Music in the Office (and Neurodiversity)

Simon Clean Language, Experiences, Neurodiversity 1 Comment

There’s an article in The Guardian today about music in the office.

I find this kind of discussion fascinating because it is essentially a neurodiversity problem – what works for one person’s brain doesn’t work for another. As a rule, we humans are very prone to assume everyone else’s experience of the world is the same as ours, that everyone processes the world as we do, and that anyone who therefore wants to structure the world differently from us is “wrong”.

Working with Caitlin Walker of Clean Learning we did a lot of work in our software company on how our brains work. The results are fascinating. Things like:

  • For some people, the structured use of coloured pens on white boards is hugely important, for others it doesn’t matter.
  • For some people noise behind them is hugely distracting yet for others a completely quiet office drives them crazy.
  • For people with misophonia, noisy eating, sounds of a mouse on a desk, etc are infuriating. Really properly rage inducing.

That’s just the start – there’s so many other small environmental things which prevent people working at their best in an office, which are easily fixed.

My bet is that this company could benefit a lot from some neurodiversity awareness – chances are they are screwing up elsewhere, too. There’s a lot of easy productivity wins for knowledge workers.

Here’s what we do for music in our office:

  • We have a Sonos system with speakers dotted around the office (generally, the smaller Play 1).
  • The volume level is low because there are lots of speakers, and anyone can adjust the volume of the speaker near them.
  • We can all control what’s playing.
  • Anyone can skip anything for any reason.
  • Anyone can stop the music temporarily – e.g. for a conference call.

This works really well, and I believe is an excellent way for the team to collaborate. It is always a milestone when a new person does their first Sonos action, because that tells us they are starting to feel empowered in the team. Similarly, unhelpful comments is a sign that there’s something amiss.

In addition, everyone has Apple AirPods and/or Bose QuietComfort noise cancelling headphones. If you need to isolate yourself, you can. If someone has headphones on that’s viewed as “Please don’t disturb, I’m doing focused work” and it is polite to use Slack, or walk into their visual field, to capture their attention.

The gentle background music is there for people who find it helpful, it can be stopped at any time, and people who want to check out are welcome to put in headphones. That’s a nice compromise.

One thing we never do is have the Radio on – that’s a mix of music and talking, which is devastating to my ability to concentrate. The way my brain works I can have music in the background, but if there’s voices on a radio it constantly pulls my attention away. In addition it is hard to find a DJ who doesn’t intensely annoy at least someone.

Christine Pavlina’s Story

Simon Experiences, Intuition, Psychics 0 Comments

One of the things I’m hoping to do with this site is to encourage people to get in touch with their psychic intuition. Based on what people have said to me privately, I think there’s a lot of people who would love to be able to be open about their intuitive experiences and views but are afraid to be so for fear of being judged.

So much of life, especially the “rational” business and STEM-centric areas I hang out in, disregard intuition out of hand. I find this hugely damaging both in terms of good decision making, and also “doing the right thing”. The culture is so hostile to intuitive-based decision making that individuals daren’t really consider it let alone talk about it.

My good friend Christine Pavlina has done the journey from buttoned-down marketing executive to professional intuitive. It’s been a long, lonely road at times – I feel fortunate that I haven’t had to do what she’s been asked to do! But she’s happier and healthier as a result, and as well as bringing comfort and light into people’s lives through readings, she’s got a really interesting YouTube channel.

Anyway, she made this video chronicling her experience to date. She’s the extreme, having turned her life upside down, and been called to stick her neck out pretty far on a number of subjects.

(As a channel, you don’t get to pick your subjects or censor for what you think might look good, you just say what you get – and that’s as true when giving a private reading as it is when making a YouTube video.)

When I talk to Christine and understand where she’s come from and where she is now, it makes me realise what whilst this isn’t an easy journey, it is a worthwhile one. However nervous I’ve been about people’s reactions – my journey is comparatively easy compared to what some have.

Anyway, I hope you find Christine’s journey as interesting/inspiring as I do.

Clean in Sales – Starting a Sales Meeting

Simon Clean Language, Sales 1 Comment

Following last week’s post describing a sales meeting, I’ve been asked why I don’t start the meeting out by asking the prospect for permission to do things in a different way.

