Transformative Interviews and Participatory Action Research

When we talk about Transformative Interviews’ interventionist intentions, people quickly think of Action Research as a comparative method. For this reason, I thought it would be useful to discuss the ways in which Action Research and Transformative Interviews are similar and different.

There are many different types of Action Research, just like there are many kinds of Transformative Interviews (discussed in another post). In this post, I focus on Participatory Action Research, mainly based on the work of Kemmis, McTaggart, and Nixon on Critical Participatory Action Research.

Action Research, in general, rejects the notion that the researcher enters the field with the sole purpose of record and represent what is happening. Instead, action researchers aim to make improvements in practice through the research. As a result, Action Research challenges the traditional relationship between research-researched and theory and practice. In this sense, Transformative Interviews and Action Research share a goal of making an impact throughout the research process, as opposed to the traditional approach of conceiving impact as translation and communication of knowledge acquired through research. Both approaches also assume that practitioners are knowledgeable and capable of improving their lives (or practices) and that self-reflection is a crucial step towards better practices.

However, the motivation and application of these methods vary significantly. Participatory Action Research focuses on collectives: organizations or communities. Practitioners in these communities identify issues they want to work on (e.g., student outcomes, worker productivity, quality of care). They collectively engage in a change process that involves a recursive process of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting. Research tools provide the evidence for analysis and reflection and input for new cycles of planning. As such, Participatory Action Research is a “practice-changing practice.” A Participatory Action Research project follows the cycle of the practices (yearly, monthly, daily) and is driven by practitioners embedded in the context. As such, the knowledge generated is highly contextualized to the community or organization and the practices it implements. 

On the other hand, Transformative Interviews are focused on individuals and guided by the recognition of a problem facing a particular population (problem-driven research). Informed by interactions with both the research and practice communities, the researcher focuses on a population facing a challenge or problem (e.g., international students during the COVID-19 pandemic). The researcher then engages with these individuals through a research interview to better understand the challenges and solutions to the population AND support individual participants in finding solutions to cope or deal with their challenges. As such, it departs from Action Research in the sense that change is not a requirement. An outcome of the intervention may be that the participant reflects on and reframes their experience in ways that make them feel more at ease. It also does not (necessarily) engage in the process of assessment of modification of practices. Instead, Transformative Interviews focus on facilitating a sensemaking process that further elucidate (to both participants and researchers) the nature of the challenge and open the possibility of new solutions to be envisioned. 

For example, we explored international students’ experiences living in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic using Transformative Interviews. We supported each student to find better ways to cope with the pandemic, such as coming to peace with location decisions and finding meaning in virtual connections. At the same time, we identified general patterns such as heightened reliance on support from transnational families and anxieties about their future careers and mobilities. These patterns resulted in practical, policy, and theoretical implications. As such, Transformative Interviews have a dual goal of generating knowledge about a problem within a context and supporting individuals dealing with that problem. 

What do we mean by “Coaching inspired interviewing”?

My desire to engage with and further develop transformative interviewing tools grew hand in hand with my training as a coach, first at Integral Coaching Canada and then the Clean Coaching Centre in the UK. Both coaching and transformative interviews share the goal of supporting participants to deal with problems or challenges. Thus, it makes sense that some tools can be borrowed and incorporated into the interviewer toolbox.

However, as I started working with research participants using this method, I noticed that the term coaching is not always well understood, creating ambiguity regarding what to expect of the interview process. This post explains what coaching is and how it has informed our perspective of transformative interviews.

What is coaching?

Bachkirova, Cox, and Clutterbuck (2018, p.xxix) define coaching as “a human development process that involves structured, focused interaction and the use of appropriate strategies, tools, and techniques to promote desirable and sustainable change for the benefit of the client and potentially other stakeholders.” Coaching is a popular method to support individuals in advancing professionally, developing skills, increasing performance, developing leadership skills, engaging in a career change, adjusting to cross-cultural situations, and achieving personal goals.

Sometimes it is easier to understand what something is but explaining what it is not. Coaching is not therapy, training, consulting, or mentoring.

Coaching is not therapy. While coaching has borrowed some tools from clinical psychology and therapy, coaching is not therapy. Coaching deals with healthy and functional individuals looking to improve performance in an area of their lives. As such, coaching is focused forward, identifying solutions and a path towards a desired future. Unlike therapy, coaching does not look at the past, does not address clinical issues like depression or anxiety, and does not focus on understanding the source of problems.

