Communication in teams — interview with Caitlin Walker (part 2)

This is the transcript from a podcast from BFM, the business station.

Tasha: Good morning, you’re still here on “Raise your game” with me Tasha Fazil. I’m with Caitlin Walker who’s been speaking to us about Clean Communication. So, Clean Communication uses the technique of asking clean questions that ideally would insight genuine and meaningful responses that aren’t gonna be affected by that sometimes biased interpretation of others. Caitlin did a small demo on me in the first half of our conversation, so, if you missed that be sure to download “Raise your game” podcast and read it here.

So, Caitlin, just, you know, taking a few minutes going over some easy questions with you I definitely get the sense of how useful Clean Communication can be. But how else can you apply it in business? You know, for example, we were talking about the Clean Communication workshops that you run and the type of people who attend. And it’s interesting to learn how many applications Clean Communication has.

Caitlin: Well, I was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London when I first started studying Clean Communication, and I paid my way through college by being a youth worker in London. So, originally I practiced my clean questions on teenagers who were known to the police, who were violent or who weren’t in a school system. And I could use it with them to help them find out what they were like, and then to learn self control so that they could then reenter society. So, we would ask them, for example, things like “When you’re losing your temper you’re like what?”

One answered: “Oh, I go red.”

I said: ‘What kind of red?’

He said: “Blood red.”

I said: “So, you got blood red, who’s different to that?”

Another one replied: “Oh, me, I go quiet, but I’m deadly.”

I said: OK, you’re quiet and you’re deadly. When you’re quiet and deadly, where is that quiet?”

He said: “Oh, it’s in my head. Everything shuts down and my thoughts stop.”

So, we would start to get the boys (they were mainly boys then) to model, to make these metaphor models of their behavior, and it was transformational. Once they understood how they did things and how they made these thoughts and how they made decisions, they started to coach one another naturally to work out what they want and how they could have what they wanted in life. So, this is where I cut my teeth, this is where I started. And then somebody had said: “Oh, can you do this in business?”

I said: “I don’t think so.”

They said: “All that was read about your work and we think that would be really good in our business team.”

I said: ”Well, what’s the problem?”

They said: “If it, oh, we were a small IT company, but we were pretty successful and were starting to really grow. But we have computer programmers who won’t speak to the marketers and marketers who just whine about the programmers and how they won’t do what they’re told”

And I thought, okay, I can do this, this is gangs. I know how to do this. So I was able to go into the business and start a different kind of questions. So I’d say: ”When you’re working at your best you’re like what? When you’re working at your worst you’re like what?” Like the questions I asked you: What needs to happen? What do you need from others to be able to work at your best? And we found we had a three day program for… it just went in one day every two weeks. First of all I got them to get the metaphors out so they really understood each other. Then, after the third day, I taught them to ask the questions and then, 17–18 years later, those guys are still using metaphors and they’re really successful. They’ve weathered all of the storms, all of their declines. Because their communication is really hot! So, then, of course, from there it went, you know: Can you use it in the food and beverage industry? Could we use it to get really good customer services? Well, yes, you can. Because, if you imagine, Tash, that you’ve got a small circle of a team (any kind of team in the world) then you put that small circle together. You put an idea in the middle. For example, customer service. And you say: “But at the moment, because great customer service is like what?” And one person can answer, and the team could ask them a couple of clean questions to clarify it, then another can answer, and another can answer, and they can hear the differences between them. Then the boss can say: OK, in this restaurant the customer service is going to be like this: …” And then he’ll give them the guidelines, and then he says how are you going to adjust your ideas towards my ideas, and what you are going to do in your behavior so you can demonstrate the way I want it done. So it’s much more respectful and people know that they’re likely to have a different model from him, the customer service, and they know they have to adjust their behavior towards him.

T: So, it takes the guesswork out of trying to figure out what your boss wants or what your colleagues want. It really clarifies the situation because it is, as you said, and this is what keeps coming back to me, is that you don’t always know what you want, so you don’t always know how to convey that to others.

