In my salad days, I prided myself on being guileless and open. If you asked me a question, I would unhesitatingly give you as honest and direct an answer as possible. Of course, I assumed everyone else was just as honest and open as I was. This led to some interesting, and occasionally painful, results.

Now that I’ve gotten a little more gray both on my head and in it, I tend to be more guarded in my answers. (I can hear my friends saying, “Coulda fooled us!”) The honesty is still there, but it’s accompanied to some extent by a little bit of “radar.” This is doubly true in classroom situations.

Why you need radar
This may come as a shock to some of you, but not every question is an innocent one. In fact, some questions may actually have political purposes, even though they sound technical. (Whoa, that’s heavy, dude!)

Why is that? Well, remember that “political” comes from the same root as “policy.” When someone starts getting political, they may be trying to affect policy. Take the following question: “Which NOS do you like better, NetWare or NT?” We’ve all heard it—cussed and discussed it—from water cooler to office to lunch table. But now you’re instructing a class on, say, network security, and you’re getting big bucks to do it, which, of course, makes you an expert. You’re in class, and this question pops up from the network administrator of the firm paying you the big bucks.

Is this a political question? Could be. Without some more background information, you may be about to put your foot in it, big time. Why? Because, Expert, that network admin probably isn’t the one authorizing your big bucks–-the CIO across the room is, and he and the network dude are having an all-out war over network operating systems. You are entering No Man’s land between their two trenches, and if you’re not careful, you’ll either get hit by crossfire or do a swan dive on a land mine. And when that CIO puts his finger in your face during the break and swears he’ll never hire you or anyone else from your firm again, you’ll wish you had stepped on that land mine!

Getting the dish turning
Developing classroom radar is not that difficult. You just have to know three things:

1. Know your surroundings
Are you in a public or a private class? If it’s a public class, odds are less that you’ll be stepping on the toes of the person paying you. There is also less chance that someone had an agenda for scheduling the class. I’ve taught any number of private classes where the raison d’être for the class was to convince the general workers in the company that the IT director wasn’t a fool. It pays to always know the agenda of the person writing your check before you begin.

If you are working in an all-Microsoft shop, for example, it’s idiocy to spend a lot of time shooting down Microsoft products. If you’ve been brought in to teach the new ERP system to the secretaries, don’t tell them it’s a horrible piece of junk. If you can’t bring yourself to keep quiet, or at least to be calmly evenhanded, don’t take the class or the job.

2. Know your audience
If you know nothing at all about what these people do, how can you begin to analyze their possible motives? Again, if you know that the guy asking the question is the network admin, your guard should be up the minute he asks the NetWare/NT question.

Here’s another example that is less obvious. You’re teaching an Access class, and right after break someone calls out a question about accounting packages. Innocuous, right? If you’ve got the company CFO in class, like I did, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s not a random question. Fortunately, I remembered the third point, which is…

3. Know how to kill time
It seems so simple, but just taking a moment before answering can often save your hide. Nature abhors a vacuum, and students in class often abhor it even more. If you pause for a second or five, someone may interject a comment that tells you all you need to know. “Gary’s just mad because he likes Peachtree and Bob there, the CFO, just moved us to Great Plains.” Bingo! Now you know how the bread is buttered, and you can plan your answer accordingly.

A simple “Why do you ask?” can do wonders as well. It puts the onus back on the student, gives you time to observe and gauge, and may reveal the politics/policy behind the question. And, it makes you look like the wise teacher, rather than the fool you will become as soon as you answer and alienate half the class. (I hate it when that happens.)

We’ve all been there—a question comes up and a room full of guarded expressions awaits your answer. Start building up your radar installation now, and perhaps you’ll have a little edge when those loaded questions come along.

Bruce Maples is a writer, trainer, and consultant living in Louisville. His latest project is home radar installations for parents of teenagers. Follow this link to write to Bruce .