Friday, August 3, 2012

Knowing when to shut up!

Asking provocative questions with an authoritative tone is my standard style when I comment on others'  work at scientific meetings.  I am often even too lazy to sugar coat what I have to say when I spit out negative critiques.  Part of it is the side effect of my job and my underlying belief is that provocation is the most effective way in getting the message across to a group of staff.  According to my ancestors, "bitter medicine is better cure for illness (苦口良药利于病)"!  No, you have not heard about this wise Chinese Saying before?  Well, now you do!  Indeed, a provocation delivered in a constructive manner engages and inspires meeting participants.  It's an art to be able to bring about a perfect provocation without being taken as an offensive remark and leading to overreactions.  Another part of it is my personality, which I can hardly do much about it.

We, several principal investigators, hold a joint lab meeting regularly every Friday to discuss about our research projects and report our progresses.  At such meetings, 1-2 persons, mostly our students and postdoctoral fellows (the trainees) and sometimes us PIs, give presentations while the rest of the participants challenge the speakers with critical questions.  This type of meetings is very important part of our professional life since they sharpen our presentation skills and equip us with public defense capabilities.  If you are a scientist, you probably are attending such meetings regularly and you understand that in order to take full advantage of these meetings, speakers need to spend good amount of time to prepare slides, organize data, and even practice a few times to make sure they can attract the attendee's attention.  A good reason to invest time on preparation is because a well-prepared presentation invites constructive and critical questions sometimes are worth of millions of dollars whereas a poorly prepared talk usually leads to futile arguments resulting a total waste of time.  In this respect, speakers do have some level of controls over the range of questions they receive.  I personally value people's criticisms and I welcome them with open mind and arms, thus, I have no inhibition to provide mine.  I consider I am providing a service to help others by being one of the tough audience.

My frankness at our weekly meetings had worked well for years and people within the group had been benefitted from it, okay, people have gotten used to it.

But a little more than two years ago, the big boss of the group passed away prematurely, which led to a drastic change in the dynamics of the original group: some of us PIs automatically gained seniority whereas others, particularly the trainees of the big boss, were facing uncertainties of their future, they either needed to claim their independence by quickly acquire research funds to become PIs or to move away to work for other PIs.  Also, the group somehow gets bigger and unfamiliar faces show up each time.  My continuing speaking critically with a bossy tone in this case would have been out of place and time.

Therefore, I had decided to change the style of my public speaking at that time.

You guessed it, that was impossible!  I cannot sugar coat what I have to say.  It conflicts with my personality and is against my teaching philosophy.

An alternative was to keep my mouth shut tightly.  But this is also a dilemma.  After all, it is my job to provide feedback to the speakers, I have to say something!  Plus, keeping my mouth shut kills my brain activity - remembers introverts, we extroverts usually require speaking to stimulate thinking.

What to do?  How to shut up or to speak without sugar-coating things?

After trying my best to keep myself invisible for a while, I'd developed a strategy: I simply just waited for a few seconds to dissipate the urge of my questioning and commenting "critically".  This small amount of waiting time usually allows others who are less critical to ask questions.  By the time I open my mouth, the speakers' have already been primed for tougher questions thus the likelihood of their taking my comments as an offense decreases.  I then could just safely sail with my critical but necessary critiques.

By playing with this wait game, I have gained quite a bit of control.  I've felt easier and easier as time goes.  I have started to enjoy the new me who is sitting quietly at the back row listening others.  Sometimes I even can laugh inside at those who act like the old me speaking authoritatively without inhibition.  Now more than two years have elapsed and I've begun to harvest the fruit of my efforts.  I've noticed that my change counteracts the negative energy around me.  It is worth of mentioning here that my "personality change" has certainly been noticed - people sometimes look for me at meetings and often amused when they find me sitting all the way back in the room.  More importantly, they sometimes even invite me to speak up!

Problems solved, right?

Not so easily, especially not today!  Today, however, I sort of let go of my self-control at our joint lab meeting.  And I am not proud of myself today.  Now I am sitting here wishing that I had not flushed my past few years of efforts down to the toilet!

It's definitely more important to know when to shut up than to know when to speak up.

Don't you agree?

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