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The Power of Clarifying Questions – And How to Improve Team Conversations

Clarifying questions are a powerful tool for team collaboration, encouraging active listening and understanding.

By Gustavo Razzetti

January 26, 2023

An introduction to clarifying questions – and why your colleagues should use them more often

The quality of your team’s conversations is directly correlated to the questions people ask. It has never been more important to facilitate fruitful discussions. Unfortunately, proper questioning has become a lost art. The rush to act now – to keep up to speed with the fast-moving world – leads us to poor decision-making.

Great leaders avoid jumping to conclusions or assumptions; they rely on powerful questions to understand the facts before passing judgment. Clarifying questions help leaders understand what others are saying – they can better understand a problem, identify new solutions, and evaluate alternatives.

In today’s world, organizations need to think more than ever. Regardless of whether you are a leader or team member, active listening can improve communication and, above all, collaboration.

Here’s how to improve your team’s conversations by asking better clarifying questions.

What Are Clarifying Questions? (And Why They Improve Active Listening)

Most people think being a good listener comes down to paying attention, not interrupting the speaker, and being able to repeat back what they said. However, we’ve got it all wrong, according to research.

Good listening is not about being a passive observer engaging in fruitful conversations. Questions turn the “speaker versus hearer” division into a dialogue, making everyone feel heard and thrilled.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman reflect on their research findings: “While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of – and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.”

Questions make your colleagues feel supported and help them refine their ideas or opinions. Good listening is a cooperative conversation.

Asking questions means you want to learn. They improve dialogue and minimize any misunderstanding, confusion, or ambiguity. Clarifying questions help us become better listeners by encouraging us to seek more information, rather than assuming we understand.

For example, instead of reacting to a team member's idea with, "That's a terrible idea," you could ask, "Can you tell me what inspired you to come up with this idea?” or “How do you think it will help solve our customers’ problems?”

Clarifying questions also provide feedback to the speaker, indicating which parts of their message were unclear. If you’re confused, asking for more details will provide clues about what’s missing. For example, ask, “Can you explain more about what it would take to implement this new process you just described?”

There are two types of clarifying questions:

  • Open 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.
  • Validation questions: They simply reiterate a part of the message and invite the speaker to confirm or not what or whether the listener understood.

Effective team conversations require building off each other’s solutions. Uncover the value of an idea before discarding it simply because you didn’t understand or like it at first glance.

There are four types of questions (I cover this in the bonus section at the end of this article). However, for now, I want to focus on two: Clarifying and Probing.

Probing questions can come across as confrontational or critical, discouraging open dialogue. Clarifying questions provide a pause, delaying the urge to jump to reactions, while probing questions offer judgment. We want to encourage the first and avoid the latter.

Unfortunately, people usually use probing questions when presented with a new concept or opinion – very few teams leverage the power of clarifying questions.

Here’s a comparison of both types of questions with some examples.

Great questions aim not to judge what’s been said but to keep the conversation going. Often, at work, we minimize, underestimate, and even attack other people’s ideas because we got them all wrong.

We end up judging our interpretation of the idea – not what the other person actually said.

Clarifying questions help team members truly listen to each other. Some of their benefits are:

1. They help you clarify instructions from your manager or colleague

2. They allow you to fill in the gaps so you can understand the whole picture

3. They encourage speakers to be clearer and more specific

4. They promote a fluid dialogue between speakers and listeners

5. They train you to practice active listening

So, why are clarifying questions so important?

The Benefits of Asking Clarifying Questions

Companies have realized that leaders who ask good questions are more valuable than those who want to have all the answers. As I explained in a previous post, facilitating courageous and productive conversations is a valuable leadership skill.

Research shows that the demand for executives who listen empathetically, welcome input, and rally people around a shared future is increasing.

A team of Harvard Business School Professors, who analyzed thousands of executive job search descriptions created over 17 years, found that the demand for social skills is increasing in every category of the economy.

Headhunters and corporate recruiters want executives who can:

  • Actively listen to others
  • Empathize genuinely with others’ experiences
  • Persuade people to work toward a common goal
  • Communicate clearly

Misunderstandings can happen more often in a hybrid workplace as I explain in my book Remote, Not Distant. If we’re not careful, issues can get blown out of proportion because we assume rather than try to understand what the other person meant.