The idea being that after explaining my view that the traditional sales meeting setup doesn’t serve anyone, I’d get their buy-in to running the meeting with Clean being more overtly used.

I have tried that, and it often backfired on me.

I think the reasons it doesn’t work for me are multifaceted and worth exploring because some of them are unique to my circumstances. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from seeking explicit permission if they can get it, because it’ll give you more latitude in how you conduct yourself, and it’ll help the prospect see that you are truly different.

To help people figure out the differences that might make a difference for our situation, I thought it would help to go into more detail about how we start and end meetings, and the considerations at play.

Going forward I’ve found a pattern that works for me that doesn’t require asking for any permission up front, so I’ve stopped trying to find a way to successfully do so.

It would be wrong to in this case

In the specific circumstance I was describing, I’m working with:

  • a German company (so you have some cultural issues to contend with).
  • Who are sufficiently late to the party in deploying this kind of solution that they deserve the description “conservative” in their approach to new things. They are very much “Right side Chasm” in the Technology Adoption Lifecycle terminology.
  • I’ve been told what to do – I was invited for a very specific role in a bigger meeting. Expectations have been set, plans made etc.

With that context, for this audience I need to come over as respectful, safe, responsible, knowledgeable and easy to work with. I am not going to anything to rock the boat. “Maverick” would be the worst impression to give, especially in the first 10 minutes of the meeting.

If I was working with a California-based Biotech startup I might well take a different approach – “We all know these meetings often fail to serve the needs of all of us. We have a different approach – want to try it?”.

So the specific context is an important consideration, and overrides anything else I might feel about “best practice”.

A Reputation Proceeds Me

For those who aren’t familiar with the Enterprise Software Sales dance – the sales person is generally considered (with good reason) to be a manipulative liar willing to do anything to get a quick sale.

The situation is so bad, most prospects would rather not speak to a sales person at all. The sales person is something they have to endure to get to see the product.

What this means is that when I stand up, they’re not feeling well disposed to us. Hopefully they’ll warm to me as we go along and I’ve demonstrated some credibility, but in the first 10 minutes, they are very much in contempt.

I have this problem even though I try hard not to be identified as a sales person – to the extent that I have a colleague with me with the “Sales” job title and I endeavour to act a little geeky.

What I used to do

I used to say something like “It would be really helpful if I could just understand a little bit about you before we start, so I can tailor the demonstration”.

This didn’t work.

Sometimes I’d get permission to ask a few questions, but not too many. And often they’d be answered by the most senior or pushy person in the room which means I’ve got no network built up. Plus I can’t revisit any of that stuff later in the meeting because I’ve been “told” it.

Sometimes I’d get waved on – “no that’s fine, just show us the product”. At that point, I’ve been told I can’t ask any questions at all, so I’m completely stuffed!

I’ve never had a positive “Oh that’s a good idea, let’s talk” reaction.

I think the refusal/reluctance comes from:

  • A genuine feeling that their situation doesn’t matter, what matters is the product and features. Which isn’t the case, but they don’t know that.
  • A fear of having their internal problems or inconsistencies exposed in an uncontrolled way, or to an external party.
  • A feeling that the more they tell us, the more opportunity we’ve got to manipulate them.
  • Not wanting to “waste” time on things that don’t matter.

How I start meetings now

Now I generally start off with something like “What caused you to to make time for us?”, or in this case I did something like “What would you like me to do?”.

Once they’ve told us that I’ll say something like “So I’ve got a couple of slides just tell you a little bit about us so you know who you are talking to and then I’ll show you the product, ok?”.

I always get agreement for that “about us” segment, because that’s what they are expecting. In fact they’re probably resigned to 30 minutes of my company history, ownership, etc 🙂

I really do have the company introduction down to a few minutes of telling them some interesting stuff about us, so when I finish that they’re starting to feel a bit more positive.

In my presentation I have about 6 slides which I don’t really use except for one in particular which has some content on which I can get them to interact with – which is key, because it’s the first time I get to ask them a question. This starts them off on the process of this being a conversation not a lecture.

Never ask permission

I’ve got a theory that you should never ask permission in a sales meeting, because if they tell you “No” you have to respect that and you’re stuffed at that point. At the very least, you won’t be working at your best.

This is particularly the case when you’re perhaps asking them a question they aren’t qualified to answer. 20 years of doing this, I know that having a conversation is important – but they don’t. They think they understand their problem, and just need to see our product and have the features explained to them.

