There’s a step by step process you can use to effectively handle a heckler.
1. Manage your own emotional state
This is the first prerequisite to be able to handle a heckler with dignity. You can manage your emotional state by managing your thoughts. If you believe that a person who interrupts you is rude, that if they contradict you they are wrong, and that if they talk for more than 3 seconds they’ve gone on for too long - that’s going to come through in your response and make it difficult for you to handle a heckler calmly.
It’s easy to deny these thoughts when you’re calmly reading this post on your computer. It can be very different when you’re standing in front of a group stating your opinion and wanting their approval. Anybody who contradicts you in that situation is the enemy! Your brain is telling you “You must make that person shut-up or you’re going to be deadmeat”.
It takes a genuine deep-seated belief that different points of view can be valid to overcome your natural defensive/aggressive reaction to the heckler. Role-playing these situations with colleagues is incredibly useful in training you to override your natural reactions and react calmly.
2. Let the heckler have their say
The first time somebody interrupts let them go for a bit. It will probably feel far too long for you, and you may even see some people in the audience getting restless, but this is the most effective preventative method to stop them continuing to heckle. They will continue to interrupt and heckle if they feel they were shut down. If you interrupt them the first time they try and speak, they’ll be like a jack-in-the-box for the rest of your session. The best way to prevent is to let them go on – just a little bit too long. They’re less likely to interrupt again.
3. Use reflective listening before you respond
Reflect back to the heckler what they said. This means expressing in your own words your understanding of what they’ve said. You may think that this technique looks transparent, but the heckler will most likely be totally oblivious – they will simply feel “you’ve listened to me”. Or if your understanding is wrong, they’ll correct you and then you can have another attempt at reflecting back what they’ve said.
Once again, this is prevention. Responding thoroughly and fairly to the heckler the first time means it’s more likely to be the only time they interrupt.
Respond if it’s appropriate to do so. Address your response to the whole audience, not just the heckler – though don’t avoid eye contact with them either. But, unless you want to continue the conversation with the heckler, don’t end your response by looking at them. This invites them to either agree or disagree with you. So look at a person on the other side of the room as you conclude your response. Then smoothly segue back into your prepared presentation.
5. Subsequent interruptions
If the person keeps interrupting and it’s starting to detract from your presentation, it’s time for the next level. I use an assertiveness formula that I remember with the mnemonic OAR: O stands for Observe, A stands for Affect, and R stands for Request:
Make a simple statement of what you observe happening. This statement should be devoid of judgement about the person. Just describe their behavior using neutral language. For example:“You’ve made a number of points.”
State how it’s affecting you. Many people shrink back from doing this, because it makes you feel vulnerable. But that’s precisely why it’s so powerful. Your unexpected vulnerability will shock most people back to seeing you as a human being rather than a speaker to be attacked. Here’s an example: “I’m finding it difficult to progress with my presentation.”
Politely and firmly make a request:“Please could you hold any more comments till the end of the presentation.”
Most reasonable people will respond to this approach, but for those who don’t there’s…
6. The last resort
Ask the audience whether they would prefer you to carry on your presentation or want to hear more from the heckler. Most of the time they’ll say they want you to carry on – they’ll be just as fed up with the heckler as you are. It takes a brave person to carry on heckling against the expressed wishes of the majority of the audience. And in the rare situation that they want to hear from the heckler, accept it and bow out graciously.
At the Presentation Camp in LA last year I facilitated a session on handling a heckler. Lisa Braithwaite’s husband videoed the session, but we didn’t have microphones so the audio is very faint. But you may find it useful, so I’ve included the video below.