The magic of clarifying questions

Recently an invitation to a workshop for a spring retreat came into my in-mail. I thought ‘wow’ great! I did not have the intention to participate but I noticed the effort, pictured a nice group of people in my head and was happy with it.

A few minutes later the first response popped up. Someone – also a member of the target group but not part of the hosting group – replied. The request was about the background of the invitation. In this respect it was a typical clarifying question. AND it had some reservations about the invitation itself. To cut a long story short, following these initial emails there was a huge thread of emails: from the hosts, giving some background information, from members of the target group, from people not being in the target group. All of them stating their emotions regarding the invitation, bringing up things from the past, bewilderment, hurt feelings, anger.  All from one invitation that has been sent with the best intentions.

We all know situations like this: someone says something or writes something and as listener or reader, we might immediately feel something. The feeling part happens on autopilot, a stimulus causes an emotional reaction. And there is nothing wrong with it – it simply is.

And then we make a choice. In a situation like the above I distinct three possible reactions:

  • Waiting. Maybe there is more information coming that completes what has been written (or said) and puts everything into perspective.
    If we choose to wait, our thoughts may possibly wander around that topic. If we can set the topic aside in our thoughts and relax, it is beneficial.
  • Reacting – we act spontanously. That means mostly that we immediately voice feelings, concerns, opinions about what we think is happening. Usually this contains a lot of assumptions. Also other emotions connected with the broader topic might surface at this point.
    If we choose to react, we could start some kind of ‘chain-reaction’ that we actually did not intend to.
  • Responding – we act deliberately. That means acting after we took our time to to do that from a position of being in our power. If we are in a very strong (and negative) emotional state, we have to shift to something we would rate as ‘better’. Our view becomes clearer and we are able to review what is actually happening. This is when we ideally can ask clarifying questions.

If we choose to respond we create more possibilities, for ourselves and others.

Change your emotional state

We basically try to feel better and thus being able to use ‘more’ of us than just our emotions. How can we do this?

  • Have a (long) walk in nature
  • Go to the Gym
  • Listen to music that cheers us up
  • Meditate
  • Talk to a friend
  • Do something good for ourselves
  • Use breathing techniques

are some examples. In their book ‘Ask and it is given’ Esther and Jerry Hicks present a lot of techniques for changing emotional state.

Sometimes it happens quickly, at other times it may take a while until we feel ready to respond.

It is especially important to have some techniques at hand, if you have to change your emotional state on the spot (you give a speech – your audience does not seem to listen or reacts in a way you did not expect, you facilitate a meeting and a question pushes one of your ‘buttons’). Also in situations like these clarifying questions can be very helpful.

What to ask

One way of responding is to ask clarifying question.

  • Can you tell more about xy?
  • What is the reason behind xy?
  • I’m curious, why did you choose to xy?
  • When you were designing x, what were your considerations?
  • What do you think is the possible outcome of xy?
  • I feel much excited energy in this room – did I miss something?

Clarifying questions ideally come from a place of curiosity, of a place of wanting to get more information so that we can evaluate if this is something we have to follow up with or not.

The magic of clarifying questions

Can you remember a situation where you had a very strong negative emotional reaction only to learn that what has happened was actually something completely different than you originally thought and reacted upon? I certainly did. Asking clarifying questions would have been very helpful. And sometimes it is like all the air suddenly oozing out of a ‘balloon’ full of anger, overwhelm and despair. These are the moments that seem almost magical.

The magic of clarifying questions can include but is not limited to

  • the situation presenting itself completely different than you (and others) had initialy thought and there is nothing to do for you, nothing to feel unsafe.
  • you being able to sort out things, that have nothing to do with the topic.
  • you and others not having to undergo an emotional rollercoaster.
  • you discover that there is a huge underlying topic that you was not aware of so far – like a completely different set of assumptions. This might be something that needs a special time and space to be dealt with.

The following aspects summarize the most important qualities of using clarifying questions in challenging situations:

  • Thematic: Only when we create room for dialogue (truly listening and speaking), there is a real chance to solve issues that have been under the surface for a long time.
  • Emotional: If we can reduce or avoid negative emotions in these situations we nurture supportive relationships and a better understanding of the topics that need to be adressed.

In the situation that I have described initially there are several underlying causes that amplified the reactions. Written communication is especially dangerous in those situations as it tends to develop a life of it’s own and often adds to disharmony instead of contributing to a good solution.

Just imagine…

Asking clarifying questions alone won’t solve those causes. But they allow for a container to be set up, where those underlying causes can be handled instead of adding more to negative emotions.

Can you imagine, how you could have handeled a challenging situation much better, if you had asked clarifying questions? It might not always be the solution that we were aiming for, but clarity lets us use our time and energy much more conscious and effective.

This Blog-Post in german language

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