1. Home
  2. Blog

Just Three Questions - and Similar Rules


This month’s practice group was based on an idea from James Lawley: “Often the bigger the constraint the more learning, e.g. see how long you can keep going using just one of the Clean Language questions.”

Practice Group Report

We created the format for this month’s practice session by asking everyone at the start of the meeting, “What would you like to have happen?” And while some people said they would like non-specific practice in pairs, a few of us had read a note from James Lawley on the LinkedIn Clean Facilitators in Business group, in which he suggested some practice exercises from the www.cleanlanguage.co.uk website. He says:

“There is something about restricting practice to a specific skill that seems to accelerate learning. Counter-intuitively, creativity and learning often thrive on constraints. For a start, Clean Language is a itself a huge constraint on the facilitator. Often the bigger the constraint the more learning, e.g. see how long you can keep going using just one of the Clean Language questions.”

The idea of restricting ourselves in some way appealed to us, so we made a list of possible ‘rules’:

  • Do not ask any sequence / time questions
  • Only ask the developing questions
  • Only ask about the words in the client’s outcome, and nothing else
  • Choose from just three questions
  • Ask one question six times, then another six times, then another, and so on.

Since James’s suggestion had arisen on a thread about how to be a better facilitator, some people decided to use this as their client content for the evening, and so started their sessions with “I want to be a better facilitator.”

We didn’t, however, make it a rule that anyone had to use a rule or stay with this content area. The most popular rule chosen was restricting ourselves to just three questions.

Here are some of the things we learned in the facilitator role:

  • Asking three questions encouraged me to pause to think about it more, especially when the question I would normally have asked was not available.
  • As a beginner, it was nice not to have too many to choose from. I could relax.
  • Asking “Anything else?” and “What kind of?” six times each worked well, but it was not possible to ask, “Does … have a size or a shape?” six times!

We also had a discussion about backtracking and recapping. One group member got ‘stuck’ when she had followed a thread for a while and wasn’t sure how to get back to something else to ask about. We talked about how note-taking could help with this, making backtracking easier. Alternatively, keeping the client’s outcome in their awareness by repeating it occasionally means that it’s possible to recap from the start, without ‘jolting’ the client.

Given that several people were finding out how to be better facilitators, we also checked out what they learned in the client role:

  • Remember the outcome. I have been working with a partnership and need to ask myself, “What is their joint outcome?”
  • Take a deep breath and focus on what’s happening.
  • Track what’s happening
  • Ask “What would you like to have happen?” more
  • I need to develop a back-of-the-mind awareness of what I am doing when I am facilitating. I am already working in a client-centred way and spotting patterns; now I need to work on a third level – my process, how I am choosing the questions, what impact they are having. It is like being a chess master knowing which play is which gambit. I need to practise enough so it is natural. I can practise back-of-mind awareness in any conversation.

A couple of people were thinking about themselves as facilitators of groups:

  • I will think about, “What do they want to make together?” What will they make / complete / do / take away?
  • To come into the room as myself rather than putting on a hat. Less is more. In the past I thought that in order to earn my money I had to talk a lot. Now I listen a lot. I let them have their squabbles and then I intervene.

We finished with a brief discussion about what to do when a client gives a blank look. Different strategies were:

  • Tell them in advance that the questioning process is different / unusual.
  • Ask another question.
  • Say, “Just go with the first thing in your head.”
  • Back off and be patient; test the waters every so often. Work with the client as they are; it’s not about making them fit with our way of thinking, but vice versa.

Photo by Marcus Wallis on Unsplash

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.

Blog categories
Adventures in Clean
Book Reviews
Clean Ambassadors
Clean Interviewing
Clean Language
Clean Space
Clean with Groups
Case Studies
David Grove
Life Purpose
Meet the Team
Practice Group
Systemic Modelling