By Chris Simmons
As the name implies, a clarifying question is a follow-on inquiry that seeks to expand upon a previously discussed topic. Often, this approach strings together these questions in a continuously narrow focus to move the discussion closer to the truth. However, in certain scenarios, you can get to the truth with a single question.
Known as a “conditional” clarifying question, the only requirement is that your counterpart has already agreed with you on a subject. This technique is intended to determine whether their agreement was sincere or simply a polite brush-off.
Multiple examples come to mind:
Your freshman daughter is back for her first weekend at home since starting college. Like any parent, you ask “So, is college everything you hoped it would be?” She answers with “Yeah, its pretty good.”
As you prepare to go out on the town, you ask your roommate “Does this outfit look okay?” She answers “Yes, it looks fine.”
At work, you pitch a colleague on the concept for a new computer app. After summation, you ask: “So what did you think?” and she replies “I like it – it’s great!”
Having received conditional agreement on your original question, the key to success with this tactic is to immediately ask a precise follow-up question that requires critical thinking on their part. For example, in scenario #1, a good follow-up would be “What would it take for you to be really excited about college?” In the second scenario, you might ask “What one thing could I do to really jazz up this outfit?” Likewise, in the workplace situation, you could follow with “What would you suggest I do to improve the concept?” In every situation, you intentionally asked for a form of soft criticism. And since you asked so directly, a person tends to offer a sincere and objective critique.
Where most people fail in this approach is not immediately soliciting feedback. Instead, they let their emotions get in the way, which kills any chance of honest feedback. Returning to the college scenario, let’s assume you follow your daughter’s response of college is “fine” with comments like “Oh, I am so relieved. I was so worried you might be homesick, have roommate problems, not like the school’s vibe, or whatever.” Your emotional outburst has effectively negated any hope of honest feedback. Knowing that you are emotionally invested, your daughter is unlikely to say anything that would hurt your feelings. You’d see similar avoidance by your roommate and work colleague.
For a conditional clarifying question to work, you absolutely must keep your emotions under control and ask a focused follow-up. If you receive the soft criticism/recommendation, their original agreement was sincere. However, if they respond by saying no improvements are needed, you’ve received a polite brush off. Let it go and move on.