It happens quite often. A disruptive person shows up at a public event ranging from a parent/teacher meeting to a city council meeting. Progress is soon halted by an upset person refusing to surrender the microphone after a reasonable period of time, or holding the room of hundreds hostage to repeated shouted outbursts from their seats. Even openly talking on their cell phone is not uncommon, while the leaders of the meeting try to pretend they can concentrate and audience members heads are on a swivel trying to see who is so rude.
Plenty of examples of what doesn’t work to resolve this situation can be found on the Internet videos. Often, the organizers are the ones who end up looking bad.
To address outbursts, organizers often first politely ask the disruptive person to complete their comments. When that doesn’t work, they direct the disruptive person to remain silent or leave the room. So far so good.
Then, ignored by the rude person, organizers summon law enforcement and using their authority, demand the officers arrest the person. The person resists, shouting about their right to be heard and that the organizers are trying to silence them from exposing their misdeeds. This is videotaped by a dozen people in the room using their smart phones and it is soon on youtube, then TV. Meanwhile, because of the uproar and use of force by officers, the meeting must be cancelled anyway, so officers can interview witnesses and collect evidence for the impending formal complaints and lawsuit against the officers and the organizers.
Instead of having the person arrested, successful organizers have often declared a recess, and explained the meeting will resume once decorum has been restored. This removes the forum the rude person most likely wanted. Many people in the audience will now start talking to each other and the rude person can’t be heard. The person often then wanders off, or can be escorted out without a spectacle.
A few things to remember:
1. Declare the rules regarding speakers at the beginning. Explain that the rules exist so that everyone’s comments are respected, as are the rights of the attendees who are there to make progress.
2. Explain disruptions will result in a recess. This helps to calm the attendees who will demand disruptive people be removed, without an understanding or responsibility for when that ends badly.
3. Not everyone you are dealing with is rational, or sober.
4. Only the disruptive person knows their actual agenda, which may be they want to be forced out.
5. There is always more than one way to handle even the most difficult situations.
6. Your strategy should not be based upon how you feel. As the person in charge, how you felt about it at the moment will not be as important to you later, especially if things go badly.
7. Just because you “can,” doesn’t mean you “should.” Forcibly removing someone has a lot of ramifications. The visuals of removing someone often make a lot of people look bad.
8. Many public forums are broadcast on cable TV. Some speakers really enjoy watching themselves later on taped replays. So, once the speaker’s allowed time is done, the cable operator should stop broadcasting the speaker. (But continue taping in case the footage is later needed).
9. Even the most disruptive person will usually have allies in the room.
10. Caution. Freedom of speech is a right many people hold as very important.