Friday, March 12, 2010

Stone Faces

They are always there and I don't know what to do with them in my mind. They are usually, but not always, women which makes kind of sense because my audience is usually, but not always, women. They look angry. They look hostile. They certainly don't smile. And they never laugh. It was Joe who first noticed the phenomenon. After a lecture, even one that had gone well, he'd mention seeing someone sit and never smile, never make a note, someone who endured rather than enjoyed the lecture. I never told him that I really didn't need to hear about these people, even though I didn't want to hear of them, because it was important to remember that there were those who simply hated the message, the style or the presenter.

A few months ago I was lecturing to a group of people in a fairly intimate setting, much different than the usual lecture hall style. I decided, on impulse, that I'd tell the 'Yellow Shirt' story, which I've done a fair but in it's very abridged form. But this time I decided to tell the whole story, which I've done only twice. The reason I shy from the story is that there is a point in there which I have never conquered emotionally and it makes me cry. It has the saddest moment in it and it touches me. I took a breath when I got to the part that breaks my heart, and I felt the tears come. I looked out at the audience. People, oddly, forget that I can see them too, and I felt the room with me. Except for one young woman, maybe 23, staring at me with what seemed to be open hostility. I immediately felt stupid for telling the story, stupid for trusting a group of people with feelings that I could not hide. Until writing this I didn't realize that I've not told the whole story again after that.

More recently, I gave a lecture and there was a woman in the third row back. She crossed her arms and stared at me, the whole day. It was like she was wanting me to notice her anger, wanting me to feel her disapproval. And I did. I wanted to ask her what what up but there's this boundary between audience members and presenters. One that I've never crossed. They can ask me questions, some personal, but I can't ask them. Other presenters my do so but I never have.

But I drive away from these events and though I enjoy the fact that most enjoyed I wonder about those who don't. I mean I know you can't please everyone. I know that while thankfully there are those who enjoy my 'style' there are those that don't.

So why I am writing this today? Well, I'm writing it really for me. I thought that by writing it down I could understand it a little bit more. But I find that I don't. These folks may find it surprising that it matters to me that we didn't connect. But it does. I wonder if it matters to them?


wendy said...

I feel so badly for you that you took such a risk and ended up feeling stupid.

I wonder if some of those unsmiling, hostile people are people who were sent to your lecture against their will specifically because their supervisor recognized how very opposite their approach, beliefs and/or attitude are from yours. You can't talk to people who aren't listening.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,
I have known your experience of being "stared down" by an audience member. One such member actually wore headphones for the entire day. I did have the privelege, however, of having one come up to me and ask a very poignant question. It made me realize that when you are talking about sexuality, you are talking to a lot of people who have been wounded in that arena and are not ready to open up to a speaker. That can be compounded by the fact that many participants are "voluntold" to attend these workshop/lectures.
My solution is to see them as being more wounded than I - and still struggling in a way that does not let them appreciate even the best of speakers with the most fascinating stories (that would be DH) . . .
How sad!
Best regards, Susan Ludwig

Feminist Avatar said...

I heard a story recently from someone who teaches theology to u/grad students, who was saying she sometimes receives incredible hostility from her students- both in their body language and in the questions they ask- and she came to realise (perhaps especially because of the age-group she teaches) that the hostile students were those who were working hardest to figure out what they believed.

And, that figuring out what you believe- and/ or having your beliefs challenged- is hard and painful, and hostility is a response to that.

But, she also realised that it usually wasn't personal- they weren't attacking HER; it was just that she was the person providing the space for them to figure out their beliefs.

Belinda said...

As a member of a worship team and sometime worship leader, I had to learn not to believe my eyes when I looked down at a congregation. There are is a vast spectrum of "appearances" and appearances can be deceiving. Not everyone's presentation tells what is really going on inside, though it may. I just know I've been wrong when people have talked to me afterwards.

Not to say you were wrong in your case mind you!

ivanova said...

I agree with Susan Ludwig above that when you talk about sexuality you bring up a lot of painful stuff for some people, and not everyone is putting their best foot forward when that happens.

