There’s always “that guy”. You know, the person who needs to be the center of attention and often detracts and derails the conversation.
At a recent event our amazing, and trained, improvisers were facilitating a workshop on consumer insights. There was one participant who always responded with jokes. And not good jokes. More like questions, challenges, and gibes disguised as jokes. Our improvisers are used to this. They perform in front of drunk people when on stage. Personally, I found it to be rude.
And this type of behavior isn’t reserved for performers. I’ve been in countless meetings where someone is cracking jokes or making negative side comments. Most meetings have a corporate heckler. That individual who’s there to simply disrupt and disturb.
Or so I thought.
What impressed me about our improvisers is that they weren’t rattled. In fact, they didn’t necessarily view this behavior as rude. Immediately following the event I approached our lead facilitator (and wickedly hilarious improviser), Andy Eninger, and asked “how do you manage and respond to that type of behavior?”
He explained: “I need to acknowledge his point of view. Chances are he’s speaking for others in the room. He’s just the one voicing it. Perhaps he’s uncomfortable, or maybe this is new material and he doesn’t know how to process it, or he may just disagree with the approach. I need to Yes, And his response. “Yes, and tell me why you feel that way or why you’re making that recommendation.”
[Insert my ah-ha moment]. This is being other-focused, and it’s a very important principle of improvisation. You must listen to understand – instead of listening to respond. You have to be completely present and related to what the other person is saying, even if you disagree with the message or the delivery.
We often think about how we’re impacted by feedback. I did. My reaction was to be offended or annoyed when I should’ve focused on the corporate heckler and taken steps to understand his behavior.
This is also true when thinking about the antithesis of the corporate heckler, Deafening Silence. Silence is awkward and uncomfortable. How many times have you given a presentation and concluded with “any questions?” We usually allow 5 seconds of silence before we feel the need to fill the space or wrap it up (seriously, count 5-Mississippis in your head). Andy also happens to be the Master of Silence. He’ll ask a question to an auditorium and stand there, smiling, for minutes, until he gets a response or a question in return. He claims it’s his superpower, and I believe him. But as he explained to me:
“People need time to process information. 5 seconds isn’t much time. Even a minute isn’t much time to process 45 minutes of material. Allow people to think through the information, to process and digest it, and to respond properly. Don’t rob them of that opportunity because you’re uncomfortable standing in front of a silent crowd.”
And again, he’s is 100% correct. Every-Single-Time he does this he receives the most thoughtful and insightful feedback from participants.
You have to follow the fear. Legendary improv teacher Del Close said that “you can use your fear as a kind of divining rod. Do what makes you uneasy. Do the thing that scares you most. There you will discover new worlds.”
Hecklers, dissenters, mutes, and techies (just kidding, sort of) will always be present. But you’re probably misreading your audience and their intentions. Through the incorporation of improvisation, you can learn to listen, respond, and become others-focused.