How to Ask an Interviewer to Clarify a Question Without Making Things Awkward

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Truth talk: Just because someone’s in the position to be interviewing you doesn’t mean that person’s good at it. I’ll be honest, when I used to do it regularly; I was in that boat—a lot. And my biggest flaw? I didn’t always ask questions clearly.

For example, take this all-too-common exchange between myself and a candidate:

“So, um, tell me a time when, you know, things were not so great.”

“Well…”

It doesn’t take much to see that the question above is super unclear. Which obviously makes it challenging to answer. So, even though you really don’t want to sound like a jerk, there’s a j-o-b on the line and this is your chance to sell yourself as the right person for the position. So asking for clarification’s not just something you should do, but something you need to do.

The trick to doing it without offending the asker is to follow these three steps.

  1. Blame Yourself

It can be jarring in any conversation, much less an interview, when you ask someone to repeat him- or herself by saying, “Hey, your question makes absolutely no sense. Could you ask me again in a way that I can actually comprehend?”

You’re probably thinking, “I’d never say anything like that to anyone.” If so, I’ve said the same thing to myself in the past, only to find myself playing the “you, you, you” game over and over again.

Instead of beating an interviewer down for being unclear, let’s take that not-so-great response and apply some one of those classic “I” statements to the conversation.

“So, um, tell me a time when, you know, things were not so great.”

“I’d love to, but before I ramble on about something completely off-topic, would you like to hear about a specific project or something more general?”

These “I” statements make the person on the receiving end feel much less like he or she’s messed up—and therefore, much more open to rephrasing the question in a way that makes sense.

But, before you use that exact template, use your intuition to figure out what kind of interviewer you’re dealing with here. If he or she’s going out of his or her way to make you feel comfortable, feel free to make fun of yourself like I did above. However, if he or she is more buttoned-up, save your sense of humor for other folks on the team who you can think would welcome that.

  1. Ask Additional Questions First

Let’s go back to that wishy-washy question we discussed earlier. “Things were not so great” could mean a number of things, so to answer the question in this exact format could throw you off your game. The best interviews I’ve been on—as a hiring manager and a candidate—have felt more like a conversation than a thesis defense. So, this is a great opportunity to engage the hiring manager and make it clear you’re listening.

Here’s what that earlier conversation looks like when the contender asks a couple additional questions before proceeding.

“So, um, tell me a time when, you know, things were not so great.”

“Just so I’m answering the right question—would you like me to speak to a project I wish had gone differently, or just a general time when things at work weren’t awesome? I’m happy to discuss either.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, tell me about a project that didn’t go as planned.”

Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but this is generally what happened whenever I needed to add a little clarity to one of my questions. I was never offended; in fact, I was usually relieved that I had found a candidate who really was listening to me.

  1. Gently Ask the Person to Repeat the Question

As the person asking the unclear question, I was always more than happy to oblige. In fact, rather than simply repeating what I had just said, it usually made me rethink the way I originally phrased it. And I can honestly say I was never, ever offended when someone asked me to repeat it. While you might be nervous about interrupting an interview to ask for clarification, read the interaction below (which I’ve experienced at least a couple times) and see if it sounds at all offensive or jarring to you.

“So, um, tell me a time when, you know, things were not so great.”

“I’m so sorry, but just so I know I’m answering the right question, could you repeat that?”

“Of course! I’d love to hear about a time when you thought a project you were working on could have gone differently.”

See? It’s not so bad. And while none of my interviews have ever been recorded, I can speak to the fact that this happens more often than you think. So don’t be afraid to ask when you’re unsure of what exactly you’re being asked to answer.

Even if you find yourself in a room with the rudest interviewer ever, don’t feel like you can’t ask for more clarity around a question if you need it. You’ve done a lot of hard work to score this meeting—so if you feel like you’re about to ramble on because you actually aren’t sure what you’re being asked, get the additional info you need. There’s no need to be afraid of asking someone to rephrase a question, and if the hiring manager isn’t willing to do it, you probably deserve much better anyway.

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