Clarifying and Clarification

See also: Reflecting.

In communication, clarification involves offering back to the speaker the essential meaning, as understood by the listener, of what they have just said. Thereby checking that the listener's understanding is correct and resolving any areas of confusion or misunderstanding.

Clarification is important in many situations especially when what is being communicated is difficult in some way. Communication can be 'difficult' for many reasons, perhaps sensitive emotions are being discussed - or you are listening to some complex information or following instructions.

This page provides dialogue and examples of clarification and how you can use this simple technique to improve your communication skills.

The purpose of clarification is to:


  • Ensure that the listener's understanding of what the speaker has said is correct, reducing misunderstanding.
  • Reassure the speaker that the listener is genuinely interested in them and is attempting to understand what they are saying.

As an extension of reflecting, clarifying reassures the speaker that the listener is attempting to understand the messages they are expressing. 

Clarifying can involve asking questions or occasionally summarising what the speaker has said.

A listener can ask for clarification when they cannot make sense of the speaker's responses.  Sometimes, the messages that a speaker is attempting to send can be highly complex, involving many different people, issues, places and/or times. Clarifying helps you to sort these out and also to check the speaker's priorities.

Through clarification it is possible for the speaker and the listener to make sense of these often confused and complex issues.  Clarifying involves genuineness on the listener's part and it shows speakers that the listener is interested in them and in what they have to say.

See our page: Active Listening for more about attentive listening skills.

Some examples of non-directive clarification-seeking questions are:

  • “I'm not quite sure I understand what you are saying.”
  • “I don't feel clear about the main issue here.”
  • “When you said ........ what did you mean?”
  • “Could you repeat ...?”

Clarifying involves:

  • Non-judgemental questioning.
  • Summarising and seeking feedback as to its accuracy.

Clarification Questions

When you are the listener in a sensitive environment, the right sort of non-directive questioning can enable the speaker to describe their viewpoint more fully. 

Asking the right question at the right time can be crucial and comes with practice.  The best questions are open-ended as they give the speaker choice in how to respond, whereas closed questions allow only very limited responses.

Open Questions

If your role is to assist a speaker to talk about an issue, often the most effective questioning starts with 'when', 'where', 'how' or 'why'.  These questions encourage speakers to be open and expand on their thoughts.  For example:

“When did you first start feeling like this?”

“Why do you feel this way?”

Closed Questions

Closed questions usually elicit a 'yes' or 'no' response and do not encourage speakers to be open and expand on their thoughts.  Such questions often begin with 'did you?' or 'were you?'  For example:

“Did you always feel like this?”

“Were you aware of feeling this way?”

See our pages: Questioning and Types of Question for more information.


Guidelines for Clarifying

Clarification is the skill we use to ensure that we have understood the message of the speaker in an interpersonal exchange. When using clarification follow these guidelines to help aid communication and understanding.

  • Admit if you are unsure about what the speaker means.
  • Ask for repetition.
  • State what the speaker has said as you understand it, and check whether this is what they really said.
  • Ask for specific examples.
  • Use open, non-directive questions - if appropriate.
  • Ask if you have got it right and be prepared to be corrected.

Summarising

As a further extension to clarification a summary involves reviewing what has taken place during the whole conversation. 

It is important to keep only to the essential components of the conversation, and it must be given from the speaker's frame of reference, not an interpretation from the listener’s viewpoint.  The aim of a summary is to review understanding, not to give explanation, to judge, to interpret or provide solutions.

Summarising should be done at the end of a conversation, although sometimes it may be appropriate midway through as a way of drawing together different threads.  At the start of a conversation, it is useful to summarise any previous discussions or meetings as it can help to provide focus.  Whilst the summary is likely to be the longest time a listener will be speaking during a conversation, it is important to be as concise and straightforward as possible.


Summary of Clarification

In reflecting, clarifying and summarising, speakers must be allowed to disagree with, and correct, what the listener says.  They should be encouraged to express themselves again, if necessary, giving the listener another chance at understanding, and to check understanding until agreement is reached.

Reflecting, clarifying and summarising are the tools used by active listeners to enable them to demonstrate understanding and encourage a speaker to talk openly.

For effective communication it is essential that the listener and speaker both have the same understanding of the discussion. The speaker must, therefore, have the opportunity to correct the listener's understanding.

Use clarification, reflection and summarising to help with your interpersonal relationships.

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