I’m on a number of Facebook groups where I see people make comments that are really condescending, but that also invite conversation on the topic. However, when other people offer a different perspective, or ask what they meant by some of the terms, the person will launch into a heavy debate with them, often escalating into a personal attack. The underlying theme seems be a bait and attack from the perspective of, “You are all neophytes and of course I am right about everything.”
I’ve also seen many people ask for advice on whether or not it’s possible for there to be an etiquette guide to prevent attendees at workshops from interrupting the workshop leader or worse, playing the one-up-the-presenter game.
It is unfortunately common that at workshops and presentations within the Pagan and Scifi/Fantasy and Geek subcultures, there’s often one attendee who will heckle a presenter, particularly a new or nervous presenter. It’s often someone who is an expert–or who thinks they are an expert. Last week I focused on facilitation techniques for how to deal with extreme situations where you’re being interrupted or heckled.
This article focuses more on understanding why someone’s interrupting, and techniques to prevent those interruptions.
I think that both examples above are talking about roughly the same thing. We’re talking about trolls and Know-it-alls. But, in some cases, we’re also talking about people who may have different social norms than we do. And in some other cases, we might be talking about someone on the autism spectrum. Knowing the difference is important.
This article addresses two main factors:
- Understanding the difference between social norms, intentional disruption, and whether or not someone is going to be able to be self-reflective about their behavior and recognize what is, and what isn’t, appropriate in a particular group.
- The other is, as a facilitator, techniques to keep Know-it-alls and other interrupters from taking over your workshop.
Fear of Hecklers
One of the reasons that I teach workshops on how to teach workshops is that many of the newer/emerging public speakers that I’ve talked to over the years express that they are absolutely petrified of hecklers. Now, I use the term hecklers because, there’s a huge difference from someone who’s very experienced in an area attending a class, and someone who is interrupting the presenter.
I’m lucky in that in my early facilitation, I was in a supportive environment. But there was a time where, if I had been interrupted by Know-it-alls, I would have gotten flustered, totally lost my train of thought, and had massive anxiety.
Public speaking is especially difficult to step into; in fact, fear of public speaking is one of our most common fears, as humans. Why? Ultimately, it’s fear of rejection–if I screw up as a public speaker, then people won’t like me, moreso, they won’t value me, and they’ll kick me out of the communal cave and I’ll be alone and die. We’re talking to reptile brain here so it doesn’t have to make rational sense.
Facilitation is actually fairly complicated to get good at. I liken it to parallel parking; at first, you’re thinking about every little thing and you’re nervous as heck, but once you get the hang of it, it gets easier.
I myself don’t get many interrupters, in part because I set up really clear agreements, and I have fairly confident body language. Paradoxically, newer, more nervous facilitators are the most likely to get interrupters.
Facilitator Pro Tip
One of the type of facilitation that is the most prone to interruption from a Know-it-all is the “pompous windbag” approach. And, newer facilitators are prone to this, whether or not they intend to be. There’s a huge difference between being confident, and being an arrogant show-off. Many workshop teachers become, themselves, a Know-it-all, and thus they irritate any potential Know-it-alls in their group.
- If you’re standing up in front of a group and officiously talking at them in “expert voice” for an hour and a half, you’re asking to get interrupted.
- If you’re approaching things from the, “My way is the One Right Way” approach, that also sets you up for disagreement.
- If you have a really defensive personality/communication style, that actually invites people to attack you.
When you give people a short opportunity to speak and be heard, especially early on in your workshop, that derails a lot of Know-it-all behavior later.
Know-it-all-itis is fairly common, in my experience, among people who have poor self esteem. In the Iron Pentacle teaching tool that Reclaiming and the Feri tradition use, the idea is that you want to be in balance. Looking at Pride, for instance, or self image, we want to be confident. Iron is where we want to be at; iron is strong, solid. However, we often slide into the Gilded or the Rusted pentacle. Gilded would be arrogance, Rusted would be self deprecation.
Poor self confidence and self esteem are–in my opinion–an example of why Pagans and Pagan leaders, and indeed, why many people involved in various subcultures, often have such a difficult time working together.
