How to Politely Ask for a Clarification

We’ve all been there: a long meeting, an intense lecture, a complicated sales presentation. Sometimes we zone out, but sometimes we just don’t understand.

Either way, there is a high probability that you’ve been in a conversation where you need clarification.

For many people, asking for clarification is incredibly embarrassing, while others may find themselves disrupting the flow of the conversation in an attempt to clarify a statement only to receive scorn from those around them.

When asking for clarification, it is essential to choose an appropriate time, such as a Q&A session after a presentation. Then refer to a specific aspect: “Could you please explain once again why A is so important for B?”

When to Ask for Clarification

There are many situations where you might find yourself needing to ask for clarification.

New Content

One example is when you are presented with new content that you haven’t had a chance to review prior to a presentation or conversation.

For many people, particularly people who aren’t aural or visual learners, different processing preferences and capabilities make it harder for some people to keep up with conversations.

Exemplary scenarios include presenting technical manufacturing information for a specific machine, device, or appliance (Ex. car, washing machine, telephone) to a sales department or someone involved in procurement.

If such individuals are not already familiar with the technical background relative to the specific topic, those in attendance may have difficulty following along with the conversation. In such situations, it is highly probable that someone will wish to ask for clarification.

Information Overload

Similarly, we live in a fairly distracting world where a variety of daily concerns coupled with the endless distractions present in any environment impede our already strained processing capabilities. [1]

In order to process information, you need to be able to pay attention.

Likewise, you need to be able to process that information through your working memory and convert it into relatable information relative to your short-term and long-term memory.

If something is mentioned at the beginning of a meeting or lecture and individuals don’t have sufficient time to process that information relative to additional content, or they weren’t paying attention, there is a high probability that such individuals will have no idea what was said previously. Once again, clarification would be necessary.

Attention Problems

Finally, there are some individuals who have trouble paying attention, to begin with, whether because of ADD or ADHD. Recent surveys suggest that over 6 million children under the age of 17 in the US alone exhibit some form of attention deficit disorder. [2]

For such individuals, paying attention to lengthy topics, particularly if it is not an area of interest, will be ineffective and there is a high chance that such individuals will be distracted at some point. Such individuals would then feel lost or misinformed simply because they missed when information was presented, making clarification necessary.

Complicated Topics

Whenever confusing, lengthy, or multi-part topics are presented, there is a high probability that someone will have missed some of the information shared, prompting someone to seek clarification on the topic.

Likewise, when information is presented via another medium aside from speaking, such as via text, video chat, email, or phone conversation, there is also a possibility that information will become muddled in transit and prompt someone to ask for clarification.

When It Is Considered Rude to Ask for Clarification

Generally, asking for clarification is not undesirable in most social circles, particularly during long, technical presentations in academic, educational, or professional settings. Still, you may feel like you’re being rude if you ask for clarification on the schedule, format, and personal perceptions of those in attendance.

When asking for clarification, it’s always best to either wait for a formal question and answer period or a pause in the flow of a presentation or conversation. This allows the presenter to complete his or her thought so that you are completely informed.

Very often, someone might ask a question during a presentation and the presenter will respond “If you wait a bit, I will explain the answer to that question.”

Sometimes, even though we’re confused, it is simply because we have not been informed of all of the information that is being presented.

If you do feel compelled to ask before a presenter has reached a point where there is a lull in the presentation or conversation, it’s very important to raise your hand. Not doing so and beginning to speak while the presenter is still speaking is seen as very rude in just about any formal setting.

Additionally, when asking for clarification, it is not considered polite if you frame your clarification question in a critical tone.

Saying something like “That’s just stupid!” or “How can you say that?” makes it seem that the presenter has no idea what she or he is talking about. Moreover, it will imply that you think you already know what the answer is, even though you need clarification!

Most often, when it comes to being perceived as polite when seeking clarification, the concern is heightened by those asking for clarification. A tendency to avoid asking too many questions leads many people to avoid asking for clarification altogether because of a fear of being perceived as disruptive.

In such situations, the concern is simply that one needs to be polite when asking a clarification question so that a question can be asked rather than reformatting an impolite question.

How to Politely Ask for a Clarification

When asking for clarification, the key to being polite is to embrace the opposite of the principles noted above:

Ask at the proper time, use a polite format and present your question in a genuine and sincere manner.

When it comes to the proper time to ask a question, many presenters or lecturers will ask questions periodically during their presentations or at the end of the presentation. During these periods, it is best to ask a question as this will allow you to digest whatever information has been presented.

Very often, a presenter will use this period to summarize whatever information has been presented, particularly if a question seeks clarification of a specific topic, so asking a clarification question will help to guide the lecturer’s attempt to explain what was presented.

If you need to seek clarification during a presentation, the polite way to do so would be to raise your hand or use some non-offensive gesture to attract the speaker’s attention (no middle fingers!) and then say something like:

“Excuse me, could you repeat…”

or

I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you just said.”

These formats will use formal speech to indicate that you are simply trying to clarify what was said rather than to distract or disrupt.

When it comes to the proper format for asking a clarification question or seeking clarification, the key is to use basic rules of etiquette.

Using phrases such as “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me” when asking for clarification indicates a participatory tone that simply seeks better understanding.

Further, using the conditional mood also indicates that you are not directing the conversation. You might say:

“Could you repeat…”

or

“Would you please explain…”

Now’s not the time to use the command form of any verb; don’t say things like “Say it again, slower!” or “You need to give us more examples!” Those are clear indications that you are not being polite.

Depending on the audience and the topic, you can also ask for clarification by simply asking a question, such as:

“Why is the hypotenuse important for a triangle?”

or

“When will lunch be served?”

Although these questions are more direct, as long as they relate to a topic that has been already mentioned, they are understandable points for clarification.

The best way to ensure that you come across as polite is if you use “Please” and “Thank You” when speaking.

For example, if you seek clarification, then you can ask:

“Could you please explain how to politely ask for clarification? Thanks.”

This phrase indicates that you are clearly trying to be polite, as please and thank you are reserved for polite, formal speech. Using this formal speech helps to indicate that you are sincere in your desire to understand what the speaker is saying, which is the basis for asking for clarification.

There’s Never a Time to Not Politely Seek Clarification

Amid the four types of questions commonly asked, clarification questions are probably the most understandable and justifiable in any circumstance. [3]

Many people presenting or relaying information are not aware of how others are processing what they are saying, leading them to talk above others and preventing them from digesting what is being presented.

When you ask a clarification question, you help to create a greater level of understanding not just for yourself but also for the speaker and those in attendance.

Many in attendance are often grateful that someone asks any clarification questions as they are too embarrassed to ask themselves!

If you ever have a question and wish to seek clarification, using the proper timing, format and intention will ensure that your question comes across as the perfect clarification question to help everyone see more clearly.


References:

[1]: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bring-science-home-speaking-memory/

[2]: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html

[3]: https://hbr.org/2015/03/relearning-the-art-of-asking-questions

Katie

Katie Haynes is a senior author at everyday-courtesy.com with over 15 years of experience in marketing and psychology. As a freelance consultant, she also supports companies and executives in overcoming communication challenges. Katie is a passionate digital nomad working on her first book on the art of communication.

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