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Dealing with Hecklers
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In a recent training program, one participant raised his hand and disagreed with every point I made. I want to be responsive to the audience, but this was disruptive. What's the best way to handle such a situation?
I've done all of these depending on the situation.
- Lose eye contact with that person. Pretend they don't exist. Others know he is being rude and by doing this, he is the one who looks bad, not you. By losing eye contact and not reinforcing his behavior you may see he will stop.
- I speak on stress and at times I might make a joke alluding to some stress in that person's day.
- If there is a way to make a joke, and you think it might work, go for it. But you must be careful not to disparage the person. Then you would look bad.
- If he is in front row, and you move around, move toward the second row so your back is to him. If he can't get to you, he won't.
If you are giving your training in a room where you can walk around, slowly walk over to where the heckler is seated and stand directly behind him or her. Speak from that position for a few minutes so that everyone has too look at the person in order to address you. I learned that what hecklers and disrupters really want is attention, and this puts all the attention on them.
If they continue to do it after you have stood behind them once, continue to find your way over to their place or a place in the room in which everyone would have to turn to face them, until they get the message.
This technique has worked very well for me because everyone in the audience knows the heckler is a pain in the butt, and I have been admired for it. This soft tactical manner puts attention on the heckler without causing me to overtly react.
Ignore the heckler. Always look the other way or even walk to to far side away from the heckler if you are not tied to a lectern. Friends or people around this troublemaker will usually take over and tone down the heckler or shut him/her up completely.
Now, if this person is getting laughs with the heckling and it is not at your expense, I tend to go along with it and laugh too. Make it a part of the show. Later folks may even think you planted the heckler.
Unless you are a real pro at comebacks never try to shut up the heckler with a line or two of your own and never let it get to you. Don't lose your cool.
If you are really concerned about this, just get the meeting planner to appoint a "bouncer" and let him/her know that he/she is to look out for this and take action (predetermined) when and if it happens...and caution them not to get you involved or mention that you requested this, etc.
Last week I had 3 women who were "chatting" during the afternoon session. One even had her back to me, talking to a woman behind her. They were doodling, etc. VERY rude, disruptive and childish. I went over to their tables -- 70 in attendance -- and stood right there delivering part of my session, plus stared at them throughout the last hour. It did indeed help.
At the end of the session I also made it a point to tell them how their behavior was "unacceptable and disruptive" to me as well as the other participants in their area. They apologized.
The first time someone disagrees with what I say, I snarl in a loud voice, " Shut up! I've had it with you!" That will silence the critic, as well as everyone else for the rest of the day. So, don't do that.
What has really worked best in the past is this approach:
- Acknowledge the disgruntled participant's comment in passing, without opening up a forum for discussion. A comment such as, "Well, it looks like not everyone is having a good day, but let's move on" should suffice. If the participant's comment was not loud enough for everyone to hear except for a few people sitting nearby, simply ignore the initial gripe.
- If the miserable wretch makes a second or third comment, I would say to that person, " We have a lot of material to cover and I'd rather not get off track, so how about at the break we get together, and this way I'll be able to give your concerns more individual attention." Typically, they understand this as a civilized request to tone it down.
- At the break, go right to the unhappy camper. If there's something you can do to assist him/her, fine. If not, I ask that they refrain from the running negative commentary.
- If difficulties persist, call a quick 5 minute break, and ask the malcontent to leave. If they reply that their attendance is mandatory, advise them you've been given the O.K. to waive that requirement, and there will be no company repercussions. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.
- At the conclusion of your session, rat the problem participant out to one of the company powers-that be.
- Laugh all the way back to the airport.
John Jay Daly
If I did encounter that persistent behavior I'd figure out a way to get to a "needed break" quickly and then chat privately and personally -- and very bluntly -- with the offender. If that fails, offer him/her the registration fee back.
Then of course if you go to YAHOO under quotations and track under that heading for insults and comebacks you may find some that might fit but I'd be careful NEVER to pick an open fight for audience may side w/ heckler.
In any case I'd view situation as intolerable and get audience on my side.
Here's what I do, and it works EVERY TIME. I say to the heckler (ever notice, it's never a woman?) "You don't really want to be here, do you?" They say, "No." And I say, "then you have my permission to leave."
We usually go back and forth around some issue like, "I don't know if you'll jeapordize your job by leaving... I don't know if it's mandatory that you be here, etc." NO ONE HAS EVER LEFT. AND they've started to participate!
