Six Ways to Handle a Heckler

Handling a heckler can be as scary as facing an angry dog

“Just how I wanted to spend the day,” Sheila said, throwing her computer bag on the table, “in a public speaking class!“

“Good news,” I said. “You’re not here to practice public speaking. You’re here to practice making a connection with people.

Hecklers in the conference room

Sheila was part of a product development team within a huge financial enterprise. We were about to spend a day and a half together in an experience in authentic communication. Later, as I opened the session, Sheila interrupted loudly, “I don’t get it! So this isn’t about public speaking?!”

The typical, modern day heckler doesn’t just shout accusations at a public speaker from the balcony. Sometimes they’re in your conference room or even the board room.

Whether you’re opening a workshop, leading a civic meeting or having a team conversation, you can encounter a heckler who wants to bait, provoke or embarrass you. They do it by lobbing questions in an accusatory tone or interrupting with abrupt statements.

Face the heckler with these tips

When you’re faced with a heckler, consider these pointers:

1. Above all else, do not react defensively. Don’t grimace, knit your brows or rush to speak. Instead of re-directing the attack, absorb it with neutrality. Transmit confidence.

2. Deal with it directly and don’t be too passive. Depending on the level of the attack, be bold. Sheila’s negativity was going to derail the workshop if didn’t address her comment.

“How is that style of communication working for you, Sheila?” I asked.

With a puzzled expression, she huffed, “What do you mean?” I looked her in the eye with a neutral expression. “The way you chose to interact with me just now—how well does that help you connect with people?” I asked.

“Whatever,” she said, folding her arms and looking down, knowing she had been busted. I moved on with the program.

3. Do your homework and prepare mentally. Speak with meeting planners, clients and influencers within the group to find out what issues the group is dealing with and who has an axe to grind. I had spent a good bit of time in discovery with Sheila’s boss, so I wasn’t surprised when Sheila acted out. Sheila was not only a modern day heckler, she was a bit of a bully with her teammates.

4. Remember the audience gets it and usually sympathetic when a heckler acts out. Mature people want you to have the right reception—and they don’t endorse rudeness. Sheila’s team was visibility relieved that she wasn’t going to run the show that day. They jumped in to get the dialogue going and create positive engagement.

5. Adjust to the level of heckle and don’t overdo it. If you experience a benign heckle from someone who has an agenda but is socially aware and doesn’t want to go too far, you might acknowledge and move on. Say something like, “Thank you for that comment,” without defensiveness. Don’t get caught in a closed loop with that individual. Turn back to the entire group with confidence and say something like, “It’s important to take in the big picture which includes…” Or, “I understand your concern,” before going to the big picture.

6. Check your intention and never punish your heckler. As the course progressed, Sheila began to participate. In our exchanges that followed the workshop she was a different person. I welcomed her transformation.

As a mentor of mine once told me (in so many words): To be a successful coach or speaker, you must always wear the white cowboy hat. You’re the strong sheriff, but one on the side of right, protecting the audience. Never pick up the black hat, even with your heckler.

What tactics have worked for you? Please comment.

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Avatar for Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.