The One Problem Any Career Girl Will Face—& How To Fix It

Photographed Pheobe Chuason.
Speaking up when you don't understand something is always tricky — even in everyday life. "I totally know these obscure indie artists you're name-dropping every five minutes." In the workplace, however, asking for clarification can be even trickier.

"Sometimes people can't properly communicate their ideas, and then they get snippy when I can't discern what they mean," one designer told me. "Honestly, sometimes I just have to take the bullet and say 'I'm not understanding correctly,' instead of implying that they were unclear, because people get upset."

Communication problems will crop up whenever you're working with other people, and even more so when you're dealing with clients and getting feedback. "People always believe they said much more and were much more clear than they actually were," social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson told us.

Still, Halvorson, who has spoken to us about women leadership and perception, says calling out colleagues is never a good idea — especially clients. "It's important with clients to not make it sound like the client was unclear, even if he or she was," Halvorson says. "Accusing them of being unclear will just make them defensive and angry."

So, how does one ask for clarification without coming across as incompetent, and without offending your clients? "Always thank them first for the feedback," says Nick Papadopoulos, a partner and senior leadership development consultant at Think Human. "It gets people off the defensive."

Then, come right out and say that you want to be absolutely sure that you're understanding what they are saying. "The way to come across as competent is to be an amazing listener, to say, 'I want to make sure that I got this right,'" Papadopoulos says. "Say to somebody, 'Hey, this is a really important time in our project, our relationship is really important, and I want to make sure I got this right. Here's what I'm sensing from you. Is this accurate?'"

Both Halvorson and Papadopoulos agree that the key is to repeat back to your colleague what you think they said, and ask them to correct you if you get it wrong. This allows you to clearly convey the information you're getting from them, and opens the discussion for more detailed direction.

Whether you're working with clients or you're a client yourself, asking questions shouldn't be a big deal. "As human beings, we're like meaning-making machines," Papadopoulos says. "We make stuff up constantly. So it's really important that people check in with each other, and I don't think we do it enough."

More often than not, asking and clarifying will make you seem more competent, especially when you ace that project. So ask away — and don't be scared. "More often than not, people actually don't think that you are incompetent when you ask questions or seek clarity," Halvorson says. "We all assume this is the case, but there's no evidence for it."

More from Work & Money


R29 Original Series