One guy, after we did the "I don't know if you'll lose your job" dance said, "I HAVE to be here." I said, "Well, I do, too. So I tell you what. I won't ask you to participate if you agree to not interrupt." He agreed and read the paper thru the first half of the day. After lunch he was participating! It was great!
I've been successful (to varying degrees) with each of the following responses to hecklers...
1. Following the second or third instance, I have offered a broad smile and very calmly said (not asked), "You seem to have something on your mind. It seems to be distracting you from what we're discussing here." I then waited for a response. Most often it was a "no" and everything was smooth sailing after that. A couple of times I've received "Yes..." and a statement of what was wrong. When it was relevant to the program, I answered the concern. When it was a personal issue, I offered to speak with the individual at the next break.
2. When the hecklers' comments were negative to the program content, I invited them (and they've all been men!) to share their concerns. Making his input seem a valuable part of the discussion has usually mollified each heckler's negativity.
3. When heckling has gone on beyond an acceptable limit and was obviously disturbing the others, I have stopped the program and simply asked, "Jim, something seems to be on your mind. Can we discuss it now so that we can go on with the program?" This has happened twice. Both times the hecklers have been willing to share the cause of their ambivalence ("I don't like being sent to training..." and "I guess I just don't learn by sitting and listening..."). Knowing the cause of their discontent allowed me to address it and reduce the potency.
When I encounter a disruptive person like you did, I first try to involve them in the program. I'll identify them as our "resident" expert and ask them to come sit up front. from time to time, I'll ask that person to answer a questions, pass out a prize, etc.
If that doesn't work, I then find them at a break and let them know it's okay with me if they want to leave. If they want to stay, I tell them they are disrupting everyone else and it's in everyone's best interest if they leave. Many times they will, but most of the time I find they stay and behave themselves.
You must respond to any comment made by someone in the audience. Otherwise you lose control of your presentation.
Plan light, positive replies, such as, "Okay, some times we have to work harder to have a good morning." or "You must feel down (or troubled or sad or upset) right now. I hope this program helps you." or "It seems some of us are still getting our engines started." or....
Be sure to avoid saying anything thing that brings criticism to the "heckler." You want to be the most mature, positive, friendly person in the room.
I had one recently in a corporate training program I did. I responded to him good naturedly, poised and with a smile and I take the attitude of "agree with thine adversary" -- i. e. "You might be absolutely correct ----- however, another point of view is ....."
I toyed with the idea of telling the executive who hired me about the "jerk" but found I didn't have to in that he called me and apparently the others in the program had told him about what a fool the heckler made of himself and is now threatened with dismissal. It came out much better than if I had complained to the client.
When I am faced with someone who is constantly disagreeing or disrupting my talk, I ask the rest of the audience a question like this:
"Is anyone else having as difficult a time understanding what I am saying as this person (pointing to the heckler)?"
When no one else responds, I then turn to the heckler and say: "Since no one else seems to be having the same problem as you, out of fairness to the rest of those here, how about you and I get together later and go over your issues in private?"
I can only remember one occasion where that didn't work and by a show of hands, I asked the audience if they would like the heckler to leave and it was unanimous. I had him escorted out.
I had one of these myself recently. Finally, I stopped calling on him. Another way I've handled it is to talk to them privately. Believe it or not, sometimes they are not conscious of the disruption they are causing. If they are, I've asked them to stop or leave.
The person you describe may be someone who HAS TO say the opposite. You can negate their negation by saying: "I DON'T want you to think about this..." then they HAVE TO. "DON'T listen to me..." They HAVE TO.
Another approach: This one person is ruining everyone else's experience. You must serve the group's needs, not the individual's. Ask: "I've found there are three kinds of people in my audience: Learners, vacationers, and prisoners, which one are you? Instead of making yourself and everyone else miserable, I would ask you to set yourself free or put on a different one of these three hats."
The first retort "Good morning!" "I don't think so!" I'd laugh and point out that we all have good days and bad days and my job is to help everyone deal better with both.
Once I realize this person is waiting at bay, I use them. I make a point - I ask for his or her reaction - and say ____ has just given us an example of when this (technique/strategy) might not work. Under what circumstances WILL it work?
Chris Clarke-Epstein and I wrote a book called The Instant Trainer and we cover this topic in our book, among many others. There's another book on how to deal with difficult or hostile audiences - can't remember exact title or author - but you should be able to find through a subject search.
There's a book I've only just started to read, by Lilly Walters, called What to do... When You're Dying on the Platform. It includes some heckler come-backs and such.