I also agree with Belinda that appearances can be deceiving. I used to be a tour guide and in my groups of fifteen there was often someone who glowered or frowned at me, and seemed like they hated my tour and me. But then sometimes at the end, one of these frown-y people would come up to me, and still glowering, say very positive comments. Some people's faces are set in a harsh look. My aunt came on my tour once, and if I hadn't already known her, I would have thought from her glare that she wanted me dead. I also had a lot of people on my tours whose mouths were in tight little lines and who kept shaking their heads in disagreement. This really made me sweat until it became clear to me that these folks had Parkinson's or something similar. I also once had a school group of teenagers who seemed even more bored and unresponsive than most school groups of teenagers. As the tour went on I started to realize that some or all of the class were on the autism spectrum. And then at the end a couple bored-looking boys asked great questions and said they wanted to come back to the museum and bring their families. After a bunch of experiences like this, I got less discouraged by long faces or angry body language.

That having been said, I'm sure a lot of the people who seem hostile in your audiences really are hostile. And that totally sucks. But I bet all the other people in the room would love to hear the Yellow Shirt story, whatever it is, if you can bring yourself to tell it.

Kristin said...

I wonder if the hostile audience members might be people who are identifying a bit to closely with the topic you are talking about.

Cindy said...

I recently was priviledged to attend a "training the trainer" course.

The instructor said that you basically get three types of audience - the participants, the passive and the prisoners.

But, he also said that some prisoners are prisoners because of circumstances that day. He said he had one woman come to him and explain that she had a sick child so although she really wanted to attend, she was only present in mind.

Amanda said...

I once gave a talk to a group of parents of autistic children. Note because it comes up later that I am very obviously autistic (especially obvious that day) and don't speak communicatively at all which generally precludes an "Asperger" label.

All through the talk I felt this crushing hostility emanating from one corner of the room. I couldn't even discern the people entirely through what was that day very fragmented vision, but I could discern the pattern of movements that means severe hostility.

The source of the hostility was a woman that my staff person told me was flipping her hair at me the entire talk. When it was done she started barking questions at me.

First, to me and my staff person, "Which one of you is supposed to be autistic again?"

Then, "I assume you're talking about Asperger and not autism". I told her that my label was autism but that my suggestions about how to help a child be confident enough for self advocacy could be applied to anyone anywhere on the spectrum or off regardless of their abilities.

Then, "So I assume you don't think autism is caused by vaccines?" I told her that causation was beyond the scope of my talk and that I had never once mentioned my views on it.

Then she snapped "I have a nine year old with autism and severe mental retardation." And that was supposed to mean something but I still can't figure out what.

Soon the other parents began asking far more useful questions, I began answering them. Among the other comments I got that day was "You look just like my boy and I hate to say that before today if I had seen you on the street I would have assumed you couldn't think at all." At some point the woman with the attitude stormed out of the room and never came back.

Then everyone in the entire room apologized for her behavior. They couldn't understand it. She could be hostile in general but she had never been that awful. They couldn't believe the questions she asked or the tone she asked them in. It wasn't her general beliefs because I have given talks to people with those beliefs who received me well. Wasn't her son because same. She was just a really nasty person and I guess they always exist.

Anonymous said...

I hate to say it Dave, but I don't think those people are people who probably don't read you blog. So, with that I say go ahead and ask. Ask them how they are feeling about what you are presenting. Leave the hostility out and just ask with your heart, you have the right to know and you might learn something about what you are saying and how to capture that part of your audience. These are the people who probably need you more than the rest. You are amazing at what you say and inevitably capture my heart every time. In reading your books and going to your lectures. What you have to say is valuable. I don't know much about presenting but be brave and just ask. Maybe in a less obvious way than calling them out on the floor but maybe just a quick "what did you think?" at the end of the day if you can corner them. Maybe, Joe can stop them at the door (half kidding half not). Many blessings.

Kathi said...

I heard you speak about 10 years ago in upstate NY and immediatly bought your book "Behavior Yourself". I was at a Day Services conference and the rest of the staff with wanted to skip your talk (It was the end of the day) I convinced them to stay as I had also heard you about 5 years before that. I was thanked ny every member of my group after you were done.

Anonymous said...

Sharing intimate stories that way is a gift. It is totally understandable that you hesitate to give that gift again when confronted with a hostile stare. But you also said that you felt the rest of the room was with you... It's a classic half-full, half-empty story. I hope you'll consider the optimist view, and allow the warm reception from the majority to outweigh the hostility of one. Let love win! (OK. I'll admit it. The truth is, I probably couldn't do it either.)

