The Power of Six

In addition to using Clean Language, David Groove has pioneered a series of clean interventions to help clients access their own knowledge and resources. Of those, The Power of Six is a particularly intriguing method in its power and simplicity. The basic premise of the Power of Six is that through repetition, deeper knowledge emerges. In his book “The power of six: A six-part greed to self-knowledge,” Philip Harland provides a simple yet profound visual (p.41). 

The idea of repeating the same question, again and again, may seem too simple to yield any benefits, but this is now my favorite self-reflecting tool. I am always surprised at what comes up if I am willing to dig a little deeper. It is worth a try!

The first question may follow a client’s stated goal or desire or even start a session: What do you know (about that)?For example, the participant may express a need to express her feelings better. That would be followed by “And what do you know about that?”.

This question is then followed by five times, “And what else do you know about that?” After these six questions, the set is concluded with “and NOW what do you know about that?”. This repetitive questioning may be an excellent tool to dig deeper into participants’ understandings in a research context. For example, we have used this tool to better understand immigrant women’s work challenges with COVID-19. Below one example:

What do you know about looking for a job during COVID-19? 

Coming back to Canada would be challenging, and it would take a long time to find work because of limited mobility.

And what else do you know about that?

I have learned that although we cannot meet people, we can communicate with potential employers and support networks through emails, phone calls, and video conference tools. This has come to replace face-to-face networking. 

And what else do you know about that?

It is exhausting and draining. 

And what else do you know about that?

It is time-consuming.

And what else do you know about that?

Extremely difficult 

And what else do you know about that?

It can seem hopeless unless one connects to a personal network. At one point, it seemed impossible, but now it is looking more hopeful. 

And now, what do you know about that?

You cannot give up. You just have to keep trying. One conversation leads to another one that might prove very helpful.

This iterative process of questioning facilitates the integration of disparate pieces of knowledge until a new integrated understanding emerges. The participant above started stating the obvious (it is hard to find a job), explore her feelings (draining and exhausting), and recognized that things are now looking more hopeful. She concluded by reaffirming to herself that she needs to keep trying.

In my own personal practice, I find that sometimes multiple rounds of questioning are needed, as each round may surface a new need or idea worth further exploration. Using this as a research tool, we found that some people benefited from it and provided more in-depth answers through the process. However, some did not understand the idea behind the method and stopped soon after the obvious answers were given. That is a reminder of the importance of briefing participants before engaging in the technique, so they feel comfortable with the idea. 

If you are curious about this method, you may want to try the iterator here

And what do you know about that?

Are Transformative Interviews for Everyone?

As I implement Transformative Interviews principles in my research, I have found that some interviews did not work as well as others. I have learned a few things in the process:

  1. Framing the conversation is critical. Research participants want to tell us what they think we want to hear. They do not know what to expect from the conversation. Clearly outlining the dual goal of supporting the participants while learning about their experience and setting expectations about how the conversation will evolve helps create a structure and make participants more comfortable. 
  2. Pre-interview preparation is vital. I have found that sending an email before the interview brief outlining the interview’s goal and identifying a few things for the participant to think about helps make the interview time more efficient. For instance, it helps to collect basic demographic data and invite the participant to come to the meeting with a goal or desire to guide the conversation. This way, the interview can be more in-depth and more meaningful.

Here an example of an email I have sent before interviewing.

Thank you for agreeing to participate in our study. The purpose of the conversation scheduled for xxx is twofold: One, we will explore the challenges you are facing regarding xxx, and two, you will together look for ways to help you cope with your current situation. 

To that end, you will work together to articulate a developmental statement, which is a behavioral, process-oriented statement that would help you deal with this situation better. This statement is a sentence that would typically start with “I would like to be better able to…”. This exercise should help you identify and articulate the challenges you are facing to xxx and develop skills or competencies to help you better deal with these challenges.

You don’t have to do anything until we talk. However, the closer you are to articulating your statement, the more beneficial the conversation, as we will focus more of our time working on a path forward. 

