How Clean Language Transforms Communication | Dr. Caitlin Walker

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Dr. Caitlin Walker discusses the application of clean language in conflict resolution, organizational development, and product management.

Dr. Caitlin Walker is an expert in conflict resolution, organizational development, and community mediation, with a PhD in Clean Language Interviewing from Liverpool John Moores University. She is the originator of Systemic Modelling and #DramaFree skills and has a background in linguistics and machine language recognition research. Since 1996, Caitlin has developed processes for sustainable systemic change using Clean Language, achieving notable success in various contexts including work with at-risk teenagers and major organizations. Her methods are integral to programs at institutions like the Open University and Liverpool John Moores University, and she has designed bespoke learning and development programs for diverse clients globally.


  • Clean language is a tool that allows individuals to reflect on their own system and update themselves, promoting learning and growth in groups.
  • The application of clean language in the workplace can lead to smarter, more intelligent interactions, reducing unnecessary misunderstandings and conflicts.
  • Drama-free conversations involve minimizing unnecessary drama and addressing conflicts in a way that promotes positive working relationships and psychological safety.
  • In product management, clean language can be used to uncover the exact issues that users have, using metaphors and clean questions to guide the discovery phase.
  • Psychological safety and trust are essential for the successful implementation of clean language in workplace communication and product management. Clean language is essential for effective communication, feedback, and problem-solving in various contexts.
  • The application of clean language extends to surveys, AI models, and written language, providing valuable insights and reducing bias.
  • Future developments and research in clean language focus on health, diversity, inclusion, and equality, offering potential applications in workplace and social settings.
  • Those interested in learning and practicing clean language techniques can explore training programs, online resources, and connect with experts in the field.

Connect with Caitlin

If you would like to learn more about these skills and how to use them with teams, you can join us for our Clean for Teams online training

If you’re interested in holding more DramaFree conversations in your work teams and communities then you can see what is going on online and in-person in Colorado in August:

Connect with Vit


00:00 Intro

03:56 What Clean Language Is?

07:32 Benefits of Clean Language

09:15 Techniques to Start Using Clean Language

16:50 Drama-Free Conversations

23:49 Applying Clean Language in Product Management

28:19 Metaphors vs Analogies

31:39 Clean Language in Spoken and Written Languages

33:53 Expanding the Application of Clean Language

36:32 Clean Language in AI

40:21 Clean Language During the Facilitation of Events

45:52 Future Developments and Research in Clean Language

48:06 Advice from Dr. Caitlin Walker

Transcript (Edited by Vit Lyoshin for better readability)

Vit Lyoshin (00:01.442)

Hello everybody, welcome back to the Vit Lyoshin Podcast. Today’s guest is Dr. Caitlin Walker. She is an expert facilitator in conflict resolution, organizational development, culture change, and community mediation. Welcome Caitlin!


Dr Caitlin Walker (00:24.146)

Good to be here.


Vit Lyoshin (00:26.658)

I invited you today to talk about a few things, specifically about clean language and how can it be applied in the corporate world and also in product management.

But before we jump into the topics, could you please tell me a little bit about your journey, how you found clean language, and how you became an expert in it?


Dr Caitlin Walker (00:48.914)

Well, clean language. I think before I found clean language, I was already on a mission and I was interested in how groups work out what their rules are and how to update them, which is obviously that was just my interest. But if you’re in product development, product management, agile teams, it’s actually your raison d ‘etre. You need groups that are learning groups all the time that don’t just get stuck in their own patterns but update them.

So I was looking around, I looked at NLP, neuro-linguistic programming, which was the study of subjective experience. And some mentors of mine in that field. I wasn’t quite finding what I wanted, they said, you need to meet this New Zealander, David Grove. He’s got this stuff called clean language. And I went to see him work and essentially the clean of clean language is when I ask you questions, I fundamentally trust your system to self-organize. I trust your system to be able to reflect on itself, work out what’s happening, and update itself.

And so although he was a therapist and I never wanted to be a therapist, I watched the way he worked and thought, this is it. This is a tool I can take and I can bring it to teenagers, adults, families, or business teams. And I can use these questions to help them reflect on their own system and update. So that was, I met him and I essentially walked out of my life to follow him and to follow Penny Tompkins and James Lawley who were my mentors. And I practiced it with everybody. So from then on for the next, I got my 10,000 hours in, in the next three years.


Vit Lyoshin (02:31.394)

I see. Okay. So, if we’re gonna apply clean language to our conversation in like few words, what clean language is actually?


Dr Caitlin Walker (02:43.354)

So the easiest thing is if I were to talk about what clean language isn’t. So a lot of the times when people ask questions, they’ve already decided what kind of answer they want from the other person. And the unclean questions restrict the answer you can give. So if I say to you, or if I think about teachers, sometimes it’s easy, even though I know we’re talking about business, sometimes it’s easier to think about it in its application to children because it’s so obvious.

