TOM #16: How to communicate better

Posted on: October 9, 2022

Have you ever had someone ask you a question and feel like they weren’t really interested in your answer…that they seemed more focused on their own ideas? 

Have you ever been confused by the question someone asked, because it felt unrelated to what you were just saying?

These experiences are common, and this TOM issue is about a way of communicating that has helped me reduce how often I do this to people with my questions. It’s called Clean Language, and it’s a modality created by David Grove with origins in psychotherapy–and, in my opinion, applications in all verbal communication.

Today, we are going to clean up your questions, so your communication is clearer and more effective! (No, it does not involve putting a bar of soap in your mouth.)

Let's begin with a quick exercise to connect today’s content with your personal experience: 

 Think about a conversation you have regularly with an important person in your life. Perhaps it’s the monthly review with your sales lead. Or the weekly check-in with your client. Or the daily standup with your team. (It’s also worthwhile to consider the regular conversations you have with your spouse and/or kids.)

  • You likely have a “script” for these conversations or standard questions you ask. If so, what are they? What do you typically ask the other person(s)?

To get the most out of today’s issue, write down these questions exactly how you ask them before continuing. Yes, verbatim. (You'll edit them later, if they need cleaning.)

Talking dirty.

To better understand what “clean” questions are, let’s talk about “dirty” ones.

Let’s label the person asking the question “A” and the person answering the question “B”.

“Dirty” questions are based on your own view or preferences. They are leading, closed, and/or limit how the person can answer them. 

Among the most classic dirty questions is, “Would you like fries with that?”. Which is really just a suggestion in interrogative form. A clean-er version of that question is, “Would you like anything else?”.

Most of us ask questions based on assumptions, presuppositions, and other constructs that originate from our own experience and view of the world. For example the question, “How did you like it?” presupposes that Person B liked “it”. Person A is either innocently assuming that Person B “liked it” or intentionally imposing this condition on Person B. 

A clean-er version of “How did you like it?” is “How was it?”.

A little dirt might not be so imposing when you’re asking the question, “How did you like it?” of a friend, but it is more constraining when you ask it of someone who has less power than you in the relationship. 

[If you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, recall a time when you were opening a gift that you didn’t really like while having the person who gave it to you ask, “How do you like it?”. Yah, it’s pretty awful to be pressured to like it. And even when you actually like the gift, the question feels constraining. Because it is! It’s dirty!]

So…when you are assessing the “clean-ness” of your language, be mindful of your intentions. “Clean” is a measure of both the words you use and your intentions behind them.

How to clean it up.

Clean Language is open, clear, and neutral. It is free from assumptions, inferences, and any motivation to influence. And it involves using the simplest and fewest words possible.

Clean communication makes the other person’s experience the focus of both yours and the other person’s attention. When you communicate “clean”–both in the statements you make and the questions you ask–you keep the other person’s meaning intact.

You may believe that's what you're doing when you paraphrase what someone is saying. Paraphrasing is a tool that is taught as part of "active listening". It is useful, but not clean. By the end of today's issue, you'll be able to be more discerning when you use it.

We also turn to “me, too” sorts of statements to build connection between ourselves and the other person. These efforts can be useful, but I contend that clean communication does a much better job of creating connection. It allows you to put both yours and Person B’s attention on what they’re noticing and the meaning they’re making about it. It deepens the connection between you.

Sometimes the meaning of what someone says is especially important. Using the exact words they’ve used and asking a question that allows them to answer in a way that seems reasonable to them is more effective in eliciting their meaning than paraphrasing or responding with your own perspective.

[Arguably, the meaning of what someone says is important more often than not…but it’s especially important in conversations where the speaker’s perspective is critical, e.g. during market research or job interviews, when receiving feedback from staff/clients, or project updates. Basically anytime it's super important for y'all to "get on the same page."]

Let’s work through some typical, “unclean” examples of possible responses to this statement: “I feel off today.”

"I know that it can be unpleasant for things to be off." 

This response is dirty, because it changes the syntax of “off”, introduces the words “things” and “unpleasant”, and puts attention on Person A’s experience.

"What’s wrong?"

This response is dirty, because it assumes that “feeling off” is a consequence of something being wrong for Person B and implies that this particular “feeling off” is negative.

"You’re not alone!"

This response is dirty, because it assumes everything about Person B’s experience matches Person A’s experience, and it pulls attention away from Person B to Person A.

Some possible, “clean-er” responses might include:

  • "Where do you feel off?"
  • “How do you feel off?”
  • "What kind of off?"
  • “How does that feel?”
  • “You feel off…and is there anything else?”

Notice the structure of these responses. You can use them as templates.

  • "Where do you feel [X]?"
  • “How do you feel [X]?”
  • "What kind of [X]?"
  • “How does that feel?”
  • “You feel [X]…and is there anything else?”

