Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 25;   June 19, 2019: I Don't Understand: II

I Don't Understand: II

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Last updated: December 16, 2019

Unclear, incomplete, or ambiguous statements are problematic, in part, because we need to seek clarification. How can we do that without seeming to be hostile, threatening, or disrespectful?
Lost in a maze

When someone says something that's unclear, incomplete, or ambiguous, seeking clarification can be daunting, as I discussed last time. Tactics for safely seeking clarification of unclear, incomplete, or ambiguous statements by others tend to be variations on a theme: make plain to your target that you aren't questioning the statement; rather you're merely seeking clarification. In the examples below, I'll use the term seeker to refer to the person seeking clarification, and the term respondent to refer to the person who has made the unclear, incomplete, or ambiguous statement. Each technique below has a label and a sample of the form of the seeker's query.

Humor: I'm just an old country project manager, so can you please explain for me what X means?
This is an example of the seeker using humor to defuse the tension that might otherwise accompany the query. The phrase "old country project manager" is a play on "old country lawyer," made famous by Senator Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings. The surprise twist at the end makes the query mildly funny.
Guessing: I'd guess that by X you mean Y, is that right?
In this example, Unclear, incomplete, or ambiguous
statements are problematic, in part,
because we must seek clarification
without seeming to be hostile,
threatening, or disrespectful
by proposing an example interpretation (Y), the seeker provides a concrete example that the respondent can address specifically. It's a closed question, which reduces the respondent's burden compared to an open question. See "Asking Clarifying Questions," Point Lookout for January 14, 2009, for more.
Using the word guessing is also helpful, because it's somewhat self-deprecating. Choosing a Y that is almost certainly correct adds to your credibility. Following this query with "And what about Z?" can be useful if Z is chosen to be much less certainly correct. That tactic helps to establish the boundaries of the ambiguity range.
Hypothesis: Would Y be an example of X?
This form is similar to the Guessing tactic in the sense that it's also a closed question. The use of the word would makes the question hypothetical, which could give the respondent a sense of freedom — of not having to worry about being pinned down to specifics.
This form also avoids the word you. Avoiding you further insulates the respondent from the query, reducing the chance of the respondent feeling attacked. Compare this to, "Would Y be an example of what you mean by X?"
Recollection: I vaguely recall that X happened the last time Y occurred. Any connection?
In this form, we draw a connection between the issue at hand, X, and something from the past, Y. But we confess to only a vague recollection of Y. The vagueness of the recollection leaves maneuvering room for the respondent, and thus limits the risk of appearing threatening. Vagueness is generally something to avoid, because it can seem slippery and conniving, but in connection with memory, it's more acceptable. Nearly everyone knows how vague memories can be. Of course, avoid this tactic when dealing with someone who takes pride in remembering everything.
The vagueness also leaves space for the respondent to add to the indicated connection, which draws the respondent into providing information — in a helpful way — possibly including information that can resolve the ambiguity of the respondent's initial statement.
Extrapolation: I'm familiar with X in the Y context, but what does it mean in Z?
In this form, the seeker preemptively asserts some related knowledge — X in the Y context. That assertion addresses the seeker's concern about image. It also engages the respondent in a potentially interesting discussion about the meaning of extrapolating X from Y to Z.
By taking the respondent's words seriously, the seeker limits the risk of seeming to be critical by seeking clarification.

The examples above illustrate how seekers can inquire thoughtfully and respectfully with a limited chance of appearing to be threatening. Tactics that accomplish that goal have a good chance of achieving clarification safely. But the respondent is in charge of the response. Chance is the key word. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Appearance Antipatterns: I  Next Issue

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