The Power of Clarifying Questions

Recently I received an email from a colleague that felt a little ‘loaded’.  Most of the email made sense, but there was one sentence that really struck a wrong cord with me.  I was tempted to fire back my initial emotional response, but as I was typing it struck me that maybe I misunderstood what the sender was trying to say.  I deleted my original response and asked for clarification instead.  The sender sent back a quick response further clarifying what they meant, and just as I thought, I had misunderstood what the sender was trying to say.

How often does that happen in communication?  In today’s digital society, it is easy to misinterpret what someone is trying to say through an email or text.  In digital communication we are missing some key ingredients of the full message:  tone, body language, and emotions to name a few. In my example above, when I took the time to ask one simple question, “Can you please clarify what you meant when you said this  __________?”, it saved a lot of time and energy by not focusing on the wrong things.  By taking a few extra moments to truly ‘listen’ to the sender, I was able to better understand what they were trying to say.

Truly listening means taking in the full message to ensure maximum understanding. How do we do
that well?  What does that require of the Receiver?  It requires us to pay attention to the Sender’s:
* Words
* Body Language
* Tone of Voice
* Emotion
* Intention

What does all this tell me? If I’m truly listening, it tells me what their intended message is (their true meaning), or as close to it as possible. It’s our responsibility as the Receiver to really get at that intention.  As Receivers, if our intention is to look out for the best interest of others, we can demonstrate this by truly listening to understand the Heart (or intention) of the sender. What do they really mean? What is behind the words they are saying – or not saying?

Clarifying questions helps us as leaders to truly listen to others.  The goal of asking a clarifying question is to get additional information so that we fully understand the sender’s intended message – what they meant to say, which is not always just what they actually said.  Also, these types of clarifying questions should be “heart-based” questions. Meaning, that the intention of the question is not to judge, or to add further content into the conversation. Heart-based questions should only be asked to further understand the information provided by the sender.
So what is the intent of Clarifying?
* Helps you to obtain more information
* Allows you to fill in the gaps when the person gives an incomplete message
* Solicits more detail from the sender so the receiver can get a more clear picture

Let’s look at an example of a question that someone might ask to clarify their understanding.
* Could you please elaborate on that?
* Tell me more about…
* What did you mean when you said…?
* Are there specific…?

The next time you receive an email that strikes a wrong cord with you, ask your sender to clarify what they meant using one of the examples above.  You may be surprised to learn you had misinterpreted the intention behind their message.

Michelle Cummings, Co-Founder, CEO, and Chief Creative Officer

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Personify Leadership

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