Permission Given

This is a post about professional anxiety and what might be done to alleviate it. Consider who asks questions after departmental seminars or conference talks: too often it is the usual suspects (although my impression is that this is getting less common). Years ago I can remember conferences where it was always the same half dozen senior professors, who sat right towards the front, who would jump in, implying as they did so that it was the continuation of an ongoing ‘in’ debate. Of course this discouraged anyone else from contributing. Conferences are always the better for diverse questioners (as well as diverse speakers). And questions need to be about the talk itself, not about scoring points or self-aggrandisement, an argument nicely made here.

But what of those who hesitate to ask questions? Even if a wide range of people are prepared to ask questions, are you? I know that this particular skill is not my forte. I don’t enjoy it and rarely open my mouth – at conference or seminar – however senior I may have become. This is an admission I have made before in the wake of exhortations from others, notably Dorothy Bishop. Is this a gender thing? Do women ask fewer questions? Or perhaps their hands are more prone to be overlooked by chairs who home in on senior, white males in preference to any other category of speaker? It is perfectly possible that both questions may be answered in the affirmative; it is equally possible that the latter feeds the former.

If you are one of the nervous, fearful kind – be you male or female – it is worth contemplating if there is anything you can do that might help. I came across a situation recently that made sense to me as creating a possible mental intervention. Acting as host for a speaker, chairing the seminar, I knew it was my responsibility to step in to ask a question if the audience was silent. It was my job to do this and so I did it with absolutely no qualms, unlike my usual reluctance at question time. That incident made me wonder whether this isn’t a more generally useful strategy. On this occasion I’d been given ‘permission’, indeed more than that it was my duty to pose a question. So I did it. Would that work in other situations?

I throw this out as a suggestion. If you are a nervous PhD student about to give your first platform presentation in front of an audience of strangers, will you feel better if you remember you are repaying the funder’s money by speaking out? Since you would not want to be considered to be wasting the tax-payers’ money, or the medical charity’s, then perhaps you might wish to recall you have a duty to spread the word of how that money has been spent. I don’t know if that might alleviate the nerves, because I can’t put myself back in an equivalent position, but it strikes me as a plausible route that might work for some people.

The same is true of speaking out at committee meetings. There will always be difficulties of group dynamics, the incompetent chair or overweening members, but nevertheless you will be there for a reason. Perhaps you are the representative of a department, a grouping or a gender. That group will be looking to you to act on their behalf, which being silent is unlikely to fulfil. So, once again, the scary task can be recast as a duty. And duties are incumbent upon you; not opening your mouth and saying what your community feels about the topic under discussion is failing in that duty. Therefore, it is not temerity to speak up: it is an obligation. You have tacit permission.

Fear can arise for many reasons, but the feeling that one doesn’t ‘deserve’ something and therefore it would be inappropriate, putting yourself unnaturally forward or showing off (however wide of the mark such sentiments might be) may all serve to hold you back. Rephrasing speaking up as a duty might overcome that mind set. However, the fear may also arise from a sense of incompetence, again however misplaced a feeling. Nevertheless, if you are representing a group you have to believe they have chosen you for a reason. If you are talking about your research it is because someone – supervisor or conference organiser – believes you have something of note to say that others would benefit from hearing. Indeed, as junior researchers it is far more likely the audience will benefit from listening because they will not have heard your dulcet tones and hot-off-the-bench results before, unlike some of the big names whose voice, several-year-old results and anecdotes may have been heard again and again and again.

So, whatever devils you are facing, try to recast that fear into something that is less about your internal feelings and more about what you can give out to others. It might just make it possible to raise your voice above a squeak and set out in meticulous detail all the ideas that you have been turning over in your brain for weeks, months or even years. None of that means that people will actually listen, hear or act upon your words however wise, but at least you will know you’ve given it your best shot. Give yourself permission.

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5 Responses to Permission Given

  1. Catherine says:

    Great post! My most terrifying moment was asking a question at an international conference – more scary than speaking! But the speaker was lovely and we ended up having a chat afterwards.

  2. Laura says:

    As an undergraduate in a small Geology department in the USA, I and my cohort were strongly encouraged to ask questions during lectures. There were usually only 10 of us in a class, and the lecture series was set up to allow ample time for discussion. No question was deemed a bad question.

    As a result my hand is frequently up in seminars and I try to always contribute to discussions. Perhaps too much! I still get quite nervous when asking because I don’t want to ask a ‘bad’ question or be a ‘show off’. I think I can attribute at least part of this tendency to my undergraduate lectures. Perhaps we should encourage more lecture questions in order to inspire young aspiring academics (men and women) to be excited about making a contribution! Great post, thanks!

  3. Steve says:

    Thanks for a great post – it’s made me think a lot. I remember asking my first question at a conference. I took the microphone, my hand was shaking, the speaker frowned at me and didn’t really treat me very well (maybe it was a badly phrased question). It was in Cambridge – all these clever people – what must they be thinking? Since then I have overcome my fear and feel like it is duty to engage in the scientific discussion. I try these days to hold myself back though. Preferring to listen to other’s questions and giving other people the opportunity. Is that a duty too? I do think it is important to think about why you’re asking a question – be it at a conference or at a committee. At a conference – Are you seeking information? Is this the best time to ask the question? Why not wait until after the talk? I even sometimes follow up talks with emailed questions, which can give you more time to think about what information you want. In that way it is less public and I feel less fear of asking “a blooper”…In committees I have in the past been less likely to say something the more senior the people at the meeting. Far better a well thought out question in those situations, having assimilated the mood and level of discussion. The more you say the less impact you can have on those sorts of discussions – and on that note I will shut up!

  4. Laura’s point above is well made. It would be nice if we encouraged more dialogue in classes. I try to do so, but maybe I am not trying hard enough.

    I remember as a postdoc asking loads of questions, presumably figuring that I needed to be ‘known’. And now I have a self-imposed requirement that I ask at least one question at a meeting. I am pretty sure that winning a lectureship did not in and of itself stop me from being a motormouth. I am a little surprised as to why I have become less forward in asking questions. Maybe it’s because I am unconsciously following Steve’s advice. He’s right, of course. Do we ask questions to show off? Or do we really need the information? And it is sometimes appropriate to let others lead the discussion. Certainly my opinion is heard at committee meetings.

    I try to ask questions now if:
    1. I chair the session.
    2. The speaker finished in good time and there are too few hands in the air.

    I definitely don’t ask questions if:
    1. The speaker went over the allotted time. (If I am chairing that session questions will be invited over coffee…)
    2. A very distracting e-mail arrived. (Shame, shame on me.)

    The way poorly made questions is handled needs some attention. As Laura says, no question should be a bad question. Not intimidating people with their first ever question can only be good. I did not feel Steve’s pain with my first question (which I cannot remember), but his description will resonate with many people.

    Thanks for the post Athene – it was something interesting to read over lunch.

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