Coaching is not training. Training is about teaching participants particular skills and providing information that will help individuals perform those skills. The training agenda is designed by a particular organization or trainer based on what is believed to be necessary to achieve specific goals. In coaching, the agenda and the breadth and depth of exploration are set by the participant. The coach is not (necessarily) an expert on the topic, but rather an expert in the process of guiding the client towards identifying and developing the skills they need to succeed in many areas of life.

Coaching is not consulting. Consultants provide advice based on their expertise to help clients achieve their goals. Coaches, on the other hand, support clients in the process of setting and achieving goals. The need for expert information may emerge in the process, and the client may be supported in finding expert knowledge elsewhere. 

Coaching is not mentoring. A mentor is someone with experience or expertise in a particular area. The mentor shares their knowledge, skills, and experience in support of protégés growth and development. Coaches do not (necessarily) have the knowledge and experience the client requires but can support the client to identify and achieve goals, including recognizing the need for particular types of mentorship.

Coaching techniques are developed based on some basic assumptions (Grant & Greene, 2001):

  1. People can solve their problems.
  2. People are experts in their lives, and we accept their definition of their situations.
  3. Focus on solutions, not problems.
  4. A problem is something one has, not something one is.
  5. Acknowledge and celebrate success.

Coaching tools in transformative interviews

Traditional research interviews focus on collecting or “extracting” knowledge from individuals with a particular experience to generate knowledge based on integrating, comparing, and analyzing multiple individuals’ experiences. In a traditional interview, the interview tries to understand the problems facing participants, the solutions they have tried, and the outcomes they have experienced. Most interview researchers attempt to avoid introducing biases in the interview process and focus on gathering knowledge without offering anything in return.

Transformative interviewing rejects the notion that interviews are neutral activities in which knowledge is transferred from participants to researchers. Instead, it assumes that the interviewer influences the participants’ sensemaking process and aims to intervene with intention. These interventions create self-reflection opportunities in which new understandings are made possible. In our transformative interviews, you should expect the following:

  1. Questions around your goals for the conversation itself – how can this conversation be helpful to you?
  2. Questions exploring what is wanted and how it can be achieved.
  3. Questions exploring successful experiences.
  4. Questions exploring assumptions guiding your behavior in the present and the future.
  5. Questions engaging symbolic meaning – construction of metaphors to guide exploration.

How do I benefit from a transformative interview?

Based on our experience so far, we found that individuals who have a clear idea of something they would like to explore during the interviews (e.g., making peace with the decision to immigrate; exploring a new career path; communicate more confidently in interviews) benefit more from the process than those that are focused on the barriers they are facing (e.g., Canada is not giving me opportunities; I have done everything and did not get any job). 

We also found that individuals who are more willing to engage in introspection and explore things they may not have thought about before, sometimes even feeling emotional in the process, get more out of the process than those who want to preserve a coherent story throughout the conversation.

If you decide to participate in a study using transformative interviews, take some time to think about a process-oriented statement that would help you deal with your career 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 and develop skills or competencies to help you better deal with these challenges. Then come ready to explore this topic with an open mind. I hope to see you soon.

Listen more, talk less, and ask Incisive Questions

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches, and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 60-64.

I just finished reading Time to Think, by Nancy Kline. The book was recommended to me by my Clean Language teacher, Angela Dunbar, as it makes a good argument for the importance of allowing people to think for themselves.

We, academics, love to think. But we are not very good at listening and letting others think. When we interact with students, we want them to think for themselves, but more often than not want to show them our great thinking, rather than giving them a chance to do some thinking themselves.

Nancy Kline argues for creating Thinking Environments in schools, organizations, and families, so we can all think better. A Thinking Environment has the following components (p. 35):

  1. Attention – listening with respect and interest
  2. Incisive Questions – questions that remove limiting assumptions
  3. Equality – treating each other as thinking peers
  4. Appreciation – keeping a ration of five appreciations for each criticism
  5. Ease – freedom from rush and urgency
  6. Encouragement – moving beyond competition
  7. Feelings – allowing emotions to be expressed
  8. Information – providing a full and accurate picture of reality
  9. Place – physical spaces that say people matter
  10. Diversity – recognizing the value of the difference between people

Incisive Questions

While I believe all of them are important, I particularly liked the notion of Incisive Questions. Incisive questions are questions that remove assumptions that limit ideas. By replacing limiting assumptions with a freeing assumption, incisive questions invite fresh new thinking.

Kline proposes the following process for using effective incisive questions (p. 166).

Following the identification of a goal (we have discussed the process of identifying a goal here), ask:

“What might you be assuming that is stopping you from achieving your goal?”

The participant may identify multiple assumptions. If that is the case, ask:

“Of these assumptions, which do you think is limiting you the most?”

Kline suggests that assumptions come in three types:

  1. Facts – I am not the boss; he is.
  2. A possible fact – the boss will think I am stupid.
  3. A bedrock assumption about the self (I am stupid; I am not worthy; I have no power) or about life (it is not all right to get it wrong; certainty is achievable; I have to have all the answers).

Of those, the bedrock assumption is the most dangerous and limiting. Incisive Questions are designed for dismounting bedrock assumptions. Thus, if faced with a fact or possible fact, we need to dig deeper until a bedrock assumption is uncovered. A good question here is:

“That is possible/true. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?”

Once we have a goal and a bedrock assumption, we are almost ready to craft an incisive question. The structure of the incisive question is:

If you knew + freeing assumption + goal

A freeing assumption is the positive opposite of the bedrock assumption. Again, in line with the idea that participants’ words are best, it is best to ask participants what that is.  Then we are ready to construct our incisive question.

For example:

Q: What might you be assuming that is stopping you from achieving your goal.

A: The boss will think I am stupid.

Q: That is possible. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?

A: I am assuming that I am stupid.

Q: What would the positive opposite of stupid be in this context for you?

A: Intriguing

Incisive Question: If you knew that you are intriguing, how would you handle this [goal]?

Then, repeat. Ask the incisive question multiple times until no new answer emerges. As discussed in a previous post, when we repeat a question multiple times, we give participants a chance to explore their thinking and find answers beyond the obvious. She suggests writing the question down and giving it to the participant to continue exploring the question beyond the session.

Nancy Kline goes on to caution about the tense used in crafting incisive questions. The present tense should be used to state a new positive assumption (you are intriguing) and the hypothetical tense to propose a new way of thinking. If you knew that you are…, how would you…

Incisive questions can be a powerful tool to add to the transformative interview toolbox as it gives participants a chance to think about their problems in a new positive light. It also offers researchers insight into limiting assumptions around a particular topic. I will definitely try it.

What may you be assuming that is stopping you from using transformative interviews?

Switching Questions

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 55-60.

Marilee Adams, in her book “Change your questions, change your life: 12 powerful tools for leadership, coaching, and life,” advocates for the power of questions to facilitate change. Her most basic argument is that questions can change thinking; it is only through better questions that we can find better answers. She quotes Albert Einstein (p. 27):

We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 

She argues that there is a choice we make moment by moment a judger and a leaners mindset. A judger mindset is focused on blame, automatic reactions, and win-lose relating. On the other hand, a learner mindset is a mindset of solution-focused, thoughtful choices, and win-win relating.

She illustrates this choice in a choice map. Of most interest to researchers concerned with supporting participants, good questions can help move people from a judging mindset into a learning mindset. These switching questions may allow participants to consider solutions to their problems and support a learning and thoughtful mindset.

I found the following switching questions particularly helpful:

  1. What assumptions are you making?
  2. How else can you think about this?
  3. What are your choices?
  4. What actions make the most sense?
  5. What can you learn?
  6. What can you do to make the best of this time?

I also found the idea of switching from a judging to a learning mindset to be a good reminder for interviewers. As we listen to participants’ experiences, it is worthwhile remembering to adopt a mindset of learning and curiosity as opposed to judgement. Rather than quickly reacting with solutions or judgements about participants’ challenges, adopting a learning attitude may help us  learn from them and support them in making sense of their experiences in new ways.

Consider your last interview: were you in a learner or judger mindset?

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.

Getting participants to focus on a goal or outcome

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 42-54.

The population I work with faces many undisputable challenges and barriers. As a researcher, problems and difficulties are alluring as it gives me material to write about and propose solutions. The issue with problem-talk, though, is that they are unhelpful. The participant understands their problems very well. They are immersed in their challenges and often stuck. By dwelling on their problems, we are not helping them to find better solutions. On the other hand, by focusing on the solution, they can find greater motivation and resources to make the changes they need.

Despite my coaching and research training and my desire to do solution-focused interviewing, I find that it is not easy to shift away from the problem talk into a desire or goal. That is why I am excited about a tool I have recently learned a tool at my clean language course. The P-R-O, problem-remedy-outcome, is a very simple tool to help differentiate from a problem, or the trickier remedy, which is a problem disguised as a solution, and the desired outcome. It also proposes questions to help move from a problem to an outcome. The P-R-O is well explained by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley here.

Problem

A problem is something the participant does not like. For example, “I can’t get a job in my field.” When presented with a problem, a question to move towards an outcome is:

  • And when [problem] what would you like to have happen? For example, “And when you can’t get a job in your field, what would you like to have happen?”

Remedy

A remedy is a means of eliminating something undesirable and describe how the participant expects to solve the problem. For example, “I want to stop wasting my time with menial work.”

When presented with a remedy, a good question is:

  • And when [remedy], then what happens? For example, “And when you stop wasting your time with menial work, then what happens?”

Outcome

The desired outcome describes what the participant wants. They are not a solution to a problem. An outcome is something that has not yet happened, contains a desire or need, and does not contain any reference to the problem. For example, “I would like to work on something I love.” 

Once an outcome is identified, you can proceed with a line of questioning to develop the outcome. In the clean languagetradition, that involves exploring the outcome symbolically to create an embodied understanding. In more traditional approaches, it may include transforming the goal into a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Specific) goal.

Developing S.M.A.R. T goals

In his book “Coaching Questions: A coach’s guide to powerful asking questions,” Tony Stoltzfus proposed some helpful questions to lead participants towards more concrete goals or outcomes (p. 37). They are listed below.

Specific: the goal is clear

  • What exactly do you want to accomplish?
  • What will it look like when you reach your objectives?

Measurable: there is a way to establish progress

  • How can you quantify this goal, so we will know when you have reached it?
  • How could you state this objective, so your progress towards it is measurable?

Attainable: it is dependent only on the participant and can be achieved

  • Is this goal within your capability?
  • Are there any barriers or circumstances that preclude reaching this goal?
  • Does this goal depend on anyone else’s choices? How can we reword it, so it depends only on you?

Relevant: this goal is a priority

  • Why is this goal important to you?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how important is it to you to reach this goal?

Time-specific: there is a clear deadline

  • By when will you reach this goal?
  • When will you start?

And what would you like to have happen?

The Power of Six

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 26-28.

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?

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 20-25.

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

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 8-19.

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?

Problem-Remedy-Outcome

When presented with a problem, a question to move towards an outcome is:

  1. And when [problem] what would you like to have happen? For example, “And when you can’t get a job in your field, what would you like to have happen?”

When presented with a remedy, a good question is:

  1. And when [remedy], then what happens? For example, “And when you stop wasting your time with menial work, then what happens?”

SMART Goals

Specific: the goal is clear

  1. What exactly do you want to accomplish?
  2. What will it look like when you reach your objectives?

Measurable: there is a way to establish progress

  1. How can you quantify this goal, so we will know when you have reached it?
  2. How could you state this objective, so your progress towards it is measurable?

Attainable: it is dependent only on the participant and can be achieved

  1. Is this goal within your capability?
  2. Are there any barriers or circumstances that preclude reaching this goal?
  3. Does this goal depend on anyone else’s choices? How can we reword it, so it depends only on you?

Relevant: this goal is a priority

  1. Why is this goal important to you?
  2. On a scale of one to ten, how important is it to you to reach this goal?

Time-specific: there is a clear deadline

  1. By when will you reach this goal?
  2. When will you start?

Integral Theory Quadratic Assessment

Experience: Individual-Interior

  1. What are your strengths?
  2. How would you describe your mood/feelings?
  3. How do you make decisions (for example, do you use logic and reason, or do you trust or gut and heart)?
  4. In general, how satisfied are you with (your life/job/situation)?
  5. In general, how much control do you feel you have over your (life/situation) and how you feel?

Behavior: Individual-Exterior

  1. Please describe your habits/patterns (as it relates to the topic under investigation).

Culture: Collective-Interior

  1. Please describe your relationships with friends, family, and coworkers (as it relates to the topic under investigation)
  2. How do you identify yourself ethnically? How influential is your ethnic culture to you?
  3. What values are most important to you (as it relates to topic)?

Social systems: Collective-Exterior

  1. Describe your current (relevant – work, home) physical environment.
  2. What aspects of your life are stressful to you?
  3. What type of support system do you have?
  4. What is your educational/professional background?

Switching Questions

  1. What assumptions are you making?
  2. How else can you think about this?
  3. What are your choices?
  4. What actions make the most sense?
  5. What can you learn?
  6. What can you do to make the best of this time?