Asking Clarifying Questions
by Rick Brenner
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, 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 Order from Amazon.com. 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? Top Next Issue
In 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? rbrenkimwFUrhTgDvjahYner@ChacMabiNcMOxqesgOLioCanyon.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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- There Is No Rumor Mill
- Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage organizational rumors?
- Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza
- When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
- How we deal with adversity can make the difference between happiness and something else. And how we deal with adversity depends on how we see it.
- Workplace Myths: Motivating People
- Up and down the org chart, you can find bits of business wisdom about motivating people. We generally believe these theories without question. How many of them are true? How many are myths? What are some of these myths and why do they persist?
- Avoid Having to Reframe Failure
- Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition. But how can we get something good out of it?
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
- Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrensIvqrtkNCcdbybvhner@ChacbcNMvieTIotvLZANoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, 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
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: The Organizational Politics of Risk Management
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management, its application to organizational efforts, and how workplace politics enters the mix. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history and workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: