I recently wrote an article on what to do as a trainer when you don’t know the answer to a question. The response was overwhelming. Last week we shared the best reader comments, and now I want to share my thoughts and responses.

The price of being honest
First of all, I was really gratified to see how many of you placed honesty at the top of your list. It’s great to know that so many of you value being honest. And, from the stand you took, it’s great to know that your company stands behind you. I like being honest, and it is the approach I take when I’m working on my own.

But I can assure you that not every company wants you to say, “I don’t know” when asked a difficult question. Also, some companies, and/or students in a training course, will say, “If you don’t know, why are you here?” Unfortunately, there is a dark side to being honest when you work for people who don’t like the “I don’t know” approach. If you don’t have another job lined up, their disapproval can get downright uncomfortable.

The importance of staying on topic
Second, I was really enthused to see how many of you liked answering questions in class. I had all sorts of suggestions, from moving off-topic questions to the “parking lot” for future reference to using e-mail to taking turns in class with questions. It is very important to answer your class’s questions, because you are, first and foremost, a trainer.

But there are also two sides to this issue. There is a difference between working for a company that has set aside time for training (say, a two- or four-hour class) where everything needs to move along at a set pace to get finished on time, and training where students are paying you $2,000 or more for the privilege of learning.

When you are training on company hours, often there is simply not enough time to get through all the questions, or you can get off track and not cover all the points you needed to make. In that case, do you need to limit the questions asked in class? My opinion is yes; yours may be different.

Both opinions are valid. The conflict between them just means we might teach in different circumstances in totally different teaching environments. When a person is spending loads of money on a certification, that certainly earns her the privilege of asking questions. It doesn’t mean that people who are working for a company under its rules don’t have this same privilege. It just means you are operating under different conditions that are influenced by your company’s policies and rules.

No one rule fits all situations
Third, I think one of the single most important traits for trainers to have is the ability to adapt to the environment while continuing to get across the point they are trying to make. Maintaining a set procedure can inhibit us when we are faced with unexpected or new teaching environments and types of students.

A small sin of omission
Fourth, I don’t believe that saying, “Let’s see what help has to say” instead of admitting you don’t know the answer is dishonest or underhanded. It is a way to answer the question while teaching the student how to find his or her own answers. Yes, we have committed the sin of omission, but I don’t think anyone is being egotistical when not admitting that he or she doesn’t know.

I think a greater sin is to be a trainer who is boring, sounds like a tape recorder, acts like a know-it-all, or follows other poor training methods. There are trainers who scare their students so much with their lectures and warnings that the students won’t ask anything at all.

The bottom line
It is refreshing to know from the number of comments and replies sent that most IT students are in good, honest hands. But remember, your training is also shaped by company policies and procedures. Keep being honest, train well, and leave a good, lasting impression on your students, and they will honestly remember you and what you taught.
Are you allowed to say, “I don’t know”? Have you ever regretted saying it? Send us your stories.

Marsha Glick has a variety of training experience. Currently, she works in the private sector with small businesses and with individuals. She has taught in special needs labs with special equipment for students who are blind, deaf, and physically challenged. She also was a trainer at a public library with 200 employees.