Handling Difficult Environments

When i went into the supermarket down here in Bondi yesterday, a lady with a strong European accent occupied most of the supermarket environment talking 10 times louder than necessary to her disinterested kids as if she was making some sort of public service anouncement about her importance. Very un-Australian, very uncomfortable, extremely “New York.” I wrestled with it for a while, then decided that I didn’t want my reaction to a loud individual to ruin my day. So, I just didn’t react. Well, that’s not exactly how I dealt with it. I thought I’d explain my “you give me the shits” and “I don’t want to react” process. I apply it in supermarkets but also in sport, mountains, ashrams, universities, and most particularly, when giving a speech on stage.

Hecklers, or people who love to speak their mind when they feel uncomfortable, are the nightmare of every speaker. We present to an otherwise receptive audience, and in that, we be ourselves. But when there’s a sense of confronting a minority, we really do step out of our “track” and get reactive, not always to the benefit of the audience at large.

I had a great realisation about professional speaking once. I got the feedback from the presentation “company review” which was 90% positive but there was pepper with the salt, and some not so positive feedback, some of it not about content, more personal. “Walker is an egotist,” for example. I sat to think how I could capture this 10% next time by modifying my style and the attempt just rebounded off the page.. the more I pleased those 10% the more I’d disrupt the positive feedback of the 90%. It was good because I realised in people pleasing as a motivation, I’d attract those who weren’t interested in my content and repel those who were.

So, it comes down to the universal laws again. Nature is always present. There’s order in every chaos. 50% of the energy of a space will be for you and 50% against. For example: if your mum comes to stay at your house for a few weeks, 50% of the time you’ll feel endorsed by her and 50% you won’t. Of course this is measuring energy tone, not time, so 99% of the time mum might be so supportive but 1% she’ll stick a “Mum” comment down your throat so hard you’ll nearly choke. Of course, if dad came to stay too, maybe between them, mum might turn to 80% negative, dad 80% positive. Those balances are always present. Even in supermarkets.

So, my tool for dealing with an environment that isn’t sweet, like a toxic person potentially on drugs shouting conversation in the supermarket is to appreciate it. “Thank you for creating the noise that brings me to the balance of it, stillness.” I look around the supermarket for people I hadn’t noticed, sweet gentle people, some behind the counter, sometimes I might even look for products that hold calm. I am not keen to create environments that are bland, I love rock n roll, and even there, the music is balanced between the rhythm of drums and the trepidation of exploration.

In mountain walking in Nepal, the space is never peaceful. But I am. I am always seeking the extremes of counterbalance between noisy tourists or wild winds and the tranquility of secret wind protected spaces. It’s beauty, really, the diversity of life.

When I do some corporate gigs I always open with a question to the audience, it’s my routine and it’s enjoyable coming up with a great question each time… one time, I asked “Who in the room believes that diversity is an important part of a corporate culture?” I’m expecting a 100% show of hands. Ok, now the catcher “Ok, who accepts those who don’t agree with diversity?” no hands. The mirror is set, diversity in this audience’s paradigm is compliance with a set of rules, and when someone breaks them, they become unwelcome, so is this a real diversity or simply a feel good “label” that gets people to comply with someone’s expectation of non disturbance? It is certainly not, diverse…

Hecklers in professional speaking are a part of the diversity. So, instead of putting them down or being driven off track by someone who wants to overtly disrupt, I go looking for the silent infatuations. Yes, hecklers are a part of nature, and in nature everything is in harmony with the universal laws, including balance. If someone is being negative in a space, someone else is being silently positive, infatuation. If mum is critical of you, dad is infatuated, or visa versa. If the lady in the supermarket is loud and intrusive then i am in the presence of someone who is silent and deeply awakened at their soul. I seek to see the balance.

Finally, I can change an environment, if I choose. If there’s a negative force that’s overt, and a positive force that’s silent, all I need to do is to deliver some challenge to the positive that’s silent to bring their infatuation down, and the negative counterbalance will reduce at exactly the same rate. On stage, I just scan the room for the wide eyed not taking, totally absorbed individual and to silence the heckler, just antagonise the infatuation of the “over the edge” individual.

Price Waterhouse Coopers booked me for a corporate three day retreat with 140 of their partner program. We were on retreat in Queensland. I’d done the same retreat the year before and had rave reviews, (you know this isn’t the exact truth now) anyway, it was a great program and I was rebooked. But in that year, the leader of training for the firm had shifted from a guy to a woman, who had a totally different aspiration for the company culture. She was a save the whales, peace and harmony, do it good for the world, rather religious individual and when I went to present this laws of nature, to “sharpen the saw” – Covey’s Last principle, there was a predetermined reaction from a small group of highly fundamental individuals. Normally, that’d be a good part of a program, the challenge lifts my game and helps embed good teaching, But the program leader could embrace the complexity of diversity and went into reaction to try to make everyone happy. An impossible task by the way. That group elected not to attend the rest of the program… they did their own bible study and ended up leaving with what they came with.

Embrace the universal laws.