My Groups Keep Making This Clean Language Mistake. Why?

It happens every time. The same mistake. Every time.

And, it’s starting to dawn on me that there’s actually something interesting going on when it happens.

Here’s the scenario. I take a group through their first experience of asking, and being asked, the Clean Language questions.

I start the debrief, “What happened when you were asked the Clean Language questions?”

The answer comes quickly, “It felt awkward to ask them.”

I try again. “What happened when you were asked the Clean Language questions? Sometimes I’ll add, “We’ll come to how it felt to ask the questions later.”

It never makes any difference.

Everyone wants to talk about how it felt to ask them. It takes a serious effort to shift the group’s focus to being asked.

This “mistake” is quite a big deal. I want the group to talk about, and to notice, what happened when they were asked the questions. How their attention went inside themselves, to find answers they didn’t know they had. How they made new connections between ideas. How the process felt respectful, even to the naturally shy.

But instead, attention automatically flows to the experience of asking the questions. Every time.

So, what’s happening?

One thing I notice is that this is an instance of people’s natural tendency to dedicate more attention to experiences they don’t want to have, than to those they enjoy and would want more of.

In this case, what they don’t want is the discomfort of breaching social norms by asking personal questions of strangers; of being forced to listen more intently to the answers than usual; of following a procedure where there’s a good chance of “doing it wrong”.

They enjoy, and want more of, the experience of being asked the questions. But that means they barely notice it, and so don’t want to attend to it in the debrief.

This natural tendency is something I’ve written about before, here for example. In Clean Language, we even have a special question to address it – the Power Switch.

And I wonder if there’s another element.

The group’s attention tends to go to the experience of asking the questions, not to the experience of listening, even though the activity required them to do both. I wonder if that’s because listening tends to be seen as passive, while asking questions is active? Again, that’s a topic I’ve explored before, here.

More research needed, I think.

What do you reckon? Please comment below.

12 thoughts on “My Groups Keep Making This Clean Language Mistake. Why?”

  1. Trevor Horne

    Hi Judy. I introduced a group to CL a few weeks ago using LJ questions. Similar feedback to your experience but being asked the question was much more comfortable for the responder because of the gentle nature of the questions and the control over their thinking that the responder has. In comparison, asking the question repeatedly sounds uncomfortably contrived. I reassure the questioners by using the Indian river belief and the responders feedback regarding how comfortable the process was.

  2. I think you have hit the nail on the head with active/passive distinction. We tend to think of perception as passive, “taking in” what is “out there”. The eye is a passive receptacle of vision, rather then an active participant in constructing what is seen. Similarly with hearing. The movement seems to follow the process of: 1) we represent certain active roles as passive in relation to their “opposites” and 2)we favour the active roles?

  3. I’ve noticed something similar.
    Two other explanations are:

    1. They are not actually listening to the question and they answer with what they have imagined you asked (or exepected – they are likely to have been asked questions about them as the facilitator on other trainings).

    2. The question you are asking is perceived as ‘hard to answer’ and so they switch to answering an easier adjacent question.

    Penny Tompkins and I explored the phenomenon of people answering outside the frame of the question here:

    And two suggestions that might help nudge the group to give the kind of answer you want:

    1. Make sure the first person who answers describes their experience as receiver of the questions.

    2. Do not use “ask” in your question to the group, since presupposes an asker, and that mey be enough to tip their attention to that side of the inetraction.

    Do let us know if you find a way to shift the group’s attention.

  4. Hi Judy
    The subject of the groups tend to be “learn to ask” rather than necessarily to “learn to be asked.”
    So why not ask them what it’s like to ask, and then come back to what it felt like on the receiving end after that, if they are leaning that way?
    I’m not understanding the specificity about the order in which they give feedback on the experience. Can you explain it?

  5. Thanks guys! Daryl, my intention in these intro sessions is to give people an experience of being asked the Clean Language questions, and to draw their attention to the effects of the questions. That’s the surprising and interesting thing.

    The “asking” experience is very predictable by comparison, very similar to the first experience of trying other questioning techniques, and therefore not very interesting (to me!)

  6. “I want the group to talk about, and to notice, what happened when they were asked the questions.”…….And what kind of a want is that want that wants the group to talk about, and to notice, what happened when they were asked the questions?


    “But instead, attention automatically flows to the experience of asking the questions. Every time.”……And what kind of attention is that attention that automatically flows to the experience of asking the questions. Every time?

  7. I observed this same thing at the conference. Thanks for bringing it up in a larger forum. I’m enjoying the answers!

  8. Stephen Grey

    I am still on the sidelines of this subject, although keenly interested. Perhaps my naive observations will add something.

    First, I am not sure why this response is labelled a mistake let alone a clean language mistake. It’s just the way someone responds to a question intended to prompt self reflection.

    Second, there is a clear cut focus when thinking about how it felt to ask a question – ‘I asked a question and I remember feeling …’ By contrast, the clean questions are intended to allow the respondent to go wherever their thoughts take them, a vast potential space and, in the sense described by Snowden for the Cynefin framework, a complex space. In a complex space, one destination might be reached by many paths and one starting point might lead to many destinations, all subject to the disposition of the system at the time. In this case, the system is the respondent’s mind

    I think recalling how it feels to ask such questions is almost certain to be a couple of orders of magnitude easier than recalling what sequence of associations and thoughts led to the response one has given or how it felt as that happened. In addition, the pathway the respondent took through their own thoughts as they responded, being context dependent, will almost certainly never be repeated so the human brain, having evolved to be efficient and retain only information it expects to be useful, probably pays little attention to the intermediate steps and emotions they evoke unless it touches on very significant memories and those emotions are intense.

    Perhaps it would be more effective to ask a clean(er) question to explore the trainees’ experiences. As I said, I am not really very far into the subject yet but “What happened when …” doesn’t fit any of the template questions I have encountered to date.

    Apologies if I am off at a tangent here.

  9. David Stuart

    Someone answering differently to what you expect – or as James Lawley puts it, “answering outside the frame of the question” – and how to respond to them, would be an interesting CL practise exercise.

  10. Thanks all! @Stephen it’s only a “mistake” in the sense of “miss-take”.

    I like your thinking about the complexity of exploring one’s own things, contrasted with the simplicity of recalling a simple this-then-that sequence.

    I’m not sure how to direct the group’s attention in a Cleaner way. Maybe, “And when you were asked the questions, then what happened?” That moves the context-setting to the front of the question, which might well make it easier to process.

    @David yes, that would be an interesting practice exercise. I wonder how we could set it up so that the answer came back outside the question frame?

  11. Stephen Grey

    Building on the idea that responding to a clean question is a complex process, there are ways to explore these by providing a space in which insights emerge from sharing micro narratives,extracting key features, clustering them and using the clustered groups as a framework to describe what was going on. Probably more than you would want in one of your classes as you would need a couple of hours. It might be an interesting research exercise if you could work with one of the Cognitive Edge people.

    The other approach is just to reassure people that it will feel weird and tell them not to worry about it.

  12. donald fridjhon

    The urge to answer as a subject being questioned rather than as person asking the questions may have something to do with how the group is facilitated? If I am teaching, others operate as students. David Drake suggests the relevance of avoiding playing a role. (As in, for example, Rogerian process). Justb as the client is supported to get out of their own way (ego) so too, the facilitator’s challenge includes empowering the students so they move out of being students.
    Just as asking the questions is not about me trying to impart or teach, so too, I wonder if Judy’s teaching may be keeping the group together as students.
    No offence…:)

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