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From the Road

From the Road: Wrong is Wrong

Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.

From the Road

I recently observed a new facilitator ask the group to summarize their understanding of a particular concept she had just taught. She got several responses, the last of which was inaccurate—not mostly accurate with a shade of inaccuracy, we’re talking the “I’ll take wrong answers for a thousand,” the old, “surely you must be joking Mr. Answer-pants,” the . . . well you get the picture. So what do you do when a participant gives an answer that is clearly wrong?

Well, the new facilitator did what most facilitators might do. She took a deep breath and said, “Yes.” And then proceeded to give the correct answer. This tactic is known as the build approach and is a way to build on what the participant said. Sounds like a good solution, right? You don’t make the participant feel bad and you still get the correct answer out there—it’s a popular tactic many facilitators use for those very reasons. And yet, in this case it was less than effective . . . and dare I say, wrong?

By answering “yes” the facilitator sent the message to the individual and the class that, “you’ve just given a mostly correct answer” when in fact the person had given an entirely wrong answer. Bottom line is a facilitator should use the build approach only when a participant offers an incomplete answer, not an inaccurate answer.

When a participant gives the wrong answer, it’s much more effective to say something like, “Actually, it’s different from what you’ve described. A more accurate description would be . . .” Or, “concept X is more closely aligned with Y. Who can tell me why that is?” This way, you can affirm your respect for the individual, and ensure all the participants (especially the ones who give inaccurate responses) learn the ideas, concepts, and skills correctly.

Next time you find yourself in this situation, do your participants a huge favor. Don’t accept the completely wrong, or even the mostly wrong answers. Instead, help them see how their response was inaccurate—in a respectful manner.


Steve Willis

As one of the original trainers at VitalSmarts, Steve has been on the forefront of developing award-winning training programs, perfecting quality training platforms, and delivering training content that has influenced more than 500,000 people to date. In addition, Steve has trained and certified thousands of employees, managers, and trainers from Fortune 500 companies across the nation. read more

7 thoughts on “From the Road: Wrong is Wrong”

  1. Or you could have a mini Crucial Conversation with the person who gave the “wrong” answer. For example:

    “Okay, the question I asked was x. You answered y. From my perspective, the correct answer is z. Can you help me understand how you came to answer z?”

    That makes it a teachable moment, to practice Crucial Conversations skills in everyday life.

  2. Thank you for addressing how important it is to check for understanding, and to redirect instruction when concepts are misinterpreted.
    I feel it is vital for a leader to treat people with dignity and respect. Providing affirmation for an incorrect answer is both disrespectful and belittling. As a facilitator, your role is to guide your client towards the correct understanding without injecting terms, phrases, and physical actions that could belittle or embarrass.
    To affirm an incorrect answer in front of a group may confuse others and cause them to second guess if their answers were wrongly confirmed.
    Clients may walk away thinking either “you don’t really care what their answer is”, or “you feel little to no responsibility for what the group will take away from your program”.
    When an audience leaves your program they should feel their time and talents were respected, and feel confident knowing what they have learned is accurate.

  3. Oops — for my second to last sentence, I meant to say, “Can you help me understand how you came to answer y?”

  4. Wow, Great answer and one that I will cut/paste for future reference. I am in a company that raves about how they work toward agreement and I have often heard this type of follow up given. Later the person who gave the wrong answer and was not told it was wrong, still did not understand that their view was way off base and not even in the same ball park.

    I will try this approach.

  5. I don’t feel that it is disrespectful at all to tell someone they are not correct, as long as it is done politely. I usually say “No, not really…” and give the correct answer, or ask something that leads to the answer. If a person is so sensitive that they can not be told they are wrong, then they have an issue. When I am the one who is wrong, I readily admit it and move on.

  6. My comment is to also remember the other participants. I have been in trainings where someone clearly gives an incorrect answer yet the facilitator agrees or does not correct him/her. That message is confusing for the rest of us in the room who thought we understood, but now another version is apparently being accepted by the facilitator. As important as it is to respect the person who provided the incorrect answer, and to gently and respectfully re-explain something; it is likewise important to respect the other participants who do understand the concept correctly and to not confuse them. The good of the majority requires this action. I squirm with frustration when I hear a wrong answer and think to myself, ‘that’s not right’ only to have the facilitator accept it.

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