The importance of attention training — The Interview about Clean Language with Caitlin Walker (part 1)

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

Show host — Tasha: Good morning, this is “Raise your game” with me, Tasha Fazil.

Now it would be fair to assume that the term Clean Language means to refrain from the use of profanity or swear words. However in this context, Clean language is actually a technique that helps people to convey their own meaning that would be free from the distracting and often biased interpretation of others. Caitlin Walker, a student of David Grove, the man who developed the technique, is here to teach us about how we can utilize this modern form of communication to promote clarity, understanding and cooperation within a team or business.

So, Caitlin, how exactly would you define Clean Language or Сlean Сommunication?

Caitlin: So, Clean Language — a really simple set of questions that you can use to ensure that instead of listening to argue or listening to reply to somebody you really listen to seek to understand what they’re saying, where they’re coming from. And once you understand them, then they can respond to you, they can ask you the questions, and then two people actually really listen to one another and they’re genuinely interested so that they build a relationship. The simplest way for me to explain the mystery is to demonstrate them a little bit.

T: OK, sure.

C: So, Tasha, when you’re working really well you’re like what?

T: OK, so, when I’m working really well, everything is in balance.

C: Everything is in balance. What kind of everything?

T: So, in my mind it’s like sort of, you know, the scales. The scales of justice, so it’s equal amounts of creativity and structure.

C: Like the scales of justice inside your mind as equal amounts of creativity and structure.

T: Yes.

C: When you’re in balance, whereabouts is that balance?

T: Definitely, in my mind, and I think, yeah, I’m feeling just a bit more grounded and everything is just sort of in sync and in flow.

C: OK, everything’s in sync and in flow, you feel grounded, there’s balance in your mind and on the scales of justice there’s a balance between creativity and structure. Well, Tasha, what happens when it goes out of balance?

T: Hmmm, there’s a lot of stress, there’s a lot of anxiety about, you know, whether some things can be done if these two things aren’t in balance.

C: And then, how do you get things back in balance?

T: I think, sometimes I just need to take a little time away and just refocus, recalibrate or fill the gaps where I’m feeling that I’m lacking that balance. So if it’s structure then I need to focus on structure and then go back to creativity, yeah, that’s how I usually do it.

C: Let me just check. So, when you’re working at your best everything is in balance.

T: Yeah.

C: You’re in sync, and there’s a flow and there’s a balance like the scales of justice, like the weighing scales and a balance between creativity and structure.

T: Right.

C: Inside your mind and you’re grounded, and if it goes out of balance then you take a little time away, and you think about how to fill the gaps. So, if you think you’re lacking structure you focus on structure and get some more structure in.
So, here we’ve got less than a minute of me asking you some questions, and I start to find out quite a lot about you.

T: That’s scary, I’m scared. That’s so true!

C: And then if you imagine that you had a senior leadership team, or a small entrepreneurship team where you’ve got to think quickly, you’ve got to think on your feet, you don’t want to be doing these questions necessarily all the time, but it’s a really good thing for them to get together and really listen to one another: What are you like when you’re working at your best? How do you make decisions, when you think about time? What’s time like for you? because the differences in how people feel and think about the world make a huge difference to how they behave, and also how they misinterpret one another’s instructions. So, for example, we had a couple of senior leaders where they were really struggling to manage their vice deputy, and he was getting stressed, he seemed to be bad-tempered, and they had hunted him, they were really pleased to have him in the company but they couldn’t understand why he wasn’t working well. And so I just sat the three of them down and said to the CEO: When you’re working at your best you’re like what? And she said: It’s like sitting in a beautiful library, I’ve got all the information I could possibly want at my fingertips, and I like to be in silence, and I like to be able to look at the clock and know I have nothing to do but to think about these things and get my work done for this time. I said: OK, I can already tell a few things about her. Аnd we talked to her vice deputy and he said: Oh, it’s like a Chimp Tea Party. I like seeing ideas to come at me, I like problems to be thrown at me, I like everyone jumping around, I like to be interrupted, I like to talk a lot. You think: Oh, goodness! If that’s him at his best, it’s a Chimp Tea Party and she’s on her own silently in a library, I bet these two don’t spend a lot of time together.

T: Right.

C: Which is going to be difficult in a small company, and then the vice deputy is saying: Oh, for me to be at my best I need to be really organized, I need to have structure and I need to know through my day that I’m on the right track and I’m doing the right thing. I like to have regular contact but I like it to be very quiet, ordered and orderly. If we go to a meeting, I like to make sure that we go through the agenda points one after another and then I always know where I am. And so, I said — listened to one another and I got them to ask each other a few of these clean questions: You know what happens, if it doesn’t? where does that come from? What kind of order? How many times would you like the structure to come to you? Then they realized that neither of them are giving him what they need. One of them is often working on her own and doesn’t talk to him enough, and the other is too chaotic for him, and so he was really struggling to work well in that business. So, you could just bring out the questions to resolve problems, or maybe before you start a project you can bring it out to understand the team before you start a project.

T: That’s interesting, say, in this scenario with these three people, would they have come to these realizations if they had asked each other these questions themselves? It almost seems that you need an outside person to come in and say: All three of you have very different ways of working.