In fact, the root of the problem with most Know-it-alls is that they want your respect and admiration because they know so much. Unfortunately, this is what most therapists would probably call an unsuccessful strategy to get their need for respect met.
Let’s look at an attendee at a workshop who interrupts, or even tries to one-up, the presenter. The thing is, we all have different cultural assumptions about what behavior is all right in a group. For that matter, we each have differing individual autopilots. There are folks who love to debate and who have no idea how offensive they come across to those of us who prefer nonviolent communication. There are folks who are stuck in the autopilot of “I have to be right” and have no idea that they are coming across in a way that is really pretentious or aggressive.
I’d say a lot of my work as a leader is trying to figure out if someone in my group (or my workshop, or whatever) is intentionally being a jerk, or is just clueless.
For instance, usually I teach in the Midwest. When I teach further south, I notice a lot of people will just light up a cigarette in the workshop. Nobody around Chicago would ever do that. They aren’t trying to be rude–that’s just a social norm there. My long-ago ex husband was raised in a household where people would smash their fists on the dinner table and enjoy a rousing debate, which I found tremendously aggressive and startling.
I think that one of the paths to leadership is being self aware of our own autopilot tendencies, and working on transforming them. I’m not going to be a very effective leader if I keep offending everyone around me. I think there’s a huge difference between the idea of changing ourselves to fit someone else’s expectation and then losing something of ourselves, vs. finding out what we do that’s really offensive and working to shift that behavior.
Example: Here’s a behavior I’ve worked to shift in myself. I used to be the control freak boss/leader who would do a crappy job of explaining what I wanted my employee or volunteer to do, and then when they failed to do it properly, I’d roll my eyes and say, “Let me just do it,” and practically take it out of their hands. Then, my boss did that to me and I realized how annoying it was. It’s still one of my tendencies, but, I’ve worked to notice when I’m doing it so that I can shift my behavior and not be a jerk. I’m a way more effective leader for it.
In Chicago I hosted a 3-day ritual facilitation intensive and there was one participant who really had no business being there. She was looking for people to do magic for her, not learning how to facilitate ritual. She was clingy with the facilitators and would bug them in the time before, after, and in between sessions asking non-relevant questions or chat their ear off talking. Every time we went around the circle asking people to comment on a topic or ask questions, she’d randomly talk about her family; it was a total non-sequitur.
Basically I tried to gracefully move things along to reduce her impact. At the time I made the choice to not kick her out of the class as I felt that would have been more traumatic and disruptive than minimizing her impact. However, I’d never allow her into an intensive again. Usually someone like that isn’t too disruptive in the 1.5 hour format, but over 3 days it can distract a group.
What’s usually more immediately disruptive is the person who jumps in to talk, or worse, corrects the facilitator. And it is unfortunately really common in the Pagan community.
Supporting a Weaker Facilitator
I admit it. I sometimes I attend workshops and then internally groan because I can tell the facilitator isn’t really knowledgeable, and then I’m stuck there for an hour and a half. Sometimes, I choose to excuse myself if it wouldn’t be horrifyingly rude. More frequently, I attend workshops where the content is good, but the facilitator is so nervous that it makes it hard to listen to them. I usually try to throw my whole focus to that facilitator. Energetically, this helps others to focus on the facilitator.
It’s particularly helpful at a festival where there’s lots of sound distractions.
The only time I would consider offering a comment to contradict with a workshop facilitator is if they are posing some things that are actually a little dangerous. Like, if I attended someone’s workshop and they talked about pressuring people into sexual situations, I’d probably ethically have to step up and say something against that.
But if someone’s teaching a chakra workshop and gets some of the chakras wrong…well, nobody’s going to die. They just might be a little confused when they pick up a chakra book later on.
Dealing with Hecklers
There are ways to facilitate workshops that both 1. reduce the interruptions you get, and also 2. handle the interruptions gracefully. However, these are also techniques that require some practice, and might be difficult for a very new facilitator to use. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it does get easier with time and practice.
I’ll admit, I don’t really have a lot of hecklers in my workshops, even though this is, unfortunately, very common at some events. I do have people who occasionally interject and start taking up too much of the group’s time, or people who start taking things on a tangent.
