Short but Sweet Clean Language Interviewing Update with James Lawley – Dec 2019

Short but Sweet Clean Language Interviewing Update with James Lawley – Dec 2019

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 

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.

On Clean Interviewing with James Lawley

On Clean Interviewing with James Lawley

This is a transcript for a 20 minute video chat James Lawley and I did on August 21, 2017. All grammatical anomalies simply reflect the conversational nature of this document. (3000 words, approximately 10-15 minutes reading time)

Our two day Clean Interview training is happening again January 19-20, 2019 near San Luis Obispo in California. Links in this document have been updated to represent this newest training date.

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On Clean Interveiwing with James Lawley

Sharon: James it’s really nice to see you again and thank you for meeting with me to talk a bit about Clean Interviewing.

We’re going to be doing that training in January 2018 [Clean Convergence 2019 ] here in California and I thought it might be interesting for people to know a little more about Clean Interviewing; where it comes from, what it is exactly, where it can be applied and the benefits of it compared to other interviewing methods.

You’ve been involved in Clean language and Symbolic Modeling much longer than me, being the creator of Symbolic Modeling, could you tell me, I’m curious, where did Clean Interviewing come from?

James: Well, it came out of the work of David Grove’s therapeutic approach that used Clean Language as its main questioning technique. But primarily David was a psychotherapist, a brilliant psychotherapist, and it was left to other people, myself and Penny Tompkins and other people to take his work and see how it could be applied elsewhere.

And fairly early on, people began, without much conscious thought, applying clean language in interview situations where they were trying to gather information about … like some people who went into a company, they want to find out whats going on in the company and interviewed people. What did they do? They asked them Clean Language questions.

A colleague of ours was trying to find out about the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland, so he interviewed some people from the paramilitaries and the armed forces about their experience. And so a few of us, slowly, but surely go “hello, hang on, there’s something going on here, this could become a thing.”

Sharon: Thats kind of what happened with the root cause interviews. With just my background in Clean and Symbolic Modeling I started applying it. So I was really thrilled when I started to see more formalized thinking about the interviewing, and thats something you have done a lot of work with, formalizing, how do you know if its clean?, how are you calibrating?

James: Ya, that came out of it. And as always when you put that kind of thinking in you start to realizing there is a richness and a depth to this you didn’t appreciate at first. But also what you realize is that you don’t need to go on a full training in Clean Language in order to be able to pick up some of these skills and improve the way anybody interviews.
And what we realize is people could learn them fairly rapidly and that would improve the quality of their interviews very, very quickly.

Sharon: So what exactly is clean interviewing? How would you describe it? How is it different?

James: Ya, definitions … I mean it’s principally based on the notion of ‘what is Clean?’ And the idea of the metaphor of Clean is the person who is asking the questions is aiming to put as little of themselves into the interview as possible.

Now lots of approaches do that, or say they do that. Because of the detail paid to the language, Clean goes much, much further than most, than any other approach that I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen a lot of transcripts of interviews from different people and the key thing is that the interviewer does not know how much of their own thinking, their own assumptions, their own metaphors they’re bringing in.

They are simply unknowingly doing it and because of that, they can’t not do it, because they don’t know they’re doing it. Whereas with Clean Language, to some degree, it prevents them from doing that.

Sharon: So in a way it’s bringing in an awareness and a more, I’m going to use the word tactical, a more tactical thinking when you’re eliciting information from other people. We had a manager attend our training last year, the Clean Interview training, and she’s gone back and reported to me that it not only changed the way she does her interviews, but it has changed how she elicits information from her everyday workers and helps them find their own solutions. It’s been a real life changer for how she does business.

James: And especially in business, I think, where there is such a pressure to get things done fast. One of the ways that happens therefore is you kind of unwittingly suggest an answer, or the manager has already got an answer in their mind, or the interviewer, so they ask a question that just leads the Interviewee just towards the answer, because that’s obviously the answer, isn’t it?

And those are so subtle language, it can be the structure of the question, it can be presupposition, it can be framing. There are four or five key ways in which interviewers unwittingly bias, or potentially bias the interview towards answers they are already making an assumption about.

And a clean interviewer tends to minimize those. You can’t stop it entirely, but you can take out a huge amount of them. And then the real key is, not so much the interview, but the data you end up with, it’s more robust, authentic because you know it came from them and not from you.

Sharon: A couple of the areas I’ve use the interviewing in is cause evaluation interviews and CAP (corrective action programs) program development. And in those it is so easy for the interviewer, often the interviewer is a specialist and when they are looking at an event, it’s so easy for them to slip their knowledge into the interview without meaning to.

