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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Andrea Chiou On Clean Language and Clean Questions

Andrea Chiou On Clean Language and Clean Questions


1. My name is Todd Charon and I am Agile editor at InfoQ and we are here at the Agile 2014 Conference. Today we are joined by Andrea Chiou. And you are speaking here at the conference and to get us started, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Well, I am currently an Agile coach at Santeon and I am based in Northern Virginia and I work on contracts largely with the Federal Government. I came to Agile late, probably 4 years ago, after a long career in IT, also in the DC area. I came to it through the studies of Jerry Weinberg’s readings and also attending his Amplify your Effectiveness Conference. From there, many connections were made to ideas, to people, to communities around the world and I would have to say it was through that conference that I was introduced to Clean Language.

Todd: Thanks. Which is the topic of your conversation

Andrea: That was the topic of my session at Agile 2014.


2. So, maybe you could tell us exactly what is Clean Language and tell us a little bit what your session is about.

Oh, great. Clean Language is a technique used in psycho-therapy. It evolved from one person – David Grove – who utilized it very successfully to help people create change in themselves, even after very traumatic things that happened in their lives. He was studied by two people in England who modeled what he did. Basically Clean Language is about letting people think through symbols. They create symbols via questions and they have developed a landscape for change. So the Clean Language questions which are now being taken out into the broader world of business and other domains, are Clean because the questioner does not involve any of his own judgments, reactions, biases, assumptions, pre-suppositions and just uses some content from the person that he is listening to.

The reason why I am attracted to this is that when I am coaching I notice often interruptions: people cutting each other off; somebody has an idea, another person does not exhibit curiosity. The Clean questions allow us to bridge that – if we teach it, this person who is interrupting learns to quiet that side of their thinking while they allow the other person to finish, elaborate, expand maybe even discover something new.


3. So give us some examples of what a Clean Question might include.

A Clean Question could be as simple as “what kind of x is that?”, where x is something that the person said. It could be “what else is there about x?” – just a continuation. All Clean Questions actually start with the word “and” or the connector.

Todd: Why do you think that is?

Andrea: The reason for the word “and” is to provide a sense of togetherness, a continuation of what the person was thinking. Often, we find people starting sentences with “so” or “but” or “well, this is my way”, whatever. But at the end there is a connector. Some other questions might involve time – “what happens just before x?” or “Then what happens?” is significant. “What significance does what you are saying have if that were to happen?” So we go backwards in space, we can go forwards in space with the Clean Questions.


4. What is the effect of that, when you use those questions with somebody?

People who use it or experience being asked Clean Questions will describe that they have never had that experience before, to be listened to in that way, where nothing is interrupted. In a therapy session, it might be that they feel they have been in almost like a trance. They are called on to think of metaphor – let’s say somebody in IT says “I don’t have a good feeling about where this project is going.” Well, when you do not have a good feeling like that, what kind of feeling is that or where is that feeling? Oh, that feeling is right in my gut. And how big is it? It is expanding. You can get at somebody’s subconscious feelings and have it exhibited in ways and give it a description and bring it to life such that we understand what they are saying better. Normally, what happens when somebody says that, they will be either ignored or contradicted.


5. Interesting. One of the other things you also did there is that you repeated what was said. So that was another thing that you came up in your session. So, what does that do?

The repetition is a way of validating again. Then, usually, in the advanced syntax of a question, we would use the word “when”. So I would repeat the phrase and you have a feeling that the project is not going well and “When you are feeling like that – there is a “when” component – what happens next?” “I retreat and clam up and I do not know what to do” – could be an answer. I am making this up.

Todd: Sure. Yes. A hypothetical example.

Andrea: Yes. So we are directing attention to the words and symbols that people are using, allowing them to develop them further.


6. Nice. So, you talked a little bit about metaphor there. Will you say a bit more about the role of metaphor in this?

The role of metaphor is crucial in the realm of Clean Language Questions. We talk in metaphor. We perhaps use up to six metaphors a minute. There is an article online which describes where that number comes from. We take our experience from the physical world and we have words which we almost do not realize come from the experience of the world around us. So, when we are able to use language more explicitly in that form, we create bridges, we create mental model bridges between people. We can’t always identify with each other’s experience, but we can identify with things that are like that.


7. And so, one of the other things that you mentioned before was also about the flow of ideas. Why is that important to have ideas flow?

So, this would be because we need creativity in the work place. We need people to feel their ideas are being heard. We need to uncover assumptions that people are making and when we question them with these Clean Questions, we can often surface hidden assumptions.


8. What happens when we are not using Clean Questions like you mentioned in the examples of other conversations? What happens to the flow of ideas then?

I think it depends. There is no doubt that we need normal conversation. You cannot have a Clean session with somebody without wanting to revert to what is familiar. So I think that the thing that is exciting for me is that we have now examples of people out in the field, adapting Clean language philosophy and concept and using it in groups and collaboration to create a more open culture.


