How Do You Handle Your Hecklers?

One of the things that I love most about Boston is the access I have to live comedy, and I’m excited to be seeing comedian Colin Kane at the end of this month. And yet I’ll be watching his set with a hint of fear, hoping against hope that nobody heckles him. In addition to just being hilarious, Kane has become famous for a scathing takedown of a heckler at a 2012 show. Be warned, less than appropriate. You’ve been warned, so please don’t freak out.

While few of us stand in front of a crowd and tell jokes for a living, many of us have encountered some form of heckling in our day to day. The patient that comes in having diagnosed him or herself on webMD before arriving in your office. The customer that has done all the research online before coming in to buy a TV. The student who insists he doesn’t need to go to class or training because he or she knows it already. The result of these types of situations can be “heckling” of a type. These unsolicited contributions can be handled in any number of ways; how you choose to handle it could determine the trajectory of your day, career, and especially your sanity.

So let’s say you come to a meeting with an idea, and you have a co-worker that instantly comes back with a snide comment or question. Let’s say you get heckled at work. What are your options?

Ignore. This approach is the first instinct of the nonconfrontational. As the originator of the idea, you have every right in the world to ignore the “contribution” or “suggestion” provided. It can be helpful because it minimizes distractions and can protect the integrity of an idea you’re really excited about.
However, ignoring the challenge, objection, or addition doesn’t keep it from existing. It’s hard to do. And eventually…what happens? You could snap.

It should be noted that this sort of “snap” doesn’t have to be a momentary issue; Steve Martin’s snap was a resignation from standup comedy. Similar concerns have been forecast for Dave Chappelle, who has famously left the stage at shows where heckling got out of control. Alternatively, if you don’t snap, the voice that cited the objection or concern could start to sound a lot less like that person…and a lot more like you. Seeds of doubt you previously overcame could start to take root and germinate. What could have been a strong idea has the potential to be weakened by our interpretation of the comment in question.

So that’s one strategy. Doesn’t make a scene, but doesn’t inspire confidence either.

The inverse of ignoring the opposition is to push back against it. That’s the approach Colin Kane is closest to taking. Those who hold their ideas tightly have a tendency to do this. It asserts your control over your ideas, and is permissible in stand-up comedy because the nature of the performance is unidirectional. I’ve seen comedians as young as Aziz Ansari (who even has a disclaimer at the start of his show hilariously but unequivocally banning heckling), and as old as Bill Cosby push back against hecklers to strive to take over their shows. I’ve written before about how Cosby impressed me with his ability to brush off heckling. Louis C.K.’s fictional comedian does something similar, though his style is a hybrid of pushing back and another strategy I’ll get to in a moment. Those who heckle tend to believe they have the right to do so. Louie’s heckler says pointedly, “I’m allowed to participate.”

But, as he pushes back, he makes a valid point: she’s not. Heckling is, in its purest form, forcing your opinion or viewpoint where it hasn’t been requested or isn’t needed. When someone is speaking as an authority on a subject, or providing a performance, objections or heckling are not appropriate and it can be perfectly fine to push back. The force and manner in which you choose to do so, however, can be hard to calibrate. As such, it can be just as hard to navigate as ignoring.

Is there a happy medium? Maybe.

Between ignoring the contributions of a critic, and pushing back (which is, in essence, ignoring with the potential for a splash of vitriol), there is engagement. This is most likely to be possible when we “hold our ideas lightly,” leaving them open for interpretation, betterment, or alteration by others. While stand-up comedy is not typically well suited for this, improv comedy (a whole other pursuit with different goals and rules) is. Its additive construction means that suggestions or additional information don’t threaten or distract from the message, they strengthen it. Louie’s heckler could have been far better served by going to an improv show than to his standup set that night.

Please note: there is a difference between a light grip on a project, and relinquishing control altogether. Where appropriate, do your best to strike a balance between totalitarian control, and the perilous and unproductive “design by committee.” 

Engaging heckling can also mean trying to get to the bottom of it. If you’re getting negative feedback consistently, it may mean that something bigger than you is at play. Are some people just haters? Science says yes. But additional worries and goals can contribute to how ideas are received on any given day. So if you find yourself encountering the same resistance multiple times, consider trying to get to the root of your critic’s objections. And who knows? It could inform the way you conceive or present your brainchildren.

IMAGE CREDIT: Surviving College

Heckling, or its equivalent in your daily work, isn’t likely to go away. If anything, given the wealth of information available to us all, it has the potential to get worse. But you hold control of (a) if you do it or not*, and (b) how it gets dealt with. Between ignoring, pushing, and engaging…which will you choose? 

*should you choose to heckle, recognize that the person you’re heckling can decide to handle it in any of these ways or others I haven’t touched on; I’d also strongly recommend not doing it at a Colin Kane show.

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