Using clean language to adapt to change

Rob’s team has just gone through a team restructure. It’s caused a lot of upheaval. Rob’s struggling to communicate with some team members.

Here’s how we’d help Rob deal with this problem. You can use the same strategies to improve communication with your team or coworkers.

Probe rather than placate

Sue says she’s not going to be good enough to take on her new responsibilities. Rob has tried to make Sue feel confident. He’s said things like, ‘You’ll be fine’ or ‘It’s going to be OK’. Despite what Rob sees as positive framing, Sue doesn’t seem to be feeling any better.

Rob should find out why Sue fears the changes. A Clean Language question is, ‘What kind of not good enough is that not good enough?’ Clean Language questions enable Rob to really understand what Sue is worried about. He and Sue can explore solutions together. 

Investigate rather than dismiss

Alan hasn’t taken the changes well. He’s muttering that ‘the writing’s on the wall’. Although Rob thinks Alan’s being cynical, he recognises that he doesn’t want to lose Alan.

Rob could start with a common Clean Language question such as, ‘What kind of writing on the wall is that writing on the wall?’ Rob and Alan may have very different ideas about what this metaphor means. The Clean Language technique will help Rob understand where Alan is coming from.

Clarify rather than misinterpret

Janice was unsuccessful in applying for one of the new supervisor positions. She told Rob in their follow-up that she feels ‘trapped’. Rob tried to explore Janice’s issue. He asked Janice how she would escape from the situation. Janice became agitated during Rob’s line of questioning.

What was the problem? Rob’s question implied the solution to Janice’s problem was ‘escape’. The question was framed by Rob’s understanding of what it means to be trapped. Janice might have a different understanding of being trapped. She might have thought that the word ‘escape’ implied that the only option was to leave.

Clean Language questions such as ‘What kind of trapped is that trapped?’ would have resulted in less confusion. Janice would have felt understood rather than feeling pushed to a certain course of action. 

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