Clean Language Interviewing in 2018 with James Lawley

Clean Language Interviewing in 2018 with James Lawley

This is an edited transcript of a conversation with James Lawley about what is happening with Clean Language Interviewing at the end of 2018. It has been edited for ease of reading. If you would like to listen to the podcast you can do that through the Soundcloud link at the bottom of this post or subscribe to my podcast Ready to Come Clean with Sharon Small through Soundcloud, iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn. 

Sharon Small

Hi, this is Sharon. I’m with James Lawley, co-developer of Symbolic Modeling and leading developer of both Clean Language Interviewing and it’s corresponding verification method.

James, welcome, and thank you for joining us today.

James Lawley

Hi Sharon, I’m looking forward to it.


For anyone who’s not familiar with the term Clean Interviewing or Clean Language Interviewing, James and I have an earlier podcast. You can find it here: “On clean interviewing” that will help catch you up to all the basics.

James, when I think about Clean Interviewing and Clean Language I often say we’re born with two ears, but that doesn’t mean that we’re taught to listen.

And interviewing seems like a simple thing – You’re just asking questions. And interviewing cleanly is very different.

I understand you have an example to share with us that might give the listeners a clue to what’s a little different about what we’re talking about today?


In order to understand Clean Interviewing you’ve got to also understand what’s not Clean Interviewing and what’s a leading question. Almost all interviewing training will tell you not to ask leading questions, “Don’t lead the witness”.

And what we’ve discovered is that’s fine advice, but actually, unless you realize how easy it is to unwittingly lead, then you don’t know you’re doing it.

So, here’s an example from a from a published journal of someone who was doing an interview, a health interview of people who had gone back to work after a major health incident. And this is published as a model interview.

The person has had a heart attack and they’ve gone back to work. They [interviewer and interviewee] are talking about the memory of the of the heart attack and the interviewer says:

“How has this memory affected your life?”

“What kind of impact has it had on your life?”


Seems like a normal everyday question doesn’t it?

Metaphors and Unintentional Influence


It does.

And the interviewee says “Well, in my dad’s girlfriend’s apartment or my grandmother’s or both?” referring back to something earlier and the interviewer says:

“The first memory, how has this impacted?”

“What impact has it had on your life?”

And the interviewee answers: “I’m, well, I’m not going to attribute it to this memory solely, but it definitely has had a very large impact.”

Now if we just look at what’s happened there, we end up that the interviewee has agreed that it had a very large impact and then goes on to describe the very large impact.

The question we would ask [in Clean] is, where did the idea that it had a large impact come from?

And if you go back to look at the interviewer’s questions, you see:

“What kind of impact has it had on your life?”

“How has it impacted?”

“What impact has it had on your life?”

So the metaphor impact, because it doesn’t mean physically impact, it means having some kind of emotional consequences, has been introduced three times by the interviewer.

It’s an everyday metaphor [impact]. And so the interviewer probably has no idea that what can happen is that the interviewee will pick up on that [metaphor] and start describing it. Partly because interviewee wants to please, and they want to be helpful, they have agreed to do the interview.

So now, no doubt, that interviewer will write up a report saying what a great impact these things have on people’s lives. But actually, that was their own belief in the first place.

That’s the first thing, then secondly, if we look at the structure of the question “How has this impacted your life?”, there’s presupposed in that [question] that it has impacted their life.

It’s very hard for an interviewee to go. “No, actually, I don’t agree with your question. It hasn’t impacted my life at all or that question doesn’t fit for me.”

Almost no interviewee is ever going to challenge an interviewer and tell them they don’t like the question or it’s not right for them.

Here is another example “How has this memory affected your life?”. Well, maybe it didn’t, but the interviewer has presupposed it did and it’s very hard for the interviewee to get out of the question.

Why This Is Important


Why this is important is because this [interviewer] is trying to gather information about someone’s health.

And who knows what this report might do, where it will go, and what kind of policy issues, health and safety issues might come up as a result of this. And I would put money on it that the interviewer had no idea that they were leading, severely leading, the interviewee to that example.


It’s almost like the interviewer was asking from their own imaginary construct, ‘if this had happened to me’, it would have had an impact. So I’m going to make an assumption that it’s had an impact on this person I’m interviewing.




And that’s how their use of metaphor happened. It’s their metaphor.



And what is really clear from large amounts of research is the interviewee will process that metaphor “impact” and will not recognize it as a metaphor, will not realize that they will have taken it on. They will have no idea that that has happened. They will think that was their own idea. It’s going low level.


Like an adoption process. Either adopting it because they don’t want the difficulty of trying to explain the slight difference in their experience to the interviewer or adopting it because it’s good enough, but it may not be just right.



A Systematic Validation Process


This is a great example and this brings us to what Clean Language Interviewing (CLI) has that many other interviewing methods don’t, and you can speak to this, is a systematic validation of the interview process, a way of looking at to tell how Clean it is.


Exactly and, in fact, to my knowledge there is no other method that has something quite as systematic as the Cleanness Rating.

And what that does, is we would take an interview, like this one, and go through every single line of the interview and we would ask a number of questions:

Where did that did those original words come from?

Who did they originate with?

If they originated with the interviewee, then that’s fine, that’s clean. But if they in originated with the interviewer, like the word impact, then we would call that a leading question. So every one will be graded for that.

And then the second thing we grade for, is what I mentioned, there is this very subtle structure of questions and how the structure of a question can constrain the answer that was given. We’d also call that leading.

So we go through every single question. They all get put into one of four categories from classically clean all the way through to strongly leading, and then you can tabulate those.

That can be fed back to the interviewer and they can see where they were leading – and what they can ask themselves is: What was happening for me that I needed to lead them at that space? Why didn’t I ask a more clean question?

And they can understand exactly what you mentioned, their own unknown beliefs, assumptions, presuppositions. Then they can do something to put those to one side next time they interview and improve their interview.

And we’re not talking about small amounts here.

I’ve seen some research that says even good interviewers trying to stay clean will often only get thirty to forty percent (30-40%) of their questions clean by our definition. Sixty to seventy percent (60-70%) will have some element of leading.

Well, you can imagine, over a whole interview, the cumulative effect.

Getting to over 90% Clean


If we compared that to someone who has been on a Clean Language Interviewing training, they can push their clean questions up to above ninety percent (90%). It’s really hard to get a hundred percent.

Occasionally the odd leading question will slip in. For even the best interviewers, on average, one strongly leading question per interview is as far as it goes. And over ninety percent (90%) are very clean questions.


But this isn’t a small change. This isn’t like a 5 or  10 percent less influence. This is like 40 or 50 percent!


Yes, at least double the quality of the questions and sometimes triple.


Wow. Okay, so, this validation process and that it’s unique to Clean Interviewing and that clean questions are so easy to learn, once you get the principles behind them….

And I know we talked in 2017, that’s the podcast I referred to at the beginning of our talk. So there’s been a lot of movement with clean, oops my metaphor. There’s a lot of movement with clean interviewing over the past year and you’re in touch with people using Clean Language Interviewing in different ways.

Could you talk to our listeners about where it’s being used and what’s happening now?

What’s Happening Now – 2018


Well you’re right it is gaining traction in the business world and in the academic world. And those two things work together.

The more the academic world gives credibility to this process, the more the business world will take it up as well.

So there’s been a whole spate of Ph.D. theses which have been submitted in the last 18 months or so and I’ll give you a couple of examples.

So, there is a really interesting set of interviews that Heather Cairns-Lee did with 30 European business leaders to find out about their metaphors for leadership and leadership development.

She interviewed them using clean language questions. And in fact, one of the things she found was, which it’s kind of hard to credit this, but actually something like, she only needed four clean language questions to cover 60% of all the questions she asked.


And what were those questions?


So those questions were:

~And is there anything else about ….? – something that they’ve described

~And what kind of …. is this something else? – Asking for more information

~And how do you know….? – asking for the person to describe their way of knowing this.

And then the last one which was specifically to the fact that she was trying to ask for metaphors was:

~And that’s like what? Which asks them to turn their ordinary description into a metaphor.

Her interviews were often an hour to an hour and a half long.

And what’s fascinating from the outside, I know, I imagine some of the listeners are going “Oh my God, how do you just ask four questions? Don’t people get bored?” And the answer is no.

The reason is because it’s always about their own their experience, the experience of the interviewee. It’s always about their experience and there’s nothing more interesting than our own stuff.

So they get into their own stuff and these questions allow some to go deeper and to think more about their own inner way of memories and processes and emotional reactions and concepts, and to really reflect on those, and be able to describe them in vivid detail that they’ve rarely, almost certainly never, done before.

She submitted this work for her Ph.D. Not only did she get a Ph.D. at the University of Surrey, in England, but, I didn’t even know this, but apparently there’s a kind of ‘Oscars of Ph.D’s’ where all the best Ph.D.’s get submitted to a panel, they have all the different categories.

She submitted her Ph.D. It was nominated, and she won the best category in leadership research for last year.

