This week, Sam Falco is joined by Andrea Chiou to discuss the topic of clean language.
In their conversation, they discuss clean language, what it is, what it’s not, where it originated from, its applications, and the barriers or challenges to using clean language (and how to address them). Andrea also outlines key clean language questions, how to know when and where to use them, and what you can do to further improve your clean language.
- What is clean language?
- A label that describes a set of questions that are used in a process to help people think through their intentions and better understand one another
- Non-leading questions that elevate and amplify the inherent diversity of skills, knowledge, and styles of working in a team
- A powerful way of getting everyone to pay attention to one another and create a system of learning, listening, inquiry, and mutual support
- It is a set of 12 core questions that are non-leading and assumption-free
- The use of these short “clean questions” puts the emphasis on the keywords that demonstrate to the person that you’re asking that you are hearing them and you empathize with them (i.e. you’re using their words, not your interpretation of their words)
- Where clean language originated from:
- There are four main branches of how clean language has evolved: 1) symbolic modeling 2) systemic modeling 3) clean space 4) clean interviewing
- Clean language applications:
- When interviewing others to gather information (ask questions that are not leading, so as not to influence the answers)
- It is often used in person-change work (coaches, counselors, psychologists, etc.)
- It can be used as an information-gathering tool by market researchers, journalists, business and system analysts, developers, etc.
- Using clean language in a team setting improves communication, empathy, and understanding
- Barriers or challenges to using clean language:
- Even though you’re using someone else’s words, it may go unnoticed or be done in a way that can make someone feel uncomfortable
- It’s easy to learn but, much like Scrum, it takes a lot of practice and support to become good at it
- It can be challenging to know when to use it
- Especially in IT, the pace and the need for quickness often hampers people’s ability to actually listen well
- How to use clean language questions:
- Two of the most common questions are 1) “What kind of…?” and 2) “Is there anything else about…” These get at the “nitty-gritty” details
- You put your attention on the person you’re asking the questions to and hearing them fully
- Repeating their words when asking follow-up questions, inviting them to continue
- List of clean language questions:
- Developing Questions
- What kind of X?
- Is there anything else about X?
- Where is X? or Whereabouts is X?
- Is there a relationship between X and Y?
- When X, what happens to Y?
- That’s X like what?
- Sequence and Source Questions
- Then what happens? or What happens next?
- What happens just before X?
- Where could X come from?
- Intention Questions
- What would X like to have happen?
- What needs to happen for X?
- Can X (happen)?
- Developing Questions
About Andrea Chiou: Andrea Chiou is an enterprise agile coach. Her past work includes many roles within IT, from developer to business and process analyst, technical lead, and PM. Her main focuses include Scrum, Kanban, strategy, facilitation, remote working, product visioning, conflict management, leadership, user experience, clean language, organizational learning, and coaching. Andrea’s mission is to help people at work connect to one another so that the best possible outcomes are available not only in the moment but over a sustained period.
Mentioned in this Episode:
- Agile Coaches’ Corner Ep. 101: “Are Scrum Masters Expendable?”
- “Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds”, by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees
- “The Work and Life of David Grove: Clean Language and Emergent Knowledge”, by Carol Wilson
- “Agendashift: Outcome-Oriented Change and Continuous Transformation”, by Mike Burrows
- “Right to Left: The Digital Leader’s Guide to Lean and Agile”, by Mike Burrows
- Deep Listening — Impact Beyond Words Podcast by Oscar Trimboli
Transcript [This transcript is auto-generated and may not be completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar.]
Intro: [00:02] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought. The podcast for practitioners and leaders, seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host coach and agile expert, Sam Falco.
Sam Falco: [00:15] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast. I’m your host, Sam Falco. Back in episode 101, Are Scrum Masters expendable, I mentioned tangentially that I had just read a book called clean language, revealing metaphors and opening minds by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Reese. It changed the way I looked at communicating one-on-one with people. And so I went looking for someone I could learn a little more about. And so with me today is Andrea Chiou to talk about the topic of clean language. Welcome to the podcast, Andrea.
Andrea Chiou: [00:45] Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sam Falco: [00:49] So what is clean language? Let’s start with just a baseline definition.
Andrea Chiou: [00:54] Clean language is what, um, it’s a label basically for what is essentially, um, a process or a set of questions that are used in a process to help people think through their own stuff. And typically we think of questions in normal everyday life as a way of getting information from other people into our heads. Well here, what we’re doing is we’re using these, um, these clean questions. They’re very simple, quite short questions that put attention on the words that the other person that you’re facilitating is using. And by doing that, you’re demonstrating that you’ve heard them because you’ve, you’re using their actual words, not your interpretation of their words in the question.