What upcoming meetings involve conversations where it's especially important to elicit the exact meaning of what the other person is saying?

Make a note of them and notice which questions or concepts from this issue you’d like to try in those meetings.

Let’s work through another example: “I just had a terrible meeting with Alix.”

Your job is to respect that what Person B is saying is actually what they mean. Ask questions about what they mean using their specific words with the tone of empathy, curiosity, and nonjudgement. In other words, ask clean questions with clean intentions. Your focus should be on their experience, not the facts of the meeting (…not yet, anyway).

  • What kind of terrible?
  • What lets you know it was terrible?
  • What was that terrible meeting like?
  • terrible meeting with Alix, eh? And is there anything else about that meeting[The “and” at the beginning of question is intentional…it helps Person B’s attention remain on whatever they’re focused on about the terrible meeting. Our gradeschool grammar teachers aren’t thrilled with the “and”, and that’s okay. ]

Once you’ve learned details about the meaning that Person B is making about the meeting, and what about the meeting has their attention…THEN--if you need to--you can pursue inquiry into the details that you need to hear in order to make your own assessment of things. 

Sometimes, we don’t actually need to get into the weeds of the meeting. We just want to. If you are merely scratching your own itch, I encourage you to resist asking questions that scratch it.

Cleaner is better.

When you engage in dialogue cleanly, you will prevent pushback and potential misunderstandings. One of my favorite Clean Language teachers, Sharon Small, offered this example which illustrates how what a person means can be quite different than what we first believe it to be:

B: “You remind me of an old dog.”

A: “What kind of old dog?”

B: “That kind, you know, that after a long day…the dog will be so pleased to see you and just be with you…it demands nothing from you at all.” 

You can use a clean approach to help you navigate contentious conversations. Remember, clean is simple, open, neutral, and curious.

Let’s say you have an employee who keeps making the same mistake, and it feels like when you talk about this problem you just end up in a loop that goes nowhere. You can try clean questions to help them connect with their own competency while remaining grounded within yourself. 

  • When you want to stop doing [X], and you’re still doing [X], what would you like to have happen?
  • What needs to happen for that to happen?

You can be both supportive of them and also allegiant to the standards of performance you’ve set for everyone in the company. 

You might also try self-coaching with clean questions to help guide your response to this situation:

  • When my employee wants to stop doing [X], but is not…, what would I like to have happen?
  • How do I need to be in order for that to happen?
  • What do I need in order for that to happen?

Clean questions inquire into the other person’s inner experience. Be patient. It can take a few moments for us to notice what’s happening on our insides. Allow the pace to be a little slower than you might normally for a purely intellectual conversation.

Leading with Clean.

When people have radically different views or needs than I do, clean questions enable me to maintain friendships and connections that would otherwise suffer. 

Clean diffuses conflict and creates space for deeper listening and acknowledgement of everyone’s individual perspective without limiting our own.

You may also find that clean questions help other people discover where their ideas come from and what form they take. And let them decide for themselves if they’re useful.

  • “What kind of unfair is that unfair?” 
  • “In what way is that unfair?”
  • “Tell me more about how that’s unfair.”
  • “How would you like it to be?”
  • “Is there anything else about that?”

Model it and it will grow.

We human beings are unconsciously inclined to model the behavior of others around us. As you integrate “clean” into your way of speaking with others, you’ll notice a shift in them. They’ll learn that other people’s thinking is not an infringement upon their own AND that the way people are reacting in a situation is reasonable on their own map of reality.

You can also model transparency (which is another component to clean communication) by sharing what’s going on for you when you notice it’s affecting the way you’re engaging in the conversation.

For example, let’s say someone just made a statement that gripped you (or you’re caught up in something unrelated to what they’re saying). You could try using “I statements" to communicate what’s going on inside for you, so they’re aware of your reality:

“Wow, I can really sense that (what you just said -OR- what I was just reading/thinking about) has impacted me. I need to take a minute, because I want to stay in conversation. But I’m noticing that [physical sensation that’s occurring OR emotion that’s evident] and finding myself very [X] in this moment.

[If what the other person said really snagged you, resist the temptation to blame, e.g. “What you said made me mad.” Blaming is “dirty” and unproductive.]

Another example is declaring when you have an outcome you’re driving toward, rather than being completely open to all options, e.g. “I’m actually only open to these two programs and would like your input on which to pursue.”

Take a look at the questions you wrote down earlier.

  • Are they clean?
  • 🧼 What would make them cleaner?

Call to mind that upcoming meeting you selected earlier.

  • Which questions or concepts would you like to try in the meeting?

Clean Language is a means of simplifying communication and creating space for each person’s individual model of reality. As my teacher Sharon says, “We might all be in the same store, but in different aisles.”

May you enjoy discovering where you and everyone on your team is and learning from each other.

Here’s to building better, together!

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