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conferences - q & a


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Hi!

Do you have any tips on how to react to questions in the q & a part of a conference presentation that feel more like attacks than genuine questions? Do you engage or simply say "thanks for the insight, I will look into that"?

 

 

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It depends on the question and question-asker. One thing you can often do is take a question and then answer something slightly different that you have more to say about or is framed in a more favorable way than the original question, and get away with it. Although some people are just trying to attack, or it might seem that way to you, often it's better to try and find the helpful or insightful part of any comment and take it from there. You can answer on your own terms - so, "I haven't thought about it in this way before, so I'll have to think about it some more later, thanks, but here are some thoughts if you look at it from this other direction." Or "Hm, I'm not sure, but here are some thought that might get us started" followed by something you can say with confidence, hopefully deflecting and leading the conversation in a direction you're more comfortable with. Or if you think someone's just out to get you or you have nothing at all to say, then I think the wisest thing to do is simply say "thank you, that's a good question and I'm not sure how to answer it right now. I'll have to think about it (and I'd be happy to talk to you more about this after the talk)", instead of making something up that you haven't actually thought through and someone could poke holes in. It's a spur of the moment decision often.  

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In my field, attacking/bullying in guise of a question is unacceptable. The expectation is that the session chair should moderate the Q&A period so that question askers are only allowed to ask actual questions, e.g. for clarification or to gain your insight on a topic, not to attack you. However, in reality, many session chairs are quite junior and may not be able to stand up to or successfully get a senior bully to back down. In addition, many bullies cleverly skirt the line between a genuine question and an all-out attack, relying on the session chair's and audience's disbelief that anyone would actually go up and bully someone in order to get away with it.

That's the bad news. The good news is that more often than not, the audience is on your side, not the bully's side when these attacks happen. So fuzzy's advice is very good---you don't have to "prove yourself" to the bully (unlikely to be successful) nor the audience (they already know the inappropriate nature of the question). Redirection is a very good strategy when you get a question asked in bad faith. Just answer a different, related question instead. And fuzzy's suggestion of something along the lines of, "thanks for that comment/feedback, let's talk more later when I have some time to think about it" is very good and something that happens often. 

If this happens to you, the first thing I would do after the talk is to bring it up with my advisor or other mentors and see what they say. It could be that the person asking is a known bully in this way and it's not worth your time to engage. I've been in so many conferences now where it's the same 1 or 2 people that get up almost after every talk to point out some nitpicky detail. So if you have seen this person do this to countless others, know that it's not personal at least!

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19 hours ago, serpentina02 said:

Hi!

Do you have any tips on how to react to questions in the q & a part of a conference presentation that feel more like attacks than genuine questions? Do you engage or simply say "thanks for the insight, I will look into that"?

Generalize your response. If giving a longer answer, do not stare down the original questioner, but continue to look around the room. Refuse to get caught up in a debate over minutiae. Distill the essence (rather than the specific form) of their critique, and make your responding observations based on that. Do not give them the opportunity to interrupt at the end of your response - be looking elsewhere, and call on another person (if you're able to control your own Q&A). If they keep interrupting anyway, suggest that they continue the conversation outside of the Q&A.

Sometimes, there's nothing you can really do and the moderator has to step in. Sometimes they don't, because not all moderators do their jobs properly, particularly if it involves shutting down a senior scholar.

Your first aggressive question can be a really unsettling experience, and everyone's default reaction is to go into defense mode. Practice the mental discipline to take a breath and process your response, and you'll be much better off.

Edited by telkanuru
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6 hours ago, telkanuru said:

Generalize your response. If giving a longer answer, do not stare down the original questioner, but continue to look around the room. Refuse to get caught up in a debate over minutiae. Distill the essence (rather than the specific form) of their critique, and make your responding observations based on that. Do not give them the opportunity to interrupt at the end of your response - be looking elsewhere, and call on another person (if you're able to control your own Q&A). If they keep interrupting anyway, suggest that they continue the conversation outside of the Q&A.