Sam Falco: [01:48] Interesting, because we’re often told that what you should do is paraphrase. What you just heard to indicate that you’ve heard somebody, but it sounds like the, the theory that clean language is operating under is that doesn’t help someone feel heard.
Andrea Chiou: [02:01] It can allow them to feel heard. So part of understanding the Genesis part of understanding clean language is understanding where it came from and how it might be altered to apply in other settings. Um, because one of the barriers to learning clean language is that it, if you’re having to use their exact words, it can be done where they don’t notice if you’re in an everyday setting and that’s what we train people to do. But if it’s done over and over as was done, originally, this came from a therapeutic setting. Um, and you don’t have permission to do so. It could be really awkward for the person that you’re doing this to. So when we train people, the clean questions, when they first get them, we told them, you know, this is, um, this is easy to learn and much like Scrum, it’s a little bit harder to actually do really well. And it takes a lot of practice and support, um, to know when to use it, to know whether your there’s four different branches of basically, um, and, and other things that David group did. But they’re for four main branches of, um, how clean language has evolved. The original one is, um, is the coaching or therapeutic one and that’s called, uh, symbolic modeling.
Sam Falco: [03:37] Why symbolic modeling? What’s the significance there?
Andrea Chiou: [03:40] Well, the interesting thing about how we communicate is that we use words and words are symbols that represent something that we mean internally in our heads. And so, um, if you can think of every word as a symbol, that’s a, that’s a good start. But then within the words that people use, there are different types of words and clean language puts a lot of attention on metaphors. So metaphorical words are things like stuck. If you feel stuck, you might. Yeah.
Sam Falco: [04:17] Yeah. I instantly got that. Yeah. Cause stuck can be sticky. Like actually glue stuck can be jammed. So what do we mean when we say stuck? Yeah. That’s, that’s clearly symbolic rather than literal.
Andrea Chiou: [04:32] Right. Or you could think of it as it came from the literal physical world, you know, my foot is stuck in the door and when somebody in IT says I’m stuck there probably they probably don’t have their, you know, legs in quicksand or their foot stuck in a door. So it represents something going on for them, but we don’t actually know what they’re stuck on.
Sam Falco: [04:59] I’m, I’m bringing to mind suddenly Aristotelian ideas of forms and ideas that we have ideas that can be expressed as forms and forms, express some concept of an idea and that we have to sort out what it is people are saying. So it’s almost like this is 2500 year old wisdom that we’re bringing into the modern world.
Andrea Chiou: [05:26] Uh, in a, in a way, um, some things have always been true and then people develop, you know, these ideas into something unique and different. And I think what distinguishes clean language is the, um, the ability to use metaphor or to, to mind the metaphors in a session to get behind what people are saying. Now, the, the, so that’s, that’s the, the original approach. When you’re coaching somebody through trauma, they don’t want to revisit their trauma experience. And so the metaphors are a natural way that people have of describing situations. Um, and they don’t know they’re doing that in metaphor, but a skilled, um, symbolic modeler will know how to help them reorganize their system. So every symbol in their landscape forms a system. Now, when we talk about team applications of this, it is also putting attention on what people are saying, but we’re doing it in a team. So if you think about a team that’s functioning really well, I should know about my team members and what their, the way their brain has organized a little bit, how they think about the work that we’re doing. Um, and I should be able to ask them questions to unpack what they’re thinking. And so Katelyn Walker developed, um, what’s called systemic modeling where, um, there’s a number of additional little tools that help teams learn how to be clean together and to separate, for example, evidence from inference. And this is one of the classic, um, issues in it is that we make a lot of inferences about the words people use. And how can we become just aware enough of when that’s happening to switch the attention, you know, back to what the evidence is for what they’re thinking or to simply ask them a question.
Sam Falco: [07:47] Yeah. I’m thinking of times when I’ve witnessed two people talking and one person has said something and the other person hears the words, but here’s a different meaning than the other person was aware of. And so the Contra top that begins as, as a result of that is two people using the same word or using the same term, but they’re talking about two different things. And it sounds like systemic modeling would allow you to get to the root of that miscommunication.
Andrea Chiou: [08:21] Sure. Yeah. We created, um, uh, clean language and agile Facebook group and the person who asked to join this morning said, I want to use this for requirements. Like I think clean language would be really cool so that we could make sure that we’re talking about the same, the same thing. Um, okay. That’s a perfect use. Right.
