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 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? 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? Send 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
- Commitment Makes It Easier
- When you face obstacles, sometimes the path around or through them is difficult. Committing yourself to the path lets you focus all your energy on the path you've chosen.
- Coincidences Do Happen
- When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?
- Finding Work in Tough Times: Strategy
- If you're out of work and discouraged — or getting there — you're in great company. Better than ever before. Getting back to work starts with getting to work on finding work. Here's a collection of strategies for the job of finding work.
- Management Debt: Part II
- As with technical debt, we incur management debt when we make choices that carry with them recurring costs. How can we quantify management debt?
- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
- We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
- And on February 11: Bottlenecks: Part II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern. Available here and by RSS on February 11
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.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
- Human-Centered Risk Management
- Most of us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- 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 and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Decision-Making for Team Leaders
- Effective group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
- Mastery of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: