Cleaning up Your Questions: A Handy Tool

Last week I attended a class taught by the amazing April Mills. In one exercise, we were divided into groups of three and took turns playing roles. The Talker was given a topic to speak on for three minutes. The Listener was to ask questions to keep the Talker talking. The Referee was to call it out every time the questions asked were leading.

In the first round, I was the Talker in my group. The Listener would ask a question and…the Referee would make a buzzer sound. At one point the Listener laughed and said, “This is hard.” He was right.

To “lead,” whether as an interviewer, coach, or facilitator, is to influence the response by telegraphing what answers are DESIRED, which are deemed BETTER than others.

Questions can be leading in a variety of ways, from the adjectives used, to the tone of delivery, to the possible answers mentioned. Often the very PREMISE of a question is leading. It’s framed a certain way and merely answering it seemingly validates what it presupposes as true.

Let’s face it, plenty of leading is intentional. If the interviewer is more interested in having her own views heard and confirmed than learning what the interviewee thinks, she’ll be leading. This is now the modus operandi of most reporters, not to mention pollsters and political operatives. In the 80s, this was parodied in the British series, Yes, Prime Minister.

In one hilarious scene, Sir Humphrey Appleby (played by Nigel Hawthorne) demonstrates how to “fix” a poll with some leading questions. He grabs a letter opener and pretends to write as he says, “Are you worried about the number of young people without jobs? Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?”

What he really wants to ask about is the reintroduction of national service. He’s “priming the pump.” This is Cialdini’s (1984) “Commitment and Consistency” principle in action. Due to the “yes set” he’s established, by the time he gets to his real question, the interviewee can’t say “No” without looking like an idiot.

What about unintentional leading? If you’re more interested in learning what someone thinks (or in helping him) than in hearing confirmation for your own views, you’ll obviously want to avoid this. The problem is it can be surprisingly subtle, even non-verbal.

If you nod at certain answers and slightly wince at others, if your breathing is relaxed at certain answers and stressed at another, you still might be leading (see Grinder, 2009). This demonstrates how useful Clean Language is. If it’s so important to monitor your non-verbals, a little help with your verbals GOES A LONG WAY.

If you’re not familiar, Clean Language is a set of questions free of leading content. (That’s why they’re “clean.”) It was developed when John Lawley and Penny Tompkins applied NLP modelling to the work of psychotherapist David Grove (see Lawley & Tompkins, 2000).

People have a hard enough time expressing what exactly they mean without being sidetracked and derailed by leading questions. They often only have a vague sense of what they mean. Maybe they can give the gist, somewhat obliquely, and typically through metaphor.

This is often at quite a remove from a clear statement of the content it is derived from, the actual underlying values, the concrete experiences beneath the generalizations being shared. Connecting the surface structure of what’s said back to the deeper structure of a person’s experiences and values requires unpacking (itself a metaphor).

And if you ask leading questions, you’re not unpacking the OTHER person’s meaning—you’re finding something in his luggage that YOU PUT THERE. Clean Language gives you an easy to way to “unpack” without “planting evidence,” to interview without leading.

You can use the “clean” questions below to dig deeper, to reconnect the metaphorical language to the literal, to facilitate the speaker making discoveries about herself. She’ll often then rethink and reframe her own thinking, without you imposing your own frame and assumptions into the mix.

I first learned about the concept from Burrows (2018) and Walker (2014). The depiction below is adapted from Burrows.

I personally find even this small set of questions difficult to remember, which is why I added the asterisks flagging what Judy Rees (2010) describes as the two “Lazy Jedi Questions.”

Just remembering these two questions, Rees says, can get you very far in digging into what someone really means. Yes, use them when facilitating, coaching, consulting, and conducting research interviews, she says. She’s even heard from people who’ve used them on dates and with their teenagers.

They’re deceptively simple questions. Don’t let that fool you. When used properly, they sound odd. Don’t let that bother you. They’re SUPPOSED to sound odd, hypnotic even.

Here’s an example. Someone says, “I feel stuck at work.” Is he locked in the maintenance room? No, of course not. “Stuck” is a metaphor. Let’s say you respond, “You’re having trouble with the Product Manager too, aren’t you?” That’s leading. It’s “dirty.”

Let’s say you instead respond, “And when you feel stuck, what kind of stuck?” Again, it sounds a little odd, but this is actually some pretty advanced facilitating. With this response, you’re in sense doing two magic tricks at once.

First, if you mind your non-verbals and deliver the question appropriately, this question is wholly non-leading. All you’re feeding back to the person is the content she already offered.

Second, by consistently offering back a key word someone just said, you’re virtually guaranteeing he will dig deeper. Hostage negotiator Dan Oblinger (2018) calls this “reflecting”—you repeat key words someone just said, with a rising intonation at the end (like a question), to keep him talking. The neat thing here is that Clean Language sort of has reflecting built into it.

Though it’s not shown in the graphic above, often you would start by saying something like, “And when X,” and THEN asking the question. With the example above, if you responded, “And when you feel STUCK, what kind of STUCK is that STUCK?” then you repeat key metaphor three times!

Even for the “then what happens” question, you would actually say something like, “And when you feel stuck, then what happens?”

This concept can be expanded to a more holistic approach to research interviews, whether of users or stakeholders. Below is an example. Instead of showing the exact wording of a set of questions, I prefer to show, first, the information you’re asking for; and, second, the word the question should START with.

To me this allows for more flexibility, more improvisation, which is in and of itself a magic trick. I also don’t have to remember as much, which is also a big deal. All I need to remember is what my questions should start with and what I should be going after!

Whether coaching or consulting with clients, I’m mostly trying to learn what specifically they would like to have happen, and then fleshing that out and crisping it up:

“What would you like to have happen?”

“And what would that achieve?”

“And what else?”

“How might else you achieve this?”

“And when X is achieved, then what?”

“And what does achieving X achieve?”

“How might else you get there?”

You get the idea.

You can read more about the actual process here.


Burrows, M. (2018). Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation. UK: New Generation Publishing.

Cialdini, R.B. (1984). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Grinder, M. (2009). The elusive obvious: The science of non-verbal communication (3rd ed.). Battle Ground, WA: Michael Grinder & Associates.

Lawley, J. & Tompkins, P. (2000). Metaphors in mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. The Developing Company Press. London.

Oblinger, D. (2018). Life or death listening: A hostage negotiator’s how-to guide to mastering the essential communication skill. Dan Oblinger.

Rees, J. (2010). Why use the 2 Lazy Jedi questions? Judy Rees. Retrieved on February 3, 2020 from:

Walker, C. (2014). From contempt to curiosity: Creating the conditions for groups to collaborate using Clean Language & Systemic Modelling. Hampshire, England: Clean Publishing.

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