Coaches sometimes have a pre-session form or questionnaire to collect some information and make the interview most meaningful. Here some pre-interview questions that can be helpful to provide input to the interview (see Tony Stoltzfus’ Coaching Questions: A coach’s guide to powerful asking questions for more ideas):

  1. Please briefly tell me about yourself
  2. In regard to (topic of the study), what is a priority for you right now?
  3. In the short term, what objectives do you most want to work on or pay attention to?
  4. What major changes have taken place in your life in the last six months that have impacted your experience of (topic of the study)?
  5. The problems or challenges I most want to overcome right now are…
  6. What I most would like to discuss in our meeting is…

(I did not envision that this post would contribute to the 100-questions challenge, but here we are, six pre-interview questions to make the most of a transformative interview session).

However, not all participants will respond as well to transformative interviews, just like not everyone benefits from coaching. 

  1. The participant must be willing to engage in some type of self-reflection and introspection. A few participants, hearing that the interview is meant to support them, may expect to receive some answer or guidance to solve their problem. I had a participant that wanted very factual information and advice and was resistant to engage in self-reflection.
  2. The participant needs to feel accountable for part of their experience. Some participants see the interview as an opportunity to vent and tell the researcher how the system is wrong. These participants need to be stirred towards a solution-based conversation, which is not always easy. Preparing participants prior to the conversation and explaining and framing the conversation are critical steps for preparing participants and making the most of the interview.

To attract and prepare participants for a successful interview, the research design needs to maximize the fit between the research question and the needs of research participants. This is easier said than done. In inductive qualitative studies, the research question is not always clear from the start. Of course, we have a starting question, but the “real” research question may emerge only when we are well into the fieldwork. For a transformative design to be effective, it is helpful to narrow the question to a specific phenomenon or issue that is equally relevant for researchers and participants. 

For example, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a study to understand how the pandemic affected international students and how they could cope better. The transformative interview approach worked well because the problem was very clear – how students coped with the lack of mobility – and helpful to participants. However, when we used the same approach to look at immigrants’ work experiences, we realized it was too broad and difficult to focus efficiently on a goal or desire that was informative. As a result, participants had too much to say about their challenges and barriers and would take all the allotted interview time before identifying a goal. We have since narrowed the focus of the study to make it more manageable (how immigrants are making sense of the job market virtually).

In summary, Transformative Interviews require more up-front work to frame and narrow the study, so the conversations are productive. This preparation may help identify participants that are better fit for the study and more likely to benefit from the process, as well as focus the conversations on topics that are likely to inform the research.

How can you better position your study?

Clean Language

Lately, I have been exploring Clean Language as a method for coaching and interviewing. I first learned about Clean Language at a seminar with Beata Marciniak at the SIETAR USA in October 2019, who presented it as a good method to bridge cultural differences in a coaching session. I then read Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds, by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees as well as Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins. The more I read, the more it intrigued me. Now I am taking a course with Angela Dunbar at The Clean Coaching Centre and am taking the opportunity to practice some clean language skills.

The Clean Language method was developed by David Groove to help clients deal with traumatic memories. Clean Language assumes that people’s experiences are organized symbolically. To access this unconscious symbolic organization, Clean Language facilitates a process of eliciting symbols and metaphors. Clean Language also assumes that the client is capable and resourceful. Through the Clean Language process, the goal is to model the clients’ symbolic representation of their situation to identify resources that can be leveraged or assumptions that can be dismantled. For example, it may be that the client experiences their situation as if locked in a cage. Through Clean Language exploration of this cage, she finds a key hanging by the door and discovers that the door can be opened.

On the surface, Clean Language is pretty simple. There are 12 basic questions (below) that the practitioner repeatedly asks (there are a few additional specialized questions for expert practitioners). And most of the session revolves around a couple of questions. However, there is much more to this method than meets the eye. The questions require the participant to engage in deep introspection, almost in a trance-like state. The practitioner’s goal is to stay as clean as possible to avoid intruding or polluting the clients’ symbolism. A good clean session is one in which it seems as though the practitioner is not there. The practitioner’s role is not to share his or her insights but to hold a process that helps the participant find their own knowledge.