The purpose of the Q&A period is to benefit the entire room,. It's not an exam and it's not a chance for one person to get on their soapbox to talk about their pet issue with you. So this advice is also really good even if the questioner is just aggressive rather than bullying/harassing you. Thinking like this also helps me to frame the situation as not having an individual discussion with the questioner while the whole room is watching (ahh super stressful), but instead, the questioner's job is to raise an interesting point for you to discuss further for the benefit of the whole room (much less stressful---you're here because the room came to hear you speak and your expertise...it's not an exam!).

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4 hours ago, TakeruK said:

So this advice is also really good even if the questioner is just aggressive rather than bullying/harassing you.

And at stopping the former from turning into the latter!

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Thank you for your helpful responses! 

Does this advice also apply to a practice conference situation in my department? One professor is known for trying to attack/embarrass the presenter at these practice conferences.....

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1 hour ago, serpentina02 said:

Does this advice also apply to a practice conference situation in my department? One professor is known for trying to attack/embarrass the presenter at these practice conferences.....

Definitely. Your own department bully can be used as an exercise for ones you don't know as well and whose behavior you can't predict. The stakes are lower because everyone knows this person behaves this way, but you can confound expectations by handling them well. Think back to people who've handled them well in the past: how did they do it? Attitude? A certain way of deflecting the question? Answering a different question or reformulating? Giving them a compliment or finding a way to cite/use their work in your reply? You can even try to prepare for the question(s) this person might ask, since you've seen them do this in the past. You can't predict all questions, but you can prep for at least some. I sometimes find that it's useful in these situations to say "that's an interesting way of putting it ... hmm. Funny, half-way thought [this] is what I thought you were going to ask: ..." and answer your own version of the question that you've prepped for. Or if the situation calls for it, you don't even announce that you're doing it, you just answer your own question and pretend that's what they asked.  

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For someone in your own department, if other students attend these practice talks too, one strategy is to get a friend to raise their hand to ask you a question immediately after bully-prof asks their question. (Or if it's appropriate in your department's style of practice talks, they can just blurt it out as soon as you answer the bully-prof's question following the above advice). This helps move things along to a different line of questioning and takes the stage away from bully-prof. Prep your friend(s) so that they are ready to raise their hand / blurt out a question as soon as you are finish answering.

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  • 2 months later...

This past spring I presented a paper arguing against a controversial movement from an even more controversial view. Before getting ahead of ourselves here, let me tell you my experience in 2/2 conferences I've been to. My experience dictates that organizers are more bent on preventing panel fights than they are in otherwise risking such things by opening up dialogue. I'm unsure how you feel about this, but allow to say that I am disappointed by this move. Perhaps, your experience will be different. Who knows, right?

In spite of what was said above, you may have those you're opposing come to seek your presentation out (via the conference itinerary), as what had happened to me. Fortunately for me, I'm already a very cut-and-dry ('just the facts, ma'am') personality by nature, so I don't succumb to appeals to emotion during intellectual discourse even when I'm being bullied or even doxxed. Also, if anything I tend to become diplomatic thereby wanting above all else to find a middle-ground. Though, that middle-ground will be rooted in the facts and only the facts. 

Now, if your personality is even somewhat contrary to this (I've been called a robot), I would advise you to at least train your brain to react in this way. Analogously, I'm not a fighter, but I have trained myself to successfully avoid conflict and protect loved ones by simply playing what we'll call the 'alpha staredown game'. To be fair, I can fight if pressed, but I'd rather not, namely since I'm a more defense-oriented fighter (e.g., counter-attacking and grappling). Do you see a pattern emanating from the current analogy under discussion? All things considered, what I'm advising is that you take on a certain personality, one within your limits, by simply committing to the course of action you're there to serve. Be uncompromising in your commitment to the facts yet present diplomacy wherever it may exist as result of the facts. 

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