Why Should A Manager Learn Clean Language?

Learning Clean Language will make you a better manager, in few different ways.

  1. It will develop your skills, especially involving interpersonal communication and collaborative influence
  2. It will increase your self-awareness, especially about the ways you interact with other people
  3. It’s likely to lead you to an increasingly sophisticated way of experiencing the world: to increase your psychological development
  4. In turn, that will mean you can function effectively in increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations.

When I’m marketing a Clean-Language-powered course, like this one-dayer coming up in London, I tend to focus on the first of these, the skills. I might say something like the following:

“Misunderstandings are a common source of wasted time and effort at work, often leading to irritation and even conflict. In this one-day workshop you’ll develop your ability to find out what people actually mean by what they say, so that you can build stronger working relationships. This can be especially useful when working with people who are different from you: for example, with much younger or much older colleagues, or those from different cultural backgrounds.”

Or I might make lists like the one below, which again is skills-based, though I think it hints at self-awareness.

Take this course, and you will be better able to:
– Notice and use another person’s own words to build rapport
– Ask attention-guiding questions to achieve greater clarity
– Guide a colleague’s attention away from a problem and towards a desired outcome
– Support your colleagues to do their best work
– Give clear, actionable feedback in real time
– Challenge other team members while retaining rapport
– Make clear requests of colleagues, and invite questioning
– Stay out of groupthink in meetings
– Stay engaged when exploring areas of tension and conflict
– Coach your peers using Clean approaches

I might even touch on the benefits for your life outside of work, about improving relationships, reducing conflict and so on.

I rarely talk about psychological development. That’s because:

  • It’s complicated: more complicated than will fit in a short flier, more complicated than will fit in a one-day intro course
  • Not all my potential customers will be aware of the concept, let alone the details. They almost certainly won’t be aware of the research that correlates higher levels of psychological development with more effective work as a manager in VUCA contexts
  • It’s not what they are shopping for. It’s not an obvious solution to an obvious problem.

But here’s the thing. There are people out there looking for solutions to more sophisticated problems.

People who’ve been exposed to the work of Robert Kegan, especially in relation to deliberately developmental organisations, often see the relevance of Clean Language. People who are working with Agile, especially if they were also exposed to XP back in the day, tend to get it. People who’ve read Reinventing Organisations get it, too.

In Kegan’s terms, a lot of these people will be on a deliberately developmental path: for themselves, with a community of practice, or alongside their organisation. They know that it is possible to track adults’ development from socialized to self-authoring and then to self-transforming (or your preferred terminology from another model), and that this development is both interesting and useful.

Once exposed to Clean Language, and especially to Caitlin Walker’s ways of using it, they recognise instant utility. They can see how it can be a practical tool to help themselves, and their colleagues, to develop psychologically. And having a tool like that at their fingertips will make them a better manager.

4 thoughts on “Why Should A Manager Learn Clean Language?”

  1. Jackie Lawlor @JackieALawlor posted elsewhere: “Ideas off the top of my head are, allocating work and ensuring it is understood and delivered on time. Letting go and delegating in order that the other person grows and learns and making that safe for both parties. Working in a way which is respectful to colleagues and patients or other customers.”

  2. Here are some of my thoughts, many can be be grouped under the general points you’ve mentioned but they may be useful or inspire further ideas:
    • It uncovers (mis)assumptions.
    • Gives people the space and permission to fully explore and explain a topic.
    • It untangles complex and contentious issues.
    • Moves people from problem-space to solution-space, and high-level ‘tasks/stories’ to low-level actionable items/sub-tasks (E.G. What needs to happen first? Can that happen?)
    • It exponentially increases the power of other techniques (E.G. RCA, post-mortems, Liberating Structures).
    • Allows people to find their own solutions and then take ownership.
    • It gives your colleagues the tools (by way of demonstration) to query you so that they better understand what you are saying.

  3. Nice article @Judy. I wish my manager would feel like embarking in that sort of stuff…

    To @Ray : have you been mixing Liberating Structures and Clean Language? Do you have some materials about it?

    I’ve myself poured LS into the Solution Focus paradigm and found that it works well (I have a small Excel file where I rewrote the purpose of each LS with SF in mind, which I can send around).

  4. Thanks Nicolas, I’d love to see your LS/SF document please! I’ve been using LS in teaching Clean language – for example, using 1-2-4-all during workshops. I’m looking forward to speaking to a few friends who’ve just been at the LS Global Gathering as I know they talked about Clean there.

    And Jackie Arnold @jackiearnold comments on Twitter: Agree! Clean Language is vital in effective cross cultural communication – it’s respectful and avoids misunderstanding.

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