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 USD 19.95. 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:

Two cyclists commute to work at the U.S. Federal Highway AdministrationEnjoy Your Commute
You probably commute to work. On a good day, you spend anywhere from ten minutes to an hour or two — each way — commuting. What kind of experience are you having? Taking control of this part of your life can make a real difference.
A tugboat at workBecome a Tugboat Captain
If your job responsibilities sometimes require that you tell powerful people that they must do something differently, you could find yourself in danger from time to time. You can learn a lot from tugboat captains.
A team raises a wall of a new home sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentOrganizing a Barn Raising
Once you find a task that you can tackle as a "barn raising," your work is just beginning. Planning and organizing the work is in many ways the hard part.
Symptoms of Stage 5 heat stress in cattleYou Might Be Stressed If…
A little stress once in a while keeps us sharp, but chronic intense stress shortens lives. Stress can build gradually, out of our awareness. Here are some indicators of chronic intense stress.
An example of a Weaver's PathwayStill More Things I've Learned Along the Way
When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's another batch from my personal collection.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Representative Don Young, Republican of AlaskaComing June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
Filling a form in hardcopyAnd on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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.