What Are Clarifying Questions and When Should You Ask Them?

Updated December 23, 2022

Knowing how and when to ask clarifying questions can help you in many situations by helping you understand what someone is saying to you. Regardless of your role within a team or organization, proper communication can have a direct impact on your efficiency.

Asking the right clarifying questions is a valuable skill, but it takes research and practice. In this article, we discuss what clarifying questions are and when you should ask for clarifications, and we also provide tips and examples on how to ask for clarification.

What are clarifying questions?

Clarifying questions are questions that the listener asks the speaker in an attempt to eliminate or prevent any misunderstanding, confusion or ambiguity. By asking this type of question after receiving the message, the listener makes sure they properly understood the message and obtain important additional information. The speaker also benefits by being reassured that their audience is actively listening and genuinely interested in what they have to say.

Clarifying questions don't typically require new information from the speaker. They are instead used by the listener to get a clearer factual understanding of what the speaker wants to transmit. They can be used in any situation where someone is trying to communicate a message to an audience, such as interviews, presentations, discussions and other similar circumstances.

There are two main types of clarifying questions:

  • Open clarifying questions: They ask the speaker to elaborate on a certain part of their message. Most of them have the form of when, why, where or how types of questions and encourage the speaker to openly expand their thoughts and ideas.

  • Closed clarifying questions: They simply reiterate a part of the message and ask the speaker to confirm or deny that what the listener understood was indeed what the speaker was trying to express to their audience.

Related: Types of Questions: Definitions and Examples

When should you ask for clarification?

The two main situations in which you can ask for clarification are:

When you receive instructions that aren't clear

Clarifying questions are a good way to troubleshoot when you receive unclear instructions. Explaining a complex task can be difficult, so it is in the interest of both the speaker and the listener that the details of the task are entirely clear.

Reiterating a message can be frustrating for the speaker, so when the instructions aren't clear the listener should ask a closed clarifying question by saying what they understand and asking for confirmation on whether they got it right.

When you need to better understand someone's position on a certain matter

Clarifying questions are also a good way of properly understanding the nuances of someone's opinion. By asking open clarifying questions, the listener is making the speaker elaborate on their thoughts and providing a more detailed version of them. This not only helps the listener better understand what the speaker meant but also helps them form an opinion of their own regarding the speaker's views.

Related: Probing Questions: Definition, Comparisons and Examples

Examples of clarifying questions

Here are some examples of open and closed clarifying questions in multiple situations:

Situation 1: Open questions regarding the speaker's views and opinions

Speaker: “I think the company should invest in new technology early next year.

Clarifying questions:

  • What do you consider to be new technology?

  • Why do you think it should be early next year?

  • Where can that take us?

  • How did you determine that?

Situation 2: Closed questions regarding the speaker's views and opinions

Speaker: “I think the company should invest in new technology early next year.”

Clarifying questions:

  • So, you think we should stay put until next year?

  • So, you're sure we can't go on with the current technology?

  • Are you sure we can fulfill our long-term ambitions this way?

Situation 3: Open questions for clarifying instructions

Speaker: “You need to make sure that we are getting the best possible price when we purchase new technology.”

Clarifying questions:

  • What do you mean by the best possible price?

  • How can I make sure of that?

  • What do you consider to be new technology?

Situation 4: Closed questions for clarifying instructions

Speaker: “You need to make sure that we are getting the best possible price when we purchase new technology.”

Clarifying questions:

  • So I need to check the market and find out if anyone else is selling at a lower price?

  • By purchasing new technology do you mean buying the pieces of equipment that we already talked about?

  • So I need to be absolutely certain of that before I report back to you?

Related: How To Be a Good Listener

Tips for asking for clarification

Follow these tips when asking clarifying questions:

Let the speaker know that you need clarification

It's best that you are not vague when asking for further clarification. You should openly admit that you need more information to properly understand what the speaker is trying to transmit.

Summarize what you understood and what you haven't

If the conversation is a long and complex one, you should briefly specify the parts that you understood from the speaker's message and use them to help the speaker see exactly where you need further clarification.

Don't blame the speaker

It is generally more efficient to make the speaker understand that it is not their fault that you weren't able to properly understand what they had to say. By not sounding accusatory you are more likely to get the clarification you are after.

Be specific in your request

It's important that you make the speaker see exactly where you need clarification. This way they can focus on providing clearer explanations in those specific parts instead of them having to figure out what parts you did not understand.

Pay attention to the tone of your voice

The tone of your voice can make the same sentence sound completely different to the other person. When asking clarifying questions, you should have a clearly inquisitive tone, so the speaker knows that the question's purpose is not accusatory, but simply an admittance that you need further clarification.

Thank the speaker

You should thank the person offering the clarification, as a sign of appreciation for them taking the time to explain the concept further.

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