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Don't Panic! What To Do When A Trainee Asks a Question and You Don't Know the Answer

09 Jan 2017 by Gina Gates

I just spent the last few days, weeks, and even months preparing to deliver a new training. I read over all the material until I am confident that I have it down pat. My office walls are plastered with posters listing key points that I need to cover, and all my terminology is written out on note cards (you know the ones - domain, dimension, indicator, and behavioral marker). I’ve run through my PowerPoint presentation countless times and made sure that I was aware of time and pacing. I’ve practiced in front of a mirror, or even some willing family member that has been so kind to listen to my delivery. When I go to bed at night, thoughts of what I will say and how it will go continue to run through my head, long after the time that I should be sleeping. I just know that the time I have spent and the dedication to this work has prepared me to be an effective facilitator.  

I walk into the room the morning of my training, a bit nervous but confident in my ability to share this new knowledge with a group of eager participants. I have dedicated the time needed to adequately prepare for this day. I begin the day by going over the agenda, making introductions, and facilitating a few ice breakers. Okay, I got this. My nerves begin to settle as I ease into this role. Everyone seems to be engaged and eagerly listening to every word I have to say. I think to myself, this is going great. As I move through the morning I am covering all the content that needs to be covered, and even my pacing is pretty good.  

All of a sudden, just as I am moving into a new dimension, a hand goes up. Oh yes, you know that hand, the one that you have dreaded. The one that can stop you dead in your tracks. The one that could surely disrupt the flow of your presentation. The one that, no matter how much you try, you cannot prepare for. I brace myself as I wait for the question to be asked, and then, just as my worst fear is confirmed, the participant asks a question that I don’t know the answer to. But how can this be? I spent so much time preparing. I read all my materials until I knew them like the back of my hand. How could I possibly not know the answer to this question? And now what do I do?

If this has happened to you, I can assure you, you are not alone. I can tell you that, at just about every training I have delivered, I have encountered a question that I did not know the answer to immediately. Even the most seasoned trainers experience this.

Have no fear, here are a few tips and strategies to help you approach this during a training:

  • Be prepared. Not only is it important to be prepared by knowing your material, it is also equally important to prepare yourself for the fact that you may not know the answer to every single question that gets asked, and that is okay. This was difficult for me, coming to the realization that I was not “that trainer” that would know the answer to every single question that would get asked during a training (gasp!).  
  • Plan in advance. Although I cannot anticipate what questions will be asked, I do try to prepare some sample questions that might come up. If something was particularly challenging for me while I was prepping, chances are it will also be challenging for my trainees. Coming up with a list of possible questions has helped me better anticipate what might be asked. Also, if it is a training that I am delivering the first time, I will write down all the questions that came up so that I can be better prepared the next time I deliver the training.  
  • Consult other trainers. If you have a colleague or coworker that has delivered a similar training, ask them for tips. If questions came up during their training, they may be able to share these with you. There is a strong likelihood that similar questions may come up during your training. Facebook groups such as the Affiliate Trainer group and the CLASS Community are great forums to ask these types of questions! (Join the group that aligns to your certification if you haven't already!) 
  • Acknowledge and respond to ALL questions. Every question is equally important to answer, regardless of whether you know the answer or not. I will often say “that’s a great question” or “let’s see if I can help answer that for you.” After I have given an answer I will ask “did that help answer your question?” to be sure that the answer given was sufficient to help the trainee come to an understanding. All well and good when you know the answer, but what if you don’t? Keep reading ...
  • Offer up a “parking lot.” A strategy that I use often in my trainings is to offer up a “parking lot”, or a place to park your questions. I will provide a large piece of chart paper and sticky notes. During the training I encourage my participants to write down questions and park them in the lot. This strategy has two advantages:
    • If time does not allow you to answer the question immediately it validates the participant and lets them know that you are going to come back to it when time allows.
    • It allows me to see the questions in advance, and if it is one that I don’t know the answer to, during a break time or lunch I can quickly research it and get the answer.
  • Ask participants to restate a question. Sometimes the way in which the question is asked throws me off. If I ask the participant to restate the question, this often helps me figure out what they need further clarification on.  
  • Use all resources you have available to you. Think about this, during a training you have a vast amount of materials and resources in front of you: your CLASS Manual (aka The Holy Grail), your Dimensions Guide, access to your online videos and text that goes along with them. Chance are, the answer to the question can be found somewhere in one of those materials. It is perfectly okay to say “I’m not sure about the answer to that question, but let’s look for it together.” You can then proceed to get your participants into their manuals or Dimensions Guides and together you can all look for the answer.  
  • Research the question and provide the answer at a later time. If you have tried all the strategies listed above and you still cannot provide an answer to the question during the training, assure the participant that you will do the research and get back to them at a later time with an answer. It will not benefit anyone in the room if you provide an answer based on a “guess” or an “assumption.” Receiving the correct information, even if I have to wait a day longer, is more important than receiving incorrect information on the spot. This also shows your participant that the question is important enough to invest in some extra time finding the answer for them. You can then follow up with an email to the group, once the training is over, and provide the answer to a question that came up during the training.  

I now go into my trainings with a whole new mindset. I no longer fear that dreaded hand as it goes up, but I welcome it. I know that when a participant asks a question, they are listening and engaged in the training. I know that it is an opportunity to help them better understand the material. And, with much continued practice and intentionality, I have learned not to panic (well, most of the time).

What’s the most challenging question you’ve ever heard from a participant?

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