Two Ways To Handle A Heckler

What’s the best way to handle hecklers?

Should you give them a forum to express their views, or is it better to embarrass them by mocking their ideas in front of the crowd?

As these videos of Mitt Romney and President Obama show, both approaches can work. Although the two men differed in tone, both employed a similar tactic: they offered the floor to their hecklers before re-claiming the floor. That’s a smart approach that helps neutralize opponents who would otherwise continue shouting during their speeches.

It’s worth noting that both men were speaking to friendly crowds – an important point that worked in their favor.

This first video, from earlier this month, shows Mitt Romney sparring with protesters concerned about Social Security and Medicare cuts:

After initially trying to shout down the protesters, Mr. Romney changes his tactic when he appears to realize that the scene could get ugly if he doesn’t offer them the floor (note the heated response of his campaign supporter in the crowd). After he allows one protester to make his statement, Mr. Romney takes back the floor by saying:

“The way this is going to work is that you get to ask your question and I get to give my answer. If you don’t like my answer, you can vote for someone else.”


By taking back the floor in that manner, Mr. Romney signals that the dialogue is closed and that he isn’t open to further interruptions. When the protester continues questioning him, Mr. Romney tells him “you’ve had your turn,” turns his body away from the heckler by 90 degrees, and says “next question,” which finally quiets the protester.

In the second video, taken during the 2008 general election, then-Senator Barack Obama is heckled for his alleged lack of support for the black community.

Mr. Obama pledges to give the protesters the floor later in the meeting, which silences the protesters for the time being. As promised, he gives one of the hecklers the floor later in the rally. When the protester finishes asking his question, the crowd starts turning against him. Mr. Obama gains control of the crowd by saying:

“Hold on a second, everybody, I want everybody to be respectful. That’s why we’re having a Town Hall Meeting. This is democracy at work. And he asked a legitimate question, so I want to give him an answer.”


Mr. Obama could have allowed his friendly crowd to turn on the heckler, but he refused to take the easy path and requested instead that they offer him their respect. In so doing, he made everybody – including himself – look magnanimous.

Actually, there’s a third approach, used by Ronald Reagan the day before he was elected President:

With a simple “awww, shut up,” Mr. Reagan silenced his critics and earned wildly supportive applause.

Unless you’re blessed with Mr. Reagan’s sense of showmanship, the Romney and Obama approaches are probably your best bet.

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