And there are a couple managers that have taken this into the CAP program and noticed the real difference between letting people, having the skill to let the people (involved) devise their own corrective action. Something that will work in their environment, rather than having the corrective actions put their ideas on top of (the people involved). Now you’ve use the techniques in a couple of other areas.

James: Ya, I’ve primarily been involved in using it in a qualitative research method for academics, and been involved in supporting a number of academic programs, one in the Czech Republic, one in Australia, in Britain. So, trying to gather high quality data that meets rigorous academic standards, it’s absolutely ideal for that. And one of the reasons is, that to my knowledge, theres an additional feature called a ‘cleanness rating’ that allows you to go back through the interview and look at just how clean or how leading what the interview and come out with a quantitive method.

There is no other interview method that allows you to go back and look at that and assess the reliability of the data gathered during the interview. That’s a big, big bonus in that area.

Sharon: And even in interviews where there’s not recording capabilities, like with a lot of the businesses I work with, they can’t record, but they can go back and look at their notes. So if your aware of asking clean questions and staying clean in principle, keeping your stuff out, you can still go back and ask “How did I do?”, “Where were areas that I interjected?”, “Where were areas that I changed the frame or even the topic?”.

James: And, I’m not directly involved in some of these areas, but I know people who use it quite extensively these days as a market research tool. And again, if you want to find out what people really think, you better keep your own stuff out of it. It’s also in focus groups, for example gathering information that way. It’s particularly now being used as a specification tool, like in information technology (IT), gathering the users requirements for example.

Again, its similar to what you were saying. Theres a specialist in the IT industry who’s interviewing someone who’s not a computer specialist, and its very easy for specialist to start making all sorts of assumptions.

And one area I am particularly interested in is in the health field. There are no more specialists than doctors. Highly, highly specialized. They have their own language, their own way of thinking. And its, you know we’ve all been interviewed by a doctor. And its really important, I think, that the patients own way of expressing themselves is preserved and not lost.

Sharon: I’m wondering, pretty much what I’ve found is that pretty much any time, any kind of conversation where your eliciting information from someone else, whether it’s a coaching intake, hiring, HR (human resource), I mean, this frame of thinking, this kind of thinking and using these questions can be really useful.

James: And what surprises a lot of people when they first come across this idea is how even changing a single word in a question can have a significant effect on the answer your given. It can get down to that level of influence, unwitting influence. And, as you said, people become much more aware of their language. Instead of just throwing out questions, they take time to ask questions that are formulated to give the other person the maximum opportunity to answer in any way they want. That’s the kind of key benefit of the process.

Sharon: So in a way, better questions and a different kind of listening, lead to more authentic answers which eventually leads to better qualitative data, and results, what ever needs to happen from that data.

James: I think it’s an important point you make that what people report is the more they ask clean language questions the better listener they get, because they actually hear what’s said. It’s a strange kind of by product that comes out of it. But what I reckon one of the reasons is that when you actually get the few basic clean language questions under your belt, you know, easy ..they roll off the tongue quite easily, you’ve got loads of space to actually listen to what the person is saying and actually think about what they’ve just said. But, without formulating what’s the next question going to be or formulate some clever question which can take up too much cognitive space.

Sharon: or go down your pick list.

James: Exactly, thats right. So those interviews where you don’t necessarily know the kind of information you’re going to get, you’re trying to discover that, discovery interviews, Clean Language Interviewing is really tailor made for those kinds of interviews.

There are some interview techniques where, as you say, you’ve got a standard set of questions, well that’s fine, they work in that way. But other ones, where more exploratory, trying to discover information, that’s what their best for.

Sharon: So some of the benefits are becoming a better listener, more accurate listener, lets frame it that way, asking simpler questions that are in context with the information your actually receiving, so you don’t have to be as clever and try to figure out what question’s going to happen next, you just need to know what context your asking in, Keeping your stuff out so, making assumptions, minimizing the influence of your own language, … What other benefits from Clean Interviewing?

James: Well there’s the one I said about if you want to actually go back and check the interviews that you’ve done, meet your own criteria of a high quality interview, a clean interview, you have a method for doing that. Or even having someone else, an independent reviewer do it. The other thing is that I think it is really useful when you want in-depth information.

You know, it seems to me, I’m not an expert, I don’t know about root cause analysis – critical incident interviewing, but what I guess is you want to try to get past the kind of surface things that people say, get them to think deeper about what actually happened and describe it in more detail. And that’s one of the things Clean Language allows you to do, get depth of information.

