by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | May 30, 2014

There is a quote often attributed to Aristotle that goes, "To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing and be nothing." That is the opposite of what we want to achieve with a great meeting, and yet the choices we make for our events often are driven by the approval we seek from our attendees. We want to know they thought that meeting was executed well. Perversely, true innovation and intellectual challenge is more often met with resistance than it is with support.
I have no objective statistics, but I would guess that dealing with on-site disgruntlement is one of the most tedious parts of the job, and you might have to deal with more if you try to change the status quo. Whatever you do, you're going to annoy someone. How many of these have you heard? "Give us healthier food," and at the very same event, "Bring back the cookies!" "Don't repeat sessions, give us new material" and "I can't get to everything I want to attend!" "Fill the agenda" vs. "Build in free time!" And these examples are far more simplistic than what elicits the strongest reactions, which usually are in response to the most progressive ideas we incorporate.
Planners are conditioned to be people-pleasers, and too often we gauge our success by the level of comfort and happiness our attendees achieve. I think we're due for a shift in our thinking, one that allows us to see attendee discomfort as a measure of success.
One thing to consider is that a great meeting is an art form. The great artists in history have always had critics, because their work challenged perception, elicited emotional reactions, and allowed the viewer's mind to experience something completely new. Doesn't that sound like the kinds of things you want people to say about your events?
Also consider that just because someone is reacting negatively to your offering, it doesn't mean their opinion is the right one. Think back to the last time someone annoyed you. Was your reaction the most thoughtful, intelligent one you could have given? Anger and annoyance are emotional responses, often fleeting and disproportionate ones, and having them supersedes reason and thought. Attendees who are experiencing this are not the people you want evaluating your meeting on its merits.
The only way to avoid annoyance is to do nothing important or valuable with the time your attendees spend at an event. Which leaves you with a choice: Do you want your meeting to be excellent, or do you want it to be universally popular?  And if you should choose popular, can you let me in on how you figured out the whole "pleasing everyone" thing in the first place? I'm not suggesting you disregard valuable feedback, but I am suggesting that you see it in the context of your strategy and objectives, and then give the reactions their proper amount of attention in light of their relevance to those goals.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about angry attendees, and how you learn from them. You can reach me in the comments below, by email to or on Twitter, @E_Zielinski.