C: Well, the thing that has been going wrong was: it’s because they don’t understand enough about themselves and sometimes they don’t understand why they’re getting upset or annoyed with somebody,

T: Right.

C: So, for example, when the vice deputy would say: Oh, I really need more contact, I really need to know where I’m going. The deputy would wander in, talk to him, chat with him asking what was going on, bring up a new problem. Because for him contact means contact all the time and what the vice deputy wasn’t able to articulate: I don’t mean I want to speak to you a lot, I don’t want to speak to you more than three times a day. I just want you to come in and tell me that I’m on track or not and then go away again. And so, when we ask for help without an outside person helping us to really understand what’s going on for us, then we often just make mistakes. So, I think, it was a useful thing — for an outsider to come in. But once I’m there and once any clean facilitator is in with your company, they can teach you these clean questions in three afternoons, and not even a whole afternoon. Three sets of two hours we can teach a team have these questions at their fingertips so they can bring them out when there’s a problem or if they want to create a new project and they want to be really clear that they’ve got a shared model for it.

T: What keeps a person from asking clean questions in the first place? Why does this not come to us more naturally?

C: Well it’s really simple: when we speak we have to do things in our minds to make sense of one another. So, if I say to you: Oh, Tash, I’m feeling really really stuck at work. Just for you to hear that you have to start to think what kind of stuck does she mean. So, if I said to you “I’m really stuck at work” — what sort of things could you imagine I might be talking about?

T: Maybe, you’re doing something that you don’t really want to be doing?

C: Yes, I could be doing something I don’t really want to be doing. What’s a different way that I could be stuck at work?

T: Creativity block?

C: Well, yes, creativity block. Let’s say, it seems like somebody’s trying to sabotage my promotion.

T: Right. OK. So, you’re not advancing.

C: Yeah, not advancing.

T: Right.

C: So, the thing is when we’re listening to one another we stop listening to what the person has said, and we start thinking from the ideas that we’re already making up in our head, and so then what happens is that we ask them the question based on what what’s going on for us. We start to give advice within a couple of questions. We start to tell them what we think, and then it becomes a conversation where the meaning is right between us. But if you just said to me: “Now, Caitlin, you’re really stuck. What kind of stuck?” And I say to you: “Oh, you know, I’ve just got so little to do, I don’t feel needed.” Then you say: “You know, Caitlin, how much to do would you need in order to stop being stuck?” I say: “Well, I just need to be involved in maybe two or three more projects.”

T: Right.

C: OK, well, we can do that. Just a couple of questions without making your own assumptions, without deciding, you know, what they mean. They just save all this time and effort and they stop you from making an effort to help somebody. I mean, we’ve all got the experience of trying to offer advice, and somebody just won’t take it. And they keep telling us: “Yes, but…” And you go: “Well,…” Don’t offer advice if it’s not going in. It’s probably because you don’t understand what’s going on in their system. So, just ask them a few clean questions and then ask them: “What would you like to have happened?” And then they can tell you, and then you’re not trying to make an effort in the wrong area. But it’s usually, well-meaning misunderstandings or poor assumptions or what’s tough is asking clean questions.

T: OK. Well, I was curious about this: why does clean communication focus on understanding metaphors? As you were giving the examples before — they are metaphors, — and I was wondering whether a lot of people do think in metaphors without realizing it.

C: Well, first of all they’re not, they’re not necessarily metaphors like — they don’t have to be like ‘a knight in shining armor’ or ‘I’m like a butterfly’.

T: Right.

C: I could tell you: “When I’m working at my best I’m really centered”, and you think: “Still what kind of centered?” I say: “Well, I’m not trying too hard, I’m very attentive, I sort of stand back on my heels.” I’m not giving you a metaphor so much as I’m telling you about my physiology. Or, I might say it, like the vice deputy, I might say: “I’m very organized.” So, it doesn’t have to be fully metaphorical. But we do naturally think in metaphors. All humans do, and that’s across all cultures. Now, I work internationally, I work in Malaysia, I’ve worked in the African Caribbean community, I am working in Russia in Moscow, and right across the board they have different metaphors. But we think metaphorically, and if I know your metaphors, if I now know you, Tash, I only have to have asked you a few questions. I can use that metaphor to check in with you really easily. I can say: How’s your balance,Tash?

T: Great!

C: And if I know about the CEO in the library I can say to her: “I know that you’re gonna need your time in the library today. And I’m going to the vice deputy and I need to know structure. Could you come out of the library three times, check on what I’m doing, and tell me what I need to do next, and then go back into your library?” And she says: “Oh,  yeah!”  It’s a really respectful way of negotiating our needs without imposing them on one another, because prior to this, if you don’t understand people’s metaphors, you really apply yours to them. So, he was saying that she didn’t care about him, and she didn’t care about the staff, because she didn’t come out and give them structure; and she was thinking that they were really needy, and they weren’t taking an adult responsibility to get on with their own job, because they weren’t sitting on their own and doing it. But actually neither of them are in the wrong, it’s just that they have different work styles, and the metaphors really help them understand that without going into contempt for them.

T: I’m with Caitlin Walker talking about clean communication which is a modern take on asking questions and communicating in a way that’s going to minimize the imposition of another person’s thoughts or influence. We’ll take a look at how else clean communication can be applied when we return.

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