The Five Groups of Question-Askers

I just got back from a question-and-answer session with Robert Baer, the ex-CIA guy who’s written some books and who George Clooney’s character in Syriana is loosely based upon. The question and answer session got heated at some times, irrelevant at some times, sycophantic at some times, and was overall somewhat unsatisfactory. Without further ado, the five types of people who ask questions to experts at sessions like this.

#1. The lunatics. You have no hope of changing the mind of these people. They arrive with an agenda set out ahead of time, speak in loud voices to drown out dissenters, don’t really ask questions, just stand up and and basically waste everyone’s time. Often these people will be shocked if you ask them what they want, rather than what they object to.

#2. The people who use a question as a pretext for telling a long, rambling story. These people have some special insight they want the expert to know, like the fact that their cousin was a CIA agent, or that they’ve been to Lebanon, or that they took a course in college by a friend of the expert, etc., and tell a long story about it, followed by such a weak question
that you know they just wanted to tell the story to the expert. These people tend to think they are adding much more to the discussion than the group does.

#3. The people who need their opinions confirmed. These people already know who the expert is and ask questions even though they’re fully aware of the answers. They just want the expert to acknowledge and validate their belief. The questions asked by this bunch tend to be leading and weak.

#4. The side-trackers. These people ask obscure, repetitive, irrelevant, uninformed, or otherwise misleading questions, akin to asking “What time do they feed the bears?” to a national park guide. These questions generally waste everyone’s time.

#5 The people who have relevant questions in the expert’s area, who don’t know the answers ahead of time, and who’re generally concerned with acquiring knowledge. Sadly, a minority in the world of competitive question-asking. These questions are generally useful to the group, because the people who ask them are cognizant of the needs and knowledge of the group.

If you’re running a question-and-answer session, you really need some sort of question vetting system. Make everyone submit questions beforehand, or tell people why you’re not going to let their question out into the group. Or, sort people before a lecture starts into these five categories and then only call on people in group five. Meetings are generally inefficient, which is why I tend not to like them. Hopefully if people recognize which of these groups they fall in, they can help meetings run more efficiently.

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