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While giving a presentation there is one person in the audience (X a PhD student and a friend) asking all sorts of questions, even unrelated ones. They are also eager to answer questions of others while just in the audience. X attends almost every talk in the department (info from colleagues) and shoots out his questions. During my first few weeks I consider this as good academic practice but had to change my opinion when the same occurred during my talk, with about 7-8 questions asked during a 30 minute talk; some of them were blatantly off topic (like asking why I used this numerical method over the other, which I haven't even heard of). We attended a thesis defense in our department in which the protocol suggests that the defense committee should ask questions first in the time allotted to questions. X couldn't wait, asks during the talk and this annoyed the committee, one of the stood up and asked X to stop!

I talked with X, and they said they are doing this to push the presenter to their limit and described the thesis committee as a bunch of idiots. X said they were very shy in their school years and worked really hard to reach this level of confidence.

My analysis

Although questions are welcome during the presentation, X seems to ask questions for asking sake. They used to ask questions to compare a certain method or phenomenon with their line of research which the presenter has never even heard of.

How to deal with him if this continues (sure it will!) during one of my presentation? I don't want to offend, as they are one of my few mates on campus.

Side Note: X's questions are not dumb questions in reference to some comments. They are sometimes off-topic, sometimes seeking explanation on a particular terminology(during the talk). I feel the questions are being asked simply for the sake of asking a question.

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    "That is an interesting question, but it goes in a different direction from my talk and it would take me a while to answer it thoroughly. We can discuss it later." – Federico Poloni Dec 31 '15 at 15:06
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    Essentially a dupe: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/17022/… – xLeitix Dec 31 '15 at 15:17
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    @xLeitix I believe this question is significantly different because the "dumb questions" answers focus on how to answer an unusual or off-topic question well, while this question is more about how to deal with a flow of too many questions. – jakebeal Dec 31 '15 at 16:01
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    Small remark... Whenever there is a talk, there should be a chairperson (or a head of committee if it's a defense), and it's their job to deal with a member of the audience asking so many questions. The speaker has other things to worry about, especially if s/he is an inexperienced speaker such as a student. So there is someone else here not doing their job. – Federico Poloni Dec 31 '15 at 17:46
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    Note: asking about something the speaker hasn't heard of doesn't mean it's off topic. – Kimball Dec 31 '15 at 23:39
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You are not obligated to accept somebody disrupting your talks, particularly when the questions are off-topic and when much of the audience appears to be disapproving. The basic solution is to act as a moderator for your own talk.

  • For questions during your talk that you find disruptive, a simple solution is simply to say, in a calm and gentle voice, something like:

    I'm going to defer that question for now. We can come back to it at the end.

  • During a question period, if a person is dominating the discussion, you can say something like:

    I think some other people may want to ask questions as well, so I'm going to ask you to hold your questions for a bit while we hear from others.

The key here is to be firm, gentle, and impartial. Your voice should make it clear that it's not about this particular questioner or about you being defensive, just about keeping on topic.

After you say something like this, most people will leave the question and let you come back to it later. If the questioner does not, simply repeat yourself, remaining as calm and unruffled as you can, and then move on. If the person continues to be disruptive after that point, it will be clear that they are making an unusually large problem, and others are likely to help intervene.

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    I agree with you, but in seminar classes, or seminars for PhD students, ( lab progresses and meetings also) people are usually encouraged to ask as much as question as they can, if moderators dont see problem, maybe OP is overreacting, – SSimon Jan 1 '16 at 2:41
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    IMO this is a professional way to approach the situation. – Sathyam Jan 1 '16 at 10:52
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My main suggestion is that you complain to your advisor or the professor running the seminar. Ask them to have a word with X and get him to tone down his aggressive questioning, both during your own presentation and during others'. As his peer you are not very well positioned to make such a request of him, but it's certainly the job of the professor in charge to help maintain a healthy and productive atmosphere during talks.

A couple of other thoughts:

  1. From your description of X (describing the thesis committee as a bunch of idiots, making a nuisance of himself during presentation, etc.), I'm guessing he won't last long in the graduate program, so the problem will likely solve itself in due course, and maybe even sooner rather than later.