So if a teacher says to a child, why did you hit that? Why did you hit Joe? Joe’s supposed to be your friend. That question is really complex. It has all sorts of data in it. Like the teacher’s belief that if somebody’s a friend, you don’t hit them, or that the teacher thinks that what you did is wrong, which is encoded into their question.

Well, a clean question isn’t like that. You’d say, let’s suppose that the child hit Joe, you’d say, what kind of hit was that? it was a big hit. What happened just before you hit? Joe pushed me. And whereabouts did he push you? On my shoulder. So he pushed you on your shoulder and then you hit him a big hit. Just before he pushed you on your shoulder, what happened? And what you’re doing is you’re using the questions to work out what’s happening, but you’re not constraining the answer of the person that you’re talking to.

So a clean conversation with that child, the child can actually share genuinely what has happened for them and they can work out why. The dirty questions mean that the questioner has already decided what’s good for you and what’s good for the answer and they’re pushing you towards that.

So in product development, for example, I don’t know if the client says, I want it to be really easy to use, you can say, what kind of easy? When it’s easy to use, what would you see and hear that will let you know it’s easy? They accept what your customer says and they extend it, but without constraining it. So that’s the clean.


Vit Lyoshin (04:55.874)

I think this kind of removing your own biases, beliefs, and assumptions or anything of that nature when you’re asking or interviewing somebody trying to get to the reasoning behind their actions or behind their motivations or whatever, right?


Dr Caitlin Walker (05:15.538)

And you can’t do it for good, Vit. It’s like, I’m going to suspend mine because I’m going to focus on you. And maybe then we’ll swap and you can find out what I’m understanding about that. Or maybe I’ll switch once I’ve asked some clean questions, maybe I’ll switch and then ask you, okay, so when that’s what you want, this is what I can offer you. But it’s being able to do it deliberately, to turn down your bias and assumptions and genuinely focus and then decide what to do next.


Vit Lyoshin (05:48.898)

Yeah, I guess it will require a lot of practice and mindset-shifting when trying to use this. It’s not easy from what it sounds. And I guess if we’re talking about the benefits of doing this, one thing is being empathetic and trying to get to other people’s motivations behind their actions.

Are there some other benefits of going through these exercises and asking these types of questions?


Dr Caitlin Walker (06:16.882)

So I think the biggest benefit for me, as I said, I was never a psychotherapist, I was always a group worker. And the biggest benefit for me is it makes the room smarter. So when you, it’s not just when I ask clean questions, so if I have a team in front of me and they’re working out a project that they want to achieve together and somebody says, I want the project to be unclear, in an unsmart room, somebody else in the group says, unclear, that’s so negative, I don’t want to listen to this negativity.

The whole room has become a bit stupid, but in a clean, trained group, the person says, I want it to be unclear. The other person has a reaction, they think that that’s negative, but before they open their mouth to be negative, they say, what kind of unclear? well, I want it to be where we can really look at the landscape and decide which route we’re going to take.

And so now, instead of the group having to waste their time working always on inferences, the group’s able to ask each other just one clean question a day, keeps assumptions at bay. It’s just a little clean question, that’s what they mean by that, brilliant. Or that’s what they mean by that, I really disagree with you, and here’s my meaningful disagreement. But what clean questions do to a team is they reduce the amount of unnecessary misunderstanding.


Vit Lyoshin (07:40.746)

Yeah, that’s great. I can definitely see that when you were just talking about that.

So this is an example from the workplace. Are there any techniques how to implement this in the workplace or people can start practicing it for the meetings is one example, I guess.


Dr Caitlin Walker (08:01.65)

I think it depends on what sort of team you have. So if you have a team that likes playing together and likes to get to know each other, I’d recommend that you do something like a rough guide to me. So if I demonstrate with you for a minute, Vit, so when you’re working at your best, what are you like?


Vit Lyoshin (08:27.874)

I guess I become talkative, I talk a lot in that situation.


Dr Caitlin Walker (08:33.17)

So when you are at your best you become talkative and then what happens when you’re talkative like that?


Vit Lyoshin (08:42.746)

I may come up with new ideas or I may uncover some, like becoming really honest, if you will like not even knowing it myself, and uncovering some interesting things.


Dr Caitlin Walker (08:58.45)

So I’m uncovering interesting things, I might become really honest and I’m talkative. So at the moment, that’s all I’ve got about you. That’s two questions, but I’m starting to build up a model of what you’re like. And I can just ask, let’s maybe say six questions maximum. So I might then go, okay, so you’re really talkative, what happened just before, don’t answer me now.

What happens just before you really talkative? Then I might say, what could I do that would really support you to work at your best? What could I do that would really spoil you working at your best? That might, that whole conversation might take 15 minutes, 10 minutes, and then we can swap over and you could say, what about you, Caitlin, when you’re working at your best, you’re like what?

And so the questions that you’d be implementing are what kind of, is there anything else? What happened just before? What happens next, and you’re like what? In a rough guide, we would probably start with when you’re working at your best, you’re like what, when you’re working at your worst, you’re like what, and making decisions. When you’re making decisions, that’s like what. I’d say those three are really good ways to start if you want to get to know your team, the people around you, or your family.

If you’re not the sort of team that likes to hang out and share, you know, what you’re all like to work together. You can also just do it in a really simple, clean feedback. So if you’re doing a retrospective, you can just separate evidence from inference.

So if somebody says, do you know what, that really dragged, that was a really, I’ve struggled with that, with that last sprint, it really dragged. You can just say, the word dragged is an inference. Ask a cleanish question. What did you see or hear that you call it dragging? What was it that made it drag for you? Give me an example.

And so you just use them instantly that whenever someone shares something, just extend it a little bit. What did you see in here that meant that happened? Or what happened just before it dragged? When it drags like that, what happens next? 

So the cleanness is that you minimize your bias, keep it as open as possible, and then it’s adjacency. It’s what’s next to the thing that they’ve just said that then makes your retrospectives in this case much sharper, much more intelligent because you’re not just taking things at face value and you’re also not navel-gazing, you’re not going right into it, it’s just a little bit to deepen and enrich the data.


Vit Lyoshin (11:33.186)

Yeah, that makes sense. Okay, are there any specific techniques for when it can be most useful when applying this with teams?


Dr Caitlin Walker (11:53.234)

I’d say when teams, it’s most useful when there’s potential conflict or drama. I mean, it’s really useful if you can get it in, actually that’s not true. It’s most useful when it’s used as vitamins, as good food, and you get a group doing a rough guide to each of them, asking for each other for support. That’s when it’s most useful. When it’s most likely to be used, and when it’s a very good use of time, is when there’s a conflict.

So if you start to think, I’m feeling a little bit either I think this person’s an idiot or I think they’re putting me down or I’m not sure what’s going on here to just say, can I just check? We have a general phrase in clean language and systemic modeling. We say, can I just check? When you said this, I’m making up this, what’s actually happening for you? You know, when you said, I knew that this project was going to go wrong. I’m making up that in your mind there’s something wrong with our team. So can I just check what’s actually going on for you? What do you mean when you say that? That’s when it’s most useful.

So, or, you know, somebody says, I think we’re just going around in circles. And you might say, what would you like to have happen? So when somebody says that there’s a problem, you can use one of David Grove’s questions, what would you like to have happen to move it towards an outcome? So when you think we’re going around in circles, what would you like to have happen? A lot of the clean questions are a tool that then allows you to have the agility to move meaningfully around an interaction. And that’s what makes them so powerful.

It’s like, someone’s given me a problem. I can either ask one or two clean questions. We’re going round in circles. Where do you think those circles are coming from? When we’re going around in circles, that’s a bit like what for you? You could just stay there. You can say, we’re going around in circles. What would you like to have happen? You could just move the whole thing over to an outcome. What would you like to have instead? Let’s not talk about that anymore. Let’s talk about this. So it is about being able to navigate in an agile way the interactions that you’re having.

So yeah, when there’s a problem is the most common use for it. But if you want to ask me really when it’s most useful is when a team spends, you know, no more than three half days at the start of a, let’s say the start of a quarter, just checking in, what do we like at our best? What do we like at our worst? How can we support each other? What are we going to do if things go into conflict? What’s our strategy? That’s the best use for them.


Vit Lyoshin (14:33.122)

So, there is a technique called working agreement for the teams, right? For the Scrum teams, for example. And it seems to me like it could be a good thing when we look at the existing working agreement, how the team works, what we expect from our communication, what our goals are, what our mission is, all those questions that are typical there could be useful to go through with these clean language techniques and clarify what each person on the team actually thinks about it and how they read those things.

It kind of becomes like a troubleshooting for communication for people.


Dr Caitlin Walker (15:14.13)

Yeah, I think that’s somebody, one of my first business clients did say that, he said it’s like a debugger. Other communications. Yeah. Go back and it can unpack what’s actually happening and then get it moving smoothly again.


Vit Lyoshin (15:33.954)

Yeah, a debugger for people or humans, that’s great.

So let’s talk about drama-free conversations. I think we kind of mentioned this already.

What are the drama-free conversations in the workplace specific?


Dr Caitlin Walker (15:53.33)

We’re just about to come over to Fort Collins in Colorado with a whole load of drama -free conversations. And it’s interesting because drama is important. Drama simply means that there’s a signal in a team or a group that something’s not going right. Someone’s either not getting what they want. And drama-free doesn’t mean stopping drama. It means reducing unnecessary drama.

