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Clean Language for corporations


Last year I had the opportunity to facilitate a major conglomerate in Malaysia. Their human resources (HR) units needed to plan and strategise the delivery of their KPIs for the year. Each HR unit already knew how to achieve their numbers. The problem was that there was not enough horizontal collaboration or openness to different views. I was invited to facilitate a change in behaviour so that there would be more collaboration across the units.

This was my first corporate job, and hence a big deal. I was keen to get buy-in for what I was going to do, so I needed some frames for my facilitation and to offer these frames in a language that corporate leaders would understand. To do that, I used three main strategies:

1: Reference a well-known leadership guru

I wanted the HR managers to be open to using a new language of enquiry. I knew it would be outside their comfort zone to ask clean questions. I imagined a few of them thinking, “What we’re already doing is working – why should we use these questions instead?” I needed to give these managers a reason to give clean questions a go.

One of the first things I did was to share with them a quote from Stephen Covey: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  

When I named Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I noticed people nodding. Nearly all of them were familiar with Covey and his seminal book. When I showed Covey’s quote on a slide, I asked, “How many of you know this to be true – of yourselves, and of others? Let me see a show of hands.” Hands shot up in the air. More nods.

This introduction provided a natural segue into what we would be doing differently in the meeting. They would be learning how to use a simple set of questions so that when they listened, they’d be listening to understand. “Would you like that?” I asked. The room murmured “yes”.

I then introduced the Five Senses exercise to give the managers an experience of how using clean questions would mean they’d be listening differently. From “See an elephant” to “Taste a mango”, the managers discovered how efficient and effective clean questions were in gathering accurate information.

2: Reference a well-known template

 The meeting I was facilitating was ostensibly about the HR units’ 2019 KPIs. I had to find a way to make the meeting about planning and strategising for these KPIs, and not about Clean Language. At the same time, I wanted to encourage them to use clean questions so that they could begin listening and collaborating in a different way.

I knew that the units had used the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound) template the year before for their planning and strategising. I decided to include SMART and then build on the template with relevant clean questions so that their KPIs would be SMART-er.

Here’s how I fitted clean questions into the SMART model:


  • And when … what kind of … is that?
  • And when … is there anything else about…?


  • And when … what will you/I/we see or hear?


  • And what needs to happen for … ?
  • And can you … ?


  • And when … then what happens?
  • And when … what happens to?


  • And when will you … ?

3: Make feedback non-threatening

One of the problems in the organisation was that some people often got defensive when they received feedback about doing things differently. I needed to give them a way of thinking about feedback that would help build collaboration, instead of create division.

One of the frames I offered them before introducing the Clean Feedback model was: “We can all agree that in order to collaborate, we need to be able to give and receive high-quality feedback.” There was agreement in the room. This was language and a concept they understood.

This allowed me to introduce the Clean Feedback model as a way to give high-quality feedback.

I also provided the following frames about feedback:

  • Feedback is just information. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to act on it all the time.
  • Feedback lets you know what is important to the other person. It also lets you know what is important to you. That is valuable information.
  • Feedback, even if it’s feedback you disagree with, allows you to tap into group intelligence – it can help you correct any blind spots you may have.

To help them get curious about any feedback they were to disagree with, I gave them these clean-ish questions to employ:

  • What’s important about that?
  • Give me an example of how … /when … / what you mean.

What happened next?

At the end of the day, I asked the managers what they had found most valuable about the five hours we had spent together. One person said, “I learned how to ask the right questions.” Another said, “I learnt about other units and now I’ll know how to support them.” And one other manager said: “I learned that we have things in common.”

We had started out with a situation where there was a silo mentality and not enough collaboration across the units. In five hours, with a Clean approach and some principles they could all agree to, they had found new ways of relating and listening to each other.

Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

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About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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