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How to Handle Difficult Conversations using the Clean Change Cycle


I was reading an article on the ILM website about how managers can deal with difficult conversations at work, when I came across this paragraph about how to deal with issues of poor performance:

“The conversations that you have with the individual must be related to the behaviour of the individual and not the personal characteristics of the individual. You need to check they know what is expected of them and be clear as a manager that they know what they need to do. Is it a training and development need? Once you’re satisfied that you’ve been clear on what is expected of the individual, then you both need to agree on what happens next. The manager needs to check that performance is improving against what has been agreed between both parties.”

It struck me that our “Clean Change Cycle” would equip a manager to deal will all the aspects of this process effectively.

The Clean Change Cycle was developed by Caitlin Walker over a number of years and in collaboration with Dee Berridge, Nancy Doyle and myself. 

It consists of three tools: Clean Feedback for separating out behaviours from inferences and impacts; Clean Set Up for developing desired outcomes and clarifying expectations; and Developmental Tasks for taking action. These can be used together or independently.

Clean Feedback

Giving Clean Feedback means describing what you have seen or heard and keeping it separate from what you’ve taken the behaviour to mean and what you think the consequences will be. Instead of saying “You were confident”, you might say, “When you held your head high, stood still and made eye contact across the whole group as you spoke, I interpreted it as you being confident – and this makes it likely that I’ll give you more client-facing assignments.”

Evidence: You held your head high, stood still and made eye contact across the whole group as you spoke.
Inference: You were confident.
Impact: I’m more likely to give you more client-facing assignments.

While this example deals with something the person did well, you can of course use the same structure to deliver feedback about something that has not gone so well (we recommend you do some of each).

It sounds simple – and you may not think that you need a tool or a model to be able to do this – but we’ve found that it often takes people a few goes before they can reliably separate out observable behaviour from their own inferences. The coaches we’ve trained find it a useful tool to use with their coachees – it makes them look for the behavioural evidence before giving any feedback. And they can also teach the coachees this model so they can use it for themselves in work situations.

Clean Set Up

Clean Set Up consists of three main questions:

1. For this … to be just the way you’d like it, it will be like what?
2. You’ll be like what?
3. What support or resources do you need?

Each of these questions can then be followed by one or two clean questions, and/or by the question: What will you see or hear? (Or for question 2, What will I see or hear?)

Starting a project, coaching relationship, team meeting or event with everyone doing this Clean Set Up can surface assumptions and expectations before you begin and create an atmosphere of mutual respect.

In the ‘poor performance’ example, you could use Clean Feedback to help you and your employee to get clear about the specific behaviours that are a problem, and then the Clean Set Up to elicit your expectations going forward.

Developmental Tasks

Developmental Tasks are small tasks, designed to stretch you just enough without spoiling your performance. You can arrive at a suitable developmental task by thinking about what you want to try out or practise and then asking yourself, “What is the least I’ll need to do to be trying out a new skill or belief?” You can set developmental tasks for yourself or for others.

If you are dealing with a performance issue, you might ask yourself, “What’s the least (the employee) will need to do to demonstrate that they are meeting the expectations.”

A significant aspect of the Clean Change Model is that it is a two-way process for fostering mutual respect. When we teach the Clean Feedback Model, for example, we always start by asking the participants to give us feedback. We say that feedback says just as much about the giver as it does the receiver. While it is important to be clear about what you are expecting from an employee, it’s equally important to ask them the Clean Set Up questions and to find out what specific support or resources they need. It may turn out to be something relatively simple such as a desk in a quiet spot. And while you can certainly suggest a Developmental Task to someone, how about you offer them the chance to suggest one for you?

The Clean Change Cycle is a fantastic tool for gaining clarity and for improving performance. And it’s simple enough to teach to your whole team. And when everyone in your work place understands and can use Clean Feedback, Clean Set Up and Developmental Tasks then the number of ‘difficult’ conversations anyone needs to have will reduce significantly. Of course there will still be things to resolve but having structures like these in place will mean that even these can be dealt with in a more routine way.

And finally, if…

  • you are a manager dealing with issues such as poor performance, lateness, bullying or redundancy, or a coach who works with managers, check here for details of our next ILM Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring, where we teach these and other robust coaching models.
  • you think your whole team would benefit from these skills, please contact us.
  • you would like to read more about the Karma Cycle, check out Caitlin’s book, From Contempt to Curiosity, which gives more detail and further examples of these tools being used in various contexts.

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About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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