9. And so when do you use this? Is kind of the question. You mentioned you do not use it all the time. Is that something you specifically set out as “We are going to use this now.” Is it something you can use in general conversation?

The three core questions which I shared during my session can be used sort of in stealth mode, I guess you would say. They can be used any time and people will not really notice that you are doing it. Yet, for you, as the person you are realizing that you are allowing this conversation to continue without interrupting. In organizations, I would say it is really critical to be hired for the purpose of using it. You would have to introduce it to everybody to make it be effective. They are just a little bit weird.


10. Yes. So could you just remind us again- what were the three questions that you shared in class?

The three that I shared were “And what kind of x is that x?” “What else is there about x?” and the third one is sort of like the first one “And that’s x like what?” It is important to understand that in response to those questions that illicit metaphor that you can just tell a story. You can use natural language to respond to them. There is no formula for the answer. There is no wrong way to do it, basically.


11. Right. And so, other type of language approaches ….one of the other ones out there in the world is non-violent communication or NVC, right? How does non-violent communication compare with Clean Questions and how do they connect or do they connect?

I think there is a connection. There is, in fact, a Facebook group that invites people from both communities to say how they feel they are connected. So I occasionally read what is being written in that group. Non-violent communication is about people acknowledging needs and feelings and then asking for something to change. What is different about Clean is that it is the same in the idea of completely respecting where a person is and allowing them to draw forth from their authentic self. That is the same. I think the obvious part that differs is that in Clean we are not really making requests and we are just trying to help somebody think through and model what they are thinking. So there is no request part. So they are slightly different, but they can be complementary in fact.


12. One of the interesting things that came up in the session was the idea that in that conversation, it really feels like it is all about that one person as opposed to the person asking the questions. They are not inserting their own bias or opinion in that, as that is going. Why is that important to have that opportunity to do that?

Andrea: From the perspective of the questioner or the perspective of the listener?

Todd: Both, I suppose.

Andrea: So, from the perspective of the listener, it is incredibly liberating to have somebody not insert themselves. I gave the example in the session of coming home from work and just blurting out “I had a horrible day” That does not require an answer at all. In fact, it does not even require a Clean question. The Clean philosophy would say “Just leave it alone”, right? Whereas the common response would be “Well, why don’t you take off your shoes and go relax” which is advice. So, in a business context, it could be the same thing where somebody makes a suggestion and somebody make a counter-suggestion. A better thing to do might be “When suggestion – whatever it is – then what happens? Explore a little bit, have some mutual exploration. And what has been found, not from my work, but from the work of Caitlin Walker, is that when you do this in groups, especially in small companies, the bridges between the people working on various things get broken down and there is much more collaboration.


13. So, one of the other things that you talked about that was kind of interesting to you was this notion of building community. Would you say a little bit more about that?

This is an outcome of my interest in community building which began again back at Amplify your Effectiveness Conference. I have not been able to really articulate this before but the sense of community in the Agile space has been so important for my own personal growth that I have jumped at opportunities to help link other people into the community and to create stronger bonds within it and I have taken this notion and am trying to apply it now to the Clean community where I am enabling connections between people – not that there aren’t with the different Facebook groups - but by allowing people to tell their stories in the form of a book.

So I now just published on Lean pub a book called “Who is using Clean language anyway?” and it is a compilation of interviews of people using Clean and how it has affected their lives. So, I am hoping that, by making this book available, that people who have a tangential interest or maybe were sparked by my talk can see where it is being applied and connect with other people.


14. Then how does somebody who is interested in getting involved in a community like this, how would they get involved?

Well, to start with, they could do a Google search. There are plenty of resources online. At the back of my book there is a list of resources and a list of people and I think we do still need to add in websites, but there are Facebook communities that are not listed in there that need to go in there. It is quite easy to find people in the UK, it is much more difficult in the US. There are a handful of Clean language trainer facilitators and I hope that the number will grow.


15. So, what is coming up next for you?

My dream is to study with Caitlin Walker – I mentioned her a little bit earlier. I want her to come to the US and I want to assemble people to experience her six-day systemic modeling training which is Clean language applied to groups. She has little techniques called Clean scoping, Clean set up, Clean feedback. She has had tremendous success with this and her model takes Clean to the next level. I really did not have time to share that in my short session but that is where I am going next.


16. Excellent. And so if somebody wanted to learn more about Clean language or what you are up to, where would they go to get that information?

Well, currently I have a blog and my blog is So, you can connect with me through that or Linkedin, I am also on Twitter at my name which is Andrea Chiou, with no underscore. I welcome anybody to contact me that way.

Todd: And of course, they could always pick up your book.

Andrea: They could pick up my book. Right now it is on – I can issue coupons as needed, but there is a coupon for Agile 2014, so...

Todd: Thank you very much for doing this.

Andrea: You are welcome. Thank you.

Nov 05, 2014

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