So, you know, what an amazing accolade to her, but also the fact that there is recognition that she used this Clean Language Interviewing process as a new and innovative way of doing research.

Open-Closed vs Clean 


Before we go on, I know you have another couple of examples, but when you listed the questions… Now, I know when I’m teaching interviewing and I mention ‘Is there anything else ….?” I always get hit with the open/closed thing.

So I just want to backpedal a little and address that question and why that question “Is there anything else….?”, is clean in our methodology of working.


Okay, so it’s a great distinction, but there’s not a direct relationship between open and closed and clean and leading.

Closed questions can be leading. For example, you know, “Did you put the rubbish out last night?” That’s a leading question.


We call that a dangerous question (laughing)


Exactly and it’s closed.

The person says yes or no. And the interesting thing about the question “And is there anything else about …?” (something to do with that person’s experience), is first of all, yeah, they can say no, or yes or no, but they could say no. In which case, great – They’ve got nothing more to say, you know that.

It is still clean because it doesn’t lead them to an answer.

Whereas we know “Did you put the rubbish out?”, there’s a hidden agenda in that question. Okay? And in fact, the person asking the question probably already knows the answer!

Whereas “Is there anything else about…?” the interviewer, the interesting thing about clean questions is the interviewer has no idea what the person is going to answer and doesn’t want to know in advance.

The second thing about it is, in English, the question “And is there anything else….?” is taken as an invitation to provide anything else.

And most people will answer that question by giving more detail, by giving another example, by adding to the richness of their description.

They won’t hear it as a closed question, they’ll hear it as an invitation. And so you win both ways. That either they can say no or they can go on.

But one thing is certain, they do not feel constrained. And leading questions constrain. Clean questions open up the possibility for the person to answer in any way they want.


Super and you have another one or two examples of how clean is being utilized. You were talking about the Ph.D.’s., so let’s stay on that track because these guys [academics] are like kicking butt out there.


Well another PhD has just been submitted by Karen Hanley. She did some interesting research in both the UK and Denmark to find out ‘what is the person’s attitude to work beyond retirement age?’

This is important for a number of reasons in today’s world. One, retirement, people don’t necessarily want to retire anymore. But secondly, sometimes they can’t retire anymore. They’ve still got another twenty years of life left and they may have to continue to work.

There’s been very little research done in ‘what are people’s actual attitudes when they get to 65 and something about work’.

She surveyed those two countries, put that together and she used Clean Language Interviewing in both in English and Danish as part of her way to find out the genuine authentic descriptions of those people.

So that’s another interesting application that’s got a business sense to it.


And very appropriate with our aging population, like you said.


Exactly. But apart from that, I mean these are being done within an academic framework and the reason I mention them is because they have to be rigorous.

Rigorous Proper Research


They have a supervisor. It gets peer-reviewed. They have to have a viva voce at the end of their Ph.D. process, where they get questioned on it. And you don’t get a Ph.D. unless you produce some real good proper research and bring it up in the right way.

The reason I mentioned them then is because every one of these and is adding a level of academic credibility to the whole process and making it more and more of an option for interviewers now.

And what makes Clean Language interviewing different is the systematic nature of it. The basic questions that are provided, you just have to learn them. As you know, there are only a dozen. And they will do you the vast majority of the time.

And what you also learn is what are the leading questions? How do you lead and and therefore how do you stop yourself doing that?

Everybody has that impulse, it’s not that you don’t have the impulse, but you can keep that to yourself, or set it aside, to use another metaphor.

I tend to think I put my own beliefs in my pocket during the interview and then I don’t have to bring them out in that way.


Yeah.  You can see even our conversation we’re not completely clean. We know each other, we’ve already discussed where we’re going with this conversation.

I think that’s part of the … once you learn this methodology of question asking, it gives you the ability to calibrate when is it most important to be clean, rather than having the clean police. [like always thinking you need to be clean]

It’s like your being able to really listen to what’s happening now, even if it’s just a conversation at work, being able to utilize this in a really generative way.


I think it’s really important to say that.

So, you know, for managers sitting down and needs to talk to somebody about something that’s going on and they want to find out as much information about it as possible, then great, use Clean Interviewing to do that. But if they just have a general chat, then you don’t need to.

I mean in the field that I know you know about, critical incident interviewing and root cause analysis, it’s absolutely vital that high quality data is gathered there.

Do you want to say anything about that?


Yes. I received a copy of some notes from a critical incident to do with some of the fires in California. One interviewer had actually thrown away their notes. But what this person had written down was barely legible, it was paraphrased and there was no context of what question had been asked, what answer had been given…

And I’m thinking, these are people in the top of their field. This is their Job, like 50 hours a week! They get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do this work. And what I saw on that page was such a poor indicator of information gathering. I, .. sometimes I just wonder how any corrective actions or any other processes get done.

