LIndsay Lapaquette

LIndsay Lapaquette

I work with organizations who want to elevate team performance by refining leadership communication skills.

How to Ask for Clarification in an Email

You know those emails you receive where you don’t even understand what’s being asked of you?

You’re left feeling confused – not sure if you’re even supposed to do something.  Or if you are, you aren’t clear what exactly is being asked of you.

how to ask for clarification in an email

Maybe you sent a reply to try to clarify, but the answer you got back left you feeling ever more confused than the first one.

I remember a distinctive exchange I had with someone I had hired to help me with some SEO.  After 3 or 4 email exchanges it was glaringly obvious that neither of us was really understanding what the other person was trying to say. 

I felt like we were speaking two completely different languages.

Knowing how to ask for clarification in an e-mail can be tough.

Communication is complex in any form. With written communication, it can be even trickier to fully understand what someone is trying to convey.  To add on to this, emails are often thrown together quickly and aren’t always reviewed before sending, making them sometimes incomplete or vague.

how to ask for clarification in an email

With any form of written communication, we lose all of the supplemental non-verbal information that typically accompanies verbal messages.  For instance, we can’t see the other person’s body language.  We can’t hear their tone of voice.  We aren’t able to see their facial expressions.

Written communication is asynchronous, which means that there is a time delay between each individual’s contribution to the exchange.  This is very different than an in-person conversation, or a phone or videoconference call, where communication is synchronous. In other words, during verbal communication, both parties engage in the conversation at the same time, whereas they do not during written communication.

This opens the door to additional communication gaps in written communication.  We can’t infer when the other person hasn’t understood something we’ve said from their facial expressions.  We can’t adjust how we are explaining, based on the other person’s response.  We can’t tell whether someone is agreeing or disagreeing with us as we speak.

We’re simply left with the written words.  And we have to try to figure out what the person means without the contextual cues.

The potential communication gaps are endless.

Sometimes, e-mail exchanges go very smoothly.  Other times, it can be profoundly confusing and frustrating.

We wonder how to ask for clarification in an email.

And the solution is actually quite simple – pick up the phone!

When your email attempts at clarification have failed, or when someone has written you about a sensitive topic that is difficult to discuss, simply know that email is not the best forum for the discussion.  You’ll find resolution to your question of how to ask for clarification in an email much quicker if you simply don’t do it by e-mail.

Pick up the phone and have a quick discussion.  In the end, that 5-minute phone call will end up saving you a lot of time and frustration.

Now, if, by chance, the email exchange is heated or leaves you feeling intensely frustrated (for instance, if you feel you’re being blamed for something, etc.), then my suggestion would be to not pick up the phone right away.

Give yourself some time to cool down first.  Then make the call once you are calmer and will be more likely to be able to engage in an honest, open discussion so you can truly get to the bottom of things.

In sum, if your email exchanges are getting you nowhere, abandon the exchange of multiple emails that are leading to no solution and speak to the person directly instead.

If the discussion that you need to have is one that you’re not looking forward to engaging in, here are a few more tips on how to have how to have a difficult conversation to help you navigate these tough conversations with ease.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Shrink the Reactive Zone: Navigate Workplace Conflict with Ease

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How to Ask for Clarification Politely

Lindsay Lapaquette, M.Sc.(A) works with organizations who want to invest in elevating team performance by refining leadership communication skills. Lindsay’s background as a former Speech-Language Pathologist, specialized in working with clients with social interaction challenges, brings a unique perspective that helps leaders and organizations get to the root of complex communication issues so they can save time, money and sanity.

Lindsay’s approach has been profoundly influenced by her work with First Nations organizations, her experience as a parent to two children with pervasive mental health challenges, and the premature loss of both of her parents. These experiences have taught Lindsay great lessons about the power of excellent people skills that extend beyond her professional expertise.

To learn more about Lindsay’s programs, please visit

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