Myrrien said...

I remain shocked at the hostility that your talks on sexuality and the ethics of touch can arouse in others, particularly in those who have been practitioners for a long time.Please be aware though Dave that there are more of us who respect and are prepared to listen and change our practice.

Anonymous said...

Dave, a very wise person once quoted, "When I'm looking my worst, that's when I'm working the hardest". Those folks may be in the process of changing their perceptions about their work / life / families / etc. What you may be perceiving as hostility, could be a process of change happening. Just a thought.

Baba Yaga said...

Some possibles: "I was sent here, I don't want to be here, I don't want to listen, and I'm going Not Listen as hard as I can." (A stance which precludes ever finding out that there might be something worth listening to after all.)

"This hurts, and the only defence I have against breaking down is stoniness." (If it were me, I'd probably be knitting rather fast, and that might appear just as rude.) God knows I've radiated that kind of anti-presence in my time.

"The implications of this terrify me, but I can't kill the messenger, so I'm going to erect walls of vibrating rage against him."

"I'm an unmitigated arsehole."

And yes, as some people have observed, "The implications of this terrify me ... and I can't assimilate them here and now".

rickismom said...

I suspect that some of these may be people who are against homosexuality (and see/heard that you are gay), and this unfortunately leads them to close up to what you are saying, possibly as if thinking that to enjoy the talk would mean (to them) that they are condoning your personal behavior. Or they may have heard that you promoter XYZ idea, which is a treatening thing for them. (For example, a parent of a young adult with Down syndrome might find the idea of their child having relations outside the realm of marriage threatening/wrong.)

Unfortunately, we are all very up-to-date on where we disagree with others, and how we are different than others,and sometimes try to prove ourselves as being right by demonizing the other person. This is a childish way of thinking. People who are mature realize that they can disagree with someone, yet listen to them, learn from them, and sometimes even admire certain aspects of them.
I am sure that certain people chance on my blog, quickly place me in a mental "box" and leave. THEIR loss.
You may try to save the world, Dave, but you can not reach certain people. Don't eat your heart out over it. Our job is to do what we can, not more.

You never know how you will effect them in the long run. I know that even though my religious beliefs do not approve of homosexuality,masturbation, nor sex out-of-marriage, I have learned a lot from your blog/books, and am gratefull to you for it. I admire a lot of what you are doing, as well as your fight to stay sane against those demons of low-self esteem. And I think you are lucky to have a partner that you obviously love. Not everyone does. As a result of your blog I have come to see people who are homosexuals as HUMANS, which I doubt I really did before.
So if someone is missing hearing yuour message, just because they disagree with one aspect of it, THEY are the losers. Please don't let it get to you.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I am glad you still have an open heart in presenting despite such faces. It is hard. I used to give lectures and one person in particular used to lean forward with a face of such intense glowering (he had large eyebrows too), I wondered if he was trying to stop himself from lunging from the chair to attack me (it turns out he was very deaf and very vain and he LIKED me, and so wanted to hear what I said instead of sitting back and not hearing as he did other speakers - still scared me though).

I think some may have triggers, and issues, some will disagree because if it is a personal topic, one sensative to you, often people can see that as an accusation. My father still sees my illness as an attack on his parenting skills - my being on oxygen makes him angry - I didn't bring that up to hijack but to indicate that people have their own interpretation of the world and we never know when we are challenging that, and some people will throw up barriers of anger, or disinterest or anything rather than examine and change. But yeah, it sucks.

Anonymous said...

A possible interpretation for their behavior, which is coming to mind because I went to a talk by my favorite Zen teacher (Cheri Huber) last night: Often, when we hear something that speaks directly to our heart, the immediate reaction of our socially-conditioned mind is to feel fear and aversion. It could be that what you're saying would be so true for them, if they let themselves hear it, that it would require them to open their hearts and let go of defenses in ways they simply don't feel capable of yet.

Last night, a young man raised his hand and said, "When you were talking about [whatever], I felt like it really clicked, and my heart felt like it was opening up. And then I had an incredibly strong feeling of I am really uncomfortable now, and I want a drink." Cheri laughed ruefully and suggested that he pay attention to that feeling of discomfort when it arises, since it's almost certainly a defense reaction from conditioned mind.

Also, please remember that although these few negative people stand out in your memory, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who've heard you speak and responded positively.