I also think it is a bit manipulative asking for permission to do something when you aren’t ok with that permission being refused. You aren’t really asking for permission at that point, you’re playing mind games with them.

How we end meetings

As we’re coming to the end of the time, I’ll often go back to what they said at the start about why they were here, and check that I’ve done what they wanted. This is to:

  • Genuinely check that I have done what they wanted, and give me the opportunity to fill any missing gaps.
  • Demonstrate that I did indeed pay attention to what they wanted, and care enough to check with them that I made them happy.
  • Give me a low-pressure way of closing them on something to gauge the mood of the meeting.

When the meeting comes to an end, we don’t ask “Shall I call you next week” partly because it sounds a bit powerless, but also we don’t have an option if they say “No thanks”.

So what we do now is say “What would you like to have happen next?”. This generally produces really good results – they’ll often tell us their entire buying process right then, and frequently ask permission to ask follow up questions.

Note that by the end of the meeting we’ve got a lot more credibility which is why they are often so open about their buying process, which is something prospects often attempt to hide.

We tend not to need to do anything for what they want to have happen next, as it is almost always “We need to think” or “We need to prepare a proposal to get the money”.

I’ll often acknowledge what they want in some way (repeat it back) and add “And I’m sure from my side my colleague will be in touch at some point just to say hi”.

It is about respect

I’ve come to feel it is more respectful to the prospect to just get on with doing what they’ve asked, rather than request up-front permission to do things in a different way.

If I ask at the start, they’re faced with a decision they can’t really make (they don’t have enough information about me, or Clean) which they are then committed to. It’s almost a trick.

If I don’t force them to commit to my rules, I can react and adjust to how they are in the moment. Just because I think I know how things will go doesn’t mean it will, and I’m able to adapt what I do as needed to get the best result for them.

Clean in Sales Example – The Big Meeting

Simon Clean Language, Sales 4 Comments

People have expressed interest in how we use Clean Language in sales, so I thought it would be helpful to occasionally discuss specific scenarios, to give a feeling of what it is like in practice.

I’ve described one meeting of perhaps 20 we’ll have with this company over the next 2 years. In retrospect, it is possibly the one where the pure “Clean” is hardest to spot.

However, from a sales perspective this is the major meeting and hence most interesting – and I’m writing to attract practicing sales people to Clean rather than give a technical example of Clean in a business context.

Over time I’ll try to write up things like our cold call script and initial meetings, which are much more straightforward and easier to see Clean in action.


There’s a lot of contradictory stuff in the sales world, and I think that’s because people take techniques that work in one situation and unknowingly mis-apply them into another situation.

IMHO everything is right at some point, and the trick is to realise the differences in context that make a difference to the application of techniques.

In this case, we are:

  • B2B, selling to a large company who have a purchasing department, many divisions, etc.
  • Selling a software product which they’ll use for 10+ years, for a deal worth over £500k.
  • Providing solutions that need a complex sale – there are lots of tradeoffs between different parts of the organisation.
  • Often those different audiences will not have worked together before, at least in this context, and there are no clear lines of overall authority.
  • We’re talking with audiences who generally have a postgraduate degree or PhD – they’re very used to, and expect, detailed technical discussions when needed. You can’t manipulate them.

The Story so far

One of this prospect’s related companies already uses our software, they’ve got an internal initiative to do something similar so they reached out to us a few months ago and had a demo over The Internet.

They then asked if we’d visit in person and do a longer more in depth presentation to a group of them. Normally we don’t do this, but it was a good training opportunity for one of my colleagues so we agreed.

We don’t know that much about the meeting beforehand, which I’m not too stressed about. We don’t know agenda, attendees, interests etc.


I don’t typically do a lot of preparation before a meeting like this because I want to be as “Clean” as possible. Most of the content will come from the discussion we have in the meeting.

I do have:

  • Our product, ready to demo
  • A brief (8 slide) sales presentation, which I won’t use except to show a slide of representative customers
  • Experience 🙂

I am accompanied by one of our account managers, and strictly we should do a Clean Setup before the meeting. In this case we didn’t which was remiss of us, but we got away with it because my colleague didn’t really have an active role in the meeting. Their job is to keep me safe, mainly by taking note of important things.