And so we have touched on it already. For example, if I say to you, Vit, you know, I was talking to John the other day and I think we’re just going to have to be a little bit wary of him because I think either he’s having a rough time or he’s just not that good at his job. I’m making a request of you that you and I agree that John’s not okay. And I’m doing it also in a way that looks like I’m trying to be helpful, maybe to John and to you.

But actually, it’s quite an insidious pattern that goes on in lots of teams. And what you might just need to say to me is, Caitlin, what have you seen and heard that you call John not being so good at his job? What have you seen and heard him do?  Have you given him that feedback? And if I say, no, no, he can’t take it, you’d be like, well, if I listen to this, I have to agree with you that John can’t take this feedback. Actually that now means that I’ve agreed that John’s not able to manage his job. And what I’d prefer to do is if you think he’s not managing his job, let me, you, and John get together and give him some feedback, give him some high-quality feedback, ask what’s happening for him, and ask how we can support him.

That’s a drama-free response. It says I’m not gonna let this smear of drama sit around this conversation. I believe that we can take problems and in an anti-fragile way using Nassim Tlaib’s work, we can use whatever’s going on to sort them out.

And it’s challenging because most of the time when people are in drama, they don’t want you to come and sort it out with them. They want you to agree with them because it creates tribalism or me and you, we agree, he’s a bit crap. Or me and you, you know, when she does this, don’t give her feedback, she can’t take it.

We’ve come into teams where they’re like, yeah, don’t ever challenge her, she’ll lose her rag. You’re like, okay, let’s just check. Because if we agree on this, then we set up a drama narrative in this team that you’re now an accomplice of. And actually we might say, well, we have seen her lose her temper before, and let’s reestablish in this team the way we talk to each other. Let’s agree that we don’t lose our temper like this. And then when she does, let’s as a group, hold her to account. But that does not mean we will never give her feedback.

That’s what I mean by it’s an insidious drama that we’re aiming to avoid, mainly because it’s not fun. And if somebody starts talking about you like that, and there’s a drama narrative about you, you don’t know what’s going on, but you feel psychologically unsafe in a group.

And so a lot of David Grove’s clean language trusts that if we can sit and cleanly debug what’s going on and move from problem to outcome, that we can have strong, positive working relationships. So a drama-free culture is a tough ask of people. It asks people to be brave in ways that maybe they weren’t in their first families. It asks them to make work a braver place to be.


Vit Lyoshin (19:51.81)

My next question was about how clean language relates to psychological safety. And you kind of answered that already with your comment before. So it seems like you have to be on both ends, you have to be able to give the feedback and dig into these issues as well as receive them well on the team. There has to be a lot of trust between people because some people may be a little bit unsafe or unsure, or maybe it’s a new person on the team and they don’t know yet how to work with everybody.


Dr Caitlin Walker (20:31.026)

And some people weaponize it. Some people can take something like clean feedback and they can use it to put you down. And so you have to, every now and then you need to keep checking as a team and say, what’s your intention? You know, if I’m going to give you this feedback, you can say to me, Caitlin, what’s your intention? What is it you’re trying to create with me?

The other thing I want to be getting quite early is, especially with things like cultural differences, neurodiversity, and neurodivergent differences. So for example, if in my system, the way I’m organized, I have a tendency to interrupt. I do it, it’s an act of love and it’s also something, it’s the way I show interest. I have a colleague, Marion, and if I interrupt Marion, she feels put down, shut up, and she loses her train of thought. So for her to be at her best and me to be at my best, one of us has to change.

And so psychological safety is not about making other people responsible for your psychological safety. It’s about mediating and advocating. Okay, I’m going to need this. So we might say, okay, in this meeting, Marion’s going to run the meeting. I will bow my needs to keep her psychologically safe. And in others, it’s gonna be more like me working at my best and she’s going to just have to find a way to fit in with it. So it’s also about taking responsibility for including one another, knowing that you can’t always be the one who gets all of your needs met if it’s cutting out somebody else’s.


Vit Lyoshin (22:16.642)

Yeah, it’s like during the negotiations you have to compromise in certain areas to work with people and then once you find that balance everybody gets their share of being true to themselves or being respectful and empathetic to other people. I think that’s a balance that’s great to have.

Let’s talk about application and product management. There is one very important part of product management when we’re doing discovery and we’re talking to users and customers. And this could be really helpful in digging into the exact issues that users have. Are there any specific techniques or in a special way that clean language can help in discovery?


Dr Caitlin Walker (23:06.034)

So in discovery, you can use it very, very simply. Somebody will say, I want it to be easy. What kind of easy? Or I want it to be simple. And when it’s simple, is there anything else about it when it’s simple like that? Very simple questions that just extend it.