Using clean Language is deceptively hard, as I am learning in my own practice. First, it requires exquisite listening. When listening, it is essential to pay attention and remember the clients’ exact words and repeat them back instead of paraphrasing or summarizing. That requires a complete focus on the client. Second, it requires the sensibility to identify which of the symbols or words the client has asked will be most fruitful to explore.

In terms of using clean Language for research, Tosey and colleagues make a good case. However, they caution, and I agree that it requires significant training to use the method correctly. Even for those not prepared to fully dive into Clean Language, we can learn a few things from it to make our work cleaner.

  1. We can use the participants’ words as loyally as possible. Avoid paraphrasing or interpreting. I am finding that hearing our own words back provides reassurance and a feeling of being heard.
  2. Use come clean questions strategically. The words of Clean Language questions are as clean as they can be. Even if not using the method, borrowing some of the questions will help avoid research interference in the interview process.

Given that the conversation is highly symbolic, the use of Clean Language for research purposes is limited to situations where the symbolism can inform the research question. However, Clean Language is a good tool to address symbolism when it emerges and engage with participants in ways that support them and foster introspection. It also helps to keep the researcher’s views out of the conversation when that is desirable.

12 Basic Clean Questions

  1. (And) what kind of X (is that X)?
  2. (And) is there anything else about X?
  3. (And) where is X?  or (And) whereabouts is X?
  4. (And) that’s X like what?
  5. (And) is there a relationship between X and Y?
  6. (And) when X, what happens to Y?
  7. (And) then what happens? Or (And) what happens next?
  8.  (And) what happens just before X?
  9. (And) where could X come from?
  10. (And) what would X like to have happen?
  11. (And) what needs to happen for X?
  12. (And) can X (happen)?

In these questions, X and Y represent the participants’ words. The questions always start with “And” and often entail repeating the participant’s words. For example, if the participant says she feels like she is in a cage, the practitioner follows up with, “And, when I feel like I am in a cage, what kind go cage is that cage?”

Clean Language conversations follow a different structure, and it is helpful to watch a demonstration, like this one by James Lawley, to understand it fully.

12 more questions to the 100-Question Challenge. The complete list is here.

You may try to explore the power of these questions through a self-guided process starting with:

And when interviewing at your best, that is like what?

100-Questions List

Here the list of questions so far!

Solution-Focused Interviewing

  1. What would you like to change about this?
  2. What would be helpful for us to talk about now?
  3. What difference will reaching this goal make in your life?
  4. How important is this goal to you? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents minimum importance, and 10 represents great importance, what number would you assign this goal? How did you get to that number?
  5. The exception to the problem: Tell me about a time when the problem did not happen? What was different then? What did you do or think differently?
  6. Preferred future: these questions explore how things will be different when the problem is solved. When this issue is resolved, how will your situation be better for you? Suppose tonight, when you went to sleep, a miracle happens, and this problem is solved. When you wake up tomorrow morning, what would be different? How would you be different?
  7. Coping questions: how have you managed to cope with this problem as long as you have? What have you done to keep this situation from getting worst?

Clean Language Questions

  1. (And) what kind of X (is that X)?
  2. (And) is there anything else about X?
  3. (And) where is X?  or (And) whereabouts is X?
  4. (And) that’s X like what?
  5. (And) is there a relationship between X and Y?
  6. (And) when X, what happens to Y?
  7. (And) then what happens? Or (And) what happens next?
  8.  (And) what happens just before X?
  9. (And) where could X come from?
  10. (And) what would X like to have happen?
  11. (And) what needs to happen for X?
  12. (And) can X (happen)?

Pre-Interview Questions

  1. Please briefly tell me about yourself
  2. In regard to (topic of the study), what is a priority for you right now?
  3. In the short term, what objectives do you most want to work on or pay attention to?
  4. What major changes have taken place in your life in the last six months that have impacted your experience of (topic of the study)?
  5. The problems or challenges I most want to overcome right now are…
  6. What I most would like to discuss in our meeting is…

The Power of Six

  1. What do you know (about that)? 
  2. And what else do you know about that? (5 times)
  3. And NOW what do you know about that?