Starting the Meeting

We start the meeting out as cleanly as possible. In this case I asked our host as he was walking us from reception what the participants were expecting.

Turns out this is a big meeting of lots of departmental managers from all around the company. They briefly showed an agenda and basically they’ve got 2 hours with us, then they’re into their annual planning session, presumably to plan budgets for next year.

So this is a powerful meeting, and they’re mostly German so there’s a touch more polite formality and the hierarchy is a bit more visible than you’d find in the US or UK.

Unfortunately just because the people are powerful doesn’t mean they are in touch with reality, so I need to make sure they understand their problem adequately.

The senior guy formally welcomes us and we do the “Go round the room and introduce yourself” thing. Traditional sales would have us paying careful attention to people’s roles at this point, but we tend not to worry too much. That’s partly because I have problems tracking that kind of detail, but also – I don’t care. You can get misled by titles, what really matters is what people say and how they react to others.

They hand the meeting over to me, and I ask something like “How would you like to spend the next couple of hours?” – I’ve been somewhat told already but I want everyone to understand what I’ve been asked to do. I also want the exact wording so I can use that as a closer – “When we started you said you wanted to do XX in our time together. Have we achieved that?”

The Detail

What they want me to do is demo our system and “spice it up a bit” with more detail, examples from our experience etc.

So I do that, but I do it very interactively. Ideally I’m not moving too far without getting some calibration. So I’ll show a feature, look for questions and clarifications. I’ll describe a concept and see who is with me by paying attention to their body language.

All the way along I’m looking for them to talk – questions, comments etc. I’m using what I have (information) to trade for what I want (their words).

I’m making sure I use their words to describe concepts as much as I can. I’m taking every opportunity to bring to the surface their issues, get a common understanding of them, and then demonstrate how we deal with it. It is quite probable they’ve never discussed this problem in depth together before, so part of what I’m doing is facilitating a group understanding so they can form a buying team. If there’s no buying team, there’s not going to be a sale, regardless of how compelling our product is.

The bigger picture is I’m trying to help them form a consistent shared vision of their requirements – shades of Systemic Modelling here. If you’ve done the “5 Senses” exercise, you’d recognise some of the approaches.

I’ll often ask a clarifying question in response to a question, generally for one of the following reasons:

  • I genuinely need to explore their question, get more detail, more words etc. before I can answer it
  • I think it would be helpful for other people in the room to get more detail
  • To keep them used to that kind of to-and-fro in the discussion

The questions I typically ask are:

  • What kind of XX
  • What happens just before/after XX
  • Is there a relationship between XX and YY
  • What would you see if XX

This is often a very fast-flowing engagement. I’ve got 15 people in the room and they are all asking me questions from their individual perspective as well as their perception of group needs, with attitudes which spread the spectrum from trying to trip me up, to making an internal political point, to asking me really supportive questions.

During all of this my colleague is busy writing up the words the meeting participants use to describe their world and how we might fit. He’ll use that in follow up with our contact over the next few weeks/months.

A metaphor for what I’m doing might be rock climbing. Every touch point with my audience is where I put a piton in the sheer rock face to get a safe anchor point. Then I say something, demo a feature or something, but I’m hanging off what they said and seeking to hammer in another pitons further towards my goal. And the web of pitons (things which are true in their world) and ropes (contextual meaning) that I create is the thing that keeps the engagement safe.


This is Germany, so the meeting ends exactly on time.

Generally, they were really nice – I often find that although that Germans are more formal than US/UK (everyone is “Herr xxx”) they are really lovely, genuine and kind.

What we got out of this meeting:

  • They’ve described their problem, using their own words, to each other. This helps them form a buying committee.
  • We know what those words are and can use them downstream in the sales process to make sure we’re respecting both their problem, and how they describe it.
  • We’ve explained our solution in the context of their problem.

If we’ve done a good job, it’ll be natural for them to move to the next stage with us, and they’ll have the internal capability to do so because they’ve got a group of people able to participate in the project.

Client Feedback

My account manager colleague followed up with the pricing they wanted and they replied:

Thank you very much for your timely follow-up to our meeting. Yes, it was a very lively and useful one indeed. It was refreshing to see professionals talking about something they really understand and are enthusiastic about.

Will they buy? Who knows – this could be a 12 or even 18 month sales cycle.