But you can also say, so if I were to start using this product, the product would be a little bit like what? Metaphors that are generated by the client in the discovery phase can be really useful because a metaphor will hold lots of things together. So for example, if a client says, well, I want it to be like, I want this product to be more like you arrive at a village, you’ve got the perfect tools, you’ve got wood, you’ve got trees, you’ve got a stream, but actually I want this product to be like where you build your own village from scratch.

That’s a metaphor. You’re not really building a village, but it’ll give you some ideas about, and then you can test them. Then you can say, okay, so if we introduce this, how would this fit into your village? Or if we would do this bit, how does this fit with your village? And they’ll be like, no, no, no, that wouldn’t. actually, my metaphor’s not good enough. It’s not really so much like a village. It’s a bit more like, and they’ll change it.

So, as I said, the simplest one is just adding a few clean questions, but the more complex one is to be able to ask for metaphors. And there’s a lovely piece with its company called New Information Paradigms. And they were the first business to use, to embed clean language. With Chris Fally was one of their directors then. And, when they went through the discovery phase, they had a metaphor room where they invited their clients and they said, we can make things that are a bit like this or a bit like that. And you’d like your system to be a bit like what? Your knowledge management system. And then they’d make images of it. And then they’d use these to help guide them through the discovery phase.

So, yeah, you’d like it to be a bit like what is a really simple technique to use in that phase. Then the other thing is to remember when they say that, always then say, and when it’s like that, then what happens? Because it’ll give you the why they want it like that. So those are, and then if it’s too metaphorical, just the simple cleanish question in systemic modeling is, and what would we see and hear? Give me an example of that. So when it’s like a village, but you can make everything from scratch, give me an example of what that would look like and what would it feel like.

So it’s always about being able to move between kinds of information to really understand what your client’s saying.


Vit Lyoshin (25:47.298)

I see. So would it be helpful for product management to try to come up with metaphors for people and kind of go in this direction with them if they are unable to do that?


Dr Caitlin Walker (26:00.402)

I would say that you need to align yourself with your client. So if you ask your client, you’d like it to be a bit like what? And they don’t use metaphor. I wouldn’t make one up for them because that’s your metaphor. It’s more likely to constrain them rather than keep them open. But you as a team might come up with some different metaphors for different ways that you can work with clients.


Vit Lyoshin (26:20.162)

I see.


Dr Caitlin Walker (26:28.498)

So I’ll often go into an organization and say, well, you know, give me your four top products or services that you offer to other people. Let’s get a metaphor for each of them so that if you’re talking to a customer, you can say, well, it could be one of these, that’s a bit like this. It could be one of these, that’s a bit like this. So that you have a metaphor for the different things that you offer.

But in the discovery phase, I think you really want to ask them clean questions and really listen to them, get their words. And if you’re not 100 % sure what they mean by those words, that’s what would you see or hear or what kind of voice or anything else about that, just expand their words out.


Vit Lyoshin (27:08.45)

The metaphors are the same as analogies or are they a little bit different?


Dr Caitlin Walker (27:13.042)

They are, and we’re also talking not necessarily a metaphor like a knight in shining armor, but, you know, Mother Earth. It’s more that if, I have to show you with my hands. So if I’ve got a client and the client says, yeah, you know, we’ve got some, we’re really tight locally, but we need to expand globally. This, is not actually how they’re going to expand globally. This is this client’s invisible architecture. It’s the metaphor by which they think spatially about their problem.

And so, part of Clean Language is training managers, team leaders, facilitators, and salespeople, to be able to notice the kinds of gestures and the kinds of words that their clients, their customers are saying, and use these to help them make better sense of their customers and their customers work out the model or the metaphor for what it is that they want.

So I think it’s closer to saying that a metaphor is like a model of what the person is talking about. And you might get that from gestures or you might get that from the language that they use. Yes, but more like a model of what they’re talking about.


Vit Lyoshin (28:37.474)

I see. Because I personally like to use analogies many times, especially when I’m trying to explain something to people, and not necessarily discover something that they want maybe, or they have issues with. And I think maybe metaphors in this case are better, just to get to understand them, to see what they are saying, as long as they understand their model the same as I understand it.


Dr Caitlin Walker (29:00.722)

Yes. I mean, the thing about if you like generating metaphors, it’s probably even more important that you stay clean during the discovery phase so that you don’t prematurely put your metaphor into the mix, that you listen long enough to make sure that you’re getting the structure from them. And then I think it is okay. Maybe if you’ve asked six questions, then to go, okay, so let me just check. Is it a little bit like this? Is it like this? And they can say, no, it’s a bit more like that.

But you want to be always checking, keep your stuff here and their stuff here, and the clean language checks and it keeps it separate.


Vit Lyoshin (29:41.666)

Yeah, so that’s the troubleshooting part, right? You clarify more and more to get the model exactly as they have it. Got it.


Dr Caitlin Walker (29:52.338)

I don’t know what your customers are like, but when I’m scoping a project, it’s also to help your customers work out what they think. Because when you use the clean language questions and you help them make a structural model of what they’re talking about, then they can look at it and go, actually, that’s not going to work. That’s not what I want. I want it more like this. So in that sense, it’s troubleshooting, not just to make you understand them, but to help them understand them, and maybe update them and grow their model during your conversation.


Vit Lyoshin (30:21.858)

I see, okay.

We also have spoken language and written language. What do we need to consider in both, in terms of the usage of clean language?


Dr Caitlin Walker (30:42.354)

Well, I think in spoken language, you have your gestures as well. So you should always be looking at gestures. They’ll help give you clues to the way the person is communicating. And with spoken language and written language, with both of them, I think that you can treat them the same, but with both of them, you don’t want to use clean language so cleanly that you sound weird.

So if somebody sends you an email and they say, things are getting tight and I really think that we’re going to need to put a big push to get this finished. If you say, and things are getting tight, and what kind of tight could that tight be? And you send that email back to them, they’ll be like, what? Because you’ve made it so strange that their attention is on the strangeness and not on your question.

So particularly when it’s written, but also when it’s spoken, you want to be saying, what have you seen that lets you know it’s tight? What do you mean by tight? What kind of tight? And when we’re gonna have to give a big push, where are you imagining the push is gonna come from?

So rather than absolutely clean, which would be, and where would that push come from? You can bring in softener language like, where do you imagine that push is gonna come from? Or where is that push going to need to come from? So you might not be, so if that’s what they’ve said and that’s squeaky clean.

You might want to be operating around here or around here. So clean-ish is more appropriate for business rather than full-on clean. If you do a clean for teams or drama-free training for managers, we say that your allegiance is to understanding your clients and your colleagues. Your allegiance is not to the clean language. That’s there to help you. You’re not there to be so clean that people don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ll sound like Yoda. And very strange.


Vit Lyoshin (32:39.298)

Yeah. What about surveys? Because we often use these tools to ask people on their own, basically, showing them some forms, collecting feedback, collecting maybe new features, or whatever. Can the clean language be applicable there?


Dr Caitlin Walker (32:53.554)

Yeah, absolutely. Yes, whether it’s information gathering before somebody arrives somewhere or, you know, I’ve known people who work in the health service, they’ve cleaned up their history taking because they really look at it and they go, actually, there’s a lot of assumptions. So once you’ve learned the clean language, you can look at what you’ve written, the questions that you ask and you go, actually these questions have assumptions in them, I can see them. So you can use it to clean up the way that you interview and to do surveys. Yeah, I think it’s very important and it’s important to understand that sometimes you have to break things down.

We just did one for how people experience psychological safety in a room. And some of the questions that they put in, they asked me to have a look at it and I was like, you know, how much more safe do you feel this year than you did last year? And he’s like, that’s a really loaded question. Let’s just try and find out what is it you’re trying to find out. And they said, well, we wanna know how safe they feel.

So, okay, well, we just need to ask that. So at the moment, how psychologically safe do you feel at work? And then underneath that, you can say, what are some things that you can do or that make you feel more psychologically safe? What are some things that people could do or say people have done or said that make you feel less psychologically and safe? You can unpack it slowly, but a lot of the time we do written surveys, we try to put too much into one question. So that’s how you need to clean up your surveys.


Vit Lyoshin (34:43.778)

Yeah, that makes sense. Sometimes people use this as data collection tools, right? And they put assumptions in and then it’s not valid or it’s not accurate.


Dr Caitlin Walker (34:54.418)

Yes, clean language interviewing, which is a slightly different topic all on its own, clean language interviewing is about ensuring that you can prove that the data you’ve gathered belongs to the client or the interviewee and not to the interviewer.

And so, yes, that’s what you need to do if you’re doing surveys and data collection is to just make sure you haven’t biased it too much.


Vit Lyoshin (35:19.25)

Yeah, now that makes me think about generative AI models, for example, I’m just curious if you’re using these types of questions with AI, will it also provide some sort of bias in there? Or can it be smart enough and say, you know, are you really meaning this or that?


Dr Caitlin Walker (35:41.618)

So there are a bunch of people playing with this. We have an annual event in the UK called the Northern Taste of Clean. People come to it from all over the world, but it’s held in the UK. And last year, it was in its infancy. So we had different people who’ve been creating AI clean question generators and playing with them, trying to teach the AI bot to ask cleaner and cleaner questions.

