Need more information in a professional situation, business meeting, seminar, or conference? Ask for clarification, NOT an explanation.
Imagine yourself in this situation:
After listening carefully to your colleague’s presentation in a business meeting, you realize you still need a little more information before giving your feedback.
You understand his overall ideas, but would like a few more details, so you ask him this question: “Could you please explain this to me?”
But for some reason, he starts over from the beginning, as if you didn’t understand anything he said at all. What happened?
The reality is that there’s a subtle, but significant, difference between the words “explain” and “clarify.”
The Subtle Difference Between Explain and Clarify
When you ask someone to explain something to you, it suggests that you’re pretty lost, that you missed key points, or that they need to give you a more in-depth explanation so that you fully understand.
When you ask someone to clarify something for you, it suggests that you are following what the person is saying and understand the majority or all of the key points, but you need more details on a certain point.
Or perhaps the other person wasn’t fully clear (it happens!) so they need to restate their idea another way.
Of course, if you do need a longer, more detailed explanation, you want to use the verb “explain” rather than “clarify.”
But if you only need a small detail explained to you, choose the verb “clarify” instead.
Learning to clarify what you heard and confirm your understanding are two of the most important conversation skills in English.
They show the other person that you are listening carefully and participating in the conversation, and that you want to be sure you understood everything.
When I share ways to clarify what you heard, you’ll notice that the verb “explain” is almost completely absent.
If you do choose to use “explain,” be sure to be very specific about what you need explained, naming a particular idea, detail, or viewpoint.
Instead of asking, “Could you please explain…?” be sure to ask, “Could you please clarify…?” instead.
Have you ever asked someone to explain something when you should have asked them to clarify? What happened? Leave a comment and share your story.
If you need any clarification on other words that can make a big difference in how confident you sound in English, let me know below!
For more on clarifying, check out these videos: