As a trainer, when a particularly defiant student decides to go head-to-head with something I've presented from the front of the room, I sometimes flash back to memories of my early teen babysitting days. I remember babysitting my two younger siblings and being left "in charge," much to the dismay of the other two kids. Once our folks left the house, my dear sweet siblings morphed into twin terrors that took great delight in defying anything I said, usually leading with the question, "Who do you think you are, anyway?"
It’s pretty clear that who I thought I was didn't matter a lick to them. They had a more personal agenda in mind. Their aim was to challenge my authority.
What are challenge questions?
As I've talked with colleagues in the field, I've grown to realize that the challenge question is not uncommon. It's a method participants use to indicate their displeasure. In order to handle challenge questions effectively, we first have to know more about them. Challenge questions are the second type of question you're likely to hear in a training session. While challenge questions may be dressed up as information-seeking questions, they are not designed to elicit information as their primary purpose. They are designed to promote a private agenda on the part of the questioner. Challenge questions have several potential origins. The person asking may be:
- Unhappy to be there
- Unsure of your credentials or experience
- Unsure of information you just presented
- Making a point to another participant or someone back at the office
How do I handle this one?
No matter what the originating reason is, challenge questions are volatile. They will induce tension in the best case and blow up in your face in the worst. As the trainer, you're ultimately responsible for what happens in the training room, so your most effective strategy is to spot challenge questions for what they are as soon as you can. The question is how. Sometimes the giveaway is the questioner's tone of voice, and sometimes it's the wording. And sometimes we're on our own to find out. At times, it's necessary to slip momentarily out of the role of trainer and into the role of counselor, and apply the principle that psychologists call "listening with the third ear." This, simply put, is listening to find out what the questioner really means, over and above the words used. It's the auditory equivalent of reading between the lines. If you think you're being challenged, remember and follow the advice your parents gave you about learning to cross the street: stop, look, and listen.
- Stop what you're doing and pay attention to the question at hand, as well as its source. This will allow you to take the time to consider your answer carefully and avoid answering off the top of your head. At the same time, maintain your polished professional demeanor. And smile. It's easier to come across positively to your audience when you do.
- Look at your participants. Watch the body language and facial expression of the person making the challenge and the other students. Gauge the other students' reactions to the question. This will tell you which ones are with you, and which aren't.
- Listen for something in the tone or wording of the question that may tip you off to the not-so-hidden agenda. Some classic red-flag phrases are: "Don't you think that…," "Isn't it true that…," "I was talking with…," and others of a similar nature. Also, listen for direct confrontation. You may be asked for documentation or backup, where you got your information, or how many times you've actually experienced whatever it is you're talking about.
When confronted in this manner, take a mental step backward and quickly review in your mind the events immediately preceding the question. It's entirely possible that you were unclear about something. Be careful about jumping to conclusions too quickly about the student's motive here—consider all the available evidence before deciding that you've got a challenge on your hands.
Avoid turning up the heat with loaded questions
In a similar manner, always think carefully about how you respond to a potentially loaded question. One of the most difficult aspects of handling the challenge question is finding an answer that benefits the entire class. It's very easy to see a challenge to your expertise or your authority as a gauntlet that's been thrown down, to which you must respond in a heroic fashion. That's not the case in training. Your students have invested themselves to be in your training session, and whether they've invested time, money, time and money, or something else altogether, is immaterial. All your students deserve your best all the time. Here are four things that you can do to maintain control of your class, and yourself, when participants decide to turn up the heat.
- Prepare beforehand. If you’re an in-house trainer working exclusively within your organization, be aware of local office politics. Think about how they may show up in the course of your training session. If you’re doing contract work for a number of different companies, ask your contacts about any issues that might surface during your time there. Don't be shy about this; forewarned is forearmed.
- Use a counselor's tools. Since you may have to step into a counseling role while listening with your third ear, it will help you to learn to respond to challenges the same way that counselors do. Two particularly valuable tools are voice control and active listening. With voice control, you, the trainer, adopt a tone of voice opposite to that of the challenger. If he or she begins to get belligerent, you become calmer. If he or she raises his or her voice, soften yours. If he or she attacks, accept the attack and respond calmly and assertively. As a former therapist, I can tell you that adopting an opposite tone facilitates communication far better than response in kind. Not "fighting back" validates their right to express themselves, which in turn makes it easier for them to listen to you.
With active listening, you take what you've gleaned from your auditory reading between the lines and feed it back to the participant to show them that you've been listening to them. For example, consider a class in the fundamental principles of computer networking. One participant, a network administrator with five years of experience, begins sniping at you, specifically about your background and qualifications. One possible active listening response on your part would be, "It sounds as if you're concerned about how much you'll be able to get from this class, given your degree of experience." Once the administrator sees that you understand her or his position, it becomes easier for that person to listen to your answer.
One of Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People reads: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." I think the emphasis belongs on the word "then." In conflict, demonstrate your concern for all participants by seeking first to understand them. Then, and only then, are they free to return to listening to and understanding you.
- Diffuse hidden agendas by exposing them. A simple precursor to your answer can often take the teeth out of a classroom barracuda looking to take a bite out of you. For example, consider a phrase we looked at earlier: "Isn't it true that…" If a student asks, "Isn't it true that Novell NetWare is a better network operating system than Windows NT?" it seems pretty clear that she or he is asking you to validate her or his position. What you don't know is why. By prefacing your answer with, "That's a very general question, and I want to answer it in a way that's meaningful for you. Why do you ask?" you bring any hidden agendas to light, but in a participant-centered way. You agree to address the issue, but you make sure that the context is clear to everyone.
- Answer carefully. Remember, the primary goal of a challenge question is not to elicit information; it's to further an agenda. In this case, a qualified, general answer is better than a more definitive, stick-your-neck-out response. In our example about NetWare versus Windows, it would be prudent to list a few positives and negatives about each operating system, without wholeheartedly endorsing either one.
It all boils down to this
Questions can help us become better trainers. They can tell us what we're not explaining well, and they can show us what our students want to learn. They provide an opportunity to refine our presentations, and they tell us where to study for our next session on that topic. Handling questions effectively will enrich the training experience for all your students and can, in some cases, even help you turn those classroom adversaries into allies.
What issues have you faced in the classroom? Do you have any stories you’d like to share about how to handle or not handle challenging questions from students? We’d like to hear from you, so post your comments below. If you’d like to make a suggestion for future articles, please send us a note .
Bob Potemski, MS, CTT, is a writer and trainer transplanted from New York. He and his five dogs now make their home in the Midwest. Bob has a bachelor’s of science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a master's degree in counseling from Long Island University. He has spent the last 10 years working in human development.