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Who Plays the Heavy?

“When you have a rogue participant in the audience, who should deal with this individual – the event planner, the presenter or should it be someone else?” In other words, who should play the heavy?

Dealing with negative or disruptive meeting behaviour


By Andrew Woods, MBA

Having had the opportunity to run workshops and keynote speeches in 18 countries, I have dealt with a lot of different audiences. I am often asked the question, “When you have a rogue participant in the audience, who should deal with this individual – the event planner, the presenter or should it be someone else?” In other words, who should play the heavy?

Every situation is unique, but if it is a business event, often it is the person sitting next to the rogue participant who takes action. As a participant in the event, if I am paying to hear a speaker, I don’t want anyone distracting me from getting full value. If the rogue individual does not respect a polite request, then I might bring it to the organizer’s attention. This act alone may be enough to nudge the unruly participant into a change in behaviour. If it doesn’t and the session continues, the organizer has the choice to quietly approach the individual(s) and see if they can stop the disruption or empathize with the person who has complained and see if they can find him/her another seat.

I believe a competent speaker will notice the disruption and be able to get that person in line before someone informs the organizer. A confident, experienced speaker will know how to deal with different learning styles and behaviours from their audience. Being versatile will ensure a rogue participant is quickly silenced by the knowledge and confidence exuded by the presenter.

Elizabeth Morena, event organizer at Lexxon Training in Surrey, B.C., agrees. “If, and only if, the speaker is highly inexperienced and has lost all control of the workshop should the meeting planner intervene.”

Jerel Bonner, an international trainer based in Shanghai, feels differently. “The organizer needs to be watching the room and be proactive to pounce on any disturbance that could be damaging to their event. If this person gets way out of control, the organizer will not be able to recruit the best speakers and fill the room in the future.”

In the end it seems the protocol for dealing with a disruptive situation is not clear, but depends instead on the skills of both the speaker and organizer. A conversation ahead of time between these two might be a good way to determine how to proceed.

Points to Consider

Know your group and its cultural makeup. Having trained in 46 different cities across mainland China, I often dealt with the passive heckler. This shows up as people having their own conversations during a presentation. I learned to adapt to this when I was informed that it was normal and accepted in China. If I had reacted, I would have lost face and enabled the passive hecklers to feel justified in their behaviour. Not only do we need to understand the group, but also the cultural makeup of the group we are speaking to.

Watch for disruptive or off-target questions. Often, another form of disruption is asking questions with the intent of disturbing the flow of the presentation. These individuals are looking to take the spotlight away from the speaker. If the speaker appears to be handling the questions and keeping the group on task, the organizer need not get involved. If, however, the attendee ignores the speaker’s request to refocus, the organizer should be prepared to help out. Depending on the circumstances, this might involve discreetly talking with and/or removing the delegate.

Find out from your client ahead of time if delegates are being forced to attend. When running workshops it is not uncommon to have delegates come who do not wish to attend. These individuals, as a rule, are the ones in need of the training, yet they are against it and complain. In some situations, they will try to disrupt things to let everyone know their displeasure at being made to attend. This is good information for the event planner to have and to pass along to the presenter so he/she is aware of the potential for disruption.

In the end, with a properly prepared speaker who understands the topic fully and has a general idea of the reasons for the presentation, it is unlikely the organizer will ever need to get involved with a rogue delegate. That said, it is always helpful to have some idea of what you could do should the situation arise and to be prepared to take action when necessary.

Andrew Woods, MBA, is a professional speaker, trainer and author of BOOM! Engaging and Inspiring Employees Across Cultures.

Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Summer 2014 Edition

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