Asking clarifying questions before assessing an idea or opinion has many benefits. Let’s review the most important advantages.

To pause instead of jumping to conclusions

Asking clarifying questions is a choice to go beyond the superficial. Getting more information, details, or context prevents your team from making poor decisions. It encourages us to assume positive intent – rather than judging, we want to learn more.

This is crucial to turn feedback into a gift. Feedback givers should ask questions to help the receiver reflect on the feedback received; receivers must use clarifying questions to ensure they got the right message instead of jumping to conclusions.

To better understand a position or idea

Clarifying questions are also a good way to properly understand the nuances of someone's opinion. By asking open clarifying questions, the listener pushes the speaker to explain their thoughts or elaborate on their ideas – usually ending in an improved version of the original concept.

To explore ideas outside of our comfort zone

How many times have you felt uncomfortable when someone is sharing a novel idea? It’s easier to criticize the idea than to realize that it’s our mental frame that needs to be revisited. Asking clarifying questions facilitates our journey – to move from resistance to acceptance.

Often, a set of questions can help you tackle a large problem in small chunks. Follow-up questions make it easier to understand a complex problem or solution. Great ideas are the result of smart questions, while fixed statements often justify our resistance to change. Use clarifying questions to stretch beyond your comfort zone.

To help colleagues think through their ideas

Great questions can help challenge not only your assumptions but also those of the idea owner. It’s natural to fall in love with one’s thoughts and fail to see what’s missing. Great clarifying questions help people reflect not only on the solution but also on how and why it was created.

Asking questions can help teammates consider other angles, uncover the purpose behind a solution, and dive deeper into implementation details.

To elevate the quality of the conversation

Good leaders think like good detectives: they use questions to get to the truth, often tapping into distinct sources. Asking clarifying questions not only helps the originator to think through their ideas but also promotes collaboration – team members feel compelled to elevate the original idea.

Gathering information from diverse sources is vital to make effective decisions – and to drive innovation. Clarifying questions help receivers better understand someone else’s thoughts or opinions by encouraging active listening. Asking clarifying questions elevates the quality of the conversation, welcoming the team to think like detectives.

Above all, clarifying questions lead to smarter solutions. Replace judgment with questions that aim to build rather than obstruct.

Clarifying Questions Help Teams Make Better Decisions

Communication is one of the most important leadership skills - it’s critical for successful team collaboration. However, listening is hard work. We all fail to master this precious skill.

A study of over 8,000 people found that virtually all respondents believed that they communicate as effectively or more effectively than their co-workers. How can it be possible that everyone is above average? It’s simple: we all overrate our ability to be good listeners. On average, we all listen at only about 25% efficiency.

Identifying gaps in your understanding is the first step toward having better conversations – and decisions.

I was first introduced to the power of clarifying questions when I learned how to facilitate the Integrative-Decision Making method – also known as consent (don’t confuse it with consensus – check the differences here).

The more I facilitate the Integrative-Decision Making (IDM) method with consulting clients or workshop participants, the more I’m convinced that asking clarifying questions is a vital instrument of conversational acumen.

Team members rarely ask others to expand on an opinion or further describe an idea. They usually jump to judgment. Then, when they do ask questions, their intent is not to seek understanding but to express an opinion or judgment.

The IDM process includes a step to prevent this from happening. Each participant canof pose one or more clarifying questions after hearing a proposal from a colleague. This practice encourages people to listen and, most importantly, to fully understand an idea before criticizing it.

During this step, only clarifying questions are welcome – opinions or reactions disguised as questions should not be allowed.

Let me share a real-life example from one of our decision-making workshops. The team leader shared a proposal and I used the IDM to facilitate a productive conversation between all members.

Proposal: “I want to shift our team’s schedule to adopt a four-day workweek, working 9 hours per day instead of 8, as we currently do.”

Clarifying questions

Here are some of the questions that the team shared with the leader. He answered them all one-at-a-time often prompting follow-up questions to seek further clarification. Notice how people look for understanding or additional details – there weren’t just repeating what the leader said.

