idea here is to break the ice and to get them talking, hopefully with each other.
As things move along, you can continue to direct your questions more and more pointedly, and eventually begin to address your main issues in a fairly straightforward way. By now, the people in your audience will have some level of confidence that you won't jump down their throats, or try to make them look silly. Remember, many people fear public speaking, and for many of your audience members, answering a question posed from the podium—while surrounded by strangers, or even their fellow officers—is just public speaking while seated.
Remember, this is not about you…it's about them. They are the ones who need to take something away from your session. They are the ones who went out of their way to come and hear what you had to say. Your message is to them and for them.
They're there because they crave your information. They came into your class or session thinking you had something they needed—so half of your work is already done. All you need to do is give them what they need, in a way that they can feel good about getting it. That requires finesse, not an argument.
Stay safe, and wear your vest!