Sam Falco: [08:48] So you said there were, I think I heard you say there were four branches. So we have the symbolic modeling and we, the systemic modeling that’s usable at the team coaching level. What are the others?
Andrea Chiou: [08:59] So the other two are less well known. David Grove did a lot of development, um, towards the end of his life. He, he died quite young, um, in his fifties I think. Um, but he had been developing something called, um, clean space and something else, which I won’t talk about here is called emergent knowledge. Um, but clean space is the idea that, um, everything we experience from the moment we’re born to when we die is experienced in the physical world and, and spaces, you know, have a different effect on us. So in a clean space, um, problem solving session, for example, I might ask you to write down your problem on a piece of paper and then depending where you are, this might, might or might not make sense, but put the problem where, where it needs to be. That’s a little strange, but it might be, well, you know, this is an elephant in the room. I’m thinking, I, I have this problem. I’m not, I’m not telling you what it is, but, um, if you’re guiding me through this process, I might, you know, stick it under my thigh under, you know, between my thigh and the chair. Um, and then the next question I’ll ask is, and, um, I’ll point to the thing and I’ll say, and what, what do you know from there? What do you know about that from there? I know it doesn’t want to be discussed, you know, um, and, uh, find another place that knows about that problem. So you find another place and it might be, I’m trying to translate this to an IT example. Um, you know, and you might put it on the hard drive or something because, you know, you just don’t have enough power to compute. Like, so you just walk them through this it’s even cleaner than clean because you’re just using, they’re just using their thinking. They’re not necessarily even revealing it to you, but you’re helping them sort out all the aspects of their issues spatially.
Sam Falco: [11:20] So symbolic modeling is using the, the linguistic metaphors clean space is essentially extending that one step farther and saying the language we use about the space around us is also symbolic metaphor.
Andrea Chiou: [11:37] Yeah. It’s not even the, it’s not even the language around it. It’s the actual, you’re actually putting things in different spaces. Putting yourself in different spaces. You know, I mean, if you think about it, when you go for a walk, don’t you think about different things than when you’re sitting right at your desk?
Sam Falco: [11:54] Absolutely. Yeah. Very interesting. And then there was a, I think at least one more branch, you mentioned, um,
Andrea Chiou: [12:02] Clean interviewing. So, um, this is something that developed, um, through application in the business world, um, James Lawley and Caitlin Walker and several other people, uh, also people doing research, doing PhDs. They wanted to know about the validity of interviews in terms of, um, could they be scientific if the questions and the prompts used by the interviewer were in some way leading and what they figured out because they had been clean, trained is that many interviews that happen like that research interviews, um, the interviewer, even if they’re trained to create questions and questionnaires, don’t really understand the nature of the language being, um, uh, leading in some fashion. And, um, and so now we can take, you know, the skills of the clean questions we can add in some domain words, some domain words are going to be relevant. For example, if you’re interviewing, um, uh, witnesses to a crime, for example, um, but most police have not been trained in this method and they will be inadvertently, for example, using words in their questions that will lead the witness to overstate, um, their answer, or understate it.
Sam Falco: [13:55] Previous conversation that you and I had. You gave the example there of the police officer, trying to interview witnesses to an accident might say, uh, which direction was the car going when it smashed into the other one, instead of when it hit, whereas smash is going to immediately put in their head, the idea that that car was going too fast and may influence them to say it was speeding when they don’t really know that does that, that I remember that correctly.
Andrea Chiou: [14:24] Yeah, that’s exactly right. And this can happen in all kinds of domains, you know, um, medicine, everyday usage. Like once you train to hear, to listen to people in this way, you begin to, to notice, um, what’s not as clean as it could be.
Sam Falco: [14:46] Imagining this could have a pretty strong application in an HR and hiring setting. Right. Because we want in an HR and interview situation to really not just know what do you know, how skilled are you, but what kind of person are you, would you be good on our team? Or would you be happy working here? Maybe we’re not right for you. And we can suddenly lead people to tell us what we want to hear, because they really want the job. So maybe there is a way to approach this from a perspective of how do we strip out those, those leading phrases and words to allow people to truly express themselves in a way that is not, um, I don’t want to say abusive, but that is not, um, negative, I guess I’m struggling with my own metaphors there.
