Public Speaking Nightmare: How to Shut Down Bullies and Hecklers

Five tactics to silence the person trying to make you squirm.

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By Tina Frey Clements, CPC

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As a Facilitation Warrior, I've dealt with my share of hecklers. In my early career, I would be devastated by them. It happened in front of 5, 20, even 600 people where the audience had interrupted, pushed back, belittled, or just plain roasted me. Back then, I handled hecklers poorly because I allowed myself to believe the myth that the heckle was all about me. It wasn't and I'm here to tell you, it never is.

My favorite experience with a heckler happened 4 years ago. A competitor of mine named Wolfgang sat across from me during a client workshop where 15 vendor-partners were tasked to work together for a client. While Wolfy happened to be the eldest, most experienced, and tenured participant, I was asked to lead and provide insight. Throughout the entire morning, he constantly interrupted me, put down my ideas, and at one point, rolled his eyes and accompanied it with a verbal sigh. While challenging, (code for: I was pissed), I was completely aware of what was happening with this man. He was terrified of being considered "less than' by the client and in his mind, his only course of action was to make me look bad so he would look good. He was blowing out my candles to make his shine brighter.

The me from 20 years ago would have most definitely allowed him to get my goat and I would have reacted. During this experience, however, I knew his behavior had absolutely nothing to do with me; it had everything to do with his fear of feeling obsolete and his belief that he was being left out or worse, tossed aside.

Related: Bullies At Work: Stamping Out Abuse In The Workplace

A heckler is anyone who interrupts with intention and is (consciously or subconsciously) attention-seeking. This person or group is motivated by some emotion like anger, frustration, internal inadequacy, boredom, hurt or fear; all coming from an outside influence. Regardless of their emotion or noise, the heckler is reacting to their inner voice with some sort of disturbance.

Bullies are hecklers. We've all heard enough about bullies to know they're lashing out and hurt others because they're giving into their emotions or noise. They're feeling distressed and, in their minds, their only choice is to take it out on someone else. Hecklers are no different. This is important to know and remember when we experience the heckle in real-time.

Here are 5 ways to handle hecklers:

1. Know it's not you

Remember to take a breath and know that the person who's getting in the way is in pain or scared and is doing the only thing he can to feel good or safe. Shift your perspective and immediately ask yourself, "I wonder what's really going on for this person?"

2. Allow venting when necessary

Heckling can come in the form of a group too. Allowing participants to vent can be productive if it isn't allowed to escalate to the point of distraction or derailment. Don't be afraid of it, embrace it. When there is an elephant in the room that is bigger than your message, it's critical to allow venting to occur. This will provide space for the audience to ultimately be open to your message and you'll earn their trust. Acknowledge verbally, nod, paraphrase, confirm and validate as you listen to your participants. When it's time to get back to your objectives, thank them for sharing, acknowledge their pain once again and ask for permission to get back to task.

Related: 8 Tips for Recognizing a Manipulative Person

3. Sidebar

If the heckler persists, pull them aside during a break and have a sidebar conversation. This is the time to acknowledge their behavior and simply ask, "Hey, what's going on for you?" This will allow a better chance for the participant to open up, then you can work through the challenge together. If the emotion or behavior is just too debilitating, you may need to ask them him/her to leave the experience altogether. Having this conversation in private is critical, it's respectful to the person at hand.

4. Acknowledge and diagnose

When in front of a room of people and a heckler is insistent on interrupting and you can't sidebar, you must not allow him to sabotage your experience and you must handle it immediately. Acknowledge the heckler's feelings without agreeing to them. State something like, "You have every right to feel that way, Charlie." Again, while you're acknowledging, you're NOT agreeing. After acknowledging, correct the heckler by attempting to get to the root cause. Use questions, observations, and your gut to investigate the heckler's reality within the time limit provided. Ask the sidebar question, "Charlie, what's really going on for you?" then drill down with open-ended questions. Demonstrate active listening and reassure the heckler that you understand. If the heckler is insistent and you can't take a break to sidebar, ask this question, "From where did you get your data?" This forces the heckler to prove what is probably his own limiting belief. Keep the questions open-ended forcing a dialogue to be able to diagnose the reality of the situation or, a final question to get confirmation that it's okay to take up the topic later in the day. For example, "Gerry, can we agree to shelve this topic until the break and then we'll pick it back up again?" Technically, what you're doing here is displaying a high level of expert coaching techniques, and while I don't recommend using this technique in front of a group, at times it's necessary to ensure you get to the heckler's root cause of action and maintain control of your message.

Related: Is Your Boss Controlling You Subtly Without Your Realizing It?

5. Presence

If the heckler is making snide remarks to others or even just having side conversations during a group event, it's the ideal opportunity to use the room by subtly moving towards the person. You will address the situation by your mere presence. It's hard for a heckler to heckle when you're standing on top of them.

How did I handle Wolfy? During a morning break, I asked for a moment alone and let him know I needed his help. I acknowledged his valuable experience and that his opinion was critical to the group. I asked if he would consider sharing and I would set it up so he would have the floor to add value. With that "ask,' his face lit up lit a child on Christmas morning and he heckled me no more.

While it took every cell in my body to stop my mouth from saying what I really wanted to say to Wolfy, the shift in my perspective and the use of the sidebar did the trick. Truly . . . Every. Single. Cell.

You cannot ignore a heckler. By not addressing the situation, you're sending a message to a group that their experience is less important than the person interrupting you, and possibly, that you're weak or scared. You have to handle swiftly, respectfully and with intention.

In summary, hecklers are bullies in big bodies. Handling hecklers is a challenge that you will eventually face. The key is to be ready with a few techniques, to remain calm in the face of perceived conflict and remember, it's not about you.

Tina Frey Clements, CPC

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Vice President

Tina Frey Clements is a keynote speaker, author, coach, leader and facilitator leading within entertainment, auto, luxury and L&D for over 25 years. She is a communications expert, and her book "The ART of Facilitation" and keynote address "Yes, You Do Have a Choice" are testaments to her talent.

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