Docent Educator Logo

When Visitors Get It Wrong

It can be tough and tricky. You’ve ask visitors a question in order to get them involved and thinking, and then, one of them responds with an answer so “incongruous” that it nearly steals your breath away. What could that person be thinking of?

Or, perhaps someone responds to your question using terminology incorrectly. You know that you have to do or say something to set the record straight and get things back on track. But, what should you do?

Docents and staff educators need practical strategies for responding to visitors whose statements are obtuse, illogical, or wrong, because being “open and accommodating” doesn’t always cut it. They need to know how to manage such situations without challenging, frustrating, or demeaning visitors, and without further complicating the topic under discussion.

Checking for Intended Meaning

Responding to “wrong” statements from visitors begins by fully comprehending this truism . . . words derive their meaning from the person using them. Therefore, to focus on what words mean, rather than what people mean, obscures rather than clarifies understanding.

Thus, the first technique a docent should master is how to check for a person’s intended meaning. A docent must consciously learn not to focus on the words that a person uses, but to assist that person in his attempt to express himself.

For instance, if someone looks at a J.M.W. Turner painting and incorrectly attaches the term “abstract” to it, do not thwart the viewer by interjecting the “correct” definition of that term. Instead, help that person express what he is trying to say. Rather than test him by asking, “Do you know the meaning of the term ‘abstract’?,” ask, “What do you mean by the term ‘abstract’?” Should he answer, for instance, “I mean the way the painting seems out of focus, blurry, and soft,” you can respond to his correct observation rather than to his incorrect use of an art historical “label.”

Sometimes, however, a person will respond to a request for intended meaning by misusing the word again. For instance, if that same visitor defines the word ‘abstract’ by saying, “I mean that the work is painted in an abstract style,” you must be prepared to paraphrase or ask for an example.


The first technique for helping people clarify their remarks is to seek their intended meaning by asking “What do you mean?” A second way, which may be even more effective, is by paraphrasing.

Paraphrasing is the technique of telling a person what his statement means to you. Paraphrasing is not simply repeating the other person’s statement in different terms. For instance, one would not reply to the statement, “This was a bad period in history,” by saying, “By bad, do you mean unhappy?”

A paraphrase should, whenever possible, present two or more specific illustrations. Providing concrete illustrations forces the visitor to make a choice between alternatives and to narrow his definition.

So, the person who misused the term ‘abstract’ might be asked, “By ‘abstract,’ do you mean that the artist shows us his brush strokes, or, do you mean that he leaves large areas of the scene undefined?” Then, the visitor can choose one of these alternatives, or respond with his own clarification, such as, “No, I mean that the painting appears to be out of focus, blurry, and soft.”

An added benefit of paraphrasing is that it lets visitors know you are interested. It is evidence that you want to understand what is said. The skill of paraphrasing requires that a docent give two or more specific illustrations using words with’ commonly agreed upon definitions, and that the docent ask if the alternatives offered correlate to the meaning that was intended.

Therefore, if a visitor says, “This was a bad period in history,” you might respond by saying, “By bad, do you mean that it was a time when many people worked as servants, or that it was a time when people had too many formal rules of behavior to follow?”

Asking for Examples

There are times when it is best to have a visitor clarify meaning by offering his own examples. Asking a visitor to give examples lets him know that you think clarification would be helpful, perhaps because you are not sure you understand what was meant, or because you believe thinking about possible examples will help everyone.

So, if someone touring your historic home says, “This was a bad period in history,” you can follow-up by asking, “In what ways was it bad?” or “What factors make it seem bad to you?”

Asking for examples can be tricky, however. You wouldn’t want to challenge the visitor or place that person on the defensive. Asking a visitor, “Why did you say that?” or “What leads you to make that statement?,” can make a visitor feel “under attack” for offering his thoughts or ideas, and does not lead toward clarification of the communication.

If a visitor on your tour says, “It was more fun to be an explorer in the old days,” a proper request for examples might be, “Tell me some things explorers did in the old days that made it more fun.” Then, that visitor could answer by saying, “Well, when Columbus landed in the Americas, he didn’t know what he would find. But when the astronauts landed on the moon, they already knew a lot about it.” If, on the other hand, you asked that visitor, “What do you mean by that?,” the visitor could merely respond by saying that “In the old days, exploring was more exciting.” This statement does not lead to a greater understanding (you still haven’t learned why or how it was more fun to be an explorer in the old days), and therefore, does nothing to clarify his communication.

Re-Evaluating Your Questions

Docents and other educators who need to say “no” often, who must correct visitors frequently, or who find that their visitors do not seem to know answers, should re-evaluate their questions. Are the questions asked truly “open-ended,” or do they simply sound open-ended? Open-ended questions do not have presupposed responses. They can and will be answered in many different ways, and should reflect differences in individual experiences, backgrounds, and points-of-view. If you are a docent who frequently corrects visitors, or tells them “no,” you are probably asking questions that test for information or recall. These are “closed-ended” questions,which are useful in traditional classroom teaching, but are not appropriate for settings of informal learning, such as museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens.

When information ought to be transferred to visitors, it should not be accomplished by questioning. It should be told to them in declarative statements. In other words, provide people with information; don’t ask them for it. You are the expert; they are not. The reason visitors are asked questions is to engage, excite, and involve them, not to test them.

If your questions are open-ended and you still find yourself stunned by visitors’ answers, perhaps your questions are open-ended but your expectations for answers are not. Answers that throw us for a loop are often ones that are unexpected or that do not conform to our own ideas and experiences.

Remember and Consider

The purpose of asking questions when touring visitors is to get them involved, actively thinking, and formulating their own ideas and insights. Being “open and accommodating” are important attitudes for docents to display, but knowing how to assist visitors when they attempt to express their ideas and insights takes more than having the right attitude. It even takes more than having an in-depth knowledge of subject matter. It takes knowing how to teach.

While there are those who assume that there is little more to teaching than having a firm grasp of subject matter, they are mistaken. Teaching is a skill of communication. In addition to understanding subject matter and the content of a collection, an effective museum educator (staff or volunteer) must know how to engage and encourage minds, while facilitating self-expression and learning. A

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “When Visitors Get It Wrong,” The Docent Educator 6.3 (Spring 1997): 2-3.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *