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How to talk so people will talk: Ask for clarification even when you don't need clarification

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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In a customer interview, we often do things that might not come naturally in a normal conversation. We pause for longer than is comfortable, we purposefully deflect conversation away from ourselves or our own opinions, and we use phrases that show understanding rather than sharing our own similar experiences.
Remember this list about ways we keep an interview flowing?
  • Not interrupting the person
  • Not explaining anything when they point out something wrong
  • Not negating them in any way
  • Leaving pauses for them to fill
  • Encouraging them on (here)
  • Asking for clarification
The one I’m going to tell you about today is going to seem even weirder than validating statements and it’s probably going to go against how you were socialized. It is:
Asking for clarification even when we don’t need clarification.
This is a really effective way to get someone to say more about a topic and dive deeper.
This might sound like:
  • Can I just make sure I understand what the steps look like? First you have to get approval from your manager, then you talk to someone in procurement. Can you just say more about that?
  • You just said how you first go to your project manager, then you go ask your manager for permission, then you’re allowed to use the p-card, and then you get the receipt in your email, then you have to upload the receipt to Expensify. Does that sound right?
  • I just want to make sure I have this correctly. First you open up a new browser tab, then you open your email in your browser, then you open the calendar in your browser?
Maybe asking for clarification intentionally, even when you don’t need it, feels weird to you or somewhat uncomfortable. If you went through the traditional schooling system, there’s a chance that you were made to feel ashamed about question-asking at some point. The kid who asks a lot of questions for clarification is made to feel like an annoyance and like they’re holding everyone else back. So I just want to tell you that your unease about it is normal, and it makes sense, and I understand if you’re doubting the value of it.
(For as much as I was the kid raising my hand sharing relevant but likely only-interesting-to-me anecdotes that weren’t in the textbook in history class, I was the kid constantly asking for clarification in math who only seemed to grasp the concepts two weeks after the test.)
But repeating things back to someone is a powerful way to show that we are actively listening.
It shows that we are actively trying to understand how something looks from someone else’s perspective. That’s why with these questions, we again want to use our most harmless voice possible. (I feel like I keep using that phrase.) We want to make it clear we are just asking for more details, rather than challenging them. These clarification questions should almost should almost be said deferentially.
If you feel comfortable asking for clarification, there’s an optional level-up here: restate things slightly wrong. I have a former coworker who would intentionally misstate what the person had said so they would correct them and over-explain. And they would get incredibly detailed information back from people.
For example, in the example above about submitting a receipt, if we wanted to intentionally misstate that to get more details, we might say:
“You just said how you first go to your manager, then you talk to the project manager, then you’re allowed to use the p-card, and then you get the receipt in your email, then you have to upload the receipt to Expensify.”
It’s only slightly different – the order of manager and project manager is flipped – but getting their clarification on this gives us a window to, in this case, finding out just how the approvals happen for purchasing new software.
Our goal is to get the customer talking and get as much detail as possible (on the subject at hand). Restating what they’ve said shows we’re listening, shows that we’re interested, and helps us dive to deeper levels.

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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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