by Melissa Lewis
I hated Kyle Smith*. A notorious bully, Kyle punctuated my grade school years with misery. He would tease me about my weight, purposely rattle me with shocking language, delight in making me look foolish at every opportunity. Kyle had scary, penetrating eyes and sharp, jagged teeth that looked, appropriately, like fangs. He even had his own evil henchman named Eddie who would follow him everywhere, laughing a conspiratorial little laugh asking, “Heh, heh, what are we going to do next, Kyle? Heh, heh.” (All Eddie was missing was a hump.) A typical encounter was the time I was walking home from school and Kyle and Eddie pounced from behind some bushes, grabbed my books and threw them in the mud. Even worse, they snatched my precious, brand new little purse and threw it into the branches of a tree, far out of reach. They then ran off cackling in triumph. I, purseless, limped home in tears.
This type of treatment continued all through grade school. I enjoyed the respite of summertime before we started at our new junior high school but September came and with it, my sense of dread at seeing Kyle again. I was given a reprieve, but an unwelcome one. That first week of school, my father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. I stayed home from school for about a week for the funeral and family visits. My first day back, the teachers wanted to take it easy on me so they gave me the coveted duty of going to each classroom and placing the absentee list on each teacher’s desk. I felt special to be excused from class and was enjoying my rounds when I came to Mr. Lester’s science class. I entered the room and my heart stopped. There, sitting right next to Mr. Lester’s desk was Evil Incarnate himself, Kyle. There was no avoiding him--he had seen me come in--so I braced myself for whatever abuse he was no doubt preparing, but as I got closer I noticed that he didn’t have his usual smug expression. He was looking down at his desk sheepishly. Very odd. As I lay the paper on the teacher’s desk, Kyle looked up at me with big, soft eyes and in a timid, tentative voice said, “I’m sorry your old man croaked.”
I was stunned. Not from the inelegance of the sentiment, but rather from the realization that Kyle—even KYLE—had the capacity to feel and express compassion. “I’m sorry your old man croaked” wasn't exactly poetic, but to me it was the sweetest expression of kindness I had ever heard. It was in that moment that I realized that everyone, no matter how intimidating, has good in there somewhere.
I think we need to remember this when we speak to our audiences. We look out and see grumpy frowns or intimidating scowls but even those listeners have hearts and the potential to connect with us. We might not be able to connect right away--maybe not ever--but just about everyone has that basic human spark of goodness through which we all connect. Besides, you’ve heard the old saying, “Behind every jerk is a sad story.” We need to remember that the most intimidating, obnoxious audience members you will ever face most likely got to be that way because of pain. Looking back, Kyle’s bullying no doubt stemmed from a miserable home life. His lashing out at me on the schoolyard is not much different than the heckler at a comedy club or a nit-picking critic at a presentation. Frustration, disappointment, powerlessness—they all lead to acting out, and as speakers we’re sometimes on the receiving end. But no matter how bad the behavior, those difficult listeners in your audience still have the capacity to support you. I think we can foster their humanness by being the first to reach out in a spirit of openness and service. When we speak to serve, with a genuine desire to do good for our listeners, we increase the likelihood that their negative energy will diminish in favor of a positive connection. There’s no guarantee that they will reach back to support us, and they may even keep up their offensive behavior, but let’s at least allow for the possibility that they might not be as evil as we think.