Steve Martin once responded to a drunk heckler, “Ah, I remember my first beer.” I wonder if he remembers his first heckle as well. I sure do. My first serious one, that is. I was much younger, in a sales presentation exploring the virtues of “Value versus Price.” Although I’d been a successful salesperson for years and had done a version of this session a few times, an experienced attendee Just. Wasn’t. Having. It. They were loud. They were disruptive. They were convinced and challenged every concept I presented. Finally, in a fit of frustration, I threw up my arms and screamed, “Jesus, Grandma. What do you want from me up here?” (True story.)
Uncooperative session attendees are a part of every L & D presenter’s life. Similar to hecklers at a comedy show, participants in learning workshops can have many reasons for surly behavior. An experienced trainer once told me there are always three types of session attendees: Volunteers, Vacationers, and Prisoners. All three types can and will heckle. Here are some tips on how to handle them.
I love volunteer hecklers. Volunteers are attendees who want to be there. They see value in learning the session content and are active participants. This type of disrupter is genuinely trying to be helpful and should be treated as such. Useful tidbits like:
“Here’s how we used to do it back in my old company.”
“And in 1907 the State Department also recommended this law.”
As long as the session doesn’t get derailed completely, encourage your volunteer hackler as much as possible. Having an adult learner engaged and willing to provide useful learning context gives me Chris Matthews like tingles up my leg.
My attitude is we’re always in learning mode. I learn so much from my session attendees and appreciate the opportunity to improve future session on the topic. That’s right, I will liberally take something smart and helpful from a session participant and incorporate it into future sessions.
These are the folks who didn’t have something better to do. They may not want to be in this session, but they don’t necessarily want to be anywhere else either. This type of heckler is likely a wannabe comedian.
During a session to show how to use new company software, I used a photo of me as a child. The accompanying phrase I used was something like: “Here’s me at 6, when we didn’t have the technology we have now…” The pic was cute. The response was exactly what I wanted: surprised good-natured chuckles. Mission accomplished. Or so I thought.
Several minutes and steps later, I had an image of an orangutan. I forget why. Regardless of the reason, the vacationer in the group yelled: “How old were you in that picture, Christopher?”
Growing up in and around Chicago teaches you how to give as good as you get. So I’ve heard much, much worse. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we’re in the wrong business. Vacationers are mostly harmless. Yes, their heckles are disruptive. At the same time, they can provide engagement points, insightful comments, and a few laughs. As long as the comments are directed at us and not another attendee, it’s probably best to roll with them and not overreact. Of course, comments about ethnicity, gender, etc. are out of bounds. Mean-spiritedness is not a typical trait of vacationers. For that, look to…
While it’s rare someone shouts, “Your mama!’ during a presentation, we should at least be prepared to handle it with, “So you’ve met my mama?” Prisoners are people who were forced to attend. They feel they are wasting their time because either they believe already know the session content or they can’t see how it helps them. At all.
This group is the closest to the inebriated comedy club heckler. Anger and resentment at being mandated to do something often give employees “work drunk” confidence. Since learning and development facilitators may not have a choice on the participant list, especially if it involves compliance or regulatory training, nuggets like these pop up from time to time.
“That’s not true at all!”
“This won’t work.”
“The line to punch your face is longer than the line to get Powerball tickets.”
Here are three keys to facilitation with prisoners in the mix. First, know the audience. While we may not be able to determine who attends, we absolutely have some control over our preparation. Find out why the participants were selected for the session, how they are affected and any history involving the attendees and the subject matter. This will help determine potential landmines and challenges.
Second, overprepare and practice responding to difficult questions. Even in the unlikely event that company stakeholders aren’t much help, we still can play a game of worst-case scenario before sessions. Try to guess what would be the worst technical issue, classroom oddity or participant challenge during a session.
Lastly, switch it up! We likely have several tools to allow flexibility in the moment. For example, instead of an open Q & A, try small groups to flesh out questions. Or, if interrupted, listen carefully and clarify for understanding before speaking. Then ask the group for their feelings over the raised concern. Like this:
“This will not work at all!”
“Just so I’m clear, what exactly won’t work? The new standards? The requirements?”
“These silly requirements won’t work.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Thanks for bringing that up. Let’s talk about it. How does everyone feel about this issue?” “What solutions might we bring to upper management?”
In general, we should never discourage a prisoner from expressing a challenging opinion or question. It builds our credibility amongst the other participants, shows a willingness to be transparent, and gives everyone a chance to connect emotions to content in a way that’s likely to stick. Remember to keep it positive.
If someone is simply rude for rude’s sake, quickly take a logical break and ask the person to change their behavior. It’s best to deal with extreme situations early so the rest of the class can enjoy the learning experience.
Let me know some of your worst disruption stories below. How do you respond? Leave a comment and have a chance to win our monthly giveaway.