C: Absolutely. We get cross with people for breaking rules but we don’t even know we’ve got ourselves and that’s the trouble. And you don’t know why somebody’s annoying you. Let me give you a lovely example, Tash. When I went into my first piece of business work I was quite nervous. I was a fairly young woman, I was 26, I was pregnant, and I was going into an all-male environment and knew nothing about business. I’d had to borrow my business suit. I walked in and one of the men came up to me, and he was a really key person in this business, and he said: “Oh, we’re supposed to do this training day, but it sounds ridiculous. I don’t know what Clean Language is, I don’t know what metaphors are, I don’t want to come and do this.”

So, I said to him:OK.” And that’s where I just panicked  for a minute, and I thought: OK, just do it!” So, I said: “Can we have two minutes and I’ll just demonstrate?”

He said: “Yeah, right then.”

So, I said: “This project was to go just the way you’d like it to — it will be like what?”

He said: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

So, I said: OK, let me explain what it’d be like for me. If this project was just the way I’d like it to be, it would be like whitewater rafting. We’d all get in the boat, it would be a bit scary, some of us will be new to it, but we would start to get to know each other’s strengths, the weight of our bodies, and then we would start to take roles in the boat, and as we got better we could go faster and faster.” And I could see him, Tash, he’s curling up his lips and he’s moving away from me.

And he said: “Thank you for doing this. I don’t want to work with you. I would hate this project.”

Well, I said: OK, but just do me the service, if it was just right for you, it’d be like what?” He said: “Well, now that I’ve thought about it, it would be like a perfect project for me — it is like beautiful blueprints. They’re absolutely crystal clear, and carefully measured, and every stage in the building of a building you know just where you are.”

And I was thinking: “Oh, yeah, I would hate to work with him as well.”

T: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

C: I said: “You know, yeah, that wouldn’t work for me either, but let’s just suppose we had to work together — what would have to be true about my whitewater rafting for you to be interested?”

He said: “Well, could I be the cartographer? Could I keep track of where the river is? Could I stop and get botanical samples on the way?”

I said: “Yeah, I need somebody to do it. It’s the first project like this, I need somebody to record it. And what about your blueprint? If I had to work with you, could it be done in pencil so that when new ideas came up we could alter?”

He’s told: “Yeah, I don’t mind altering. As long as it’s carefully done, and if everything just fits my sense of beauty.” And then he went: “I see what you’re doing. Normally I would just hate someone like you and I’d spend my time bitching about you in the office.”

I said: “But now?” And then he was our biggest advocate. So, yeah, you can use it in all sorts of applications, that it’s for avoiding that kind of mindless misunderstanding.

T: Mmmm-hmm. And I get calls for you to suspend some of the things that you would usually do that, you know, your judgments and your presumptions and your perceptions — are you encouraged to just check everything at the door once you go into this?

C: Yes, yes, absolutely. And, you know, I’ve got to say, Tash, before people think it’s absolutely really easy, it does take some discipline, because it’s nice, it’s really comfortable to be in drama. It’s really comfortable to think somebody else is an idiot. Oh, it’s really comfortable to think you’re right and they’re all wrong.

T: Because it makes you feel better.

C: It does. We like it, our media does it, a big drama is interesting. But this gets you out of drama. And you have to take responsibility for saying: “This isn’t working. I’m going to go and ask them a few questions about what’s going on for them, I’m going to keep them clean, and when I hear what’s going on for them. Then I’m going to explain what’s going on for me, and then we’re going to say what would you like to have happened.” So, you’re always moving from contempt to curiosity to collaboration and action. And that is a big move. If you want your workforce to do that it has to be done by the leaders first, so they can see the value of it. So, when we go into work forces we like to work with the board before we work with with their workers.

T: OK, so, what’s good to bear in mind if a team leader wanted to do this or a business owner wanted to try using Clean Communication to build, you know, some sense of understanding between a team?

C: So, the first thing is to make it easy on yourself. So, just use maybe four-five clean questions:

What kind of…?

Is there anything else about…?

Where is something…?

What happens before…?

What happens next?

Really, really simple. They just allow you to ask about attributes, location and sequence. And then you could start with something like: “When you’re at your best, when you’re working really well — you’re like what?” And then, whatever they say.

So, if they said: “I’m like a strong tree.”

You can say: “Oh, what kind of strong is that strong?”  

They might said: “Oh, I can flex in the wind but I’m strongly rooted.”

