Clarifying questions — what they are & why you should know how to ask them
Clarifying questions support learning, decision-making, and conflict resolution.
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When I first learned about clarifying questions — questions designed to get clarity about an issue, idea, or perspective before making a decision — I thought, “No duh.” Fortunately, this attempt to weasel out of an opportunity for enlightenment wasn’t successful. Curiosity won out, and pretty soon, I was listening in on conversations at work, trying to identify decision-making situations in which colleagues sought clarification. What I discovered was illuminating.
My first discovery was that my colleagues and I rarely sought clarification from others, and when we did, our questions focused on practical things like the location of a resource or information about requirements around paperwork or roles.
In decision-making contexts — such as when making a decision about a policy or program — we rarely asked others to expand on their understanding of an issue or further describe an idea or perspective. Moreover, on those rare occasions when we seemed to ask for clarification, we were usually expressing our own opinions. “Yes, but don’t you think that would lead to trouble down the road?”
My second discovery was that about 1/3 of my colleagues were adept at ensuring that others were fully aware of their knowledge, insights, and opinions. But 2/3 were not so proficient in this area, and consequently, our decisions did not benefit much from their input.
Later, when Lectica (the nonprofit that owns me) was in the planning stages, my colleagues and I chose to use a governance system called Sociocracy. One of the appealing features of Sociocracy was the prominence given to clarifying questions in Sociocratic decision-making. The Sociocratic decision-making process includes a step in which each participant has an opportunity to pose one or more clarifying questions each time a proposal is made — the question round. A question round guarantees that a proposer is heard and that every proposal is fully understood before being subjected to critique.
Here’s the tricky bit. A clarifying question should not express an opinion or bias. It has to be a simple request for additional information or explanation. Sounds easy, but to our surprise, we initially found it quite tricky to make the distinction.
The term clarifying question is also used in mentoring, coaching, and clinical contexts, in which it carries a different, but related, meaning.
To give you a better idea about the difference between a clarifying question and an opinion, here’s a sample proposal with examples of good and not-so-good clarifying questions:
Employees will be entitled to 10 paid personal days each year.
- What is a personal day?
- When can employees take personal days? Are there any restrictions?
- What are the acceptable reasons for personal days?
- How many personal days can an employee take at one time (sequentially)?
- Will employees be able to carry over personal days from one year to the next?
- Why 10 days?
(Notice that all of these questions are clearly framed as questions. Try to avoid sliding into paraphrasing, which is an important active listening skill, but is a bit different in purpose from a clarifying question.)
- Don’t you think ten days is a bit too generous? (I think we should reevaluate the number of days.)
- Won’t employees exploit personal days? (I think employees might exploit personal days.)
- Don’t we need to do more research on best practices before going further? (I’d like us to do more research before having this conversation.)
Good clarifying questions are also on topic. They stick close to the topic at hand. Remember, in this case, we’re seeking information about the policy itself—what it is and how it would be expected to work.
- How do you feel about the policy? (What is your psychological state? Are you biased?)
- Why is this item on the agenda today? (About agenda development, not the policy itself.)
Good “question rounds” set the stage for efficient “reaction rounds.”
Sociocratic question rounds are designed to detect missing information or confusing content in proposals. Their purpose is to set the stage for reaction rounds, in which the gaps revealed in question rounds are scrutinized.
Good “reaction rounds” close gaps and improve policy proposals.
The question and reaction rounds of Sociocratic decision-making ensure that all participants in a decision have opportunities both to seek clarification and to participate in the critical review of proposals. This, along with the iterative nature of Sociocratic decision-making, increases the likelihood that policies will be clear and straightforward to implement. It also fosters alignment.
Curious about Sociocracy? Check out Sociocracy for All or Sociocracy 3.0.
But I digress…
The purpose of this article is to point out the benefits of learning how to pose clarifying questions. I have done so, in a roundabout way, by showing how they are used in Sociocracy to improve policy decisions, but that’s a specific application. Here, I want to share benefits with broader implications.
These broader benefits involve the powerful role played by clarifying questions in learning, decision-making, and conflict resolution. In all three contexts, clarifying questions invite new information, providing clarity and getting everyone on the same page. When we pose them in learning contexts, they enrich our understanding, and when we pose them in decision-making contexts, they not only enhance understanding, they help us frame problems, generate solutions, and improve outcomes. Last, but far from least, when we pose them in conflict situations they build trust.
Clarifying questions work best when combined with active listening.
Learning how to ask high quality clarifying questions requires self-discipline and a fair bit of practice. Most people find it challenging to avoid sneaking in personal opinions or going off on tangents. It can also take some time to learn when and how to employ clarifying questions. If you aren’t sure when they are likely to be helpful, here’s a micro-VCoL (Virtuous Cycle of Learning) that will get you started.
Clarifying questions support learning, decision-making, and conflict resolution. When paired with active listening and VCoL, they also gradually broaden our perspectives, enhance our relationships, and create a platform for the development of more complex skills like perspective coordination and collaboration.