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4 Ways to Answer Tough Questions

Posted by Melissa Grey Satterfield on 9/14/15 4:00 AM
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Honesty is the only policy when responding to questions in an instructional setting. However, blatantly admitting, “I don’t know,” in response to a direct question from a learner can be disastrous. The solution is to be honest and maintain credibility at the same time. No one can know the answer to every question. It is how the situation is handled that separates the great trainers from the amateurs. Take a look at the following four strategies and keep them in your back pocket to help you field even the toughest questions with confidence.

  1. The question is about information within the scope of the course but you don’t know the answer – Take a deep breath, repeat the question, then toss it back to your audience, “Does anyone here have any experience with that?” When you allow the audience to help you, they’ll “save” you without ever realizing it. In fact, the audience will revere you because adults love to be involved and share their knowledge. After you have fielded all of the contributions, be sure to summarize and add your own ideas if any have been sparked by the interaction. Summarizing at the end helps you to maintain control and authority. Always repeat questions before answering for the same reasons.

  1. The question is too narrow or too general to answer – Reserve the right, as the expert, to open a question up or close it down by asking a question in response. Once upon a time I was a trainer for a beauty company. One day a woman asked me a very specific question, “What does that ingredient do?” I had no idea, but I didn’t confess that I didn’t know. Instead, I asked her a question, “What is your skin care goal for that ingredient?” She elaborated for me and explained what she wanted to accomplish. I knew a way to help her and it didn’t involve explaining that ingredient. She was happy. I was honest, credible, helpful, and very happy!

  1. The question has no exact information available – Simply inform your learners that facts are not known, and then offer what you do know to demonstrate some credibility. Say, “I’m writing this question down and I’ll research it at the break and get back to you.” Refrain from droning on and on about your parallel knowledge. The question might make for a good group discussion. Brevity is the key to this technique.

  1. The question is unrelated to the course content – You can avoid these types of questions by setting ground rules for questions at the beginning of the course. Whenever you train, you’re the leader. You are accountable for everything, so lead. My experience is that if you set rules and follow them, the audience respects you. If you make rules up as you go along, you lose credibility.

The number of rules you set will vary depending on the topic. When I teach a workshop, during the initial housekeeping introduction, I’ll say, “I welcome general questions at any time about anything on the agenda. If you have a specific question outside of the agenda, please post it on the Parking Lot or see me at a break for a private consultation. Because we have limited time together, I reserve the right to postpone taking questions and comments. This is not personal. It is to make certain we cover every agenda topic.”

You can’t know the answer to every question. It’s how you handle yourself that counts. If dealing with questions is something you’d like to know more about, attend our Instructional Techniques for New Instructors workshop, or consult our self-study resource, The New Trainer’s Survival Kit. So, speaking of questions…what do you think about these four techniques?


Dealing with Difficult Participants



Melissa has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. She graduated from the University of Nevada where she studied broadcast communications. During her college years, Melissa worked as an on-air personality for several radio and TV stations in Las Vegas. She’s always been a bit of a performer, which is probably why training is such a good fit for her. Before coming to Langevin, she was a senior training specialist and course developer for an organization based in L.A. Melissa knows the challenges trainers face, as well as the rewards that come with improving job performance. Her training mantra is summed up best by something she learned during her very first Langevin workshop, “Never do for the learners what the learners can do for themselves.” When not in the classroom, Melissa loves travelling, relaxing at the beach, cooking, and hosting dinner parties.

Topics: instructional techniques

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