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I need to email someone that his reply doesn't truly answer the questions in my original email. 1 below appears too brusque, and would insult and offend:

  1. Sorry, but your reply doesn't appear to answer my question.

2 will less likely offend but it appears, and makes me appear, disingenuous, because it masquerades my certainty (of the reply's failing to answer my question) as doubt.

  1. I am not sure/certain that your reply answers my question.
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    Consider including what your question was and the response they gave. It would add context and more detail for answers – Jesse Nov 30 '17 at 4:28
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Communication involves two people. Instead of making a statement about the other one, make a statement about yourself. For example:

It looks like I wasn't clear enough, sorry. My question is: (simplest restatement you can come up with). Do you know / do you have that info / can you help?

My job involves a lot of written communication. Even when I suspect the other is evading (not confused), I get better results when I use this approach and say nothing that sounds like an accusation. Besides, it might be true -- we always think we're being clear and we assume that the other person perfectly understands, but that's not always the case. (See The Illusion of Transparency for research details.) Give the benefit of the doubt, or at least give the appearance of giving the benefit of the doubt.

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    +1 for benefit of the doubt. I'd also add that adding in, "let me know if additional clarification is needed from my end" can help open the door for potential questions they might have on what you're asking. – Jess K. Nov 30 '17 at 4:53
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    +1. I'd probably also start off with "Thanks" (or "Thanks for getting back to me", or similar). – psmears Dec 1 '17 at 11:03
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    +1 for implicit Hanlon's Razor. It really helps with reducing stress to not even waste a thought if the other party is being malicious or not. – Mindwin Dec 1 '17 at 12:11
  • I'm not sure that this phrasing really avoids making a statement about the other person. What are we to take clear "enough" to mean? By throwing "enough" in there, you risk implying that you aimed for and reached some level of clarity, which turns out to be insufficient for your current audience. Or to put it another way, it may be natural to read an implicit "... for someone as obtuse as you to understand" after "enough". If you're really being careful to avoid insult, I'd go with "Sorry, my previous question was unclear." and leave the "looks like" and "enough" out of it. – Mark Amery Dec 1 '17 at 12:31
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    @rackandboneman I think that's one of the best phrases to spread the blame mutually. You acknowledge that the information you received could address what you had asked. You are putting the blame on yourself for the ambiguity in the question. Either they interpreted it wrong, or you asked a bad question, regardless, what matters is that the question requires an adequate answer. You just have to acknowledge that the previous question didn't get an adequate answer, so that the person answering doesn't rehash the same thing. You put the blame mostly on yourself by saying "I wasn't clear". – JMac Dec 1 '17 at 19:17
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Monica's suggestions are all very good, but you could also consider phrasing your response like this:

I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I fully understand. (and then rephrase your question in different terms)

By phrasing it like this, you avoid the accusatory tone from your original question ("Your reply was not good enough"), and you also avoid any demeaning connotation ("You clearly failed to understand my question, so I will restate it more simply for you"). Rather, phrasing it this way blames the misunderstanding on yourself and gives the other person a chance to offer more details.

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    I wouldn't go with this. It can be easy to miss the intent when you aren't speaking in person, so a person simply reading this in an email might misunderstand this line and they may just expand on the answer that doesn't answer the question. – kirkpatt Nov 30 '17 at 21:46
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Ah, thank you for explaining the connection between A and Z!

Can you please also explain Q? To reiterate the key point from my earlier (rather lengthy) email:

How exactly does Q integrate with Z to provide X? And how many P can I expect from Q because of Z?

There's nothing wrong with simply reiterating your question. Just be sure to acknowledge the information they gave you, even if it wasn't what you wanted.

Acknowledgement is the key. When you acknowledge first, they will not be upset or offended.

Even if you can't make head or tail of the response, you can still acknowledge the fact that they responded. For example:

Hi B,

Thanks for your rapid response. I'm sorry, but I don't really understand what you're telling me about F. Is that connected in some way to Q?

What I would like to know is how Q works. More exactly, my question is:

How exactly does Q integrate with Z to provide X? And how many P can I expect from Q because of Z?

Just politely repeat the question. It actually works better if you repeat the exact question than anything else, providing of course that you word your question clearly and succinctly in the first place.

(I know this is an unusual suggestion to repeat the exact question rather than changing it up; all I have to say is: try it. You're likely to be surprised. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I have observed the results carefully and I speak from experience, not intuition.)

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    Repeating the exact wording of the original question isn't going to help any more this time round. Far better to explain that you are re-phrasing it, to clear up any ambivalences, which you feel have lead to this state. – Tim Dec 2 '17 at 11:00
  • @Tim please carefully reread the final two paragraphs of this answer, particularly noting the "providing" clause. – Wildcard Dec 2 '17 at 12:13
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Note that I am making a bit of a guess here, as this answer does not specifically address the context. Furthermore, I am assuming a situation where both the asked and the asker somewhat do not work against each other - i.e. the asked has at least a tangential interest in helping the asker, instead of just getting the issue out of the way.

How do you tactfully write that someone's reply doesn't truly answer your question?

You do not.

Your goal is to get an answer to your question. It is not to accuse the answerer of anything.

You simply ask again, phrasing the question differently. To the asked, it does not make any difference whether from your point of view, you are repeating the original question. In most contexts, it is completely acceptable to make them feel you are doing one of the following:

  • Asking a new, follow-up question.
  • Inquiring explicitly about a special case that was not covered in the original question and answer.
  • Critically commenting on the answer and possibly pointing out a factual flaw that requires a revised answer.

If the asked realizes you are actually just repeating the question in other words - fine. They will be happy you did not make an issue out of it (which, I'd say, does count as tactful behaviour). If they don't - just as well. They will not feel embarrassed, and possibly yet provide a more fitting answer the next time, in case they realize only then the expected level of detail/coverage of certain aspects/etc. when you ask questions.

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    "How do you tactfully write that someone's reply doesn't truly answer your question? You do not." I don't really agree with this part of it. It can be extremely beneficial for the person answering to know that your previous response wasn't really helpful. You don't want to blame the person answering; but I don't see any benefit to misleading them either. I would generally blame myself for the misunderstanding; but I would also make it clear we weren't on the same page; just to try and make sure we get on the same page. – JMac Dec 1 '17 at 19:27
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Thanks for your reply, it's very helpful. I'm sorry but I'm still a little confused about 'x'. In particular...

This is the way to respond. They did take time to respond, you recognize it and show appreciation. You put the misunderstanding on your end "sorry for my confusion" diffuses any tension by not putting the blame on them. And then you specify the thing you need.

If again you do not get a good answer, I would call and talk to them on the phone.

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The current responses cover a number of different useful approaches. Which you take depends on context, and the preferred outcome.

Thanks for the information about [the wrong topic]. It's great reference for [general company info/ approach to some problem or anything true]

[Repeat your question] I wanted information on [the right topic]. [Give an example of the type of information you're looking for] I may not be using the right term. Maybe [right synonym 1] or [right synonym 2] would be better. Which would you suggest?

If you have a friendly relationship with this person, then a bit of humor can often take the sting out.

I'm sometimes an idiot when I send emails in a rush :( Must remember to stop doing that.

Most people accept that communication can be difficult. Be upfront and kind in the interaction. The best measure for me is how I would react if the email was send to my partner. If you would accept that, then the tone is appropriate.

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