Andrea Chiou: [15:40] I mean, you’ve hit on one of the major challenges I think in it in general, is that the pace and the need for quickness hampers our ability to actually listen well. And I mean, you could leave aside the clean language aspects and just think about whether, um, you know, the interview is used for those dual purposes for us to find out about the hiree and for them to find out about the company. One of the more interesting, um, uh, uh, people that I know, um, in the clean community owns his own it shop in England and, um, and has a product that he markets and he uses clean language for, um, interviewing. And he expects the interviewee to learn a few clean questions during the interview. And if they can feel comfortable or at least express interest and curiosity about using them in the interview right in that moment, then he gets a better feeling that they would fit into his company culture.
Sam Falco: [17:01] So you said a phrase that tickled my brain, and then you said, I don’t want to go into that here, but I want to ask you to dig just a little bit, emergent knowledge is something we talk about in the agile space, a lot emergent design, emergent architecture, emergent requirements. And I teach it a lot in my scrum classes. So could I ask you to just dig in just a little bit to that topic.
Andrea Chiou: [17:25] A little bit is quite fine. Um, it’s, it’s largely from reading that I have information about this process, David Grove, um, evolved his thinking constantly until he died quite young. And it’s the idea that, um, that, that there’s always a place where you want to get to, and there’s a place where you are now and in-between there there’s a gap. And to get that knowledge to emerge between the here and the, there, you have to, first of all, get in the space of that beginning. And, um, the way that the clean session would work is that you are repeatedly asked if you are in the right place, um, to begin with. And then, um, you’re asked a series of, um, questions, um, repeated up to six times, uh, each. And the idea is that, uh, there’s, there’s power in, um, the number six. And when you are asked the same question and have to think through it in a different way again, and then again, and then again, there’s, there’s wobble hesitation in some of the steps, there’s new information coming out of other steps, but six appears to be the magic number. And, uh, so it’s, it’s not been applied in business so much, uh, but it’s a fascinating, uh, concept in the best place to learn about it, by the way is, um, the power of six and also in the book, um, which is a biography, um, uh, called the work and life of David Grove.
Sam Falco: [19:20] The power of six is also by David Grove?
Andrea Chiou: [19:23] Oh, no, neither of these is, uh, by him. Um, he didn’t stop his learning to write anything, but one book early on.
Sam Falco: [19:32] All right, well, I’ll put those links in the show notes so people can check those out. Uh, thank you for that. I, I recognize what you were talking about. I also now recognize that the emerging knowledge is not the same kind of emergent knowledge that I was thinking of, but years ago, my colleague, and she’s now the chief people officer at AgileThought, Christy Erbeck ran an exercise for one of the agile meetups in the area. And part of it was you had identified a series of values that were important to you and take the one that you thought was most important. And we all had to switch partners multiple times and ask each other. Why did you choose that as your principle value? And I think it was six times. And by the end of it, I had a completely radical understanding of why that particular value was important to me. It didn’t change the fact that, yeah, that was, but I got at something incredibly deep. I had to go home and write into my journal about it for pages and pages of wow, this uncovered something. So I can see where that would be really valuable, but possibly not. What we want in the, in the business world are not easy to do in the business world. At the very least.
Andrea Chiou: [20:46] I didn’t promise you. We would only talk about The business world.
Sam Falco: [20:50] Absolutely. And I don’t mean to imply that we should, but that’s where my head is up these days. So you said there is a series of questions to clean language. I remember the book that I read gave 12. I don’t know if it’s necessary to list them all here. I can put that in the show notes, but I thought it would be interesting to talk about a couple of them and then show them in action. How about clean session? So what can you tell us about the clean questions?
Andrea Chiou: [21:15] So the clean questions, um, are training our attention on different things, so different questions, do different things. Um, the first basic two that most people learn are what kind of, and is there anything else about, and those get at sort of the nitty gritty details of the meaning behind the word? So, um, a typical modeling session where we’re trying to model somebody’s, um, positive state. Let’s say if we wanted to ask you about hosting This podcast.
Sam Falco: [21:54] Sure.
Andrea Chiou: [21:55] Okay. So Sam when we’re, uh, when you are pod casting or hosting at your best, you’re like what?
Sam Falco: [22:05] I was so certain, I was going to have a quick pithy answer when you asked me this question, but it’s impossible. I’m like bouncy, bouncy. I’m like, I want to be bouncing up and down in my chair, but I can’t because I don’t want that noise to come through. So I’m having to contain, it’s like, I have this ball of energy in me that is just going to burst out of me, uh, at any moment,
Andrea Chiou: [22:36] A, a ball of energy it’s going to burst out.
Sam Falco: [22:40] Yeah. Yeah. Like I’m some course sort of like, I am an energy being that is just contained in a shell and the shell is not really me. What’s really me is this, this, this energy that is just seeking to be, uh, to be let out
Andrea Chiou: [22:57] That’s so cool that I can ask you a few questions and like, I can, now I can really sense that energy coming out of you just asking you one or two questions.
