Ask clarifying questions

Thank you to the thousands of people who made the launch of Do Better Work so special. I am overjoyed with the reception and so grateful.

I’ll be sharing some excerpts from the book for the next few weeks. Here’s one from chapter 4, Ask Clarifying Questions:

I know people who treat their intuition like a finite resource, conserving it for moments when it’s required. In all other occasions, when more clarity is possible, they ask for it. They probe for potential nuance. They ask questions about questions. In doing so, they show respect for the topic at hand and demonstrate their desire to positively contribute to it.

I want to be more like these people, and I want you to be too. We have the power to change our lives and our work by asking more clarifying questions. We don’t have to be so reliant on our intuition. We don’t have to guess our way to understanding. We can help ourselves and others get to “I get it.” All we have to do is spend more time raising our hands. So how do we motivate ourselves to do that?

Two things keep me vigilant:

1. We are all cursed

We all live under the curse of knowledge. It’s a psychological phenomenon where we assume everyone has learned the same things we have. It turns out that once we know something, it becomes hard to imagine _not_ knowing it, so we unwittingly treat others as if they have the same background information we do. When we omit specific details as though they were obvious, or use acronyms and jargon as though they were everyday English, that’s the curse of knowledge at work. Knowing we are all prone to under-explanation keeps me motivated to ask clarifying questions.

2. Life is not a TV show

You’ve probably seen an Aaron Sorkin drama. He wrote The West Wing, The Newsroom, The Social Network, and A Few Good Men, among many other shows and movies. Sorkin is famous for his characters’ whip-smart dialogue. In the worlds he creates, people process information with cocaine quickness and calculator precision. They are ready in milliseconds with retorts that are both forthright and sharp. It’s impressive stuff! It leaves you thinking Sorkin’s characters—no matter how exhausting or unrealistic—are smart.

I think we fail to ask clarifying questions because we want to look smart too. We want to appear as savvy as characters in a well-written drama.

The problem is, life is not a TV show. When we act like we get it because we think we should, we allow for miscommunication that is entirely avoidable. Our goal as teammates is to get everybody on the same page. So next time you hear a vague question or statement, rather than being the person who wants to look impressive, be the person who keeps everyone aligned. Ask clarifying questions over and over again until the matter isn’t so vague anymore.

Clarifying questions have changed my relationships—at home and at work—for the better. I hope they do the same for you.


This is Max’s note—a weekly message from Lessonly’s CEO about learning, leadership, and doing Better Work. Sign up below to subscribe via email. No spam, we promise!

Today is an exciting day for me
Tell me about a time when this went well