Why Might Remote Leaders Value Clean Language?

I’m probably best known for my work with Clean Language. But in recent weeks and months, my public profile has been more focussed on remote facilitation. For example, I’ve been giving conference talks and writing blog posts about “How To Make Remote Meetings Not Suck“.

So I’ve been asked, “What’s the relationship?”

One answer is quite personal: I used to be a journalist, and an executive managing journalists. Journalists have always worked remotely. Therefore there’s useful stuff I can share from those days.

Another answer is very personal. My individual “why?“, my work purpose, has to do with connecting people and ideas around the world. I reckon we need improved communication to solve our big challenges, and my interest in both Clean Language and remote communication spring from that same root.

And there’s another level of connection between the two streams.

The fact is, there are some very practical reasons why people who work remotely, who consult remotely, who lead teams remotely, and who lead and/or attend online meetings, might find learning Clean Language particularly valuable.

Here are six of the ways Clean Language can be used:

  1. To harvest information from another person: what they know, what they think, how they feel
  2. To explore “unknown knowns” – the deeper things that people don’t realise that they know – respectfully
  3. To shift someone’s emotional state
  4. To motivate someone to change
  5. To give and get effective, useable feedback
  6. To enhance relationships between people – even people in conflict.

Learning Clean Language does all of this because it enhances your ability to understand others, and to notice what they are (and are not) understanding.

And (as Martin Burns and Tom Perry pointed out in this article recently) once you’ve got the hang of it, Clean Language does this while reducing the cognitive load on you. That gives you extra thinking power to hear what people are saying. It increases the amount of information that you can take in.

All this is pretty useful to anyone who works with people.

But what gives it extra importance when working remotely is that remote communications go wrong more easily than in-the-room conversations. They’re more vulnerable to misunderstandings, and therefore to the conflicts and other difficulties that can result from those.

That increased likelihood of communications problems comes from two major sources:

  • Reduced communications bandwidth (text, email, dodgy audio calls etc, combined with more restricted engagement time)
  • Wider diversity (of all kinds) between the communicators.

Clean Language gets to grips with both of these.

Clean Language does not need the massive bandwidth of in-person meetings. It doesn’t depend on body language, eye contact, or physical contact. It can work using text – even via snail mail.  Synchronous voice or video calls make it much, much richer: it’s worth splashing out for Zoom while you save on travel fares.

Because learning Clean Language reduces misunderstandings and improves relationships, it also saves time, especially in meetings. That’s high value when your conversations are squeezed because of time zone issues, for example.

Clean Language accepts diversity comfortably. It’s used in lots of different languages, and with neurodiverse populations. It sparks curiosity and cross-cultural understanding. That’s because the values, attitudes and practices which underpin Clean Language are based, as far as possible, on human universals. For example, all humans do their thinking using metaphor: it’s the native language of the unconscious mind.

It’s not a Babel fish: to work well, Clean Language needs some shared language. But using metaphor can simplify the required vocabulary significantly – which is great when you’re struggling to make sure of shared meaning.

So that’s why, if you work with people who aren’t in the same place as you, I think Clean Language will have value for you.

  • What have I missed? What questions do you have? Please comment below.


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