  • When are we starting with the new workweek and how will we manage the transition to the new model?
  • Why a four-day week?
  • Can team members choose the days they work or must everyone follow the same schedule?
  • How will we manage clients' expectations (that we’ll deliver support five days a week)?
  • Is this an experiment or are we going all in into a four-day workweek?
  • Will the team workload be adjusted to the new schedule?

Avoid opinions disguised as questions

Following are some questions that were rejected because they were opinions, not real questions - the intent wasn’t to learn more about the proposal but rather to question its validity.

  • Don’t you think that reducing the workweek will harm productivity? (I’m worried about the current workload and this will make things worse).
  • How are we going to track that people are working 9 hours a day instead of 8? (I don’t trust people are going to work without control mechanisms).
  • Shouldn’t we involve the whole team and do more research before moving forward? (I‘d rather delay this proposal)
  • What happens if it doesn’t work? Are we going to stick to the new model or go back to a five-day workweek? (I don’t think this proposal will work in the long run).

The facilitator must push back when people are expressing their opinions, encouraging them to use clarifying questions instead.

If you’re curious about how the whole consent method works, check this post.

The Quality of Questions Improves Team Conversations

Great leaders lead with questions, not perfect answers. They tap into collective wisdom, leveraging people’s unique views, backgrounds, and expertise.

Clarifying questions are a powerful tool for team collaboration, as they encourage active listening and understanding rather than jumping to conclusions or reacting. They also tackle both ends of the (miss)communication spectrum: lack of clarity from the speaker or lack of understanding from the receiver.

To use clarifying questions effectively in team collaboration, everyone should be aware of the different types of questions – prioritize using clarifying ones over probing questions. Make a conscious effort to ask clarifying questions during team meetings and discussions and encourage others to do the same.

Clarifying questions support learning, decision-making, and conflict resolution. They invite in new information, provide transparency, and get everyone on the same page. They can help your team reframe problems, generate new solutions, and evolve existing ones.

Most importantly, clarifying questions help build trust by replacing judgment with curiosity.

Effective team conversations are vital to uncover possibilities, build on each other’s ideas, and accelerate innovation. Often, misunderstanding and judgment get in the way, blocking dialogue and exploration. Asking clarifying questions is a simple way to have healthier debates and elevate the quality of your team conversations.

Reach out if you need help coaching your team to ask better questions and have better conversations – or enjoy this article’s bonus below.

[Bonus] The Four Types of Questions

Different types of questions generate different types of answers – and responses. Great leaders understand the four different types of questions and which to use when.

Clarifying questions aim to better understand what the speaker is saying - and their intent - before we jump to conclusions. Examples: "Can you tell me more?"

“How will it work?” “What do you mean by?” “Can you give me an example?”

Probing questions challenge the speaker's views or ideas – often to criticize or highlight flaws. While effective in certain contexts, they usually shut people down. Examples: “Do you think this is going to work? Why?” “How do you know your assumption is true? What if the opposite is true?” “Why haven’t you considered X, Y, and Z instead?” “Can I play the devil’s advocate?”

Avoid asking probing questions before the team has completed the clarifying questions phase. Ideally, ask exploratory questions – even generative ones – before getting into probing ones.

Exploratory questions help consider different scenarios and possibilities. They are a recommended next step once you completed the clarifying question round. Examples: “What are the long-term effects?” “Will this work in all scenarios?” “Are we addressing the right problem?”

Generative questions identify new solutions or improve upon existing ones. Jumping into generative questions too early in the conversation could create friction as the proposer could feel their idea is not worthy. I often recommend generative questions when a team member is stuck and needs input or after completing the clarification questions or exploratory questions rounds.

Examples: “What other possible solutions can we consider?” “What better ways can we develop to solve this problem?” “Instead of solving for this specific problem, what systemic issues should we solve for?”

Clarifying and probing questions help us zoom in on a proposal or idea - the former to better understand, the latter to evaluate.

Exploratory and generative questions help us zoom out and see the bigger picture – the former to consider different scenarios, the latter to discover and explore new solutions.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

What do you think?



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