The power of repeating participants’ words

Clean language involves a lot of repetition of clients’ words. Each question is preceded by repeating what the client has said before twice, in a specific structure. Something like this:

  • And…(participant’s words) 
  • And when… (focus in on specific part of what participant has said),
  • Ask a Clean Language question.

When I was introduced to this idea, it felt weird and artificial. However, the more I practice repeating a participants’ words, the more I realize its power. 

  • First, it requires focused attention and exquisite listening from the interviewer. We must listen carefully to what the participant is saying. 
  • Second, it takes away biases. We don’t interpret or paraphrase. We repeat back the way they said it. We don’t pollute the conversation with our personal baggage.
  • Third, as a participant, it feels great to hear back our own words. We feel understood and heard (even if the coach or interviewer has no idea what we mean).
  • Fourth, participants used the words they used for a reason. Their words have meaning to them, they resonate with their history, culture, experiences, and bring with them a number of associations. Our words, on the other hand, are our words and resonate with us. And while they may be beautiful and clever, they are not as powerful as the participants’ own words.
  • Fifth, it gives us time. The interviewer has time to process the information received and think of the next question.  The participant has time to consider their own thoughts and follow the next question.
  • Sixth, it keeps us in the present. By listening to every word with exquisite attention, we are fully grounded in the present, not thinking about what comes after, theorizing, of forming opinions. That will come later as we process the interview. During the conversation, we are fully present with the participant’s experience.

It is obviously not possible to repeat every word the participant said. In our repetitions, we chose words we decide are most important. That means the interviewer is still directing the conversation somewhat and potentially introducing biases. A key question when repeating a participants’ words is which words to focus on and repeat. In line with the idea that we want to move a participant towards achievable goals and away from the problem, we should emphasize words that reflect what the client wants, not what they do not want. As described in earlier posts, we want to guide participants towards solutions. For this reason, it is always best to focus on outcomes, not problems.

For example, if the participant says, “I am so tired of applying for jobs and not getting anywhere, I really want to find a job that makes me happy.” Instead of focusing on what they do not want (apply for jobs and not getting anywhere), it is best to emphasize what they want (a job that makes me happy). A follow-up may go like this “And you want a job that makes you happy. And what kind of job is a job that makes you happy?”

We may also choose to emphasize words that help guide the interview. In an approach using symbolism, like clean language, that may mean focusing on symbols. In a more traditional interview, it may be the concepts of interest in the study.