When you first start attending philosophy presentations you are often faced with new and complex ideas. It can be difficult even to maintain your concentration, and so there’s no wonder that many people feel nervous asking questions during the Q&A sessions at the end of talks.
Members of under-represented groups can face additional problems, too. We can suffer from stereotype threat, which can result in physical stress and underachievement in situations where our membership of that group is made salient (eg. being the only woman in a room full of men), and if others in the audience have implicit biases then we risk our contributions being taken less charitably than if they came from someone who isn’t a member of an underrepresented group. If the presentation language is different to your first language too, then this can add another source of stress.*
Generally asking questions gets easier with time, but there are things you can do to help speed up the process. One big thing is to get to know people in the department – you’ll feel more comfortable if you’re not sat in a room full of strangers, and you’ll also be able to share experiences and tips with each other. In the spirit of sharing experiences and advice, here are five things that I have found helpful for asking clear and confident questions:
1. Start with clarificatory questions
Clarificatory questions ask the speaker to explain some argument or concept in more detail. They don’t make a point about the talk, or raise a problem (although sometimes they will lead into one), and so when I first started asking questions I found them a less intimidating option. Then, once I’d got into the habit of speaking during Q&As, some of my nervousness subsided. Just exposing yourself to the experience of asking questions is really important, and asking clarificatory questions allows you to do that without putting yourself under too much pressure. (I also found attending and asking questions at the PG WiP seminar very useful for this, as the audience tends to be mostly postgrads.)
You might feel embarrassed about asking for clarification because you see it as revealing a gap in your understanding, but there are ways to de-emphasise this. By being specific you can demonstrate the understanding you do have, and make it easier for the speaker to answer you. For example, rather than asking “Can you explain the problem with X’s view again?”, aim for something more like: “When criticising X’s view you made a distinction between [concept a] and [concept b], but I’m struggling to see the difference between them – could you go over that again?”.
If you need ideas, then…
2. Listen to other people (and think about phrasing).
This might sound obvious, but I’ve found it really useful to listen to how other, more experienced philosophers ask questions. There are lots of phrases, and ways of structuring questions, that (rightly or wrongly) seem to mark out some questions as ‘good’ and others as less so. Once I made a point of noticing these I didn’t just find that my questions improved, but I started to believe that more of the thoughts I had were question-worthy in the first place.
Here’s an example: A little while ago I attended a talk (outside of Edinburgh) which was on the finer points of a topic, X, that I knew nothing about. The speaker didn’t explain what X was, or why it was important, and so I wasn’t able to get much from the talk. What I really wanted to ask was “Why should I care about X?”, but this didn’t seem like a very ‘good’ question – I thought I’d just demonstrate my own ignorance (not to mention sound rude), and bore everyone else by forcing the speaker to explain the basics to me. In the end, after reflecting on how people who ask ‘good’ questions structure things, I ended up saying something like “I’m interested in the consequences of your conclusion; what other things do we have to believe, or stop believing, if we accept it?”. Not only did this result in an enlightening answer from the speaker, but afterwards several people told me that they had found it useful.
3. Note down potential questions – even if you don’t intend to ask them.
This is a brilliant idea which was passed around the philosophy department at Birmingham when I was studying there (I’m not sure who initially came up with it). The idea is this: imagine you’ve thought of a question, but you’re reluctant to ask it in case it’s not ‘good’ enough (or maybe it’s still only half-formed in your mind). Make a point of writing it down anyway. Then if someone else asks (roughly) the question, you know that at least one other person would have thought your question was a good one if you had asked it. By keeping a record of how often this happens you boost your confidence and increase the likelihood that you’ll raise your hand next time.
I definitely found this strategy useful, even when no-one had asked my question. Once I’d made a point of writing it down, I’d discuss it with another audience member (or sometimes even the speaker) after the talk had finished. I found that this gave me a chance to practice articulating my thoughts, and as long as the other person didn’t have an obvious answer I’d decide that it was a ‘good’ question after all, and push myself to ask something next time.
Sometimes I’d find that someone else asked a question similar to mine, but that there was still something I could add. When that happened I’d try making a follow up (a ‘finger’ rather than a ‘hand’). Again, this means that you get a chance to practice speaking, but there’s less pressure on you (not least because you haven’t had the build-up of nerves waiting in the queue).
Speaking of nerves…
4. Do what you can to reduce physical stress
The physical effects of anxiety or stereotype threat on your body can be a big barrier to speaking up during a Q&A. Luckily there are things you can do to counteract this. This video explains how altering your posture can lower stress hormones and increase confidence. My natural tendency is to avoid taking up space, but I’ve found that making a point of opening up my posture makes a huge difference to how relaxed and confident I am. (Just don’t overdo it and end up invading other people’s personal space…)
You can also take notice of how your location in the room affects you. I find that sitting near the back of the audience makes me feel less involved in the talk, and so less likely to contribute. Sitting closer to the front, especially if I’m amongst friends, makes me more likely to speak, and means that I don’t have to raise my voice as much when I do.
Noting down roughly what I want to say before I speak seems to reduce my stress levels a lot too, as I don’t spend the time leading up to my question desperately memorising what I want to say, and in in what order. This year at the Visiting Speaker Seminar there is a five minute break between the speaker’s presentation and the beginning of the Q&A session, and this is a great opportunity to make those notes.
5. Remember the follow-up
Once you’ve asked your question it can sometimes be such a relief that you end up saying “okay, thank you” to whatever the speaker says. Sometimes this is the most appropriate response and, especially if you’re feeling uncertain, you might prefer to do this anyway. But bear in mind that if your question hasn’t been fully answered and the chair is okay with follow-ups, then you can take the opportunity to ask for further clarification, or to reply to what the speaker has said.
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These five strategies have gradually helped me to feel more confident and ask better questions (although it’s certainly still a work in progress). I hope that others find them helpful too. Do you have other strategies for improving the questions you ask? Please share them in the comments below!
*I study in my first (and only) language so this isn’t something I’ve had to overcome. Speaking to some non-native speakers, one thing that some find useful is thinking about this: although people may make judgements about your philosophical ability on the basis of your questions, very few (if any) will make judgements about the language you use.
Remember that as well as increasing your own confidence, you should consider how your behaviour might affect the speaker, and other audience members. David Chalmers has put together some handy Guidelines for Respectful, Constructive and Inclusive Philosophical Discussion, for exactly this purpose.