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Ask a Trainer: My Participants Are Asking Off-Topic Questions

Tuesday, October 22, 2019
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Dear Tim,
I am a facilitator teaching courses within a limited timeframe. I rarely have the time to explore content outside the prescribed curriculum. However, I’m often challenged with participants who ask a lot of off-topic questions.

While this seems simple, I’m curious if you can share your best advice on how to handle this situation.



Ah, yes! Overly zealous participants asking a boatload of questions. I’ve been there myself many, many times.

The truth is, it can be a bit of a balancing act to stick to your content (and time) while entertaining the questions your participants ask. I say this because I think it’s important that we encourage our learners (whether they be children or adults) to ask questions during any training experience.

As I think about the best way to manage these types of situations, a couple of important considerations come to mind. It’s important that you, as the facilitator, understand why your learners are asking so many off-topic questions in the first place.

First, are they asking off-topic questions because they’re easily distracted?

If this is the case, it’s an easy problem to solve. Let your learners know they are asking great questions, but that you don’t have time to tackle them. Instead, start a parking lot and be willing to answer the questions at the end of the workshop or during a break. When they start going off-topic, simply state “Let’s put that in the parking lot.” Done!

Second, are they asking off-topic questions because they think they’re relevant?

If this is the case, it’s important that you understand why, especially if you have more than one learner asking questions you perceive as off-topic. Take a moment to ask some clarifying questions to understand the source of their inquiries. You may discover that you said something earlier in the workshop that confused everyone in the room.

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Third, are they asking off-topic questions because they actually are relevant . . . at least to them?

Without knowing the nature of your work and what you’re facilitating, it’s possible to know if you’ve misunderstood something that’s causing you to believe these are off-topic questions. For example, if you’re an outside facilitator, perhaps there’s some variable about the specific organization or team that makes these questions relevant to their situation that you failed to consider.

I hope these tips help! The next time you’re faced with off-topic questions, take a moment to examine their root cause. It’ll guide you to the appropriate method for handling it.

Best of luck!

Tim


Do you have a learning question you’d like me to tackle? You can email them to askatrainer@td.org! Also, visit the Ask a Trainer Hub to check out your questions and my answers!


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Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Tim Slade is a speaker, author, award-winning
e-learning designer, and author of The eLearning
Designer’s Handbook.

6 Comments
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Great answer Tim. Appreciate them. Extreme guys are those who try to prove a point and test the trainer.
Yes! Sometimes, you have to give those learners the room to make their point or ask their questions. Thanks for reading!
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Good question and great responses! The other scenario that came to mind for me is that participants can ask off-topic questions because... they can. This happens more in mandated training in my experience. Seems people are trying to disrupt, or a participant is simply over-focused on a pet concern. I first ask questions to understand, try to connect it to what IS relevant if possible, refer back to our objectives/agenda if necessary, or as you suggested, Tim, use a parking lot.
That's a great point, Mary! We should be making room for participants to ask questions, regardless of our perceived relevance to the topic!
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It seems to me that another reason learners may be asking off-topic questions is because, somewhere along the line, there may have been a lack of clarity on what was going to be covered in the session in the first place. Are the course objectives vague? Does the course have one of those "catchy" titles that doesn't match the content? Perhaps they signed up for something that the course itself doesn't deliver. Clarifying the objectives upfront and what will/will not be covered may help.
Great point, James! I totally agree. It's all too easy to discount why folks are asking so many questions. Sometimes, it's worth stopping to dig a little deeper. Thanks for the comment!
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