The Politician's Answer

March 30, 2020   Martin Jones
Don't avoid a question by answering a different question.

Have you ever been in a training session and asked a question, or seen a question asked, only to have the instructor answer a different question?

Maybe it was an accident, but there is a chance that it was deliberate. The trainer gave a politician’s answer.

Politicians do it because they want to steer to a message they want to give. Some are more subtle about it than others, but it’s part of the game of politics. It should not be part of a trainer’s arsenal.

There are two reasons for deliberately doing this, one of which is okay if it is acknowledged.

Let’s look at the acceptable reason first: the instructor is answering the question that an attendee should have asked. Of course that’s presumptuous, but the trainer knows where the narrative is leading, and which topics need to be taught. If a question is close, or related, and we can bend it to a more useful question, we should answer the more useful question. The original question should still be acknowledged and answered — something along the lines of “I know that wasn’t the question you asked … now here’s the actual answer to your question …”. An open acknowledgement of the politician’s answer is important to maintain trust.

The unacceptable reason for a politician’s answer? The instructor doesn’t know the answer — they might decide instead to answer an easier question, or a similar question. I admit that I have done this myself. When I first started training, and there were a hundred things to remember while standing up in front of people, I would sometimes deliver a politician’s answer. It never felt right, though, so early in my training career I added the following to my introduction: “If I ever answer a different question to the one you asked, it was a mistake, please ask again and hold me to a straight answer”.

What happens if you’re asked a question that you can’t answer. First of and foremost: tell your attendees that you don’t know the answer. Unless you’re lacking a lot of knowledge, it’s okay not to know everything. Follow up with:

If the question is worth answering, it should be answered.

As an instructor, what happens if I accidentally answered the wrong question? Well, it can happen, but this is where listening skills are important. Listening, in this case, includes body language and non-verbal communication. You must watch the question asker’s response to the answer. If the body language says that you haven’t hit the mark, you can follow up with, “but, that doesn’t look like I understood the question”, or if you’re uncertain, something along the lines of “did that answer your question?”. Of course, if everyone is relaxed, they will hopefully just say, “no, that wasn’t what I asked!”

If you’ve accidentally given a politician’s answer and the asker is too polite to point it out, and you weren’t able to read their response, you may still have a suspicion that you gave a politician’s answer. Follow up with a question to test the attendees’ understanding. Nine times out of ten, they will respond with, “actually, what I meant was…”, or they will find some other way to indicate that you made an error without explicitly calling you on it.

If you’re an attendee and an instructor doesn’t answer the question you asked, feel free to ask again. There is no need for politician’s answers.

Politician’s answers can erode trust, and we need trust to teach effectively.