Partially I don’t get hecklers because I’m a confident facilitator. And partially it’s because at the beginning of most workshops and rituals I set up clear group agreements.
Why You Need Group Agreements
Some groups need really strong facilitation and clear agreements. Others are really naturally polite or at least, share your social norms. It depends greatly on many factors. However, there’s a leadership rule of thumb that is especially visible in facilitation: If you want something, ask for it. If you don’t, then you can’t whine that you didn’t get it. I can’t expect people to read my mind.
For instance, the example I offered earlier about people in some areas who are used to being able to smoke at workshops. It didn’t occur to me to ask people not to smoke in my workshop because I’d never taught at an event where people did that. However, now I know to look at cultural norms; when I teach in areas with a lot of smokers, I ask people to not smoke in the workshop.
Years ago, I helped to bring together about 30 Pagan community leaders in Chicago to meet and network. For the first meeting, I laid out a number of specific ground rules so that we didn’t start some kind of a Pagan interstellar war. One woman later told me that she was offended that I set up those ground rules. “What are we, children?” she snarled at me. “We don’t need to be told to treat each other with respect.”
…….So at the next meeting, we didn’t set up any ground rules. The meeting ran 2 hours longer than we’d scheduled it, people were talking and droning on and on for forever, there was no focus, and people got snarky.
At the end, I gently suggested that we might establish a facilitator and some ground rules, and that didn’t mean the facilitator was in charge, just that they were keeping things on track. Some rules we agreed to were things like:
“We come here together in mutual respect. And what that means is, we wait our turn to talk, we don’t have side conversations, and when we’re making a point, we don’t talk for more than a minute, maybe 2 if it’s really important/complicated.” Etc, etc.
Example Group Agreements
One agreement I frequently bring up is, “We’ve only got an hour and a half for this workshop, and it’s my job to keep things on track so I can teach you what I promised. So I might have to interrupt you or close down a discussion, even if it’s interesting, so that we can move forward. This isn’t a judgment, and we can always talk later. Does that sound good?” And everyone nods, so I have their consent on that, and on the rare occasions I do have to shut someone down, they tend to be more agreeable about it.
Now, in the case that someone’s being rude, I have no problems ejecting them from my class. I tend to do a 2-3 strikes thing. And it’s energetic–there’s a difference between someone who clearly doesn’t know that they are rambling on and taking up airtime, or taking us on a tangent, and someone who is being a Know-it-all or worse.
I don’t generally need to say, “Nobody punch anybody,” but if I’m hosting a discussion night, I might say, “If you are really passionate about a point, please don’t lean forward and pound the table, or get in anyone’s face. Please do not engage in ad hominem attacks, and please do not shout.”
Here are my more standard group agreements for any workshop where we’re doing deep personal transformation work.
We all come here in mutual respect, and what mutual respect looks like is this:
- I ask that each participant listen to others when they are speaking and not interrupt or have side conversations.
- I also ask that you listen to what people are saying, but don’t offer suggestions or try to fix them. Just hear them.
- I ask that each person speak from their own experience, or I-referencing; if you’re not clear on what that means, don’t worry. I may ask you to rephrase something and see how that changes the meaning for you.
- I ask that each person take responsibility for themselves. That means if you need to get water or go to the bathroom, or smoke a cigarette, you can take care of that on your own. You don’t need to raise your hand, but if you’re going to smoke you need to be far enough away that it doesn’t drift here.
- This also includes personal responsibility for your emotions. If we’re discussing an intense topic and you need to step out, you’re welcome to. If you are having an emotional response to something and you are crying, I’m not going to come over and try to hold you or fix you. If you need something, if you want a hug, you can ask for that, but I won’t make the assumption for what you need, and I ask each of us to do the same. Wait for someone to ask for what they need instead of assuming they want us to hold them or fix them. Yes, holding space while someone weeps can be uncomfortable. But, I can tell you that if you come over and make soothing noises and hug me, that’s going to shut down my process when I just need to grieve.
- Please be aware of how much time you are taking when you speak. We’ll have several opportunities to go around and check in about various topics. Try to keep your responses short. We only have so much time here together, and I want to make sure that each person has an opportunity to speak.