And I do think that one of the things that in the same way that Google search engines and lots of social media now have by utilizing patterns in data, they’ve actually become less clean, more biased, and more divisive, which is the opposite of what clean language is for. Clean language is about noticing patterns and updating them, not noticing patterns and embedding them.

And so I think that this year, the Northern Taste is going to be at the end of July. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s emerged over a year of people playing with clean language images, clean language metaphors, and clean language question generators to see what has been created over the last year. It’ll be very exciting. But I don’t know yet. And that’s not my area of expertise.


Vit Lyoshin (37:09.25)

Yeah, and also I guess people who are writing prompts, like let’s take ChatGPT and you’re trying to find out some subject, again, prompts should be probably used with clean language to get better results, right?


Dr Caitlin Walker (37:27.634)

Yes, I did ask it. I was in the process of writing my manual on how to use clean language interviewing as a very basic interviewing tool. And that was fun because I just said to it, could you write my first introductory chapter? And it’s really interesting because it could. It absolutely was useless. It was of virtually no help to me. But if I published it. You wouldn’t know it was, it had picked up when it went all over the internet, picked up everything it could find about clean language interviewing, and it wrote a passable chapter.

It’s just that it had no warmth or voice and it was so not my way of talking. I still had to write from scratch, but I was interested. I was like, hmm, they’re really clever little things at the moment. The way that they can go out and pick out categories. They can code categories of information and put them in the right place.


Vit Lyoshin (38:26.306)

Yeah, that’s what I find too when I write something. It’s like generating a good text with all the basic, almost like common knowledge information, some highlights, but it doesn’t go deep into the topic. It doesn’t provide your opinion or anything like that. You still have to modify it a lot or rewrite it from scratch. But it’s good for generating ideas and for generating some lists of things that you want to talk about maybe or something like that.


Dr Caitlin Walker (38:54.674)

And if you’re stuck, if you’ve got writer’s block, I think it’s great. I mean, it really worked for me. I read it and went, no, it should be like this. And then I was off writing. It’s like I could get started because I disagreed with it.


Vit Lyoshin (39:03.394)

Yeah, just to start, I guess. Okay, so we talked a little bit about feedback and also retrospectives. I wonder, like specifically, for example, for Scrum Masters or Agile coaches maybe, when they do the facilitation events for retrospectives specifically, let’s say, are there any techniques that we don’t mention yet that they can use to get deeper into the issues of troubleshooting problems that people bring up.


Dr Caitlin Walker (39:36.37)

Yes, I mean, you’re specialists in those areas. You’ve got Sarah Baccar in the US and John Barrett in the UK and Mike Burroughs in the UK, who’s also embedded clean language into a variety of techniques, and Olaf Lewis as well.

And I think that probably the simplest ones are because it has to do with the framework. It’s to do with your unpacking for a purpose. And the purpose is always to get a shared understanding and an ability to agilely move forward. So we don’t hide from the things that the agile world has in common with the clean world is we are present to what is, and we are not trying to hide from the truth. We’re not trying to shame each other when we make mistakes, we’re present to what is, and we believe that that’s the best way to be. And we believe that we can self-organize, we can learn from what is by listening to one another and thereby move on to make the next, iteratively make next best decision.

And so quite simple techniques start to say, well, what’s happened? So it’s the feedback, what’s happened? You know, what have you seen and heard? What did it mean to you? What’s happening for you and to use the groups. If you’ve got three people, make sure you hear three voices. If you’ve got six people, make sure you hear six voices. Even if all you, it’s, you know, what happened for you Vi? Caitlin, what about you? John, what about you? Sarah, what about you? And has anyone thinking anything different? Who’s noticed something different? Who’s got a different idea?

Those phrases look for differences in the group so that people have psychological safety to come in very important, that’s what’s happening here, then what would we like to have happen? If that’s what’s been happening, what would we really like to have happen? Let’s just really associate into if it was going just the way we’d like it to, it will be like what? We call this an outcome and then a clean setup. If this was going just the way we’d like it to, it will be like what? Each of us would be like what? What support does each of us need so that we can really have what we want?

And then the third bit, this is a clean change cycle. The third one is, and what are we going to do? What action can we take now, given what’s happened, given what we’d like to have happen, what’s the definite action that each of us can take now to experiment to have more of this? So we call it the clean change cycle, feedback, outcome, action. Very simple. Lots of people have a cycle just like this. But the difference in clean is that we put some clean questions in all of them. So this would be clean feedback, a clean setup, and then what we call developmental tasks, but just action.

And they’re probably available. I mean, you’ll learn them if you come to any training or you read, I’ve got a book from Contempt to Curiosity, Creating the Conditions for Groups to Collaborate. That’s got these in, but you could also, you don’t have to go on training. I’m sure if you looked up a clean setup on the website, you’ll find each of these pieces and you can just go straight away and practice.

