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To Heck With Hecklers

Muppet_statler_waldorfRemember the Muppets?

Two of the most entertaining characters to watch were Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys who sat in the balcony and heckled the other... uh... performers.  Week after week, their comments and barbs continued, yet rarely was there any retribution.

When you are in a meeting at work, do you ever have to deal with Statler and/or Waldorf?  I thought you might.  Most of our meeting places, however, do not have balconies.  The hecklers are right there in the room at the table with you... or are they?

I've noticed that meeting hecklers, while physically present, tend to set up an emotional space between themselves and those whom they are targeting.  They may represent this distance physically as well by sitting in a corner, pushing their chair back, or huddling with another heckler for a side-bar conversation.  When you try to get things done, they interrupt with insults or diversions.

How can you deal with this?  Well, outside of creating a documentary showing hecklers in their natural habitat, you really have two courses of action:

  1. Pull the hecklers into the conversation and turn them into participants
  2. Expel them completely from the conversation

In the cubicle-dwelling organiztion, the second one I recommend only as a last resort after every avenue has been attempted, which leads us back to the first alternative.  Hecklers, at their heart, have a need for attention and a need to be heard.  Those are needs we can address rather easily.  At an escalated level, they have a need to be right and a need to win.  Those are more difficult needs to handle.  First and foremost, give the heckler a brief forum to share his or her thoughts.  "Randy, I perceive that you have something you really want to share with the group.  Can you briefly tell us what you are thinking so we can address it?"  This at least gives the heckler a chance to share.  Of course, you will always have the passive-aggressive type who will decline your invitation and continue with the verbal sniping.  In those cases, I will either call a break or end the meeting and deal with the behavior out in the hallway.

Either way, leaving the heckler in the balcony is not a good thing.  Either invite them down to the stage or have security show them the door.


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Andrew B. Clark

I'd also like to point out that there's another, more covert participant in the hecklers' union - "the jokester." You know 'em, that guy that pokes short, witty comments throughout the discussion that do nothing but distract and undermine the progress you're trying to achieve. They're not always "against" your agenda, but for some reason they REALLY NEED to be recognized. (and I've seen it from 20-somethings to CEOs)

Normally you can steer the meeting around these twits, but some times it makes the venture twice as long and doubly difficult to make a clear presentation (or discussion or plan... whatever).

However the hecklers approach their plan to destruct your concentration, as long as you stay on point and above the din, you will come out ahead. Albeit, maybe somewhat frazzled...

Keep Cooking!
Andrew B. Clark
The Brand Chef

Timothy Johnson

Great observation Andrew. Yes, there's more than one way to skin a cat (or to derail a meeting).

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