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What is Clean Interviewing?


When I first heard about Clean Interviewing, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. How was it different from using Clean Language to coach someone or to self-coach, explore an idea, or problem-solve?

So I jumped at the opportunity at the recent Northern Taste of Clean to attend a workshop on Clean Interviewing given by James Lawley and Caitlin Walker. I wanted to know: What makes something a clean interview? Aren’t I already interviewing cleanly when I use Clean Language?

Context and purpose

What makes it a clean interview, James explained, is context and purpose. “I interview these people for [this]. There’s a ‘for [this]’ when it’s an interview.” Another way of thinking about it: What are you asking your questions for?

James pointed out that there are hundreds of possible purposes / contexts. For example, your purpose might be to:

  • Undertake academic research into a particular subject
  • Record and document people’s experiences
  • Uncover a model for how someone does something well
  • Recruit new people for a company

Caitlin gave other examples. In a project to reduce the number of young people not in education, employment or training, her team uses clean interviewing at the doorstep as they recruit youngsters for the programme. “We’re looking to find the right candidates in those homes for the programme,” she explained. CleanScoping a client’s needs before offering to do work, she added, is another example of a clean interview.

Clean questions minimise the influence an interviewer has on how a person answers their questions and they also provide maximum opportunity for someone to answer in any way they want to. This means it’s vital to be really clear about the purpose of any clean interview.There can be a lot of information and being clear about the purpose helps us to stay on track and collect the information we require.

It also helps us to avoid crossing any ethical lines. For example, as a coach I am used to listening for problems and asking, “And when [problem], what would you like to have happen?” But if I were to be interviewing someone about how they are getting on with their job and they were to bring up a problem, I would be going outside the agreed purpose of the interview if I started to coach them in this way.

James explained that if an interviewee asked for coaching in a situation like this, he would remind the person of the purpose of the interview, and offer to recommend a coach after the interview was over.

Similarly, if an interviewee unexpectedly starts revealing material outside the context that has been agreed at the start, we can check, “Are you OK to continue?”

Who owns the outcome of the interview?

A major difference between clean coaching and clean interviewing relates to who owns the outcome of the interview. In clean coaching, the focus is on what the client would like to have happen. Something becomes a clean interview when “(a) the interviewer/modeller decides the topic or frame for the interview, usually in advance; and (b) the information gathered is used fora purpose unconnected, or loosely connected, to the interviewee.” (James Lawley and Penny Tompkins)

While in clean coaching it’s possible to stick with a handful of classically clean questions (i.e. those devised byDavid Grove), in a clean interview you will need to bring in other questions in order to fulfil the purpose of the interview and gather the information you’re after.

Interview questions can be represented on a spectrum like this:

A contextually clean question might be appropriate in a police interview about a traffic accident. It is logical to assume that in such an accident, there would be a vehicle, a driver, a place where the accident happened, and so on. So asking about any of these things would be appropriate, even if the witness had not (yet) mentioned them.

Similarly, in Caitlin’s PhD research on curriculum development in universities, it is contextually clean for her to ask, “Who here is involved in the development of the curriculum?”

A mildly or strongly leading question would be one that introduces a new idea to the person being interviewed, and limits how they can answer the question.

An experience

To give us an experience of clean interviewing, Caitlin and James asked us to organise ourselves into threes and gave us a mock scenario. We were doing research for a cereal company to develop a new product. One of us would be the interviewer, another the interviewee, and the third person would record the questions asked.

We began by asking: “What did you have for breakfast?” and after five minutes we were asked to analyse the kinds of questions that were used. For example:

What kind of [cereal]? Clean

Anything else about [cereal you like]? Clean

Where [do you have your breakfast]? Clean

How many people [in your family eat breakfast]? ContextuallyClean

Who else in your family likes [cereal]? ContextuallyClean

Don’t you like cereal with raisins in them at all? Strongly leading

[ ] denotes person’s own words.

This exercise gave us some more ideas about how to conduct a clean interview. For example:

  • If asking classically clean questions results in answers, keep asking them.
  • If you’re not getting the kinds of responses you need, it’s best to change your questions.

At the end of the workshop, we were asked where we might apply clean interviewing. I thought about how my company could use it in our recruitment, while someone else said they would use it to interview people before offering them a training programme.

Speaking as a customer, one workshop attendee said it would be wonderful if sales assistants used clean interviewing to help us make purchasing decisions. We agreed that this might change our experience of being assisted in a store, and certainly reduce buyer’s remorse!

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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