When not, I do encourage people to get training if they want to be good at it, if they want to be proficient, but I got good at it with very little training. I got good at it through practice. So I suggest to people that they take a little piece, any little bit of what we’ve said, they put it into a search engine, they go and get a piece of written material, and then they go away and practice, practice, practice, and then come back.

You know, we have a free community called the Clean Campus. We used to go on Facebook, but we decided that we didn’t want to sell everyone’s details to Facebook, so we made our own. Clean Campus, we have free peer practice because we know the only way you get good at this stuff is to practice it. It’s like yoga. You can’t talk about it. You have to do it.


Vit Lyoshin (43:36.033)

Yeah, that’s true. Okay, I’ll check it out. That looks interesting because that’s also something I’m interested in personally picking up that skill to really dig into this and like you said, creating the action, which is the whole reason to do retrospective and to get better and self-adapt and fix all these issues that come up.


Dr Caitlin Walker (44:03.762)

And to get excited when things go wrong, to get excited about it because, my goodness, we could learn. But to do that, you really need to be skilled at asking questions that don’t subtly shame other people, to try and find out what really went wrong. Well, where did that come from? And for people to feel safe enough to say, well, actually I did say it, but you didn’t listen to me. You go, okay, let’s just check, because I didn’t notice that. I wouldn’t have done that deliberately, so let’s unpack that. If that’s what’s happened, let’s get interested, not let’s hide this or let’s be startled but just how do we get interested in that.


Vit Lyoshin (44:39.202

Yeah. So, are there any future developments in clean language or some research maybe that you interested in?


Dr Caitlin Walker (44:48.59)

Yeah, well, I think there’s a bunch of different things coming off at the minute. That’s my own work, which is always I’m always developing it. But at the moment, I’m also making sure that I can train other people to do it because I think if I can’t train other people, it’ll all stick with me.

There are some people like Judy Reese, who’s a big pioneer in the clean field. She’s bringing together, trying to bring together people in clean and health. So lots of different people have been using it in health around the world.

There’s a load of people doing research, clean language interviewing into where they’ve got mixed populations, where the population has native peoples and incomers and what they’re trying to do is to ensure that you don’t have one majority group speaking for a minority group. So making sure that we have shared voices in public health. There are lots of different applications like that.

And in our own work, we have a whole area that we specialize, as I said, in neurodiversity and also in inclusivity. So diversity, inclusion, and equality. We’ve got a whole bunch of people who are looking at creating anti-fragile ways of engaging people in a journey to understanding their own privilege, their own bias, and how to tackle that in the moment in a way that gets people engaged rather than sending people into corners. So those are the areas that we’re particularly looking at at the moment.


Vit Lyoshin (46:43.138)

Okay, yeah, that’s great. Those could be helpful everywhere. In the workplace and I don’t know, in social groups of any sort, anything like that.

Do you have any advice for people who like to learn more about this or start practicing or anything? Where to start, where to go?


Dr Caitlin Walker (47:01.65)

Yes. I mean, a simple thing, if you want to make a personal link is to link in with me on LinkedIn. As I said, we’re coming to Fort Collins in Colorado this summer. There are some real toe-dipping small tasters and there’s also you can come and do three days of management, team development, and how to lead drama-free communities.

Lots of things online. We’ve got Clean for Teams, which is our online training, which is four half days across a week. That’s coming up in July. So there’s a website for training. The website is or I’m Caitlin Walker. You can link in with me and you can see, and I’m, even if I don’t always have time to fully manage my LinkedIn, if I’m away from home, if I’m working overseas. For example, I’m going to Jordan to work with Syrian refugees, hopefully next month. If I’m away from home, then my business manager will, she’ll monitor it and she’ll send messages through to me.


Vit Lyoshin (48:13.122)

Okay, that’s great. All right. Thank you very much. It was very interesting and helpful to understand what it is and start practicing and using it.


Dr Caitlin Walker (48:24.978)

Fantastic. After this, I’ll send you a couple of easy downloads. And then if anyone wants to just download something to get, I think I’ve got a rough guide to, I could send you a rough guide too. And then if people want to go and just have a go straight after listening to this, they can just get on and have a go and they don’t need to go searching for more information.


Vit Lyoshin (48:47.65)

Yeah, that would be great, absolutely. I can add it to the descriptions everywhere. Thank you very much and I hope we talk more in the future.


Dr Caitlin Walker (48:52.626)

Fantastic. Look forward to it.


Vit Lyoshin (49:00.418)

Thank you, bye-bye.

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About Vit Lyoshin

Hey there! I'm Vit Lyoshin, and I've been working with technology and cool software stuff for a long time. Now, I'm hosting a podcast where I talk to really smart people who know a lot about making software and managing products.

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