Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 2;   January 14, 2009: Asking Clarifying Questions

Asking Clarifying Questions

by

Last updated: November 21, 2018

In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
Bill Moyers speaking at an event in Phoenix, Arizona

speaking at an event in Phoenix, Arizona. Once press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, at this writing he was host of the weekly PBS program Bill Moyers Journal. No doubt he owes many of his accomplishments in government, management and journalism to his ability to ask clarifying questions and then listen to the answers. For examples of his skill in action, and examples of asking open questions, read transcripts of his interviews of authors, officials and experts at the program archive. Here's a link to his interview of Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America's Dream Palace. Photo (cc) Gage Skidmore.

A clarifying question helps to remove ambiguity, elicits additional detail, guides you as you answer a question that had been put to you, or just satisfies your curiosity. Clarification is a useful tool in job interviews, consulting, sales, investigation, and interrogation, but it must be used with delicacy and sensitivity.

In job interviews, as the candidate, if you're unsure how to respond to a question, you might want to ask a clarifying question. Unfortunately this can make you seem like you have something to hide. Better: answer in a minimally helpful way, and then ask the clarifier. Even a limited answer positions you as genuinely trying to reply, and earns the credit you need to ask the clarifier.

Keep two things in mind. First, interviewers sometimes intend to make you unsure how to respond. Maybe it's a test — will you take the initiative and ask a clarifier? Second, interviewers, recruiters, consultants, therapists, salespeople, investigators, and interrogators like to ask open questions, which sometimes feel vague. And people who ask open questions are not always skilled in doing so, which can add to their vagueness.

In conflict, when you sense tension, a gentle clarifying question — and careful listening to the response — can prevent misinterpretation from turning things toxic. And asking a question can tell your partner that communication generally isn't working right.

Here are some tips for clarifying questions.

Don't ask too many
Asking too many clarifiers looks evasive. The person you ask defines too many. Be sensitive to their responses.
Clarifiers don't have to be questions
"Say more," or "Tell me more about that" often suffice. And they don't always count as questions — your partner might even be flattered by your interest.
Ask open questions
Open questions tend to produce more information. Closed questions tend to produce short, limited responses. For instance, "Tell me how this all began," will produce more information than "How long has this been going on?"
Asking too many clarifiers
looks evasive. The person you
ask defines too many.
Avoid "or"
"Or" restricts the reply to one of the possibilities you mention. If you catch yourself in "mid-or", adding "…or something else" at the end repairs some of the damage.
Ask one question at a time
You never know where the answer to the first question will lead. Wait to find out before asking another.
Don't ask clarifiers in email
The round trip time can be long, which creates frustration for all. If you need clarification, try telephone or face-to-face, instead of email.
Go easy on presenters
In presentations, it's disruptive to ask clarifiers more often than, say, every 15 minutes. If the presentation really needs that much clarification, questions won't help.

Even when you ask a clarifier, your partner might not want to help. If that happened to you, what would you make of it? What would you do? Go to top Top  Next issue: Creating Trust  Next Issue

101 Tips for Communication in EmergenciesIn a single day, you can witness the final hours of a brand that took ten years to build. Or you can see it re-emerge stronger than ever. From Tylenol to JetBlue — no brand is exempt. And the outcome depends not only on what you say to the public, but on how well you communicate internally — to each other. 101 Tips for Communication in Emergencies is filled with tips for sponsors of, leaders of, and participants in emergency management teams. It helps readers create an environment in which teams can work together, under pressure from outside stakeholders, in severely challenging circumstances, while still maintaining healthy relationships with each other. That's the key to effective communication in emergencies. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Bowling pins for ten-pin bowlingPygmalion Side Effects: Bowling a Strike
Elise slowly walked back to her office, beaten. Her supervisor, Alton, had just given Elise her performance review — her third consecutive "meets expectations." No point now to her strategy of giving 120% to turn it all around. She is living a part of the Pygmalion Effect, and she's about to experience the Pygmalion Side Effects.
Suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans the East River between Manhattan and BrooklynDealing with Negative Progress
Many project emergencies are actually the result of setbacks — negative progress. Sometimes these mishaps are unavoidable, but often they're the result of patterns of organizational culture. How can we reduce the incidence of setbacks?
Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., (right) bids farewell to Gen. Bernard Montgomery (left) at the Palermo airportTactics for Asking for Volunteers: II
When we seek volunteers for specific, time-limited tasks, a common approach is just to ask the entire team at a meeting or teleconference. It's simple, but it carries risks. There are alternatives.
A man using a chainsawDiscussion Distractions: II
Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
A forest pathThe Goal Is Not the Path
Sometimes, when reaching a goal is more difficult than we thought at first, instead of searching for another way to get there, we adjust the goal. There are alternatives.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A model of a space station proposed in 1952 by Wernher von BraunComing January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
Three gulls excluding a fourthAnd on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.