How to get anyone to tell you anything

Wendy Sullivan has spent years researching ‘clean language’ questions, designed to help deepen our understanding of what other people are really trying to say. Laura Bond asks her how we can master these skills


How to get anyone to tell you anything

Not all of us can be psychotherapists, but an innovative technique described by Wendy Sullivan promises to give us X-ray listening skills and tools for delving deeper into what those around us are really saying.

Are we losing our ability to listen properly?

Unquestionably. Life is so fast now that we spend huge amounts of time multi-tasking. These days, we often ‘kind of listen’ while doing other things. When you really want to help someone sort out their life, you have to keep quiet, listen, ask the occasional question and repeat phrases back to them. This is really what clean language does, only with more oomph.

What exactly is clean language?

It’s a toolkit of 12 questions, from which assumptions and metaphors have been ‘cleansed’ as far as possible. The questions help us to attain a clearer idea of what someone else is thinking or feeling. We might think we identify with someone who’s feeling on edge. But someone familiar with clean language might well ask, ‘What kind of on edge?’ or ‘Is there anything else about feeling on edge?’ Realising how much we don’t know encourages us to be inquisitive. Curiosity with respect is a vital combination for getting those answers from people: more specific, truthful and interesting.

Why are metaphors such a rich source of insight into someone else’s mind?

We are hardwired to think, imagine and problem solve in metaphor – and research has shown we use up to six metaphors a minute, such as ‘looking forward’, or ‘feeling the pinch’. One of the attributes of metaphors is that they wrap up an awful lot of information in a small bundle, but we need to ask questions to bring these meanings to light.

Do we often make false assumptions about how others will interpret our words, or how we interpret theirs?

All the time. When you go to the hairdresser you assume the colourist knows what you’re talking about when you say you want warm chestnut tones, but if she doesn’t ask you ‘What kind of chestnut tones?’ you may end up with what you would describe as flaming red hair. The more complex the situation, the more likely it is we will use metaphor to describe it. This is why we often use metaphors to describe relationships’, but we frequently misinterpret what they mean.

Some of the questions you suggest we ask can sound a bit strange, such as, ‘Is there anything else about feeling confident?’

Using a person’s actual words in your question indicates that you have been listening in a non-judgemental way. The questions themselves can sound unusual, but people are so overjoyed to have someone else’s full attention they usually do not notice the wording is a bit strange. It is extraordinary the impact it has, when someone listens wholeheartedly to you. When a person has a sense they’re being fully understood and respected, it means they can concentrate on what they’re exploring.

Why do we feel such a compulsion to give advice when a friend is talking to us?

Most of us possess a ‘righting reflex’, a desire to solve someone else’s problems. We might think we are motivated by a desire to stop another person suffering, but often there’s a great deal of self-interest in giving advice – if you think you know how to put something right, the person might stop whingeing. When we hold back from giving advice, the person we’re talking to will usually solve their own issues faster. When someone gives advice it tends to evoke arguments against it, starting ‘Yes, but’, or ‘No, you don’t understand’. They focus on the reasons why the advice won’t work, which doesn’t get them any closer to working out what will work. Instead of offering your own solution, you should try the clean question: ‘What would you like to have happen?’ This provokes the listener to really think about how to move forward.

Can using clean language help us to avoid arguments?

It can certainly provide damage control, especially if you’re about to react to a perceived insult. A word you might use very innocently can be loaded for someone else. As you become familiar with clean language you are able slowly to start separating what’s true for you and what’s true for the other person: once you’ve realised that a ‘quiet night’ for your partner means watching the football at the pub with his mates, you won’t make the mistake of ordering take-away.

Can we use the principles of clean language in any situation?

Clean language can be used in most situations including social events – even if you just want to show a dinner guest that you’re really listening. Communication in the office can also be markedly improved by clean language. For those who seem reluctant to further conversation, clean language can be a great way to open them up.

Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors And Opening Minds by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees

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