Tip #166: Responding to Participant Questions

Given the choice between participants who never ask any questions and participants who ask a lot of questions, I prefer the latter. The fact that they have questions indicates that they are highly interested in the topic- and that’s a good thing!

  1. First of all, make sure everyone has heard the question before you answer it. Either repeat the question yourself, if other participants may not have heard it, or request that the individuals project more, so that others can hear what they are saying.
  2. To reinforce the questioner’s need to project, walk to the opposite side of the room from the participant who is speaking. Although this may seem counter intuitive (typically, we move closer to people we can’t hear, rather than farther away from them!), the person will always direct his or her comments toward the instructor.
  3. When participants ask a question, defer it to the rest of the group. If someone in the group can answer the question, that provides validation for that person. If no one has an answer, this still gives you some time to think about the question so that you can give your best answer.
  4. Remember to summarize and/or validate the correct answer after receiving the answer from another participant. If you don’t provide a summary or validation, it may give the appearance that you are deferring the question because you don’t know the answer- rather than because it is an excellent training technique.
  5. There may be times when you have a sense that the questioner already has an answer for his or her own question. In that case, ask what the questioner thinks. This can provide good validation for the participant.
  6. Do not feel that you must answer a question to the complete satisfaction of the questioner. Some questioners may never be satisfied- in fact, they may intend to distract or argue with you, which can unnecessarily tie up a lot of precious class time. Rather than asking, “Have I answered your question?” or “Has your question been answered to your satisfaction?” say instead: “Was that responsive?” What can they say, as long as you have provided some type of response? This is particularly important if you have a rather difficult participant who is trying to bait you or monopolize the session. However, regardless of the nature of the question or the questioner, I often ask “Was that responsive?”as a courtesy to provide some closure to the dialogue.
  7. Some questions may be of interest only to the questioner. In this case, they need to be deferred to another time (a break, lunch, after the workshop). It is perfectly fine to tell a participant that the question is a good one but may not be relevant to the other participants, so it would be best answered “off line.”Just make sure to follow up and have the conversation when you say you will.
  8. Some questions may anticipate content that will be covered later in the session. You may not want to confuse the larger group by answering the question at that moment. Simply congratulate the questioners for their advanced awareness and ask them to wait until the topic and answer come up in the curriculum.
  9. Often, participants are anxious to ask their questions immediately because they are afraid they will forget them. One way to minimize participant impatience is to provide post it notes so they can jot down their questions as they arise. You may also want to have a “Parking Lot”flip chart where they can place their post it notes. Just make sure to check the “Parking Lot”at breaks so that you can plan when to answer the questions.
  10. If, despite all of these deferring techniques, a participant keeps asking the same question, it is best to provide a brief answer and move on. Some folks just need immediate gratification and others may really need to have the answer so they can focus on the content at hand.Some questions may have more than one appropriate answer, depending upon the fact situation. If the fact situation appears relevant and the questioner can explain it in a concise fashion, feel free to answer it. However, often you need more time to delve into the situation before you can give a useful response. In that case, simply explain that to the questioner and plan a time to discuss it “off line.”
  11. It is also perfectly acceptable to tell participants if you do not know the answer. Just make sure to note the question down and promise to provide an answer once you have had an opportunity to research the issue.

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