Question marks against a dark background, one is lit up

In this context, a Dirty Question is one that either:

  • contains the biases and assumptions of the questioner or
  • presupposes/directs the answer or
  • is judgmental/critical in tone or
  • is closed-ended, limiting potential responses

By contrast a clean question is:

  • Non-judgmental, spoken in a neutral tone of voice
  • Open-ended, giving emotional space for elaboration
  • Often uses speaker’s own words

Example: ‘I’m very frustrated at work, it feels like I’m stuck.’

Dirty Response: ‘So, your boss doesn’t like your work? Won’t promote you?’

Multiple assumptions: The problem is with the boss, that the boss doesn’t like their work and that the frustration is with a promotion, plus response contains ‘stacked questions’.

Possible Clean Responses: ‘How are you frustrated?’ Or ‘What does stuck mean to you?’

The concept of clean questions was popularized in the 1980’s by David Grove as a way to elicit another’s point of view without imposing a frame of reference; the aim being to keep the other’s experience at the center of the conversation. The method can be very useful in a context where open communication may not naturally occur i.e. where cultural norms or hierarchical relationships often create a tendency not to speak freely or to agree too quickly. If you want to get a clear, unvarnished picture of a situation, especially one with problems, you need to learn to make it as easy as possible to speak truth to power.

Closing Quotes:

“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

“Ask the right questions if you’re going to find the right answers.” – Vanessa Redgrave, b. 1937

“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” – W. Edwards Deming, 1900-1993

“Clean Language questions are designed to minimize the influence of the facilitator’s assumptions, thereby allowing the client’s inner world to be more fully expressed.” – Penny Tompkins/James Lawley, ‘Metaphors in Mind’

As always, I share what I most want and need to learn. – Nathan S. Collier