How to handle hecklers (at work)

“I’m thinking of writing an article about how to handle hecklers at work,” I pitched to my friend. She nodded in urgency before I even finished my thought, replying in a slightly manic tone, “How-soon-can-you-write-that?”

If we regularly bomb at work, we run into hecklers even more often. And if it seems like I borrow from comedy, you’re not wrong. That’s because a heckler kills momentum and can quickly crush an act. Crush.

Having said that, a good comedian doesn’t wait to be heckled, hoping in panic and embarrassment we can think on our feet. No, they expect it. And they’re ready for it.

You see where I’m going. So let’s borrow from this stealth wisdom.

Expect to be heckled. 

Yep, at work.

We’re going to run into skeptics and critics, especially leading anything new. Or complex. Or inconvenient. Or different. So, it’s just always true.

That’s work and work’s a mess.

Nevertheless, it’s smart strategy to be ready for hecklers. And while annoying, know that nuggets of truth might be coming from the peanut gallery.

So be ready.

No one taught me this better than Will, a gifted design engineer I worked with early in my career. Will designed complex optical systems for a team of other engineers. Together, this brilliant group would build a prototype and then scale Will’s design.

After everyone had reviewed the initial designs, we assembled for my first design review. What happened next left me squirming and speechless as everyone rendered blunt verdicts on Will’s prototype design.

The feedback was brutal. No critical opinion was left unsaid. And no one was happy.

But I watched as Will did a remarkable thing. He sat calmly and took notes. He didn’t push back or challenge. He asked a few questions here and there. And he absorbed blow after blow.

If ever there was grace under pressure, this was it. But what left its mark on me wasn’t just Will’s cool-headed performance that day.

After the gauntlet, he did something even more remarkable: he designed a much better prototype. Somehow, he incorporated the feedback as whole while not getting trapped in specifics.

And if he took the feedback personally, he never said. But he clearly knew something I did not.

We need to make room for hecklers.

We’re going to get heckled, probably a lot. And it will suck.

At first.

For example, in a different role and time, I worked with another engineer named Ed, who was a perennial grump. However, for reasons I couldn’t explain, his team loved him.

After working with him for a while, I discovered why. Ed wasn’t just a good engineer, he was good guy. He was also super cantankerous, which is an old-fashioned word. But Ed had kind of an old-fashioned vibe.

Yet what seemed like constant criticism was in fact curiosity. He saw things that other people didn’t.

I learned this the hard way in a day-long design meeting, during which Ed peppered me with question after question about timelines and requirements and problems.

So many problems.

I wasn’t ready for his questions, and I had no solutions to the problems. Wasn’t that the purpose of this meeting? I felt like a comedian who knows she’s bombing – with six long hours to go.

Feeling miserable and out of patience, I finally tossed Ed a snippy question: “So, Ed, what do you think we should do?”

He hemmed for a moment, muttering there were so many unknowns and he didn’t have enough information.

“All true,” I said less snippy this time while pressing on, “What would help you here? What information do you need?

Then I did something that surprised me.

I stopped talking.

In fact, everyone in the room stayed quiet as Ed thought about what he needed. Then he began to talk – a lot. And he had excellent thoughts and real needs. He wanted to understand the customer better, which was information I had. He wanted more context around strategy, which I could piece together.

Mostly, however, he needed to think out loud, with the rest of the group.

His pointed questions delivered with a grimace and a furrowed brow weren’t attacks. He was confused. He really didn’t have enough information.

And to my embarrassment, I had never asked him any questions. Ouch.

Confusion and irritability can look a lot like heckling. Feel like it too. And that’s the simple solution.

Ask questions.

And my questions to Ed were simple.

What do you need? What’s causing confusion? What would make this clearer? What do you think? What else?
(What else? What else?)

Really the questions didn’t matter. What mattered was breaking through the confusion, our bad moods and defensiveness.

That’s because unlike a comedy act, where you don’t want the audience to run the show, at work we really do need the input and ideas of other people. Even if we don’t want to need them.

It’s just not a one way show. And simple questions interrupt heckling and invite people to think. In other words, they get the act moving again.

Simple rules for handling hecklers at work

Expect to be heckled
Be ready
Make room for hecklers
Ask questions (and stop talking)

carolyn solares
I help people stay cool with hecklers and keep acts moving forward. (Yep, at work.)
Work with me at murphymerton.

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