Q: Why Didn’t Anyone Answer My Question?

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A: Rhetorical Questioning Pattern

There you are in front of the class, speaking eloquently and dynamically, keeping them engaged, and you ask a question. Thinking someone would surely respond you look at them with anticipation. A moment passes – you see blinking eyes and you’d swear you hear crickets. What happened?

One of the most common reasons audience members don’t answer a question is that they don’t know they are supposed to answer the question.

How silly is that? If you ask a question, of course you expect an answer, right? You may think that’s so, but that may not be what you’ve established as a norm since you began speaking. You may have created a rhetorical questioning pattern.

Trainers don’t always realize they have created that norm until they hear the crickets, so to speak. Audience members take cues from the trainer to determine their participation expectations. Below are some trainer behaviors that initiate, establish, and reinforce the rhetorical questioning pattern.

The trainer:

  • uses a rhetorical question as a grabber or opener to the session. Using a rhetorical question to open a session is a great technique. It gets the audience members mentally prepared and engaged for the topic at hand. However, you’ve just initiated a possible norm. If your next question is rhetorical, you’ve established the norm.

  • doesn’t prepare the audience for the type of question being asked. If you have established and reinforced the rhetorical questioning pattern, by only asking rhetorical questions thus far, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when you ask a question in the same manner and don’t get a response. The same thing happens when you repeatedly ask questions and take responses. If you then ask a rhetorical question and don’t prepare them, they’ll attempt to answer your question out loud instead of pondering the question internally.

  • doesn’t allow time for the audience to consider the question. Unfortunately, some trainers are uncomfortable with silence and if a response is not immediate, the trainer will continue to talk. It doesn’t matter if the trainer offers clarification, restates the question, or answers the question themselves; it cues the audience to remain quiet. The more times this occurs, the more the trainer reinforces the rhetorical question pattern.

So what’s a trainer to do? The first line of defense is to cue your audience appropriately. Clearly let them know you’ve asked a rhetorical question or one you actually expect an answer. Below are some sample phrases to cue your audience.

Rhetorical cues:

  • Just consider/think/ponder this a moment …

  • I don’t want you to share your answer out loud, just recall a time…

  • In a minute, I’ll ask you to share – for right now, can you think of an example…

Expected answer cues:

  • Someone tell me….

  • Can anyone tell me…?

  • Would some share…?

The second line of defense is situational assessment. For example, you ask a question anticipating an answer, but instead you hear the crickets – now what? Follow the steps below and ask yourself some questions.

  1. Did you give the appropriate cue? If no, then give it. If yes, move on to the next step.

  2. Did you give them an appropriate amount of time to consider and answer? If no, then be quiet and let them consider your question. The more personal, complicated, or risky the question, the more time they’ll need. If yes, move on to the next step.

  3. Did you state the question clearly? If you’re getting blank stares or wrinkled brows, then maybe not. If not, don’t just restate the question, rather reword or give additional context to your question. If they still don’t answer, move to the next step.

  4. Answer the question.

An audience may experience all kinds of fears and anxieties when faced with answering a question from the trainer. Don’t add to it by your ambiguous expectations. Give clear direction and you’ll get your questions answered or pondered as you expected.

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