The Dilemma of the Oblivious Questioner

"Where was I? Oh, what you were saying about client perjury reminds me of a trial in the Boer War...well, it wasn't a trial exactly; that was what Churchill's cousin called it---wait, not Churchill's cousin...the other guy, the one who was such a good canasta player. Nobody plays canasta any more..."

“Where was I? Oh, right…so what you were saying about client perjury reminds me of a trial in the Boer War…well, it wasn’t a trial exactly; that was what Churchill’s cousin called it—wait, not Churchill’s cousin…the other guy…no, it was a girl, I misspoke… the one who was such a good canasta player. Nobody plays canasta any more…”

I launched a new legal ethics seminar today. This is always nerve-wracking, because it has to last exactly three hours, has to cover the topics I’ve included in the printed materials, and the programs are interactive, meaning that the degree of attendee participation is unpredictable. After I’ve done a program a couple of times, I usually have a good idea about which segments prompt a lot discussion and which don’t, so I can time my own comments accordingly. The first time, however, it is pure guesswork.

This one, a country-music themed program, was going to be tight, but was close to schedule until an elderly lawyer burdened with various medical paraphernalia raised his hand. I called on him by reflex, and then realized that he was the same attendee who had blathered on earlier in the program, telling an irrelevant and pointless anecdote that ate up five minutes. Sure enough, the second he got his hands on the mic he was off again, this time making an obscure and convoluted comparison between what I had been discussing and Japanese war crime trials, but it was even worse. He went on tangents; he forgot names; he backtracked; he never made any coherent point. Some people got up and left. It was easily a ten minute filibuster, and permanently killed any chance I had of covering all my material. He finally reached the end, never making clear what the story had to do with anything. I went on to the next segment.

Now I wonder if I handled the situation properly and made the right ethical call, which was to tolerate his clueless intrusion and not embarrass him by cutting him off. Had he gone on much longer, I would have had to, of course—he was so far off topic that there was a theoretical possibility that he would never stop, and we would all perish in that amphitheater, of hunger, thirst and ennui. He seemed like a nice man, he was earnest, and the Golden Rule applied: when I’m at the rambling stage–and maybe I already am—I would want people to be kind and gentle with me. On the other hand, there were a hundred other lawyers in the room, and he was harming their experience. Should I have chosen consideration for him over my responsibility to the rest of the class? Wasn’t giving them the most valuable seminar possible more important than allowing one participant to obliviously monopolize the discussion while contributing nothing of value?

There were other considerations, practical ones. In my experience, slapping down a sympathetic boob, no matter how justified, sometimes angers the group, and that wrecks the seminar too—when you’ve lost the audience’s trust, they shut down. Cutting off a questioner carries other risks too, for sometimes they refuse to be shut down, and your choice is to give up or risk a real confrontation. I also didn’t recognize this guy, but it is Washington, D.C.: he could be a retired Secretary of State that I was supposed to defer to, or a revered named partner of a power law firm—this has happened before.

There are no perfect alternatives, and all of those available carried risks. I also ask myself: did I make a choice at all, or just take the path of least resistance? I think I made a conscious choice; as you might guess, I am not hesitant to contend with questioners. But if I did not, then I was abdicating my job as a teacher and facilitator.

In 17 years of doing these seminars, I have only faced this problem a few times. I’ve tried various approaches (it is easier and less risky to shut down obnoxious jerks), but I remain as uncertain as ever about what is right.

What do you think?

10 thoughts on “The Dilemma of the Oblivious Questioner

  1. I do a fair amount of training/presentation stuff, Jack, and this kind of thing happens to me on occasion, too. The solution, I think, is found in watching the audience. If the audience is WITH the person filibustering (extremely rare, but I’ve seen it) then I’ll let the ramble go on for longer than I otherwise would.

    But when it’s clear that the questioner is being disruptive, I’ll generally gently interrupt – supportively, and sometimes feigning that I understand where he/she is going (even if I don’t have a clue). At that point, I have two options. In both cases, I admit to being short on time. Then I’ll either tell the questioner that he’s raising a fascinating point, and could we get together AFTER the session to discuss it in more detail? Or I’ll say that I’ve material likely to address his point later in the presentation, and beg his indulgence to continue with my agenda. If selecting the second tactic, I’ll usually directly ask the individual towards the end of the slot if I’ve answered the question, and if not I’ll invite post-meeting discussion.

    It’s the most graceful way I’ve discovered to handle that type of thing.

      • No, it probably doesn’t qualify as support. And in that your little birdies told you that the audience felt sorry for the guy – good presenters develop something of a sixth sense regarding audience mood – my guess is that they would have been grateful to you for diverting the guy before he made even more of a mess of himself.

  2. This isn’t real help, just an anecdote: During a tedious bar luncheon with a CLE component, a fairly self-impressed bankruptcy lawyer asked a long, winding, nearly fillibustering question intended to impress the bankruptcy judge who was taking questions while everyone ate. At the end of the question, the judge stopped chewing, pointed at the speaker with his fork holding hand and asked, “Did you already get salad dressing?”

  3. Arthur’s advice is excellent.
    I’m pretty sure I would be turned off if I were attending an ethics seminar and the speaker slapped down an old man.
    Like it or not, have time for it or not, we all really need to be a bit more patient with our elders.

    • Was that Arthur’s advice? I though he said that I should have cut the guy off, if nicely. I don’t think that there was anyway to interrupt his shaggy dog story that he obviously thought was of deathless import without appearing to slap him down.

  4. If it is a conversational setting as it seems to be when promotig discussion, you wouldn’t necessarily have to shut him off. Part way through the questioner’s monologue, you could always do a clarification interruption and work on rewording what he’s talking about. Try to summarize for him and slowly craft it into your next discussion point. If done well, the questioner may be content that he tied into your next point.

    The advice given above was good: simply interrupt and candidly say you have a time constraint but that the questioners point is interesting and ought to talk after the conference.

    Another option is simply lay down question ground rules beforehand that don’t rigorously limit all speakers but may limit the long winded ones. Like maybe a question limit

    • The latter is overkill, given how rarely this phenomenon manifests itself. My program format is dependent upon discussion, not merely Q and A, and in most audiences, about 5% carries the bulk of the interaction—limiting participation by these rare extroverts would be fatal.

      I think the first tactic is a good one, provided one has any clue what the proffered endless comment has to do with the price of cheese, which in this case, I had none. And it had none.

  5. Jack you deserve a gold star for using the Golden Rule. I do agree with Arthur in Maine should it happen again – the solution is polite to the person speaking but lets the audience know that you are ‘bringing it back around’ so to speak. Allowing the old man to ramble just a bit didn’t hurt a soul and no doubt gave him a new spring in his step. We’ll all be there one day and shame on anyone who walked out, it was disrespectful. Besides, they should have had way more faith in you but I suppose I could be a little bias.
    I am intrigued – what is a country-music themed program of legal ethics?
    Texagg04 – of soldiers I would expect no less!

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