1/27/22: How to ask better clarifying questions
File this one under "better late than never." I had a really long week, and a lot of it was the result of communication challenges. So this week's Think Better Newsletter is about asking questions to clarify what you need to do.
"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place."
If you're a coach, parent, manager, or educator, George Bernard Shaw's quote will surely resonate with you. You explain the situation as clearly as possible and then some portion of your team will go off and do something that just doesn't make sense.
But why is it so hard?
There are three aspects to every message: the sender, the receiver, and the message itself.
This gives multiple places for communication to break down. Missing context, knowledge gaps, ambiguous words, poor timing, different priorities, historical experience, etc.
I like to say that rule number one of communication is that most people aren't good at it. That seems to put blame on the sender. In reality, the receiver can be just as much the problem. If they aren't paying attention, don't have the right context, are prioritizing it incorrectly or are otherwise misinterpreting it, then even the perfect message won't work.
So perhaps a better way to say that is "most messages aren't communicated as effectively as possible."
Given that, it's important to take responsibility and ensure that what you need to do is clear. That typically means asking questions. And not just asking questions, but asking effective questions that give you productive answers.
Asking for clarity is an essential strategy to doing your best work. It's up to you to know what you need to do and how you need to do it. That means it's up to you to confirm when you're not sure. (Or better yet, even though you think you're sure.)
I've borrowed a system from Josh Kaufman, because I think he outlines it so well. To ask a clarifying question, use the following format:
"Based on our conversation about A, it sounds like B is the case. Is that correct?"
Keys to clarification questions:
Include a short summary of the topic for context.
"It sounds like..." leaves room for clarification without being confrontational
"Is that correct?" (or a close variant) is clear, concise, direct, and polite.
I encourage you to check out the link above for other tips on asking for information, help, agreement, and advice.
Are you asking the right questions to make sure you're doing the right work?
Go Be More,
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast
“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, 'What else could this mean?'”
– Shannon L. Adler
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