Judy Rees is the co-author of the bestselling book “Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds”, a regular keynote speaker, a founding partner ReesMcCann consulting, and also an expert on clean language. She has worked as a news editor and as a media executive. And as a facilitator, coach, and trainer, she has introduced many people in those spheres to live online learning.
When I had the chance to sit down with Judy for a conversation, I was expecting to get new insights on how to better use language to achieve my goals. As a writer, I always knew the power of words, and as someone who was a coach in a previous life, I appreciate how using speaking (to others and ourselves) in slightly different ways can impact everyone’s perception of a given situation. This is what I call “real-life Jedi Mind Tricks.” As it turned out, Judy did more than share remote working tips and teach me new tricks; she gave me a whole new toolkit.
- Clean Language: Why Remote Workers Should Value It
Before passing on Judy’s main game-changing insight, I’ll share a personal story to help you gain some perspective. I got into meditation some years ago. And one of my teachers told me that 50 years ago, people would consider it madness to be in a room just lifting weights unless one was training to be an Olympian. Exercising the body was not something that regular people did 50 years ago. And now it’s common practice. Everyone goes to the gym, or has weights at home, or goes out for a run or a walk.
But hardly any people think about training their minds in the same way. People think about learning, acquiring knowledge, and accumulating knowledge. But that’s not really the same as training the mind, which you do through mental exercises and meditation.
Writing is a great way to train the mind. And what Judy is talking about — starting on the next paragraph — is really training people in a better way to use language, spoken and written. So without further ado, I give you some insight into her toolkit:
What clean language is, is a precision tool kit for asking questions in a very exact way, that helps the other person to do their best thinking. It was originally devised to find out about the metaphors that underpin people’s thinking and that drive their behavior. But more and more, it’s being used by people like managers, like team leaders, like agile coaches — because it helps them find out what the other person is really thinking and feeling, while reducing the cognitive load on the person asking the questions.
What clean language is interested in is on the process of guiding attention using questions. One of the things about it is it makes people very persuasive. People don’t realize how persuasion really works because we’re so used to seeing things like Instagram influencers just talking and talking and trying to pitch the next thing they want to sell you.
Persuasion is most effective when it starts by listening, when it starts with paying attention. The most effective persuaders start by really finding out about the person they want to persuade. What’s going on inside their head? What do they want to achieve? And then, they guide attention. There are various tools for guiding someone’s attention, but questions are the principal ones. And by listening, asking questions, listening, asking questions, listening, asking questions, they set up rapport. And they set up connectedness. They set up a relationship. And what that puts you in a position to do is to generate a win/win.
So, you’re not persuading someone like the sort of puppet master trying to persuade someone to do your bidding. But you’re figuring out ways that you can both collaborate and produce something which is amazing for both of you.
Internet superstar Tim Ferriss likes to quote Tony Robbins saying: “The quality of your life depends on the quality of your questions.” Judy has made me realize that the quality of your conversations with the people you work with also depends on the quality of your questions.
So listen, and ask questions. Not confrontationally, but in the spirit of understanding.
- The Power of “No-One Left Behind”
Everyday, people publish and speak about the value of goals, and vision. But Judy’s story about a group of students who learned clean language shows that there’s more to succeeding than that. It reveals one component that superseded everything else: connection. A commitment not to a shared goal, but to each other.
So, that year group, there was one tutor group and nine people who all got first class degrees. They all got the very top class of degree, which never happens. If that was happening routinely, you’d be asking some very severe questions. But the tutor of that group wrote up the experience as a… I think it was part of her PhD dissertation. And she explained that they were a perfectly ordinary group of nine students, some of them with fairly basic skills and some of them highly intelligent. But the group came together and just decided that they weren’t going to leave anybody behind. And as a result, they could take everybody through to a first class degree. That, replicated in a work context, is a game changer.
- Feedback: More Heat Than Light
One of the most useful remote hiring tips I got from this interview — and that I now share with you — is a structure for giving feedback, in a way that separates the actual data from the story that’s in our head.
And how do we give and get feedback in a way that doesn’t cause upset and aggression, but instead, actually helps everybody to improve the way they work together, and improve the way they do their day-to-day work? An awful lot of feedback strategies in teams actually seem to produce more aggression … “More heat than light,” is the saying. They just cause upset rather than actually informing anybody.
