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Coaching with Curiosity Using Clean Language and Agile

Key Takeaways

  • Simple questions can unearth really valuable information about the work product, as well as the ways we might like to work together.   
  • A culture of curiosity using Clean Questions is one in which no question will be laughed at. No question is “dumb”.
  • Using exercises such as ‘Working at Your Best’ and ‘Clean Feedback’ support agile teams in promoting transparency and respect.
  • Light-weight peer-to-peer coaching is possible with a minimum of training.
  • Learning how to separate what’s observed from what opinions one has about those observations is a key to solid “Clean Feedback”.

Clean Language questions are bias-free questions. They can be used to discover the underlying rules, expressed values, and coping mechanisms in organizations, and to gain clarity and promote diverse ideas in groups. Simple to learn, but tricky to implement, clean questions require transparency and sharing a bit more of one’s thinking than usual.  

Andrea Chiou, Agile Consultant, Clean Language facilitator and trainer, ran a workshop at the Agile Games conference 2018 on Clean Language called Let's Hack Your Team and Organization with The Best Inquiry Skills Ever. InfoQ is covering this event with Q&As and articles.

InfoQ spoke with Chiou about Clean Language questions and how the curious stance they require can help teams to be better observers, more engaged in what’s going on for others, including setting up for success, supporting each other’s individual development, and giving and receiving “Clean Feedback”.

InfoQ: What is “Clean Language”?

Andrea Chiou: Clean Language questions are bias-free questions.

They were developed by the Maori PTSD psychotherapist David Grove in the 1970s and 1980s. David noticed that when his interactions with clients were free from his prescriptions, advice, and interpretations, the clients could think through their “own stuff”’ and create connections in their minds that allowed them to heal more readily. David went on to develop other methods such as Emergent Knowledge and Clean Space, and sadly died in 2008. In turn, Caitlin Walker of Liverpool, England, took these questions to groups and organizations, calling it Systemic Modelling, or “Clean Language for Teams”. This is the area of coaching I am most interested in with Clean Language. 

Here’s how the clean questions work. Most questions have a syntax that includes a blank represented by an ellipsis (...) or an X.  Here I’ll use an ellipsis. The ellipsis is replaced with an exact word, phrase, or set of phrases spoken by the other person. That’s what makes a question bias-free or non-leading. Having to repeat the other person’s words exactly means you have to listen very intently. The person on the receiving side reports having really been “heard” in a new way.   A few of the clean questions are:

(And) What kind of …?

(And) Is there anything else about …?

(And) Where is? (And) When …, then what happens?

(And) What happens just before …?

(And) is there a relationship between … and …?

(And) when …, what happens to …?

What is entered in the blanks can be any part of the sentence: a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, pronoun, a phrase, or even a nonverbal cue. The question therefore doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. This is what makes it possible to get behind the meanings people have. The ability to temporarily quiet our own thinking -  to stop our urge to respond conversationally - is what allows us to give attention to the other with clean questions.

InfoQ: What do you mean by “hacking a team or organization”?  

Chiou: Hack, used in the title of my workshop, is a metaphor which, by the way, is another of the rich gifts of Clean Language. Clean Language fosters awareness of the fact that all of our experiences are grounded in physical space and that we use metaphors we aren’t even aware of in our everyday language! Metaphors are valuable shortcuts that the brain uses. And because they are shortcuts, they do sometimes need to be explored.  Here’s how the “hack” metaphor applies to my session.

Human organizations are complex systems. The rules that the organization says it follows and the rules it really follows (espoused and practiced theories, as Chris Argyris put it) are not always the same. The value systems, and above all, the coping mechanisms at work when things go astray, like blaming, placating, and rescuing, make it even more complex.   Hacking the culture is simply a way to use communication tools to discover what is underlying these rules, expressed values, and coping mechanisms so that the dysfunction dissipates, and great products can be built.

Basic examples include:

  • using clean feedback in order to debrief interactions that were not so good during the sprint
  • using the modeling questions to explore a functional requirement where the difficult part of the requirement would be "hiding" behind an innocuous phrase or acceptance criteria.

For example: “The app should be fast enough to elicit user approval”.

            What kind of approval ? What kind of “fast enough”?

            And when fast enough, then what happens?

It is about managing expectations using genuine, unbiased, and clean exploration of the topics at hand.

I have a friend who likes to ask the product owner or sponsors, in the heat of a project crisis, “What would it take for you to trust us 100%?", which could also be followed up with clean questions to get additional knowledge around the sponsor’s mental models.  Everything that is helping the exploration of a "solution space" can be empowered by clean language questions, whether disassembling a series of complex emotional responses, or forming a vision for a great team, a great product, or a great event.      

InfoQ: How can we use clean language to coach teams?

Chiou:  There are many opportunities in agile teams, such as in leadership or planning meetings, design, coding, and retrospective events. In addition to using the questions to gain clarity, to promote diverse ideas, and to uncover assumptions, there are a dozen or so mini-models that can be used to coach both individuals and teams using Clean questions. I’ll give a few examples to pique interest for your readers.

Example 1 - Traditional Coaching: An individual comes to a coach with a problem. Instead of commiserating, or offering a solution, they use the 1 Minute Motivation or the 5 Minute Coach model, to stay in the thinking space of the person with the problem and to encourage them to take ownership of their desired outcome. Once someone experiences being coached this way, they feel the power and feel motivated to learn the questions.

The general coaching arc for One Minute Motivation goes like this:

After the client talks about a problem, the coach asks:

  • What would you like to have happen?
  • What needs to happen for (answer to last question)?
  • Can (answer to last question)?
  • And when (answer to last question), then what happens?

