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How to Handle Difficult Audiences
by Diane DiResta

You're prepared, polished, and ready to go. You step up to the podium and "bang, bang, bang" - you get shot down by a hostile audience. How do you keep your cool, and take back control?

When I started out as a consultant, I remember landing my first large account. My assignment was to design and deliver writing and presentation skills seminars for 30 MBA trainees. Finally, the big day came when I was ready to deliver the training. There was just one slight glitch. Management scheduled the first major technical exam the day after my training seminar. Naturally, the MBAs thought they would have the day before to study and prepare for the exam. To make things worse, they told them that I would be providing only a one hour coaching session. In reality we were scheduled for a full day. The trainees stormed into the manager's office and threatened to boycott the class.

At four o'clock that day, their manager called me and said, "Diane, I wouldn't want to be in your shoes tomorrow." I ran to the human resource manager who hired me and tried to convince her to reschedule the class. She wouldn't budge.

I didn't sleep that night while I racked my brain trying to think of a solution. If I called in sick, I would lose the account. But I didn't want to walk into a lion's den. It was this conundrum that spurred me on to develop my 3D strategy for managing difficult behavior.

Practice the 3D Strategy:
Depersonalize, Detach, and Defuse Whether you're managing a team, running a meeting, or giving a formal presentation, it's not enough to know your material. You must be able to manage the process. Group dynamics are ever changing and dealing with groups can be sticky. That's why a good leader or facilitator is able to change perspective and use a number of strategies.

Step one is to depersonalize. People come with their own emotional baggage. One woman walked out of a motivational speech because the speaker was wearing an Elvis costume and she did not like Elvis. Her departure had nothing to do with the speaker's talent or competence. The lesson? If you are met with a hostile audience or an audience with a few disinterested members: Don't take it personally.

Step two is to detach. That means that you don't engage the ego. Once you go head-to-head with that heckler, you set up a competitive dynamic. Don't let your emotions get out of control. Ask questions to gain understanding. Do not get defensive.

Step three is to defuse. Dissipate the negative energy. One of the best defusers is humor. If you get tense, the negative energy will increase. Take a light, playful approach. You can't laugh and be angry at the same time.

Managing Resistance
To get a handle on a difficult audience, begin to recognize the signs of resistance. Are attendees side-talking, reading the paper, challenging you, having difficulty understanding directions, or sitting with closed body language? If you have ever felt like you were working too hard to get a response, chances are you were dealing with resistance. Once you recognize resistance, figure out where it is coming from.

Reasons for resistance fall into three categories:
  • How to
  • Chance to
  • Want to
Is the reason for resistance that they don't know how to participate? If so, then provide clearer instructions for how you expect them to participate. Is it that they don't have a chance to be productively involved? For example, let's say you asked participants to turn to a partner to discuss the point you just made and some people don't respond. Maybe they couldn't find a partner. Help them partner-up. By way of another example, think of a team in which all but two members are actively participating in a brainstorming exercise. It could be that the two quiet members are introverts in a group of extroverts. They may not be able to jump in and be heard. When this is the case, provide an opportunity.

The last reason for resistance is a lack of motivation. You ask for a volunteer and nobody moves. Perhaps they don't see the benefit. Maybe they have too much on their plates and can't take on any more assignments. Perhaps they don't want to intrude on their colleague's territory. Your job is to help them see the value of participating.

To break resistance, use a pattern interrupt. In other words, do something different. Shake them up. Pick up the pace. Tell a story. Get your audience involved. Children at play are not resistant. Are you doing anything that is contributing to their resistance? Are you too rigid? Are you following a script that just isn't working? Is your presentation boring? Are you being speaker-centered instead of focusing on the listener's needs and interests? Are you reacting to a difficult person instead of responding to the situation?

Set it Up Many problems can be avoided by establishing expectations from the beginning. When people are unclear about their goals, roles, and how they're being evaluated, difficult behavior can result. Once expectations are clear, provide ongoing feedback and really listen to what people are saying. If a person does not feel heard or respected, he or she will manifest resistant behavior.

Cast of Characters
Who is the personality that can really push your buttons? Is it the know-it-all or the whining complainer who finds fault with everything? To stay cool and in control, begin by recognizing which type of person will set you off. By pinpointing such individuals, you will strengthen your ability to handle them.

Here are a few difficult personalities and how to handle them: Eager Beaver - This person is always the first to participate and is eager to help, making it difficult for others to respond. Don't dampen this individual's enthusiasm. Acknowledge his/her contributions and suggest that others participate.

Expert - Challenges your authority; argues with others. This may truly be a person with expertise who wants recognition. Acknowledge comments without getting defensive. (Remember, depersonalize, detach, defuse.) Ask the group for other opinions. One of the best strategies is to play to his or her expertise. Invite and recognize the expert's comments. Soon you will have an ally instead of an enemy.

Rambler - This is a storyteller. You ask for the time, you get the history of watch making. To manage the rambler, cut in, summarize the comments, and ask for other opinions. Don't let this individual drone on. Poor Loser - These people will not admit to a mistake. They don't have the ego strength to acknowledge an error. Do not back them into a corner. Instead, agree to disagree. Let them save face.

Dominator - Wants to control. He/she can intimidate the group by monopolizing the conversation or activity. Don't let dominators take over. Use humor. For example, when asking for a response, you can jokingly say something such as: "Someone other than Jerry!" If that doesn't work, call a break and speak to that person privately.

Side Conversations - Two or more people engage in regular conversations during your presentation. If it is a large auditorium, ignore it. In smaller groups, this behavior can be distracting. Make eye contact with the talkers and stop speaking until they look up. You can confront them directly and ask them to hold their conversation until later. Or try the walk technique. Walk toward them, stand in front of them and keep talking. They will get the message.

Negative - Very resistant and negative about you, the subject matter, and doesn't want to be there. Begin to acknowledge his or her concerns. Ask the group to problem solve or offer to discuss the concerns later. Complainer/Whiner - Finds fault with everything. Likes to whine but has no solutions. He or she is not necessarily negative about the subject matter, but likes to complain. This is the "Yes, but. . ." person. Don't get caught in their game. Instead, ask the audience for alternatives. Stay focused and move on.

Hecklers - Try to ignore them. If the heckler gets no response from you, he/she may give up. A clever retort will only challenge the heckler to come back at you again. Walk over to this person and put your hand on his/her shoulder as you keep talking to the group. Don't show any hostility or use any put-downs. Another technique is to ask the person to identify himself - most hecklers prefer anonymity.

When dealing with difficult audiences, remember that the disruptive behavior is a symptom of an unmet need. Your best strategy is a sense of humor and an understanding of what's driving the behavior. The next time you encounter a difficult audience, take a 3D view - depersonalize, detach, and defuse. Excerpt from Knockout Presentations (Chandler House Press).

Diane DiResta, President of DiResta Communications, Inc, works with organizations who want to communicate with greater impact.

Copyright Diane DiResta. All Rights Reserved.

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