This is a 12.5 minute annotated transcript of my conversation with James Lawley – 16 December 2019

Sharon 0:01

Hi, this is Sharon Small. I’m with James Lawley and we’d like to talk a minute about what’s been happening in Clean Language Interviewing over this past year, particularly.

So, James, you’ve been up to some very interesting things recently. Would you mind sharing what’s happening now with the clean interviewing world?

James 0:22

Okay, Sharon, thank you.

I’ve been involved in two areas with some colleagues and I’m really pleased to say that the work I’ve been doing with Jan Nehyba has produced fruit and that we have a paper published which is coming out in the Journal of Consciousness Studies next year.

We looked at 19 Clean Language interviews by experienced Clean Language interviewers and we found out… so how clean are these people? You know, are 100% of their questions staying clean?

We found out that even the best can’t do 100%, but they can get 90% and over. We looked at this feature of Clean Language Interviewing called a “cleanness rating” which allows you to assess quantitatively the ‘cleanness’ or ‘leading-ness’ of an interview.

And we did some statistical analysis on the raters. There were multiple people rating the interviews and we did a statistical analysis to find out just how close those raters were – and they really reached good statistical confidence levels. So that shows that that method of measuring is a highly viable and validated method. So that was great and has never been done before.

And the second area I’ve been involved in with Heather Cairns-Lee and Paul Tosey is looking at, actually, what is this thing called “leading”? If you read almost any textbook on interviewing, it’ll say ‘don’t ask leading questions’. But what you’ll also find is, it doesn’t actually tell you what a leading question is, how you identify one, and what you do instead, other than ask ‘open’ questions. So we started to look at leading questions and we analyzed them and what we found is there are four common ways that interviewers lead. And we identified the characteristics of [each of] those so that you can raise your awareness. Because the bottom line is, if you don’t know that you’re asking leading questions there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. So we’re writing up our research and we’re hoping to get a paper published on that.

Those are the main areas I’ve been involved in these last 12 months.

Sharon 3:04

So we took something that we knew was working empirically (because we’ve used it) and then we developed the validation process which we had an idea that it worked because we knew how to use it. But now it’s been thoroughly researched and with that paper being published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, and then the work with Heather Cairns-Lee and Paul Tosey, we are really getting to the those more subtle nuggets that are going to be most useful for people to use and to really make this methodology work to their advantage.

James 3:41


Sharon 3: 42

Super yeah! And on my side of the pond, Yuji Yamagami in Japan has been using this very successfully (the clean interviewing methodology) with quality assurance and risk assessors. When he attended our training last year, he took it home, applied it, and has been having great results.

I haven’t done formal research studies like you, but I have been working for several years now with cause evaluators, cause analysts, and recently, HROs (high-reliability organizations).

So, with the use of Clean Interviewing spreading and the research, the academic research on this becoming more subtle and more specific, have you found consistencies in the value of this Clean Language Interviewing method?

James 5:02

Well, in and of itself, the range of areas that it has been applied to, I think, is itself a validation of the method. If you can take a method and you can apply it in all these kinds of…

Sharon 5:17

HRO’s, root cause analysis, auditing, quality assurance, academic research.

James 5:23

Yeah. For example, a paper came out this year where some Dutch researchers used Clean Language Interviewing to define to find out how midwives made decisions.

Sharon 5:38


James 5:38

Now that’s a pretty important area. If you can improve the quality of decision making of midwives, you know, that’s gonna make people very happy. So that’s one example.

Another is Caitlin Walker has been doing some work looking at how universities design and implement their curricula.

And there’s the Ph.D. that Heather Cairns-Lee produced where she interviewed 30 leaders from across Europe about their mental model of leadership and how they’ve developed that over time.

And she did a really interesting analysis. She looked at all 30 interviews and counted the number and the type of Clean Language questions that she asked. And one of the things she discovered – which completely amazed me – was actually there were four basic Clean Language questions that she asked over 60%, I think it was 69%, of the time. She just needed four questions,

Sharon 6:51

And what kind of questions where those questions, James?