You can add a few Clean questions to clarify the answers to each of the above, such as “What kind of … ?” or “Anything else about ...?” to gain details.

Example 2 - Team Coaching:  The tools within the Clean for Teams toolbox are excellent for creating the conditions for more autonomy, engagement and less drama within a team.  A favorite activity is to get the members of the team to model (ask clean questions of) each other’s answer to this: When you are working at your best, you are like what? The Working At Your Best exercise allows the uniqueness of each person’s needs to be drawn out. I think it makes an excellent supplement to any generalized team agreement rules.  The team agreement rules are sometimes too generic to create the best conditions for individuals - and perhaps these two techniques can be used in tandem for greater effect. 

The idea behind Clean for Teams (devised by Caitlin Walker, of Liverpool, England)  is to give members just a minimal set of tools to foster their curiosity, to setup mini contracts for events, or even whole sprints (Clean Setup), to support each other with improvement (Developmental Tasks), and to give one another feedback effectively (Clean Feedback).

These are proven tools used in dozens and dozens of organizations at all levels, from executives all the way down to teams. I have used many of them in my agile coaching work.

Example 3 - Assumptions - I like to ask teams to hunt for assumptions, that is to ask clean questions about words which may cause ambiguity. A good example is in agile “User Story” statements during planning, where discovering missed assumptions can alleviate many problems early on. Sometimes these are the ‘unknown knowns’ the Product Owner simply forgot to include.  When you ask each part of the story statement any number of clean questions, you’ll methodically tease out hidden things that weren’t considered. It allows the team to ask the questions playfully and collaboratively of the Product Owner, rather than them guessing the answers or asking them midway through the Sprint. The biggest advantage is ‘no question is stupid’; everyone plays the “game” of asking.

InfoQ: How can Clean Language help us to give and receive feedback?

Chiou: Clean Feedback is one of several key and interdependent practices for a team’s effective collaboration. Caitlin Walker devised this way of separating observation from impact and wrote about it in her book, From Contempt to Curiosity, Creating the Conditions for Groups to Collaborate with Clean Language. 

Clean Feedback is separated into three parts to make it useful and to ensure it doesn’t launch people into less effective behavior, where only our ‘fight or flight’ reptilian brain mode is active!

Part 1 is observation.  People often get tripped up here.  Observation must not be an evaluation, but like a recording of what was seen or heard.  “I noticed you stood tall, started on time, and called people by their first names”.

Part 2 is Inference.  We add in the meaning we made from what we observed. This is our interpretation.  “I took this to mean you intended to create a welcoming atmosphere.” Whether they did or did not intend to do so is moot, but that is the meaning we made.

Part 3 is Impact.  This impact states why this mattered to the feedback giver.  “The impact is that I felt the atmosphere to be friendly and inviting, and I relaxed and enjoyed the class more because of your attention”.

A not so clean way of giving the same feedback to the team member would be: “Hey, that was a great workshop!”  This seems a very nice encouragement, but it doesn’t tell me what behavior to amplify and why that might be helpful. 

Clean Feedback takes the judgmental aspects (positive or negative) away from feedback.  It builds up the required observation skills because you cannot make up stuff in Part 1.  It makes you aware of your own thinking about what you’ve observed, and it forces you to consider what the impact was.  We create the conditions for the team members to use their “learning brain” with all of the Clean for Teams models, not just Clean Feedback. For example, we help the team members elicit their “Working At Your Best” state so each can be supportive of the others in the team. There is also a Developmental Task exercise to help individuals decide what they want to improve next, giving evidence, inference, and impact for their future desired behavior and asking others to support them when they notice the evidence (or see it missing).  

InfoQ: Is it possible for team members to coach each other in a safe way? How?

Chiou: The Clean for Teams training is all about getting the team to be curious and supportive of each other using Clean Questions. It works wonders as long as people use no more than three questions in a row at a given time, keeping it light and not going as deep as you might in professional performance coaching or therapy. 

In a recent workshop I gave, two colleagues were pairing up to practice the questions that they had just learned.  They decided to use as a topic a discussion they had had the prior day at work.  During the debrief, one commented that the trajectory of the conversation had been richer and more revealing than had been the conversation the day before. They used only a few questions and had had only 15 minutes of exposure to Clean Language. So yes, it is possible with the right guidance to put it to use in your everyday work, whether in a coaching relationship or not. You will experience an improvement in the way people relate to you and you to them, which is one of the outcomes of good coaching.  The conditions for peer-to-peer coaching include having a space to listen, and a technique to separate out your own thinking so that you can stay within the mental model of the person you are listening to. Clean Language questions achieve this.  

InfoQ: If InfoQ readers want to learn more about using Clean Language in agile coaching, where can they go?

Chiou: The best place to find out what’s going on globally in the intersection between Agile and Clean Language is a Facebook group called Clean Language and Agile. You’ll be able to interact with other coaches and Scrum Masters to learn about their experiments and successes using Clean Language in their coaching and teams.  I highly recommend the book From Contempt to Curiosity, Creating the Conditions for Teams to Collaborate, by Caitlin Walker.  You can also use any search engine to find out more.

About the Interviewee

Andrea Chiou is an Agile Coach who has worked for close to 30 years on IT projects. She is Owner of Connections-At-Work, LLC, a company offering a variety of facilitation and coaching “tools” to businesses looking for unique ways to improve in the Lean Agile space. These include inquiry tools, such as Clean Language (non-leading questions), group modeling tools such as Systemic Modeling (team discovery, tacit knowledge transfer and collaboration practices), and Agendashift workshops. She runs experiential learning workshops and training programs to teach these tools and to help people at work connect to one another so that the best possible outcomes are available not only in the moment, but over a sustained period of time.

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