Speaking before an audience is difficult. Speaking before a potentially hostile audience is even more challenging. Speaking your truth that you know will turn an audience hostile is probably the hardest thing a person can do. Learning to be ok with people’s hostility and outright anger at your truth is both a science and an art.
I started this process back in the early 1990s as I learned how much power we have been taught to give away to words. At that time I was living in Boulder, Colorado where they have an open air pedestrian mall downtown. It is a beautiful place with lawns, trees for shade, places for the kinds to play, fountains and lot of places for people to just sit and watch people. This mall is the living room of the community, not just a place to go and buy things. There were also buskers performing for their audiences and public advocates tabling to inform people of choices and situations. Sometimes the religious people would come out and preaching their version of hell or reality as they saw it.
On the west end of the mall there were three large brick covered steps facing a small lawn area, a perfect place for people to set and listen to a speaker. On both sides were businesses like a coffee shop, two restaurants and a bar all with outdoor seating where people could sit and eat while listening to a speaker on the lawn in front of the steps.
One day as I was walking through the mall I saw a guy standing in front of the steps just talking to whoever might be listening. Few people were listening to him just as few listen to the preachers, but there was something different about him to me. At first I thought he was just another religious zealot preacher talking about his brand of hell, but this guy was not talking about religion, he was using phrases like “techno-penis” and “Bourgeoisie-vagina”, derogatory terms he used for the average modern man and woman. His spiel was mostly venting his opinions of the nature of society. The only real solutions he offered were socialist in nature with a rejection technology.
He was articulate but looked like a laborer in dress and manner. Later I learned that he had been a lawyer but was now a carpenter living out of his van. Obviously he was dealing with his ‘demons’ or overcoming his psychological/emotional challenges/conflicts. One thing I would say he was doing was finding and exercising his voice; gaining the courage to speak his truth.
In just getting up and speaking, he was inspiring me. For although I had felt I had dealt with my demons or dealt with my own psychological conflicts, I had not found my voice; I did not have the courage to speak my truth to the world.
I felt at the time that I had dealt with my inner conflicts for I had traveled around the world studying many different spiritual traditions, practicing meditation and examining my own thinking patterns that were denying me inner peace. I had found my root assumption that we all make and I had seen it for the lie that it is, so inwardly I had peace, but outwardly I still had conflicts with how I fit into the world. And, I had not found my voice; I was still afraid to do what this carpenter/lawyer was doing.
I listened and watched for several days and eventually I started to asked questions. My questions came from a place of inner peace that the carpenter/lawyer did not have so my questions challenged him. The questions were intended to help him see outside the boxes in his mind. Eventually he got tired of standing up there and speaking and particularly of dealing with my questions, so he challenged me to stand up there and speak.
I can tell you now that the first time he challenged me to stand up there and talk scared the hell out of me, my stomach turned to knots, my mouth went dry as cotton, my legs were like rubber, but I had a passion and wanted to share my insights. It was this passion that drove me to stand up IN SPITE of my fears and to speak to the people listening.
I have spoken before audiences before and I was relatively comfortable with that, but this was different. For one thing when I spoke before I knew what I was going to say and the audience had come to hear me. In this public forum I could not know what I was going to say and the audience did not necessarily come to hear me. Also, because the audience did not particularly come to hear me the listeners were a very diverse group of people. Private audiences are self selected, people who come know what they are getting into and if they are not interested in the topic or feel that it would upset them then they do not go and listen to the speaker. But in a public forum in a public place this is not the case.
Boulder is a somewhat elite town being that it is a university town, so the people there tend to be more educated, liberal and comfortable with diverse opinions and perspectives. Still, I knew that my perspective was considerable different than most of the people in that town and particularly the visitors who frequent the mall any summer day. Also, I knew that my opinions were controversial so I naturally would get a lot of criticism from some people. This type of speaking is way different that “preaching to the choir” that most people do. I was potentially speaking to a hostile audience, or at least partially hostile audience.
That first time I stood up and spoke the experience was more than exhilarating, it was liberating. I do not remember what I said and I quickly realized it did not matter so much WHAT I said, but THAT I said, for the very act of speaking my truth in front of people was inspiring to them as it had been to me.
Eventually this carpenter guy, whose name I learned was Craig, and I became friends and even team members of sorts, for we played off each other to build an audience and even a following. By the end of the summer we would sometimes have thousands of people listening and each weekend people were coming from all over the state to be a part of this community forum.
It was not just fun but fulfilling. I was part of something that was much bigger than me, for the community was becoming cohesive. People loved this and so did I. This was an important experience for me and I learn that others felt the same way. For many of us it was the most connected we ever felt to community. It was different than being in any other type of community for there were no rules or guidelines to exclude anyone, everyone was accepted but not everyone felt comfortable there.
This was a great opportunity for me for a number of reasons. Because of my meditation practice I had developed a habit of watching both my inner and outer behaviors and how events outside of me created inner reactions. In this situation I would watch how the fear came up within me every time it was my turn to speak. And each time the fear would go away after a while.
There were challenges to speaking in public. We had many people get angry and one poured a beer over my head. I was physically attacked in more than one occasion, including once by Craig, the other main speaker. Always there were those who judged us and called us all sorts of names. In my recollection now, I believe I was judged more than others and called more names than other speakers and I believe that is because I was talking outside of the boxes of what most people are used to hearing.
There were times when no one would listen and there were times that almost everybody opposed me. And there were times when I got a rousing applause.
There were also many times that we challenged others to get up and speak; one day we got thirteen others to stand up and speak for a few minutes including an eleven year old girl who mesmerized the audience with her clarity. There was one guy who often stood up and said the same line every time, a line he apparently thought was smart but that most people just rolled their eyes at. Often when someone new would overcome their resistance and speak I could see the exhilaration as they overcame that resistance. I also watched the crowd’s reactions to the speakers, including when I spoke.
What usually happened as the evening rolled on was that the larger forum/audience would break up into small groups or forums where people would go off on tangents and this would go on until the early hours in the morning.
I often would watch the dynamics of the social interactions of people. In most organizations the type of people in that organization would self-select so you only get a narrow perspective on how humanity might behave in any given situation. But in a public mall like Boulder’s downtown Pearl Street mall a relatively diverse group of people would pass by. And I say ‘pass by’ because that is what most people would do, they might stop for a moment and then move on, either uninterested in what was going on or because it frightened them. I could see the fear in many people’s eyes as they observed what was going on, particularly if the topic being discussed was challenged or judgmental.