[“what kind of” is one of the four classically clean questions that heather Cairns-Lee found she used in her interviews]

James 6:54


What this shows you is, the ability to ask really simple and clean question just keeps encouraging the interviewee to describe their experience. And that’s what we’re looking for; authentic descriptions. And what this also shows is it can be applied to a whole range of areas.

It’s now got this academic background. And another thing that has come out that is work being done by some researchers in the Czech Republic looking at what kinds of questions are asked [by people] who are not trained in Clean Language? And they’ve found that it can be as low as 30% of questions are clean, and two-thirds of questions are leading.

What they also discovered was, and we knew this intuitively, to go from having 30% of your questions be clean and non-leading up to 90% takes training and effort. It’s not just that you turn it on one day. You need to be able to understand what are leading questions; How are you asking them without knowing. Not deliberately, but the words slip out of your mouth and before you know it, there’s a little nudge in the question. That takes training to get from that level of skill up to the 90% clean level.

And to give you an idea of what 90% means, that research showed that in a full interview, forty-five minutes to an hour, that only one strongly leading question would be asked.

Sharon 8:45

And strongly leading is when somebody adapts or adopts that…

James 8:49

…when there’s real evidence that the question has likely influenced the answer of the interviewee and, therefore, the data now is effectively contaminated.

And so, here is a benchmark for everybody; can you get your interviews down so that, at most, you ask one strongly leading question? That’s the challenge I throw out to all interviewers.

Sharon 9:16

And we have that rating where you can actually look at the words you’re using and make that distinction.

James 9:23


Sharon 9:23

Super. So you and Jan also looked at, and I know that the clean interviewing community has been discussing, about how much training it really would take to get to that 80-90% mark.

James 9:40

Well, there’s been some research that’s not just about Clean Language interviewing, but interviewing in general, that it can take five days of training to get people to get in command of the questions they ask.

If you’re already an interviewer and you’ve got some experience then two days of training in Clean Language is a really good basis. Then you can start recording your interviews, going through them, and giving yourself feedback or getting feedback from someone else of the areas that you are unwittingly leading. That’s what’s required and I’d say a minimum of two days to start to raise the level of skill.

Sharon 10:29

And in January 2020 you and I, for those who are listening or reading, are going to be doing a two-day Clean Interviewing training in California. And this is open to everyone. You do not have to have Clean Language experience to join us. You don’t even have to be an experienced interviewer.

By participating you’ll become familiar with the questions, you’ll get a much better idea of what is leading and the kinds of leading that happen. And we work with real situations in real-time, so you won’t be working with scenarios that don’t make sense to you. You can work in your domain of experience and interest.

So if you’re an academic, quality assurance, auditor, root cause analyst, you work with an HRO, you’re a manager, anyone where it’s important that you get quality and authentic information – this could make a complete difference in how your conversations and interviews go with the individuals you work with.

That is January 18th &19th, 2020 in California, near San Luis Obispo on the beautiful Central Coast near wine country and beaches. So if you want to come to a training and have a vacation at the same time be sure to join us.

James, would you like to add anything about the training?

James 12:00

Just that this is now our fourth year of running this training. And so we know the benefits that people get from it from the feedback that we’ve had from previous participants.

Sharon 12:14

Yeah. Small business people, nuclear operators, all sorts. So, great. Thank you, James.

And thank you listeners (and readers). And we will hopefully hear from you. You can contact me at Sharon@Cleanlanguagetraining.com.

To find out more about the January training, you can go to www.Cleanlanguagetraining.com, and scroll down to Clean Language Interviewing. It will be about three-quarters of the way down the page. There is more information on that page. Otherwise, just contact me and I’m happy to have a conversation with you.

Clean Langauge Interviewing January 18-19, 2020 with James Lawley and Sharon Small