Q. Recently I attended your week-long seminar and can hardly believe how much I learned. There were, however, some attendees who ask the most ridiculous questions. And I mean ridiculous! How does your brain remain calm and civil?
A.Your question triggered a good laugh. Yes, a thorn in the side of many speakers is the attendee who uses a question as a platform to exhibit how much he/she knows (or doesn't know) about the topic, has an axe to grind, has a very different opinion and wants everyone to know that, hopes to look superior by making the speaker look foolish, has low Emotional Intelligence (EQ), needs to be the center of attention, or ad infinitum.
Earlier in my career it was tempting to try to turn the tables on such questioners. I’m glad I took a different path and I did that partly on the advice of a brain-function researcher from Stanford University. He reminded me that every brain is unique and only has its own opinion—including, he said, brains that are unhealthy, unbalanced, extremely prejudiced, argumentative, uninformed, damaged, diseased, and maybe just not very bright. According to this researcher, the speaker’s challenge is to avoid taking anything personally, avoid arguing about the other person's opinion or belief, decide how long the entire audience is to be subjected to the diatribe, and learn strategies to move on as graciously as possible.
There are only a few things that I believe the brain can learn to control. Such as: how long you want to harbor a specific thought and whether or not you want to take action based on that thought, your conscious visualizations (what you place in your mind's working memory), what you say to yourself and others, and the behaviors you consciously choose to exhibit. My goal is to present my brain’s opinion of the research under discussion without making a questioner feel stupid, bad, less than, or etc. That may not always be the outcome because every brain chooses how to respond but at least I have made my comments without any put-down intent.
An incident occurred recently while I was making a presentation at a four-year college. An older attendee said: “I’m sure you can give me references of studies to confirm that the Caucasian brain innately has a much higher average IQ than non-Caucasian brains, right?” What made it egregious was that the question had been asked by a Caucasian in the presence of hundreds of brains from a variety of different races and cultures.
A professor in the audience later told me that I turned my back to the audience momentarily and when I turned around said, “I cannot believe that someone would even ask such a question in the 21st Century. To my knowledge no such studies exist.” Then I took the next question. Obviously my body language demonstrated how gob smacked I was (to use a British expression from my childhood).
I’ve thought about that question several times since. I’ll never know for sure what triggered it. Cellular memory, past personal experiences, serious self-esteem issues? Your guess would be as good as mine. Sometimes questions such as that do influence speakers, myself included, to avoid taking questions from a general audience.