About a communications technique that allows conversations to be driven by evidence rather than interpretation.

The current corporate landscape is not what it was five to ten years ago. Values are changing, work hours are becoming increasingly flexible and employees no longer devote a big chunk of their careers to a single organization. 

Today, it is common to see an employee switch organizations frequently. For their part, corporates are investing in developing the capabilities of their people in order to retain them and deliver business results. 

If all employees could communicate well and in a concise fashion, there would be a collaborative effort to meet business goals. Language itself becomes a barrier to communication in India where most of us are not native English speakers and have learnt the language in our quest to be globally relevant. 

Executive Coaching is a process and intervention that motivates leaders and managers to sharpen their intrapersonal skills in order to be effective in communicating and empowering their teams. Coaches use many tools to enable people to get closer to their goals. One highly effective and common framework is the G.R.O.W Model: Goal, Reality, Options and Will. The G.R.O.W model is a powerful tool involving questioning to help the ‘client’ comprehensively realise their Goals, understand the Reality of the current situation, discuss multiple Options and find a Way forward. Under this model, the coach asks questions in such a way that the client feels encouraged to be themselves and answer without inhibition. The result is an empowering and motivational dialogue.

The questions themselves are framed using the principles of Clean Language Ñ a communications methodology developed in the 1980s by David Grove, a Counselling Psychologist from New Zealand. 

This approach helps people communicate thoughts, free of interpretation from others. It promotes better understanding and fosters cooperative, productive relationships. Most importantly, it enables people to ask questions without intimidating the other person. The technique minimizes assumptions and paradigms.

Clean Language combines the four elements of communication: syntax, wording of questions, vocal qualities and non-verbal behaviour. It offers a template for questions that are as free as possible of external bias. As long as one is mindful of the other person’s state of mind, the conversation will be clean. 

Tempo, tone and volume can affect conversations and individual experiences during these interactions. Non-verbal behavior Ñ including gestures, posture and body movements also plays a big part.

Let’s take a common workplace situation, where we have one member of a team underperforming, which in turn impacts the entire team’s progress. Apart from the detrimental effect on the team in question, this has the potential to cascade further into the organization. Traditionally, the team lead expresses anger and dissatisfaction through the use of highly authoritative and degrading language. This only adds to the angst of the already dejected employee. 

A study of basic human behavior tells us that employees don’t underperform deliberately; that the objective of most is to be performers, as valued members of the team, and contribute to business. So, when a team member is suddenly underperforming, what is the ideal way to handle this situation?

The team lead should first have a dialogue to identify what has led to the current situation. She should start the conversation with a simple yet informal “How are things?” and address an employee by name without any indication of hierarchy. The underperforming employee then starts to feel secure enough to discuss their shortcomings. The team lead might then ask, “What has caused this dip in standards?” Based on the answer, the next obvious question would be: “Is there anything you want to change?” or “How can I help?” This has an equalizing effect in the conversation and the employee opens up, forming a friendship-like bond with the lead. When they tell you where they need help, they are calling out their concerns. 

Non-clean language example: 

Team Member: “I feel stuck in my department”.

Team Lead: “Is your manager hard to work with, or are there no opportunities for you to advance?”

As you can see this is an example of ‘unclean language’ with the team lead having added their own words to the mix before the team member could communicate exactly why they felt stuck. The team lead has led the employee to the idea that the latter feels stuck because there is little opportunity to advance, instead of allowing them to arrive at that realization on their own.

Conversely, a dialogue between both parties involving clean language should be something like this:

Team Member: “I feel stuck in my department”.

Team Lead: “You feel stuck is what I heard; can you elaborate?”

Team Member: “I work on the same projects all the time. It’s like I don’t really matter.”

Team Lead: “And, is there anything elseÉ.

Team Member: “Well, I used to feel like I was valued. My boss always asked for my opinion on big projects. But, my new manager never seeks my advice or sends me challenging assignments. So, I’m just spinning my wheels there.”

In this conversation, by using clean language the team lead has elicited the understanding of ‘Stuck’ from the employee’s perspective and allowed the conversation to move with evidence. By consistently using this technique, the lead can make the employee feel more comfortable and open up, thus helping to lend clarity to the situation.

Clean Language calls for the questioner to keep their assumptions and metaphors out of the dialogue as much as possible and allow the team member to explore his own metaphors. By being aware of and following this format, we can get in touch with our gut feelings about an issue even when we don’t yet have words to convey them. 

Charles D’Cruz
is a Life Coach, facilitator and consultant.