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Mitch Ditkoff Headshot

The Joy of Heckling

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Every person who has ever had a job has experienced at least one "moment of truth" in their work life -- a time when all the chips were on the table and the decision of whether to go "all in" or not had to be made.

One such moment happened to me some years ago when I was facilitating an innovation workshop for 110 of Lucent Technology's "best and brightest" -- a room full of brilliant computer scientists and engineers with more PhD's than most politicians have excuses.

There I was, on stage, introducing my session with a power point show of quotes from legendary innovators, when a man in the 10th row stands up and screams, "You are totally wrong! I used to work with that guy and he never would have said something like that! If you can't get your quotes right, why should I believe anything you're about to tell us?"

If this was the Wild West, I had just been challenged to a duel at High Noon, armed only with a remote and a blueberry muffin.

Standing as I was in the epicenter of the optic fiber universe, I had only a nanosecond to assess the situation. There was no time for a strategic plan, no time for due deliberation, no time to call my coach. This was defcon 7, me now face-to-face with one very large, angry man.

"Well..." I began (stalling for as much time as a single word would allow), "it is possible that you are right. The slides I'm showing today were just finalized yesterday and my assistant may have made an incorrect attribution. I will check with her when I get back to the office. That being said, I invite you to focus on the good stuff that is here for you today, not the possible flaws."

Logical? Yes. Effective? No. My comments only made him angrier, his face growing redder by the moment.

Now I had a choice to make -- whether to further engage my corporate heckler in a heroic attempt to win him over or continue with the reason why I had been hired in the first place -- to help predominantly left-brained thinkers tap into their lesser-used right brain.

Choosing Door #2, I proceeded to teach a mind-opening brainstorm technique based on the thinking styles of Albert Einstein and Garry Kasparov (a former Soviet Union Grand Chess Master).

Technique taught, I walked to one side of the stage and observed.

For the next five minutes, everything went smoothly. Everyone in the audience was doing the work.

Then, without warning, Mr. You-Got-Your-Slides-All-Wrong stood up and, with great velocity, began approaching the stage. On a scale of 1-10, with "1" being walking and "10" being storming, he was a 9.8.

The faster he walked, the quieter the room got as I took my stance and readied myself for whatever was going to happen next.

Two feet from me, my inquisitor stopped, looked at me, eyes on fire, and began blurting.

"This is amazing!" he said. "Amazing."

"What is amazing?" I replied.

"The technique you taught," he explained. "I just had an incredible breakthrough about something I've been struggling with for the past three years. Problem solved!"

Happy for him and greatly relieved, I asked if he'd like to share it with the group -- a task that would require the two of us to change roles for a few minutes, him taking center stage as teacher and me taking his seat, in the 10th row, as student.

Which is exactly what we did.

The man was on a roll. I couldn't have asked for a better spokesperson to convey the message I was trying to get across that day -- a message about the innate ability all human beings have to go beyond their limiting assumptions and tap into the realm where breakthrough insights abide.

The dramatic and very visible shift my "heckler" had made from left-brained naysayer to right-brained savant was the embodiment of a teaching I couldn't have scripted in a hundred years.


We never know when the moment of truth will come. We never know what it will look like and how we will respond.

But we do know this: If we are awake and deeply engaged in our work, it will come. There is no escape. The more we are already "all in", the easier it will be for us to respond with whatever comes our way. The more we are able to flex to the moment and make choices that serve the greater good, the more powerful the outcomes will be.

My moment of confrontation, at Lucent, did not allow me the luxury of deep deliberation, planning, or calling my business partners for advice. I had to trust myself, be in the moment, and go with the flow. But even more than that, I had to be willing to reframe what seemed to be a problem into an opportunity. I had to make lemonade out of lemons, on the spot, and not squirt any in the eyes of the people I was there to serve.

My task was not to find fault with the fault finder (an easy thing to do), but to transform the moment into deeper understanding.

On the front lines of business, it is extremely easy to find fault in others. Even on a good day, most of us are woefully imperfect -- filled with a lifetime's worth of quirks, projections, fears, habits, and routines -- the kind of stuff that bugs even our closest friends. Throw in the X factor of stress, heavy workloads, constantly changing priorities, and a crumbling economy and you have a formula for... well... major heckling.

Your mission, should you choose to accept this assignment, is not to take it personally.

The person who is heckling you (at work, on the street, in your home) is most likely having a bad day, week, month, quarter, year, or life. If Jesus, himself, was to make a sudden appearance, your heckler would probably find fault with JC's hair, clothes, or accent.

If you react with the same negativity that is coming your way, all you'll end up doing is throwing fuel on the fire. If you hate being judged, but then judge the judgers for judging, you will only end up, lost, in a fun house hall of mirrors with no exit.

PS: At lunch, after the Lucent innovation workshop, my client informed me of three things: 1) The man who heckled me does the same thing to every outside speaker -- no matter how much coaching he has received from HR; 2) The exchange between the heckler and me was the perfect embodiment of one of Lucent's core values at the time -- allowing creative dissonance -- a value they had been trying, unsuccessfully, to embed it their culture for the past few years and; 3) As a result of the positive impact my session had, Lucent was going to license my company's creative thinking training. Lemons hadn't just turned into lemonade, they turned into some major cash flow, too.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: Think of a moment of truth you've had in the past year -- a surprise encounter that demanded an intuitive, in-the-moment response from you. What was that like? What did you learn from the experience? And if, perchance, you did not respond in a way that worked all that well, what would you do differently next time?

Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, an innovation consultancy and training company headquartered in Woodstock, NY. This story is excerpted from his forthcoming book MOMENTS OF TRUTH: 101 Ways to Humanize the Workplace (a book, by the way, still in search of a publisher. If you are that publisher or know of one, please leave a comment below or email the author: