Skills 360 – Communication Skills 2: Clarifying

Free Resources: Quizzes | PDF Transcript


Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to continue our look at how you can improve your communication skills.

Communication between people is never perfect. Even with the people closest to us, who you might think we can understand very well, there is miscommunication. Sometimes we don’t hear things correctly, or we don’t hear them at all, and sometimes people don’t express ideas precisely. That’s enough to complicate the situation, but then we can throw in implied meaning and our own understanding of what’s being said indirectly. Add to that the challenges that arise when you’re working in your second, or third, or fourth language, and it might be surprising that we understand each other at all!

But have no fear. There are ways to work though the minefield of communication and make everything clear. And that’s exactly what we’ll look at today: clarifying what people have said. There are basically two reasons to clarify: first, when we don’t know what someone said because we didn’t hear them; and second, when we don’t know what someone meant because we didn’t understand them.

Let’s begin with clarifying what someone said. When you don’t hear someone, you can simply tell them, politely of course. Use diplomatic expressions like “Pardon me?” Or, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch that.” Or, “Would you mind repeating that please?” Avoid short and blunt questions like “What?” or “What did you say?” These questions seem rude to many people. And when in doubt, too formal is a better mistake than too informal.

Now, if you heard what someone said but you don’t know what it means, make sure they know that. If you use the expressions we just looked at for when you didn’t hear someone, they might just repeat what they said. But if you didn’t understand the first time, chances are you won’t understand the second time. So how do you make it clear that you haven’t understood?

Well, avoid just saying “I don’t understand.” That feels too blunt and direct. Instead, try, “I’m not sure I follow you.” Or, say a speaker uses the expression “contingency plan” and you don’t know what that means. You can say, “Could you explain what you mean by contingency plan?” Or, “What exactly do you mean by contingency plan?” These kinds of expressions let the speaker know that you haven’t understood, not just that you haven’t heard.

Okay, so in some cases you might think you understand, but you’re not sure. So you want to clarify by checking your understanding. The first thing you can do is paraphrase what someone has said and ask for confirmation that your interpretation is correct. Paraphrasing just means saying the same thing but in different words. And you can do this by acknowledging what someone has said, restating it, and confirming with a tag question.

Here’s an example: if someone says “we anticipate that the share price will continue to soar,” you might say “I see, so you’re saying the stock will remain high, right?” Or if someone says “our marketing strategy needs a complete overhaul,” you can say “okay, you mean we need to change our strategy, right?” If you’re correct, the speaker will let you know. And if you’re incorrect, he will explain. Notice that the tag question “right?” is a yes/no question. Yes/no questions make it easy for the speaker to confirm your understanding or provide further explanation if you misunderstood.

Another technique for clarifying what someone has said is echoing to get confirmation or more explanation. This means repeating the key idea with question intonation. So if someone says “this year’s recruitment drive needs to be more aggressive,” you might say “it needs to be more aggressive?” In this way, you’re inviting more detail or examples. And the speaker might come back with “yes, last year we missed our goal. This year we need to work extra hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” Now you can be sure what the speaker meant.

Now, here’s a word of warning: some of the questions we use for clarifying can also be used to cast doubt on someone’s ideas or opinions. We act surprised and ask for confirmation to show that we disagree or don’t believe what someone has said. Sometimes our intonation makes it clear what our purpose is, but it’s often best to make it extra clear by adding something like “just to clarify” or “just so I understand here” to the beginning or end of a question. You don’t want someone get bent out of shape because he thinks you disagree him.

Now let’s recap. When you don’t hear someone, just politely let them know. If you don’t understand, tell the person, but don’t be too blunt or direct about it. And to avoid misunderstanding or invite greater explanation, you can use paraphrasing or echoing. So, now you’ve got clarifying techniques to go along with the listening techniques we learned last time. Remember, listening and clarifying go hand in hand. And with these tools and a spirit of understanding, you can improve your communication skills.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.