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15 Tips for Asking Better Clarifying Questions

interview tips Mar 15, 2022
Better Clarifying Questions

These are the three most common reasons I hear from clients on why they asked no clarifying questions to my hypothetical question:

  1.   The question was straightforward.
  2.   I already knew the answer.
  3.   I couldn’t think of any questions.

They aren’t taking the time to ask clarifying questions and this may lead to weaker responses. Asking clarifying questions shows you are engaged in the interview process and it will help better understand how to craft your response. 

Here are 15 tips I recommend to help you prepare and ask better clarifying questions during your interview:

Item #1—Future State

Remember the interviewer is trying to picture you in the role. If you aren’t asking clarifying questions, they might assume that you will have this same level of engagement when interacting with others, in meetings, etc. Interviewers want to see someone who is asking good questions and interested in seeking clarity. 

Item #2—Interviewer Preference

Do you really know what your interviewer, Sue, wants to focus on, or are you assuming you know what she wants to hear? The truth is you never know for sure, and Sue’s own preferences may change on a daily basis. 

Item #3—Data

Clarifying questions are an introduction of data. Even if your interviewer doesn't answer any of your questions, you have presented data points to them. These data points begin the exchange of information. 

Item #4—Planning

You have to go into your interview with a plan. You should have already identified some key foundational themes in your preparation. Start with the job description, think about the needs of your role and practice with others. This will help you come into the interview with some general clarifying questions already prepared, while also enabling you to come up with good questions during the course of the conversation.

Item #5—Clarify the Question

The obvious goal of asking clarifying questions is to clarify the questions being asked. Write down each one and restate it. Make sure you understand the point of the question and the information they need to hear. Getting this step right will be a difference-maker that sets you apart from the competition.

Item #6—Timing & Flow

It’s critical to understand how to ask clarifying questions. The first question should always come with a pause after you state it. Build in the necessary space to let your interviewer answer the question. For secondary questions, you may group some together. Just be careful to watch your pace. Don’t rush it. Present your questions thoughtfully and allow time for the interviewer to respond. 

Item #7—Clean & Simple

It’s easy to fall into the habit of trying to answer your own questions by adding too much context at the end of your questions—sometimes even answering your own questions. Sometimes the grouping of questions can make your question unclear. Keep your questions clean and simple, and try to clearly distinguish between one question and the next. 

Item #8—Data

Clarifying questions are your opportunity to present data to your interviewer. They might now answer any of your questions, but you are starting to demonstrate the data you consider when making decisions.

Item #9—Structure

This is one of the most difficult items associated with clarifying questions. It’s tempting to ask open-ended questions of your own. This can leave a bad impression if the interviewer thinks you are trying to get them to answer the question for you. It’s very important that all of your clarifying questions are clear and closed, so that they can be answered with simple yes/no or either/or responses. 

Item #10—The What

There are some common areas to focus on and types of questions that I like to ask. I suggest you watch my full video below (skip to this section starting at 6:57) for some great examples and ideas that you can use in your next interview.

Item #11—Word Clarification

Once you have written the question down, circle the words that seem ambiguous. Note any part of the question that seems unclear or requires further clarification. Then, you can utilize a couple of your planned questions first, followed by clarifying these ambiguous items.

Item #12—Number

Typically, I like about 3-5 questions. You are trying to build a connection with your interviewer, so you don’t want to ask too many questions. However, you usually need at least three clarifying questions to gather the amount of data necessary for your answer.

Item #13—Re-Ask

There may be a need to re-ask certain questions and seek even better clarity from your interviewer. Don’t push too quickly into your framework until you know exactly what the question is asking.

Item #14—Thought Process

Some interviewers may shut you down right away. They’ll tell you they already gave you all the data you need and will refuse to answer your questions. I still want you to follow all the same exact steps as above. The only difference to keep in mind is your tone. Change your approach from a questioning tone to more of a thought process tone. For example, instead of asking “Is this a new or existing program?” you would phrase it like an out-loud thought: “I’d be thinking if this is a new or existing program.” You can still build in a pause to see if the interviewer interjects, and then go through your other items as you roll into your framework.

Item #15—Framework Connectivity

When we move onto the framework stage, you can reiterate concepts that you used in your clarifying questions. You may have asked questions about historical data, stakeholders or scope of the project. Bring these themes back in to show your connectivity to the open-ended questions and hypothetical scenarios.

For more great interview tips, check out my YouTube Channel, follow my blog or sign up on Practice Interviews to gain access to additional coaching resources.

Jeff H. Sipe

Jeff has interviewed over 1000 people in his career and previously spent five years working at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. You likely found Jeff through YouTube and you will find the same level of dedication in his one on one practice interview sessions.

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