  2. This is a borderline unethical idea, so use it with great caution and at your own risk, but I'm thinking that X just might benefit from being given a taste of his own medicine...

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[1] A little tip I picked up from boardroom presentations when I was in industry...

Imagine you are a keynote speaker at a conference. Begin your presentation with the words "I will respond to any questions at the end of the presentation". If anybody, including X, attempts to ask a question, repeat the words "I will respond to questions at the end of the presentation".

Create a final slide, after your summary, that says, simply 'Any questions?'. If his motivation is to disrupt, X will probably ask far fewer questions this way.

[2] If X asks why you have chosen methodology Y in preference to methodology Z, think about the reasons you did use methodology Y. It is perfectly acceptable to answer that this is personal preference. If you haven't heard of methodology Z it is also fine to say that you are familiar with methodology Y but you may consider using methodology Z in the future, when you are more familiar with it. (Do not commit to using methodology Z - your way may be better).

As the person marking your presentation, I would not penalise you for this unless methodology Z was mentioned in the assignment brief.

[3] Some knowledge of Education Psychology would suggest that X's attempts to show off his expert knowledge and belittle other people by exposing the limitations of theirs are strongly suggestive of low self-esteem (or psychopathy but let's stick with the most likely scenario). The facts that he claims to be attempting to 'push the presenter to their limits' and to have lacked confidence in school strongly support this. These actions may not be intentionally malicious but they may make him feel that he is a comparatively strong student and deserves to be on the course.

It appears that X is mistaking arrogance for confidence and if your friendship is strong enough, you may be able to, subtly, point out that his actions are not always interpreted by others as being assertive and confident but may be seen as arrogant or just plain annoying. Since this is a relatively new friendship, I appreciate this may be difficult, especially if you are both male and have been conditioned not to discuss such things.

However, many people who lack self-esteem respond disproportionally to praise so you could try 'Parenting 101' - pile praise and compliments on X, or at least make sure he realises you are 'impressed' when he does things you approve of (but try not to be TOO obvious) and withhold comment if he does something that most people would deem to be inappropriate. If X is seeking attention and validation, ignoring his unwanted behaviour will gradually make those actions unfulfilling for him and he will stop.

[4a] In conjunction with [1], it may be worth framing your answer as a question: you can respond to the first question with "Why do you ask that question?" If he answers, you are then in the rôle of questioner and have shifted the balance of power in the discussion. This will allow you take back control and regain your confidence.

[4b] For the sake of completeness, I have seen a misogynistic office bully silenced by the following technique but I would NOT be inclined to use it with young people (and as a lecturer it would be inappropriate). As his peer, if you are feeling particularly evil, you could build from [4a] and make ever more in-depth enquiries until X reaches the limit of his knowledge, which will usually take 3-4 carefully considered questions. There is a delicate balance to be struck here: don't try to make him look stupid - apart from being morally wrong, that will just make you appear vindictive.

This is a very risky strategy. You would probably only have to do it once but it may put an irreparable strain on your friendship. However, if X is as disruptive as you suggest, it may earn the respect of your class-mates and have you considered that X may be the very reason you have few other friends?

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    Generally an insightful answer, but I'd hesitate to go with a strategy that, in effect, allows @$$holes to turn oneself into the same. If nothing else, that kind of action expresses legitimization of the meta-situation in which it is about inter-personal violence (whether physical or psychological) rather than about the science/understanding/human-enterprise. Don't go down that road... Just enough rhetorical persiflage to disrupt a bully's riff is the right amount. – paul garrett Jun 7 '16 at 23:32
  • There is an "Aikido" version of the last technique: in other words, it does not do harm if the person does not mean harm. It is offering to explain the person some outlandish method that they likely never heard of - if they are interested in knowledge, they will listen. Fine! If not, it will expose their ignorance, but they clearly were disingenuous in the first place, and brought it about themselves. There is no moral obligation to play too nice with a person that is not; nice people are sometimes treaded on by bullies because the later detect the former's reluctance to get into a fight. – Captain Emacs Jun 18 '16 at 12:05

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