Sharon: And so earlier before we started recording we were talking about the benefits compared to other interview methods, and I think that what you said bout being able to really qualify, quantify, the cleanness rating is a massive benefit from other interview methods. What other benefits do you see as compared to …

James: Well, it’s interesting what you said about that person who went back and said it changed the way they asked questions generally, not just in an interview. And when I think about the word interview, for me its gotten broader and broader. You know, potentially if I stop someone on the street and ask directions, that’s a kind of interview. I’m trying to get some information out of them. And even in that context its valuable.

What happens, its like many things, the benefits grow over time. At first it seems a bit clunky with the questions, you’re not quite sure what to do. But slowly but surely, the more people practice, the more they relax, the more that relaxed the interviewee, and allows them to sink into their own experience in a very gentle way.

And because of that a level of rapport, an interesting level of rapport is built up without trying. And, also, what happens in some interviews there is a kind of belief that I have to encourage the interviewee with things like ‘good’, “oh ya, right, good good’. Actually, one I don’t think its necessary and two I think its kind of already telling the interviewee that they think some information is better than others. Its already kind of sorting it out. And, Clean Language, if you stick to Clean Language, you don’t need to do any of that either.

And the proportion, if you look at the proportion, of words asked by an interviewer in a Clean Language Interview is very small compared to the amount of words by the interviewee. And it seems to me that the more an interviewee tells you, the more you’re going to get valuable information.

Sharon: Thats a really good point, having that ratio between the interviewers words and the interviewee’s words. And also keeping the questions really simple, so you’re not inadvertently asking two or three questions in one long bit. Often its ‘and, …and, …and …’ and suddenly you have three questions in one which can be really confusing to the interviewee.

James: And similar, like sentence structure. On the course we’re able to show the kind of sentence structures where in the first three words you can tell if it’s a leading question. It doesn’t matter what comes afterwards. And, you know, once you get those clear, those questions that are just slightly pushing the interviewee towards a particular answer or restricting their answers, then you can leave those aside and ask a much more, a question that gives the interviewee more freedom to answer in the way they want.

Sharon: So, you and I are going to be doing an interviewing class, Clean Interviewing class, in January, 2 days, January 17-18th, 2018, here on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo.

[2019 Clean Interveiwing is January 19-20, 2019 – please see link below]

James: Lovely

Sharon: It’s beautiful, ya. And I think whats nice about our combination of working together is we have both been using Clean Interviewing skills and thinking in very diverse areas. Your working with academics, more subjective quality of interviewing, and then I’ve been in business and getting very specific information, like what you were saying, deeper information about what actually happened from their perspective.

James: So, I think its really useful that we bring those two backgrounds. But what I think we share though, is a real desire to make it practical. And thats our primary thing to make it, one, practical, and two make it so people go away with some really useful learnings that they can apply the next day, straight-a-way!

Sharon: And like the interviewer that I was talking about, not just apply it in their interviews, but also apply that kind of thinking and skill across the board.

James: Well I’ve had several people tell me it’s actually changed the way they talk to their children. Because, although it’s not an interview, parents want to find out what their kids are up to. And that leads to all sorts of situations and, you know, the more you stay clean when your asking your children, the more you allow them to answer from themselves. They’re much more likely to give you the truth about their situation, because they aren’t being pushed to give the kind of answers parents wish, so want to hear.

Sharon: I’ve had some personal experience with that. So, I see this interviewing that we’re going to be doing in January as a really nice, not just a nice introduction to interviewing, but a really nice introduction to Clean Language. And for people to get an idea, is this something they might want to learn more of. And also, if they are not in a coaching or therapy field, or doing a lot of in-depth work with clients, the Clean Interviewing is a wonderful way of learning clean and applying it to their context, their work space.

James: Good point.

Sharon: And its beautiful where we are.

James: Sure is, we’re coming all the way over there

Sharon: For those that are watching or reading, James is in the UK and I’m on the Central Coast of California. James Lawley and Penny Tompkins will be coming to California in January to join me for quite an extensive training. But today I really just wanted to have something to share about Clean Interviewing, because I think it is really particular, it’s one of the more vital smaller processes that have come out of Clean Language and Symbolic Modeling, and can just be so useful for people to see – what are they doing. Especially with the cleanness rating you’ve created, being able to really go back and look at something and get clarity on whats happening.

James: Looking forward to it.

Clean Convergence 2019 with Clean Interviewing January 19-20

Clean Convergence 2019