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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Questions from the Classroom

Facilitators share what training participants really want to know.
Questions from the Classroom
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The difference between a facilitator and a lecturer? Answer: Interaction with the audience, especially questions. Facilitators welcome and encourage learner questions—and the more the merrier. A high level of participant engagement is critical for a successful facilitation.

While some of the most commonly asked questions are client- or course-specific, many are independent of leader level, training content, or geography; these are the “universals.” Sure, some are not worth discussing—What time is lunch? Can I take a conference call later this afternoon? Would it be okay if I continue to check my emails? Others, however, offer insight into what participants care most about, and reveal how skillfully crafted facilitators’ responses must be.

So what are the learning-relevant questions facilitators hear most? And what are the best ways to address them? To get answers, we interviewed expert DDI facilitators from around the world. Here’s what they had to say:

“Will this be worth my time?”

All we interviewed agree that this is THE biggie—the number one question preoccupying the minds of participants. It may remain the unacknowledged elephant in the room, but it crowds the classroom nonetheless.

“I can picture little talk bubbles floating around their heads,” says Diana Powell, senior consultant/learning systems. “They’re thinking, ‘Why am I here? What value does this bring to my job? How is this going to make my life easier?’”

“As facilitators, we understand that they’re staffed lean and busy as heck,” says John Verdone, manager, global facilitation excellence. “We understand that what they’re thinking is ‘I’ve got a million other things to do, so why is this guy stealing my time?’”

More often than not facilitators are greeted by a “captive” audience, but not the hanging-on-every-word kind of crowd. Instead, it’s a somewhat skeptical group that is attending training because it’s mandatory.

Michael Rafferty, general manager, DDI Australia sales, muses that, “Leadership development events are like a trip to the dentist; even if everyone understands the importance, still, no one wants to go. I think early on the questions are not really questions but statements to let the facilitator know who's really in charge."

So how do facilitators captivate their captives and combat their palpable impatience?

"I think it's the way we facilitate that answers the why am I here question,” says Powell. “We take before-class time to make the content specific to their jobs, and we bring industry- and organization-specific examples to share, while also asking them to share what's going on—that's a real icebreaker. Another really good thing is that participants are usually given pre-work for almost all of our courses. This helps them start thinking about how they are going to be able to apply what they'll be learning."

“Is my manager receiving this training?”

“This is a perennial favorite that is inevitably asked early on," says Rafferty. “And, it’s usually raised after one of two ‘aha’ moments,” adds Bill Akins, senior consultant, DDI learning systems. “The first is when they grasp the power of what I'm teaching. They’re thinking ‘Oh, man, this is great!’ They are really excited to share the knowledge with their managers and arm them with the same skills. The second happens when they grasp that the culture they work in really stinks. Once they get a glimpse of what could be, they suddenly realize how far from ideal their leadership really is."

In raising this question, participants are also inquiring—and expressing concern—about support. They want to know if their managers, as well as senior management, will truly get behind their organization’s investment in development. They want reassurance that their newly learned behaviors will be recognized (favorably) when applied, and that they will receive additional, constructive coaching so they can continue to hone their behaviors over time.

This is why DDI facilitators always advocate for participant-manager meetings both before and after training. The initial get-together is a chance for both parties to begin thinking about application opportunities. The follow-up discussion converts the theoretical into the practical. The pair jointly creates a plan for executing the participant’s newly acquired skills.

“Participants routinely ask for suggestions about how to talk to their managers after they have finished a course. When they anticipate being ignored (or worse) for breaking with the status quo, my response is real simple,” says Akins. “You can’t hold people accountable for something they don’t know they’re being held accountable for.  So you’re making an assumption that they’re going to blow you off, even though you can’t know that until you talk to them. I also guide them through sample conversations. I show them how to use a discussion planner to prepare.”

“How can I make a difference?”

This question is closely related to the one above; its subtext is also about learning in isolation, but extends beyond the participant-manager relationship to the corporate culture.

“When I hear ‘My manager doesn't do these things,’" says Meagan Aaron, senior consultant/learning systems, “I talk a lot about becoming agents of change. I say to participants that you can either think about where you have influence or just continue to do things the same way. And, by the way, how's that working for you? I tell them, you're in a leadership position, so lean in and start to make changes. And, when they ask me why their managers never do any of the things I'm teaching them, I will say something like, ‘Maybe that's why you're here. You're the future culture.’"

Many of our facilitators speak of taking a similar tack. They take what participants see as overwhelming—transformational culture change—and break it down into bite-size, individual improvement efforts.

"Quite honestly," says Akins, "if you look at every major organization—civic organizations, churches, manufacturing—where there are more than 30 or 40 employees, you have to ask yourself, ‘How many people are in my direct level of influence?’ And the truth is that that number does not change a lot. Generally it is somewhere between 12 and 20. So I look at these folks and acknowledge that they can't change the entire organization but what they can do is change the culture for their own realm of influence."

“Our participants are so overwhelmed with so many things and they don’t initially understand that the tools and the development provide the way to get what they want accomplished,” says Aaron. “I spend a lot of time knocking down that wall. I think a lot of facilitators realize the key is just to ensure learners continue to think about how they’re getting things done, who they’re getting it done through, and the really important pieces around involvement and accountability.”

“How do I find time to implement what I've learned?”

Time on the back end is also an issue. Facilitators receive a variety of questions related to scheduling concerns: “I'm already working a zillion hours, how can I meet more regularly with my reports?” “How will I have time to plan coaching conversations or apply the Key Principles?

“Most of my clients, regardless of industry--healthcare, financial services, manufacturing, etc.--are incredibly overwhelmed when it comes to managing their time and focusing on multiple priorities,” says Powell. “I can understand how they feel when we bring in a new skill and want to apply it. When you think about it, the real difficulty with coaching is finding the time to do it; likewise, the difficulty with executing strategy is finding the time to sit down and plan. When we fill out a discussion planner in class, it's not only a preparatory step for having a quality conversation, it's also a practice session with the planner that demonstrates how little time it really takes to improve the effectiveness of an important interaction."

Lessons Learned

While they know to expect these questions, expert facilitators never rely on canned answers. Experience, yes, but one-size-fits-all responses? No.

And, when they can’t give a knowledgeable answer, they say so. Bluffing isn’t an option and participants are eager, when prompted, to offer more detail about what and why they’re asking.

What’s more, good facilitators convey the passion they possess for the training. “Probably the most difficult question and the one that gets the facilitator going is ‘Do you really believe all this development makes a difference?’ I want to say, 'Heck yeah!’” says Rafferty. “I tell them there are countless case studies, research reports, and examples of measurable shifts in behavior. The jury is full-in on this one. But, then I say, to put the onus back on them, ‘It only works if you…’”

At the end of the day (or days), all of the facilitators we spoke with agree it’s about impact—facilitating those “aha” moments for participants, generating growth through insight, and building better leaders.

Terri Sota is a contributing writer for GO.


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