Sam Falco: [23:07] I’m really having a hard time sitting still right now, even more once before that was really interesting. What’s happening there so that our listeners can cause they can’t see me. Uh, and you can, what’s happening when you ask those questions what’s going on?
Andrea Chiou: [23:22] Well, I guess the first thing is that I’m putting my attention on you. So I’m not talking about what it’s like for me to be interviewed by you. I’m putting my attention on you, presumably, because you want to know and repeat how to get into your best state. Um, whenever you do this. And so, um, the, the second thing that happened is, um, I repeated your words. So you said a ball of energy and I said, and a ball of energy. And is there anything else about a ball of energy? Actually, I said, what kind of energy or something to that effect? Um, and so, uh, it was just an invitation to you to keep going.
Sam Falco: [24:15] Yeah. So I imagine if we were to have a session on this and I’m totally not being clean language right now, I’m, I’m so excited. I I’m having a hard time, but we might dig into how can I get that energy when I’m not podcasting? And so we might dig into how, how would I get there? What would it be like for me to be in that state at other times?
Andrea Chiou: [24:39] Well, that that’s, that would be a different goal, of course. Right. So if that’s your goal, um, we could find out how you get into the state when you are here. So when you are here, Sam, uh, hosting, what happens just before a ball of energy?
Sam Falco: [24:57] A little nervousness, self doubt, like, am I going to be able to do this well?
Andrea Chiou: [25:04] And is there a little nervousness and self doubt?
Sam Falco: [25:07] Yeah, yeah, right, right before I’m always like fiddling with the paper to have it exactly the right spot so that I can grab the pen and jot a note down. If the guest says something interesting. Um, I’m nervous that the audio equipment’s going to cut out and I really just, I want everything to go well.
Andrea Chiou: [25:27] Hmm. And you want everything to go well, and do you have a piece of paper to jot things down? And, and when you have all of that, then what happens to bouncy?
Sam Falco: [25:41] Really as the guests that I connect, then I’m sort of getting a little energy from them. They’re excited about their topic. And so I’m excited that they’re excited and I’m excited that the listeners are going to get some, some really good insight into a fascinating topic.
Andrea Chiou: [26:00] Hmm. And you’d like this energy in other places. So what kind of places would you like this energy?
Sam Falco: [26:10] I’d love it in my teaching. I’d love it in my writing.
Andrea Chiou: [26:16] And yeah. So, I mean, we could explore more. Yeah. But that’s probably enough.
Sam Falco: [26:21] Totally cool. So we’ll put the, the questions. I’ll, I’ll draw them out of the, um, Sullivan and Reese book, uh, in the show notes. So people can take a look at those also really recommend that book. And we’ll get the books that you mentioned throughout the, the episode on there as well. Thank you very much for all of this. So a common theme on Agile Coaches’ Corner’s continuous learning. So a question we like to ask our guests is what have you been reading or listening to, or just absorbing on your continuous learning journey?
Andrea Chiou: [26:54] Well, I’ve been quite involved over the past couple of years, um, with agenda shift community Mike Burrows, um, has written a book called agenda shift and another book called right to left. And he incorporates clean language into his facilitation and strategy development when he consults. And so, yeah, I just participate in that community and, um, and engage in conversations there. I like listening to a new discovered, uh, podcast called deep listening, uh, by a man named Oscar Trumboli. And, um, he has the goal of reaching 1 million people around the world to help them become better listeners. And I find that to such an ambitious and wonderful mission.
Sam Falco: [27:49] That is interesting. That could be a planet changing thing. Well, thank you very much again, thank you for being on the podcast. This was fascinating. I’m sure our listeners are really going to get a lot out of it.
Andrea Chiou: [28:03] And I do hope so. I love, I love to share this stuff and there’s, there’s plenty to learn out there. So anybody who hears this could probably come over to the, uh, clean agile spaces that we have, um, and join the conversation.
Sam Falco: [28:21] Sounds great. Yeah. Well, thank you very much. Thank you for listening next week, Dan Neumann will return as your host and I’m actually speechless. Now after this insightful conversation, bye everyone.
Outro: [28:39] This has been the Agile Coaches’ Corner podcast brought to you by AgileThought. The views, opinions and information expressed in this podcast are solely those of the hosts and the guests, and do not necessarily represent those of AgileThought. Get the show notes and other helpful tips for this episode and other episodes at agilethought.com/podcast.