How do you answer a tough question?

Getting asked a tough question
Getting asked a tough question
Photo Credit: US Department of Education, CC-BY

You’ve done the preparation, you know exactly what you want to say, and then it happens… someone asks you a question and it’s got you stumped. Everyone looks at you waiting for the answer. What do you do?

When I first conducting training (and often anything where people expected me to bring knowledge to the table), it was easy to feel that I had to have all the answers. The fear that we might be embarrassed by a question can easily put us into a defensive, know-it-all mode.

I’m grateful that even before I started conducting training, a good friend introduced me to Keith Johnstone’s book Impro. I re-read it every couple of years.

His philosophy of interactive and nimble teaching and his humility in engaging the class are key influences of how I train, and increasingly how I approach my professional life in general.

So when someone asks you a stumper, how do you find the right answer?

Ask them.

Ask the group to solve it.

It feels like cheating, but it’s not. After all, isn’t one of the best ways that we learn by solving problems? Aren’t we always asking ourselves how to find material that engages the a group? Well, if they’ve asked the question, it probably means they’re interested in the answer, and if the question has you stumped, doesn’t that make it a great problem to sink our teeth into?

Repeatedly I have learned that often the best answer to a tough question is the one the group comes up with. I’ve yet to find a kind of training that this doesn’t work in, and not for lack of trying: I’ve tried it in acting training, corporate training, school workshops and volunteer training.

It works so well that I try to use this even when I think I do have the answer – often the group will have a better one.

Once you start to get the hang of it, challenge yourself to apply it further:

Behavioural or attitude problems? Ask the class how to deal with it.

Complaints about the training (or anything)? Invite them for a discussion about what to change.

A question at a meeting suddenly creates tension? Ask the stakeholders to help solve it.

Of course, there are caveats. If this it’s a very domain specific technical question, maybe the group doesn’t know the answer – but don’t give up straight away, maybe some more specific questions will help them find the answer.

And, probably the scariest caveat: you have to be prepared to accept whatever can of worms the discussion might open up and be ready to engage honestly with it.

The benefits, though, are obvious: greater ownership of the learning, drawing on the wisdom of the group, and you build a respectful relationship with those you’re training.

When were you asked a tough question, and how did you respond?