And there are some very good interviewers out there.

And even with the best of intentions, I know of no other model, like you’ve mentioned, that concentrates and pays such attention to the language being used and how subtly that can influence.

And in a critical incident, when you have someone who is perhaps been privy to something incredibly awful, an accident, a traumatic event, their psyche is very vulnerable, very open.

And this is a way to come in and find out, to do really fine level sequencing, they like to call it timelines, I call it sequencing, to gather information and to be able to sort out between that person’s experience and the observable objective data that you’re actually going for.


hmm…it’s hard to imagine a more important field than gathering this information, which is then used to improve the safety for all of us.


You kind of heard me a pop up on my soapbox, didn’t you?


You know there’s  just a few examples and I could give so much more.

Clean Interviewing has been used in focus groups. It’s being used in gathering information about market research, even actually, interestingly, the designing of surveys, because the danger is if you ask leading questions, you will just get the answer that you wanted in the first place.

And I know some people actually want that, but if you actually want to find out what users and customers in the population are thinking then you have to ask clean questions.


Yes, small business people, coaches.




So, James what would you like to see happen with clean interviewing? What would you like to see happen next? (here is a great little example of my leading with the metaphor ‘see‘ – notice James answer!)


Well, I mean primarily I’d like to see it more well-known. So then people have a choice.

The people who are picking it up in Academia are the new researchers coming in, the ones at the beginning of their career, the ones doing the Ph.D.’s and that’s great because then they’re going to go on and tell other people about it.

And in a way I suppose this is kind of how most Innovations arrived. It’s rare for them to come in at the top and to change decades of old ways of working.

And the fascinating thing about it is what it’s really like is for people to get a first-hand experience because reading about it or watching an interview is a completely different experience to being interviewed yourself with clean language questions.

And on the training, as you well know, we ensure people get interviewed with clean language questions, so they get first-hand experience. And almost always they go “this is not like be an interviewed with other methods”. But you can’t see that from the outside. It’s so interesting.

And then that’s the first thing that happens. The second thing that happens is then they start asking these questions and the majority will go “Oh! It’s not quite as easy as it looked!”


Ya …


It takes a bit of practice and feedback and support.

I want people to have those experiences and then they can choose for themselves whether they want to adopt this method or other methods, but I’m convinced that the majority of people will pick up on these ideas.

And as a result, you know computer specifications, academic research, doctors interviewing, … The list goes on and on,… critical incident interviews, that will get better quality data and that you know, it’s going to improve all of our lives.


And just like Symbolic Modeling and Clean Language, in general, the Clean Language Interviewing, based on clean principles, is a neutral tool.

So if there is something that somebody uses and loves you can still, let’s say, clean it up and make it a cleaner model.


Yeah. Yeah and understand the principles.

Clean Language Interviewing January 2019


James, you and I are having a two-day training in California in January [2019]. Could you speak to just one thing that’s unique about this live training, besides it being only once a year, and only here, and only with us.


I think actually it goes right back to what you said at the beginning, is that the quality of the feedback that people get on this training, the amount of practical experience, and then feedback on that, and then improve, and then have another go, and get feedback.

Plus being able to have the experience of being the interviewer, the interviewee, and watching experienced people modeling how they do it. You get all three perspectives on this training. Plus personalized feedback that that allows you to see what you’re doing that you don’t know you’re doing.

And then it’s your choice what you do about it. So that’s what I think really makes this training not only unique, but it means the people get a huge amount in simply two days.


James, It’s been great having you here today and I know we went a little off tangent… and for those of you listening, I really hope you’ve enjoyed this time with James Lawley as well.

You can find out more about Clean Language Interviewing and our January training on my website: www.cleanlanguagetraining.com under the Trainings tab.

Or if you click the Work With Sharon tab, I have a complimentary webinar, between now and early January you can come on a webinar and have an experience of being interviewed yourself and learning a little bit more about it.

[Note from Sharon: We are still creating our 2019 webinar schedule. I invite you to schedule a 20-minute private consultation where you can ask me questions you might still have about Clean Language Interviewing. Schedule here Complimentary Consultation]

You can also find more on James Lawley’s website where there are all sorts of articles – a plethora of good stuff  – written by himself and his co-developer Penny Tompkins and that’s www.cleanlanguage.co.uk.

We really hope to see you online or in our training room very soon and James thank you again.

This is Sharon

Be well, think well, and question well.