One of the things I’m often asked about on my Transform Your Training courses is, ” How do you deal with difficult questions? ”

It’s something which quite new trainers, in particular, seem anxious about. So here are a few practical tips.

First of all, what makes a question a “difficult” one?

There seem to be 3 kinds of questions people are concerned about:

  1. questions you don’t know the answer to
  2. questions which are off the topic
  3. questions which suggest the person hasn’t understood anything you’ve said!

The first issue doesn’t arise as often as some people fear it will. If you’ve prepared your training session, you will be ready for most questions. And you probably underestimate how much more you know about your topic than the people you’re training.

But it can help if you anticipate problems. For example, go through your material and think, “Where could I get caught out?” Or think about the one question you hope no-one will ask you. Then go and research the answer so you’re ready if it does come up.

But what if it does happen – you’re asked a question and you really don’t know the answer?

Well, it depends what sort of question it is.

There are some questions where you know you should know the answer ( and maybe you do ) but you just can’t think of it at the moment. Maybe your mind’s just gone blank for a minute.

Or sometimes it’s a question you really haven’t come across before and you actually don’t know the answer.

In both cases, try opening it up to the group.

“What does everyone else think?”

“Who has come across this before?”

Don’t feel you always have to be the one with the knowledge. Encourage others to contribute. Someone else will probably come up with an answer – or, if not, at least it will buy you time to think of one yourself.

In fact, do this even where you do know the answer to a question, to get people in the habit of sharing their knowledge and not seeing you as the one who has all the answers.

Resist the temptation to say, “I’ll find out and get back to you” unless you know that you can find the answer very quickly.

This might be OK in the situation where the answer has just slipped your mind for the moment but you know where to find it. But offering to find the answer to a question where you have no idea about the answer could commit you to hours of work.

You could always try saying, “That’s a very good question and I haven’t come across it before. If you come up with the answer, I’d be interested to hear it.”

It should go without saying that, if you don’t know the answer to a question, you don’t just make stuff up!

Sometimes you will get a question you can’t answer because it actually falls within the second category – it’s a question which is off the topic so you weren’t expecting it.

One way to head off these questions is to be very clear when you’re setting out the scope of the training at the start so that people know what you’re going to cover and what you’re not going to talk about.

But they may still come up because people have thoughts which suddenly come into their heads and they need to ask something that’s bothering them.

You need to make a decision whether you should really spend time on the question you’ve been asked. Is it a good use of the group’s time to discuss this or is it a distraction?

Don’t feel obliged to spend time discussing it just because one person has asked. You have to balance your desire to help the individual with your responsibility to the group as a whole.

If you think it might be of general interest, and it’s not too much of a sidetrack, you could ask the group whether they want to discuss it for a while.

Otherwise, just say, “That’s an interesting question but it’s really outside the scope of what I wanted to cover right now.”

You could offer to discuss it with the person individually later if you want to. But, again, don’t feel you have to commit yourself to spending time on something which you never said you were going to cover anyway.

The third type of question is where someone asks you about something you’ve already covered and it makes you wonder whether they’ve heard, or understood, anything you’ve said.

It’s the sort of question where you think to yourself, “I can’t believe you’re asking me that.”

Try not to say those words out loud and do your best to keep the look of shock and disbelief off your face.

Also, don’t say, “I think I covered this earlier.” In other words,”Were you not listening?”

Actually, perhaps they weren’t. Perhaps they did just miss something you said or didn’t understand at the time but didn’t want to stop you at that point to ask.

Or maybe they got bored and switched off.

Or maybe your explanation just wasn’t the model of clarity and brilliance you thought it was.

Once again this could be a good time to turn it over to the group. It’s a good opportunity to do a recap with everyone and get them to go over your key points again.

Also, if one person is asking this question, there may be other people who also didn’t follow but didn’t have the courage to say. So having a group discussion will help you to see whether everyone has got the message.

As a general point, one way to cut down the problem of difficult questions is to make your training as interactive as possible and involve your group in the learning as much as you can, so there’s plenty of discussion and activity going on. You’re more likely to get these questions if you’re doing a lot of presenting or lecturing and only allowing questions and contributions towards the end.

I’d love to know what you think, so please leave a comment.

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  • Marie Smith

    Hi Alan
    Another intersting article.
    I just wanted to say that I agree with most of what you’ve said here and particularly want to coment on the 3rd area – someone asks you something that you’ve already covered. For me, if this happens, I feel it’s often because of a failing on part – I’ve not explained it properly, I’ve not checked each person’s understanding or I’ve not recapped sufficiently. This is more likely to happen when I’ve been training the same session for a while – it’s easy to fall into complacency as much as I do try hard with every training session.
    It’s good to know that it happens to other trainers too!
    Kind regards, Marie

    25 October 2011, 09:50 permalink
    • a_matthews

      Thanks for your comment, Marie. Don’t worry – it happens to all of us! As you say, I take it as a clue that I haven’t explained something as clearly as I should have done. And I would rather someone asked me to go over it again than have them walk away thinking, “I’ve no idea what he was talking about.”

      Good luck with all your training!


      25 October 2011, 11:10 permalink