Asking good questions is a vital part of being a business leader. But how can you be sure the answers someone gives accurately reflect their real thoughts? The solution we recommend is to use the principles of clean language interviewing (CLI) – an approach to asking questions aimed at eliciting authentic answers about a person’s thoughts and experiences. In business, CLI is a useful tool for improving the quality of information in both formal and less structured situations.
CLI involves three principles. First, minimizing the use of the questioner’s own terms and assumptions. Second, using the exact language of the person being questioned to enquire about their thoughts and experiences. And third, asking questions that give the person maximum freedom to express their answers.
You may think, “I already do that.” And you might be right, but only to a degree. Even people highly experienced at asking questions rarely appreciate how much of their own views and assumptions can unintentionally “leak” into a question. As leaders have significant authority, this is compounded by the “acquiescence effect”, whereby people respond with what they believe the questioner wants to hear.
We are all prone to asking leading questions. Biases in questions arise from three things: the questioner’s own terms, their assumptions, and their value judgments. For example, suppose an employee says to their manager, “We need to take some actions to maintain quality standards”, and in response, the manager asks, “What does your department need to change in order to improve?”
This question (1) introduces the manager’s own terms by using the word “change” rather than enquiring about the “actions” the employee is thinking of; (2) assumes that “we” refers to the employee’s department; and (3) implies a value judgment, that the department “needs to improve”, which could lead to a defensive response.
What distinguishes CLI from other methods is that it removes potential biases from questions. This increases the chances that the person being questioned will contribute their own take on the matter – which could provide important knowledge and unexpressed subjective views.
While CLI’s origins lie in psychotherapy, its principles and methods are widely applicable in other contexts – including business, coaching, conflict resolution, and market research. By adopting CLI techniques, people at all levels can gain better access to information they need to do their jobs to the highest standards.
Cleaning up your questions
Central to CLI is the use of “clean questions”, which are as free as possible from the questioner’s terms, assumptions, and value judgments. Such questions aim at directing the interviewee’s attention without ascribing meaning or suggesting answers. Creating such questions calls for following a few guidelines:
First, use the other person’s words. Paraphrasing in follow-up questions – rewording an idea in the belief that it will make it clearer or give it more impact – is actually more likely to distort meaning and reduce understanding. Changing words changes meaning. Staying close to the exact words, including metaphors, used by someone in a conversation – respectfully and without robotic “parroting” – preserves that person’s meaning.
Second, remove assumptions that indicate the kind of answer a questioner might be looking for. For example, asking “How should we eliminate this problem?” presupposes that elimination is necessary. That is likely to limit the scope of a respondent’s answer, and when asked by someone in authority it may prove especially hard for the respondent to disagree (the “acquiescence effect”). A cleaner question would be, “And what kind of problem is that?” Using CLI does require practice to notice and reduce the assumptions that so often slip into the ways that people ask questions.
Third, avoid conveying the questioner’s opinion. This can happen simply through expressing surprise, for example, “What’s that, you’re not going to meet your target!?”
Further applications of CLI
The basic use of CLI described above can be applied to almost any conversation or situation where high quality information is required, simply by incorporating clean questions wherever they are helpful or relevant.
CLI is rich in additional possibilities. Not only are there multiple levels at which it can be used but also endless opportunities for application. Many are already tried and tested, as detailed in our book, Clean Language Interviewing.
On a broader canvas, CLI principles can be applied in market research or other investigatory projects (from design and planning to the gathering of data, to analysis and reporting) to produce findings about which people can feel more confident.
CLI can be particularly useful in situations of conflict, helping a questioner better understand the perspectives of those involved – particularly important if they are one of the parties involved or want to maintain neutrality.
CLI is also an important tool in managing diversity. Its use in assessments, for example, can help make procedures far less susceptible to unintended forms of bias. It can enable the emergence of different perspectives, including from people with different backgrounds to the questioner. That could be people with different social or educational backgrounds, with different kinds of expertise, or from another culture or country.
Key tips for business leaders
With the possibilities they offer for learning and enhanced self-awareness, CLI techniques are highly relevant for business leaders.
CLI is particularly useful for avoiding self-deception or confirmation bias through seeking evidence, even if subconsciously, that supports existing or preferred beliefs or theories. Instead, executives can open dialogues in which the person being addressed is enabled to speak on their own terms. When this happens, the person can search for their own ideas rather than reacting to the assumptions of their questioner.
In addition, an awareness of CLI makes it possible for people with more power to put themselves in the shoes of those less powerful. People who become fluent in asking clean language questions often gain a greater understanding of the influence that their words have on others. This can help them to avoid bias and communicate with others with genuine curiosity.
How to ask ‘classically clean’ questions