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Eric Fitzpatrick

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How to handle hecklers


Eric Fitzpatrick tells us how to handle the more difficult trainees on your training course with as little impact as possible.

One of the issues that trainers face when delivering training, is that very often the attendees on the course don’t want to be there. They have been sent by their company, feel aggrieved that this has been forced upon them and see no possible benefits of being there. They arrive with poor attitudes and this manifests itself in their behaviour, which is often antagonistic and unhelpful. At some stage in the training they start to verbalise their dissatisfaction and this results in comments and snide remarks (heckling) that aim to undermine the trainer and the training.

Heckling is a common challenge that trainers have to face and it pays to be ready for it. Inexperienced trainers can be thrown completely off stride when a heckler strikes. It can result in the trainer losing composure and confidence and if not dealt with effectively, losing control of the training day itself. So, what can you do when you get heckled?

The good news is that there are a number of ways to handle Hecklers. Two factors that will influence how you handle a heckler are:

  • The training environment
  • Your gut instinct as the trainer

Having a good feel for how the training is going will help you decide the best way to deal with the heckler. It’s also important to know which type of heckler you are dealing with.

The following are the four types of heckler and how to handle them:

The know-it-all

This is the show-off. They consider themselves well informed and want everyone to know it. There are two ways to handle this person:

Thank them for their input and explain that the issue they have raised will be addressed later in the training.

Get the attendees to comment on the issue that has been raised by the talker. Once the attendees have had enough time to discuss it (you choose the duration) you then take back control of the training and bring the content to where you want to be.  

The griper

This person has been sent to the training and doesn't want to be there and they’re going to take it out on you. The way to handle this person is to ask them to be specific when they offer their opinion. Ask them questions to elicit more information. If they have useful information, use it. Give them the credit. Make them feel important.

The whisperer

This person doesn’t understand what is covered during the training, is bored or is being deliberately mischievous. The way to handle this person is stop talking so that the only sound the attendees can hear is the whispering. Then using non-verbal communication (looking directly at them), ask their permission to continue. The whisperer will stop talking because they don’t want to be the centre of attention.

The hassler

This person is insecure, aggressive and has a lack of interest in the training content. The way to handle this person is to ignore their heckling initially and find merit in what they are saying, then throw it open to your attendees either for discussion or for the attendees to correct what the hassler has said.

Here are a few more rules to help you deal with hecklers:

  • Do not shoot down a heckler the first time they interrupt your training. It’s vitally important that you have the other attendees on your side when you do. If they’re not on your side your training session/day could be ruined. This means that you might have to let the heckler have their say three or four times before you handle them. As mentioned earlier, you will get a feel for how the training is going. Equally you will get a feel for how the attendees are reacting to the heckler. You will sense when they are getting irritated by the hecklers interruptions and will know when to put a stop to the heckling.
  • If you get asked antagonistic questions, throw them back to the attendees for discussion. In a situation like this you might say “That’s an interesting question. Before I give you my answer, you tell me, how would you deal with that?” Getting the attendees to answer the question does two things. Firstly it allows them to throw out answers (and they might give the answer you are looking for) and secondly, it gives you time to think so that you can come up with the answer you need.
  • Find a way to have a quiet word with the heckler. This could mean asking your audience to carry out a group activity and calling the heckler to one side during this activity (or during a break in the training day) to ask them to quit their heckling.
  • If all else fails ask the heckler to leave your training. Explain that they are spoiling it for everyone else and that you are not prepared to accept their behaviour anymore.

As a trainer I have had cause to use these techniques on more than one occasion and they have always served me well. Dealing with hecklers is just another eventuality that a trainer must prepare for. Trainers who know how to handle hecklers will be perceived as confident and professional. The techniques I have outlined here will help you do just that.

Eric Fitzpatrick is a certified trainer at ARK Speaking and Training and is a member and former club president of public speaking trainers Toastmasters International. Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs


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