The Power of Clarification

Joan Marques - MBA, Doctoral Student
Burbank, California - September 2002

Elegance of language may not be in the power of all of us but simplicity and straight forwardness are. Write much as you would speak speak as you think. If with your inferior, speak no coarser than usual if with your superiors, no finer. Be what you say and, within the rules of prudence, say what you are.

-- Alford

It's a human imperfection to assume that others understand what we are talking about. We therefore often make the mistake of being too concise or incomplete in providing information. The logical consequence is: misinterpretation and malpractice. Not deliberately, but simply because the ones we explained the issue to may either assume that they understood us well (only to find later that they didn't), or they may be too embarrassed to ask for clarification - fearing to be seen as thickheaded or ignorant.


And thus, we stumble on. We keep using unfinished sentences, abbreviations, jargon, and shortcuts to explain our issues, and just expect everyone to possess the magic skills of looking inside our heads. Now, aside from the fact that it would be quite an embarrassment to us if everyone could really look inside our heads and read our minds, it's a given that most people simply don't have that ability.


If only we could be confronted with our words after having had a conversation with someone, we would hear how incomplete or confusing we sound at times. The easiest way to test our clarity - or the lack thereof - is, to rapidly type what we want to say, just as we would say it, and subsequently take some time to read what we wrote. It's almost unbelievable when we start counting how many changes we are urged to apply then...and it's even more thwarting to find how many inconsistencies and unclear statements we need to correct. However, after having done this exercise a few times, we routinely become more careful with our word choice and -phrasing in spoken communication.


Particularly in work environments it can be a great time-, money-, and stress-saver if we would care to attempt the following strategies:

  1. Make sure we use uncomplicated wording
  2. Depending on the importance of the subject/task/issue, discuss it first with one or two others to obtain their feedback and, hence, make sure we are clear.
  3. Always ask the receiver if he/she really has no questions or need for clarification.
  4. Leave room for intermediate contact, so that the receiver can always get back to us after the info has sunk in.

Simple clarifications have been known to solve complex procedural and interpersonal problems in work- as well as private settings. Lack of clarification, on the other hand, has more than once led to separation and long-term disruption of relationships just because something was either not explained well, or misunderstood due to the poor way it was communicated. Remember that expensive words will not necessarily result in favorable outcomes! ?Analysis and synthesis ordinarily clarify matters for us about as much as taking a Swiss watch apart and dumping its wheels, springs, hands, threads, pivots, screws and gears into a layman's hands for reassembling, clarifies a watch to a layman.? (Author Unknown)


So, clarify! And keep it simple at the same time. And although we will probably never be able to eradicate all possible "noise" in our communication with others, we can at least decrease the number of mishaps by following the simple steps mentioned above. And the pay off to this extra effort will manifest itself when we least expect it...