So, one of the things that we have within the clean language toolkit is a way of approaching information giving and getting, which takes the emotion out of it. It takes the heat out of it, and makes it much easier for people to hear what you’re saying.
Very simple Jedi mind trick this one, once you know it; absolutely superb insight from Caitlyn Walker who came up with this. What she says is: you split the feedback into three parts. Start with what you actually saw or heard, your evidence. Then, state your inference, the meaning that you made from what you saw or heard. Third, state the impact that had on you or on the situation. This can be really, really awesome once you start doing it.
Judy followed with a clear example from our call:
When I came on this call with you, what I saw was that you were not wearing a headset. The meaning I took from that was that clearly you weren’t thinking that this was going to be a high-quality podcast. And the impact on me was that I was horrified. And I thought, “What have I let myself in for?”
Or what I saw when I came on this call was that you were not wearing a headset, and I could hear that you were speaking clearly and that there was no background noise. The meaning I made from that was that you had an expensive microphone, on your desk, out of my sight. And the impact on me was that I was really curious about what kind of microphone it was and should I ask you about the technicalities.
You see, the very same evidence, depending on the inference, has a hugely different impact.
- Miss Group Energy? Keep The Mic On!
One of the things I do is teach trainers and facilitators to do high-quality work remotely. So, that’s not just talking at a camera, but actually working with a group and feeling the energy of a group, and getting a group interacting with each other, doing small group activities, all those kinds of things.
If people are specialists at doing it in the room, and then they’re suddenly dropped in an online setting, the biggest challenge they all report is that they can’t feel the energy of the group anymore.
And what I need to do with them is to turn on their other senses, so that the ones they’ve been relying on are not the only ones that they’ve got at their disposal. So, our auditory sense, our hearing sense, is incredibly powerful, incredibly sensitive to odd noises and intakes of breath and those kinds of things. And if you keep your group small, so that everybody can keep their microphones switched on, you can pick up on all those little…
- On Chat Etiquette, And Keeping It Human
Ever notice how what would be a simple request in person often reads like an unreasonable demand when conveyed by a chat message? There’s a reason for that — but also a common-sense way out. Judy urges us to not assume everyone is up to speed with the proper, human way to use all these remote work tools, and to have a regular back-and-forth about how to communicate effectively. There’s a world of difference between shooting quick messages or typing out a real conversation.
When you sent that message without a greeting or a signature, the meaning I made from that was that you were no longer treating me as a human being. And the effect on me was that I thought you were being rude.
Regularly, within a team, or within an organization, giving people that feedback changes the way people interact. And etiquette of using different tools in different ways can only develop if people receive feedback. It’s not magical. People don’t automatically know how to use a new technology. Nobody’s ever been taught. Maybe some people have, but not very many; most have not been taught “Well, this is the etiquette for using text message. This is the etiquette for WhatsApp. That is the one for Slack. And here is the etiquette for email. And they are different.”
We have to negotiate. And unless we give each other feedback, we’re not negotiating the new platform. We’re just taking what we’re given. That’s not good enough.
- Three Rules For Meetings
Number one, absolutely make sure you’re using good meeting practice. So, everybody knows what the meeting is for, why they specifically are there, what the agenda is, what the timings are… You know, a good remote meeting starts with a good meeting. Why would people be engaged if you haven’t said, “I need you to be on this meeting because your role is whatever it is”? And set up expectations, so that you say to people, “You are expected.”
This is number two; get the technology right enough that people can engage as human beings. For me, that means video, good video using Zoom with lights, with headsets. Everybody can see and hear each other without having to have the whole group muted. Groups of five to seven: the dinner party rule that you don’t have a table of more than six people because that will now actually split into two.
Number three is really to act to build psychological safety within the group. So, psychological safety is this sense of everybody here is respected, everybody here has a job to do. It’s a safe place to make mistakes and ask questions. You’re not going to be judged for what you say.
This article was based off an interview conducted for the DistantJob Podcast. You can find the original audio here: “Clean Language as a Remote Game-Changer with Judy Rees.”