Solution-Focused Interviewing

I just finished reading the book “Solution-Focused Interviewing: Applying Positive Psychology – A manual for practitioners” by Ronald E. Warner. The book is an amazing resource for health practitioners, such as doctors, therapists, and social workers, to empower clients to find solutions to their problems by focusing on their strengths. It is also very useful for researchers seeking to employ more strength-based and solution-focused questions in their research approach.

Like transformative interviews, this approach assumes that participants are experts in their own lives and have strengths and resources to solve their problems. The interviewer’s role is to help the participants become aware of these strengths and resources to be empowered to take action.

A fundamental paradigm shift is to move away from “problem-talk.” This approach rejects the assumption that in order to find a solution, we need to understand the problem better. Instead, it shifts the focus to what is wanted or desired in order to engage in a solution-talk.

Warner proposes a tri-phase model for the solution-building process. The first phase involves establishing rapport with the client/participant, which he calls the empathy phase. This stage involves active listening and reflecting skills with the purpose of developing trust and demonstrating that the participant’s feelings are acknowledged and validated. However, he maintains it is not desirable to further explore or expand on these negative feelings.

A second phase, the goal-setting phase, involves defining a goal – what does the client want to happen. Some helpful questions at this stage that translate well to a research environment may be:

  • What would you like to change about this?
  • What would be helpful for us to talk about now?

As I have learned in my own interviewing, defining a goal is harder than it seems. Warner suggests that a well-formed solution-focused goal has three characteristics:

  • The goal needs to be broken down into small achievable steps
  • Goals need to be expressed in behavioral terms – they need to clearly articulate a doing for the person
  • Goals need to be expressed in positive terms – what is wanted more of, not what is not wanted (I want to increase my fitness as opposed to I want to lose weight)

At this stage, it is also helpful to understand the importance of this goal or desire and how motivated they feel to pursue it. Some useful questions may be:

  • What difference will reaching this goal make in your life?
  • How important is this goal to you? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents minimum importance, and 10 represents great importance, what number would you assign this goal? How did you get to that number?

The third phase of this model, the goal-striving phase, is focused on determining how the goal can be achieved. At this point, the participant begins to consider other ways of approaching their situation that may be more beneficial. Several questions can be helpful here:

  • The exception to the problem: Tell me about a time when the problem did not happen? What was different then? What did you do or think differently?
  • Preferred future: these questions explore how things will be different when the problem is solved. When this issue is resolved, how will your situation be better for you? Suppose tonight, when you went to sleep, a miracle happens, and this problem is solved. When you wake up tomorrow morning, what would be different? How would you be different?
  • Coping questions: how have you managed to cope with this problem as long as you have? What have you done to keep this situation from getting worst?

In a research context, it may be that some problem-talk is necessary to advance the research goals of the study. However, moving beyond the discussion of the problem and engaging in a solution-building conversation is likely to benefit research participants and facilitate the identification of broad solutions.

Warner cautions to the importance of giving participants time to consider these questions. Answering solution-focused questions require reflective thought as we are asking participants to think about their problems in different ways. That means developing comfort with silence and reassuring participants that it is okay to take time to think things through before responding.

I strongly recommend reading the book and keeping it close by for ideas of questions. For now, I have identified seven main types of questions that can help researchers move beyond the problem-talk into a solution-focused mindset.

How motivated are you to implement solution-focused questions in your research?

The power of questions: Introducing the 100-questions challenge

When we are interviewing, we are mostly asking questions. We are also providing verbal and non-verbal feedback and sporadically providing explanations or comments. But the core of a research interview is asking questions. 

However, coming up with good interview questions is deceptively hard. Novice researchers (and even more seasoned ones) sometimes find that a well-intentioned question derails the conversation or realize that the interview did not result in useful data.

