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January 14, 2009 Volume 9, Issue 2
 
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Asking Clarifying Questions

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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 — host of the PBS program Bill Moyers Journal

Bill Moyers, once press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, is now 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 courtesy PBS.

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
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