What is Stump the Chump

Stump the chump is a term for when one person challenges or questions another person in front of others to make him or her appear foolish. This divisive behavior can occur in a meeting, presentation, conference, or other type of forum. The one who is posing the challenge may be said to be attacking the other, sometimes with hostility, as in heckling. An example of stump-the-chump conduct is asking an expert presenter a question that he will not be able to answer, potentially to undermine his credibility.

Breaking Down Stump the Chump

Stump the chump is a dynamic whereby someone in an audience repeatedly questions the person who is doing the presenting, speaking, or leading at a meeting or other event. The questioning generally carries an aggressive tone, which often is disruptive to all present. Sometimes this behavior is a conscious psychological ploy — as used in the fields of politics, law, human resources, or entertainment; but often, it may come from a subconscious, destructive impulse within the aggressor. 

The phrase “stump the chump” may apply to contexts other than corporate meetings and events, such as

  • Job Interviews — Hiring managers may use this type of questioning to weed out applicants or catch them off guard.
  • Politics — “Can’t Stump the Trump” was a campaign slogan used by supporters of the 2016 Republican presidential primary candidate Donald Trump to indicate that he is incapable of being flustered by challengers or critics.
  • Trivia Games — The host of a television or radio game show may question contestants in this manner in order to trip them up.
  • In the Courtroom — Lawyers often employ this technique when cross examining someone on the stand.

Why Stump the Chump?

In a corporate setting, when someone tries to stump the chump, whether conscious or unconscious, the motives are various. For example, the “stumper” may want to make himself look smart and in control while trying to make the speaker look incompetent. He may be challenging the speaker’s authority by trying to show that he knows better. He may be stealing the spotlight to position himself for a promotion or raise. If the meeting involves higher authorities or important guests, the stumper might be trying to impress them by impairing the speaker, while showing himself in a positive light.

When You are the Chump Faced with a Stumper…

Although it is not pleasant to find yourself on the receiving end of stump-the-chump questions, you are not necessarily powerless in their face. If you find yourself being heckled by someone in this manner, you can try to diffuse the situation by refusing to become hostile (regardless of the questioner's attitude) and by remaining upbeat and unflappable (at least outwardly). 

Below are some concrete tips that can help in this sticky situation:

  • Stay positive and in control. Maintaining a friendly environment will help keep the rest of the audience on your side.
  • Play the role of “helpful facilitator.” Turn the questioning back on the disrupter by asking for clarity about his meaning. Or, offer to move the discussion offline in order to give the questioner your full attention. 
  • Engage the aggressor with humor; have fun with him. Generally, a joke can soften hostility. 
  • Let the challenger be the expert in the discussion; offer praise for his acumen.
  • If you cannot — or choose not to — answer the stumper’s questions, then remove the focus from yourself; invite the audience to answer instead. 
  • Operate from the assumption that there is no conflict. You can choose to ignore your stumper by not engaging with him. Taking the aggressor seriously by responding to him assumes that there is a conflict; this can lead to debate mode and serves only to exacerbate the situation. 
  • Let go of the need to be right, which also avoids conflict. 
  • Seek out areas of agreement; work with the group to outline key ways in which you all agree.