Questions are also powerful intervention tools. By asking the right questions, we allow people to consider things in ways they have not thought about. Consider a simple question such as “how are you today?” and its most likely answer: “fine, thanks.” Nobody has learned anything here. However, if the question instead is “What was the most exciting thing that happened to you today?” we are inviting people to consider and think about a positive experience.

Similarly, if you ask people, “what are you doing today?” you may get an answer like “the usual, work, school.” If, however, you ask, “what are you most looking forward to doing today?” you may get a more meaningful answer “well, I started this blog about transformative interviews, and I am looking forward to writing a post about the importance of asking good questions.”

However, coming up with these questions on the spot is not always easy. To help me become better at asking questions, I have created a 100-transformative-questions challenge for myself. My 100-question challenge is to collect a list of 100 tested questions from the helping professions (Coaching, Counselling, Psychology) to help researchers ask more powerful questions.

Stay tuned! 

In the meantime, here a question for you: What most excites you about transformative interviews?

What are transformative interviews?

Simply put, a transformative interview is a conversation that helps to transform people’s mental models and, through this process, facilitate action. Let’s break that down a bit.

 A mental model is a picture in our minds about how the world works. These pictures are often incomplete and inaccurate. When we take the time to reflect on these mental models, we can expand our view, add more detail, and make modifications. A transformative conversation gives people the space to do just that.

However, this reflection is not solely for the sake of better thinking; it is a process that helps us find solutions to problems we may be struggling with. 

Transformative interviews are interviews in which the questions we ask help research participants reflect on their situations, change their mental models, and focus on solutions to their problems.

“How is that research?” you may ask. Transformative interviews may not be suitable for all types of research. But often, researchers are concerned with understanding people’s experiences and the challenges they face in hopes of generating knowledge that will contribute to a solution.

Most researchers I know care deeply about something and want to make the world better. However, the research institution (funding agencies, academic journals, publication expectations, etc.) is organized in such a way that we tend to emphasize practical contribution as a by-product of the research. After the study is completed – and preferably published – we communicate the findings to the people who can do something about it. Usually, that is a long time coming. In the meantime, we are sacrificing critical opportunities for intervention and making a difference right now, as we talk to people experiencing the issues we are studying.

Transformative Interviews remedies that problem by simultaneously supporting participants to find solutions to the issues they are facing while collecting data about their experiences. A bonus of this process is that, as we support participants to reflect deeply on their situations, the data we gather is also richer. As we give participants time to reflect on their situations and learn more about it, they share with us their insights in ways that would not be possible through traditional interviewing.

The doing of TI requires a new way of conceiving a research project and also new tools. As I mentioned in an earlier post, academic training often does not include developing the skills to support others through conversation. I will be posting tools and resources I find useful to help those committed to developing those skills.

In the meantime, consider your last interview project: in what ways have your conversation supported participants?

Transformative Journey

I started this project because, after many years of researching the challenges facing immigrants, I felt it was time to contribute to the solution.

Scholars are increasingly concerned with the social impact of research, particularly in applied fields like business or communication. One solution, a solution I subscribe to, is engaged and responsible research. In particular, research that makes an impact throughout the research process, not only after the research is complete and results are communicated.

However, as I started to consider how I could use my interactions with research participants as an intervention, I realized my academic training has not provided me with the tools to support others.

I then started on a journey of transformation myself, learning everything I could about coaching, interviewing, and communicating in supportive ways. I started by undergoing coaching training with Integral Coaching Canada, which provided me with tools to engage in the coaching role. I am following that up with clean language training to further my ability to stay clean and not impose my views on others. I am also reading a lot (that is what sabbaticals are for!) about different coaching and therapeutic traditions.

Fortunately, I am not alone on this journey. My Carleton colleague and dear friend Amrita Hari has joined me in this journey and broaden the scope of my exploration beyond the confines of management into the broader social sciences. We have now completed one project using Transformative Interviews with international students and are midway through another project with immigrant women. We are also doing a systematic literature review on interventional interview techniques.

This blog chronicles our discoveries along the way. It is an opportunity to document our learnings in this practice and engage with others that, like us, are passionate about making a difference through research.