How do I politely (and possibly repeatedly) say "I don't know"?
May 24, 2008 1:27 PM   Subscribe

I'll soon be training some new employees remotely via shared desktop + speakerphone (possibly + webcam). I/ we have never done this before, so if I'm put on the spot, what are good, different ways to deflect questions that I don't know the answer to whilst keeping my cool and not sounding like I'm clueless?

Related to that - how do I deal with questions that are going to cause me to wander too far from the topic I'm teaching? Sure - I can say "that'll be covered next week", but how do I track these questions so that they don't get lost/ left unanswered? Do I just say "Why don't you shoot me an email about that" every single time?

Finally - what if something goes wrong: I come across an unforseen hurdle that stops my progress and requires a sharp change of tack. How do I graciously get out of that?
posted by forallmankind to Education (8 answers total)
I've always had much more respect for instructors who admit up front when you exceed what they know. (Especially if they say, "I don't know. I think maybe X or Y. I'll figure it out and we'll talk about it next week." and they follow through.)
posted by hattifattener at 1:39 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe introduce the concept of "the list"--a running list of topics to be deferred until next week. Then when something you don't know comes up, you can say "Great question. Let's put it on the list for next week." You could even finesse the fact that you don't know by saying something like "not sure we have time to get into that, and I want to keep us on track, but I'm putting it on the list."
posted by staggernation at 1:42 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with hattifattener, I've always respected (and often used), "I don't know, but I'll find out and let you know."
posted by vers at 1:45 PM on May 24, 2008

As an IT trainer (at least some of the time), I have absolutely no problem saying "I don't know, but I'll find out" -- and I don't believe I've ever had a student who's had a problem with that. At least, not unless they're the sort of person who's going to complain whatever happens. It helps to start the training with "Ask any question you want, as long as you're OK with the answer 'I don't know' -- because nobody knows absolutely everything!"

As per the comments above, though, you do need to actually find out the answer and follow up.

Don't worry about deferring questions until a specific subject comes up later on; the students will remember, even if you don't, and will ask again.

As as for something going wrong: again, just be honest. "You know, I just wandered completely off track for a minute there. Sorry about that; my brain must be taking a while to get in gear this morning. Let's try that again..." You're teaching adults, and adults realize that these things happen. One of my stock lines as I'm starting a course is, "If you don't understand something, yell. You're almost certainly not alone, and it's quite possible that I'm talking complete gibberish. It happens from time to time." It keeps the mood light, and subtly (well, not so subtly) sets their expectations that I'm not superhuman. (Naturally, by the end of the course they realize that I am, in fact, superhuman. But that's not the point...)
posted by littleme at 3:26 PM on May 24, 2008

"That's a good question. I don't have the answer at hand, so let's write it down and I'll research it and email it to you after the session. We're a little short on time so I'd like to keep reviewing the prepared material".

Then make sure you A) answer the question by email later and B) anticipate it in the next class / demo, etc.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:29 PM on May 24, 2008

Cluelessness is most clearly revealed by the presence of bluster, evasion and hokum. If you don't know, say so.

Keep The List in a Google Doc that everybody can edit. Get the person whose question it is to tack it onto the end of the list while you carry on instructing.
posted by flabdablet at 5:38 PM on May 24, 2008

Nthing everybody who said be honest if you don't know. If you promise to get back to something try to make note of that or ensure there is some system to ensure you do though.

If the question is somewhat specialist/off topic and not relevant to the group as a whole just say that and suggest you catch up after the session is over.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:56 AM on May 25, 2008

Nthing the "huh, good question. I'll get back to you next time," method.

Alternatively, if it's the right kind of topic and time-frame, you migh consider "huh, good question. Let's work it out here. What do we know? What's your next step?" and encouraging their active role in figuring it out with you.

how do I track these questions so that they don't get lost/ left unanswered?
You write them down in your planner and keep your act together. Perhaps, also assign the question to someone to do their own problem-solving and come back to compare notes out loud during next week's class.
posted by whatzit at 5:48 AM on May 25, 2008

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