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Caitlin Walker on Clean Language, Anti-Fragility and Inclusiveness


In this podcast recorded at Agile 2019, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Caitlin Walker about clean language, anti-fragility and inclusiveness.  

Key Takeaways

  • Clean Language is a way of communicating that helps reduce bias and influence in order to help bring clarity to a situation
  • Clean language questions can be used anywhere where gathering high quality information without biasing the answer will be useful
  • The questions expose diversity in thinking and attitudes and enable greater connections and empathy between people
  • An antifragile system is one that when you apply stress to it, it grows stronger 
  • Clean language applied to teams helps them create the conditions for antifragility 

Show Notes

  • 00:28 Introductions 
  • 00:44 David Grove’s work on people-centred therapy 
  • 01:00 Transcripts of therapy conversations show biased influence by the therapist 
  • 01:07 The basis of clean language questions – unbiased with no presumptions, metaphors, models
  • 01:13 Using clean language questions forces you to build a model of what the other person is talking about from scratch 
  • 01:19 An example of how clean language questioning can help bring clarity to a situation 
  • 01:39 Elements that clean language questions can explore in a conversation
  • 01:43 Caitlin’s recognition that this should not only be restricted to therapy – that it can apply in many other contexts
  • 02:06 Clean language questions can be used anywhere where gathering high quality information without biasing the answer will be useful
  • 02:21 Exploring this through some work Caitlin did with a software development company
  • 03:01 Clean questions exposing the invisible architecture of the human system 
  • 03:10 “When you’re working at your best, you’re like what?”  as an example of how this clean question exposes a mismatch in expectations between two people 
  • 03:53 Clean questions enable rapidly coming up with a “rough guide” to a person’s motivations and attitudes 
  • 04:05 Learning enough about team structures in order to make the smallest adjustments that will enable the individual (person) systems to work together more effectively 
  • 04:19 Clean questions tend to bring out metaphors, which are useful because we are story-telling creatures
  • 04:28 Contrasting metaphor with personality testing 
  • 04:45 Examples of metaphor in action and the understanding that comes from it 
  • 05:12 Exploring “when you’re working at your best, what are you like” with Shane
  • 06:02 Metaphor’s help us start to make little predictions about one another 
  • 06:09 Exploring “when you’re working at your worst, what are you like” with Shane
  • 06:52 How hearing each other’s metaphor can help build understanding and connection between people 
  • 07:58 The questions expose diversity in thinking and attitudes and enable greater connections and empathy
  • 08:21 Caitlin’s early experience using clean language with violent, disaffected teenagers, outside of the school system, known to the police 
  • 08:56 With that group – everyone wanted them to be different to what they were 
  • 09:05 How clean language enabled that group to understand and make sense of themselves 
  • 09:17 An example of how that plays out between two people
  • 09:44 Clean language created the conditions for groups to become antifragile 
  • 09:50 Explaining what antifragility is – a system that grows stronger when you apply stress to it
  • 10:18 The human immune system as an example of an antifragile system
  • 10:24 The system learns as a result of the stress applied to it 
  • 10:40 In a group this means that they have the tools to use stressors to grow, not to avoid or diminish the stressors 
  • 10:48 Clean language applied to teams helps them create the conditions for antifragility 
  • 11:00 Exploring how this can play out in a team situation 
  • 11:22 Examples of how communication breaks down in teams and creates disharmony
  • 11:36 Turning that around through curiosity and exploration
  • 11:50 Finding the inspiring capability to look for stress, enjoy it, investigate it and learn from it 
  • 12:00 The aim for the Audacious Salon session on antifragility – to create conditions for stressors and then create enough space to know each other’s systems 
  • 12:25 The danger of trying to respond to problems around inclusivity through making rules can create a lack of intimacy and raise barriers between people
  • 12:48 The fear of punishment diminishes the ability for people to show up 
  • 13:00 Clean language and systemic modelling train for curiosity and interest to sort out the issues at source, which can result in genuine intimacy and learning  
  • 13:21 This results in a stronger system where people have explored each other’s ideas and viewpoints 
  • 13:58 The ability to call others out and explore differences through curiosity and interest 
  • 14:27 The difference between addressing issues from a curiosity perspective vs contempt/condemnation 
  • 14:58 Factors needed to create the environment where this can happen 
  • 15:15 Contrasting ways of responding to discriminatory behaviour and how a clean language approach results in different and better outcomes for all parties
  • 15:58 These approaches need to be imbedded in the system and agreed to by those with power in the system 
  • 16:38 This is about being OK with not being OK, naming and taming the elephant in the room for many teams
  • 16:48 Tools that help – separate evidence from inference, with an example of how this applies 
  • 19:14 Advice on ways to approach situations – don’t go deep, no more than two or three questions
  • 19:58 Exploring evidence & inference through a scenario 
  • 20:32 “What did you see or hear that makes you think xxxxx?” – a clean question to help bring out the evidence rather than the inferred motivation
  • 21:35 Judgement and contempt are comfortable but don’t enable us to learn – separating evidence from inference enables exploration and learning 
  • 21:48 Caitlin won’t train teams in an organisation unless the leadership group first undertake the training and apply the techniques so they can and do model the behaviour for the rest of the organisation
  • 21:31 A story of how Caitlin came to that approach 
  • 22:59 If you’re going to apply these ideas, they have to be supported by the system, otherwise it will fail 
  • 23:06 There’s no point teaching a team to do it without the managers doing it as well
  • 24:36 Closing advice – two or three questions, no more and if you use these ideas cite David Grove as the originator 


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