You can ask: “That’s OK, so what needs to have happened? Where could those roots come from?”

They said: “Oh, they’re about really knowing that I’ve got the credentials to be in the role I’m in. I don’t like to do a role unless I’m qualified.”

You can add: OK, now I know something about you and if I wanted to promote you I might need to train you before I promote you. OK, who’s different to that?”

So, just take a handful of the clean questions and then a few topics like “When you’re working at your best…?”

Another easy one to do is “When you’re making decisions, making decisions is like what?” Because we have so many different ways of making decisions. if I make decisions by doing it quickly trying it out, seeing if it’s wrong and doing it again, I’m going to really annoy somebody in the team who likes to think it through, try it out in their mind, work out the pros and cons, and then make one decision and not go back on it. You know those two decision-making styles can really upset up a team. So, something simple:

Making decisions is like what?

Working at your best is like what?

Or just if a meeting was going really well for you — “Good meetings are like what?”

They can be really useful and then you can find out how to have the best meetings that your team could have.

T: Right. So, you’re always starting with the ideal situation and then sort of working backwards to see how it can happen?

C: Something that is so valuable in a team is also to ask: When you’re at your worst, you’re like what?

T: Right.

C: Because then it does two things: it acknowledges that all of us have off days, and it also allows a team to start to work out how to coach one another, how to take care of one another. So, if I say: “You know, when I’m at my worst, I’m quiet and withdrawn.”

And they say: “Well, what you need when you’re quiet and withdrawn?”

Me: “Well, I’d like to have a cup of tea and to be left on my own.”

Then if I’m sad in my office and I’m having a bad day, and then one of my work colleagues just comes over and goes: “Cup of tea!” And I think: “Oh, they’re there for me, they’ve heard what I want, they’re not coming to talk to me, they’re not trying to cheer me up” — and actually that really works. We’ve got so many reports from our customers or clients that their teams are just happier more of the time, and the happier they are the more productive they are.

T: Hmmm, you know, we’re running out of time but I just wanted to know this: how do you keep a conversation from going to a negative place? Because„ as you said, it’s good to acknowledge that we do have our off days, and we do have our negative emotions, and this is a good way to sift through those emotions.

C: Ah, really simple. It’s so simple. And it came from David Grove who’s the originator of clean questions. I mean, he was working on one-to-one work, but when I studied with him, I took his work and took it into groups which is what I loved. But he had such a beautiful question. If somebody is talking about a problem. So, supposing I say to you: “If the meetings at this workplace were to go just as you’d like, they’ll be like what?

And they say: “Oh, do you know I’m sick of meetings? They’re so boring!”  

And the question you need to ask is (and you need to repeat back what they’ve said to accept it): “And meetings here are so boring. When so boring? What would you like to have happened? What would you like instead?”

It’s fine to explore a problem if that’s useful for your company. Maybe you want to really understand what’s going on, what’s going wrong in your production. But if you’re sick of listening to it, just say: “What would you like to have happened?” and turn their attention, train it from the problem towards an outcome. And we’ve heard this so many times! I walk into a workplace and say: “We’ve got all this money for this project. If it went really well, it would be like what?”

They: “Oh, there’s no point — the boss is an idiot.”

Me: “OK, so, the boss is an idiot, and when the boss is an idiot what would you like to have happened?”

They: “Where we’d like to sucker”

Me: “Look, and can we sucker?”

They: “Mmm, no.”

Me:OK, so, you can’t sucker, and we’ve got this project coming up. What would you like to have happened?”

They: “Well, I’d really like it if this team pulled together.”

Me:OK, so, what would have to happen to the team to pull together?”  

They: “You don’t know our team, they’re idiots.”

So, and they’ll keep trying to train your attention back into the problem. And you just keep using it back again: “So, they’re idiots, and you’d like to multiple together. Now, what would you like to have happened?”

They: “Oh, maybe we could just pull together with a few of them?”

Me: OK, which few would you like?”

And you could just keep shifting them over and over into what is the outcome away from the problems: “What do you actually want?” and then “What are we going to do about it?”

T: That’s Caitlin Walker speaking to us about Clean Communication to convey meaning and arrive at some effective solutions here on Razer game BFM-89.9.


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