Sometimes there are agreements that I add in as well, like confidentiality, and sometimes there are agreements I don’t focus on as much, like the emotional self responsibility.
The Problem with Late Arrivals
Pagan Standard Time is actually directly responsible for some of the challenges in facilitation. When I facilitate a class, it’s layered. It builds in intensity, and the workshop depends upon the growing trust of the group.
Part of what makes that happen is the first 15 minutes of the class.
- Introduction (1-2 minutes)
- Ground rules (1-2 minutes)
- Check in (5-15 minutes) where each person mentions why they are there. In a large class, I may have to do it more brainstorming/popcorning, but I try to go around and have everyone at least speak their name into the circle.
So imagine someone’s coming in 5 minutes late. They’ve missed the ground rules. Which means I have to decide, as a facilitator, whether or not to take a minute and repeat them, or not. Knowing that if I don’t ask for the ground rules, I may risk the rules not being followed. And that happens all the time; often when I opt to not go over agreements, the late arrival is the one breaking the agreements.
Then imagine someone coming in 15 minutes late. They’re coming in while people are sharing why they are there but they’ve missed what everyone else has said. In some personal growth-focused workshops, my next step is to introduce a topic, and then have people share more about their own experiences. But, when a new person shows up in the middle, they don’t feel safe. That safety is built upon the structure of the workshops, layered intimacy and agreements.
It’s similar in a ritual; safety and intimacy and connection are built over time from people speaking and sharing within the safe container of a group with clear agreements.
Going Deeper into Behavior
As a facilitator and leader, I have read a lot on psychology, personality disorders, multiple learning modalities, and a lot of other related topics. In fact, most of the things that I teach with ritual facilitation is more based in the psychology of how we learn things vs. any one religious or magical tradition.
In other words, I work hard to understand people. And I have to understand the difference between someone who’s being a jerk on purpose because they like drama, someone who’s just clueless and who can learn that their behavior is inappropriate, and someone who is on the autism spectrum who may not be able to read body language.
The woman I mentioned in that ritual facilitation intensive seemed to have some of the behaviors of someone with a brain injury, or who is on the autism spectrum. Her behavior was absolutely not malicious, but she clearly had no comprehension of body language or appropriateness of her topic.
I’d welcome her as an attendee at a public ritual, so long as she wasn’t disruptive, but it’s not appropriate for her to attend a leadership class given the disruptiveness of her behavior in that context.
Poor Social Skills
Now, I’ve also had lots and lots of people in workshops and at events who were just unsocialized, or, who grew up with different social expectations. I mean, heck, I used to be a total shy wallflower who told stupid jokes. I couldn’t even make eye contact with people. I had no idea how to be social, how to be around people without sounding like a doofus.
And I’ll tell you my deep dark secret; when I’m around someone who makes me nervous, I sometimes default to that behavior. I notice it because I have a lot of anxiety and I start making stupid jokes to break the tension. So believe me when I say that I have compassion for people who are just socially clueless.
At the same time, my responsibility as a facilitator is to make space for the whole group.
I might have conversations with people one-on-one about their behavior. This is in the context of someone who is a regular attendee of my workshops, rituals, or other events. This wouldn’t really work if it’s just a one-off workshop at a festival. If my energetic read of someone indicates that the person may just not be reading body language, or might be socially clueless as I once was, I’ll have a conversation with them about that behavior and how it impacts the group negatively, and give them a chance to work to address their behavior.
However, there are folks that I won’t have much of an impact with, no matter how great of a leader or teacher I am. I’m speaking of “trolls,” or in other terms, people who seek out drama and who enjoy stirring up trouble. There are also various types of personality disorders that either have no treatment, or that typically don’t respond well to treatment, such as sociopaths/psychopaths (now known as antisocial personality disorder) as well as borderline and narcissistic personality disorder.
I’m going to put my time and effort into people who are genuinely willing to work on their impact.
Making it Easy
The root of the word “facilitate” means “to make easy.” Facilitation isn’t necessarily easy on the facilitator, but it does get easier with time and practice. The more you understand people and behavior, the easier it becomes to set up appropriate agreements, and derail inappropriate behavior.