Due to our long sales cycle, our sales process is instrumented to focus on the amount of emotional engagement we’ve got with the prospect, and that’s good enough to move that opportunity along a stage in our sales pipe.

Where’s the Clean?

This isn’t a therapy or coaching session, or even Systemic Modelling; my contract with this group of people was somewhat assumed by tradition and could extend from “Show us your product” to “Help us understand our problem and how you can solve it” – the latter being where good sales people are these days.

They are expecting a “normal” sales call, and I’ve found over the years that you can’t ask lots of questions up front – they get upset – people have literally said “You’re meant to tell us what you do, stop asking us things”. This is a trading game. So I’m asking a couple of questions, giving some information within that context, getting some feedback, and moving forward bit by bit.

What I can’t do is ask more than a probably three questions up front. That breaks the assumed rules of how sales meetings are meant to go, no matter how you dress it up.

But I do believe I’m being Clean in that I’m:

  • Clean in intent. I’m not there to sell, or manipulate them. I’m there to help them understand their problem and establish if they want to work with us any more.
  • Using their words wherever possible.
  • Putting as little of myself/product/company into the process as possible.

This is very, very different from a typical sales engagement!

  • I’m not pretending or hoping to know anything about the prospect.

What Would Traditional Sales Do?

There’s a huge difference between this approach and what you might learn through sales training. If you are a sales professional you can probably skip this section but non-sales people might find it helpful to have some explored.


I don’t give a pre-canned presentation, which is something that’s very important in a lot of organisations. They’ll have been prepared by marketing and given to sales teams with great ceremony, often with various props and detailed instructions on when to reveal what.

Presentations have words, and if I bring my words to the meeting I don’t get theirs. I’m not sure you can have a pre-prepared presentation and be properly “Clean”.

Presentations also dictate timings; I don’t know when things will come up in conversation.

I do have a set of diagrams which I will typically draw at appropriate times, although I’ll annotate them with their words, not mine.


I don’t really prepare, and that’s very deliberate – the more I prepare, the less I am open to them.

To the extent that I prepare, I’ll try to clear my mind. Pick any mindfulness or meditation technique that works for you given the circumstances.

The one exception is that ideally I’d do a Clean Setup with any colleagues in the room with me.

So I haven’t researched the company or the individuals. They’ll tell me anything I need – in their words, which is how I need it.

Tracking Individuals

A lot of sales people will want to make careful note of who is in the meeting, what the roles are, where the relative power is, etc.

I don’t tend to worry about that too much; partly because my brain doesn’t do that well with so much detail, but also I’ve found it doesn’t matter. I wonder if it isn’t a case of sales people recording this stuff because they can and it makes them feel in control.

We can’t control the interactions within the prospect; in addition even if they’d take our calls, keeping tabs on everyone would be very time consuming.

I figure our attention is better spent on helping them as a system form a common understanding of their problem and our solution.

Our Personnel

In most sales organisations a sales meeting would be run by the “Sales Person” who would then have a “Technical Pre-Sales” person to assist with the demo, technical questions etc.

In our case, I’m probably the technical sales person, and I’m leading the meeting. This gives us a lot of credibility – it comes over as less of a sales meeting than a training session.

What Clean is doing is giving me, as a technical person, the tools to successfully engage with a group in a constructive manner. This is a bigger deal than you might think – a topic for another post!

Clean also condenses down what we get out of the meeting to a nicely compact set of words. That’s really helpful for my sales colleague who will do all the follow up (adequately capturing the essence of a sales meeting is a constant problem).

Generally – Letting Go

Most sales methodologies have a degree of manipulation, even the lightest come down to “Find out what they want, make them feel what we do best is the most important, and the stuff we don’t do that well isn’t important”.

I genuinely don’t care; my task is to help them understand their problem and how it intersects with our solution. I endeavour to do that as cleanly as possible, including pointing them to alternative solutions.

You might think this is commercially crazy, and it is if you take a short term view of business. But longer term, using a very Clean approach, we:

  • Get to understand the market’s true requirements, rather than what we guess they are.
  • Get a realistic view of how we fit those requirements, and what we need to do to adapt to a changing market.
  • Develop sustainable long term client relationships.

My view is Clean is probably devastating if you look at sales from a quarter-on-quarter basis. But if you look at year-to-year, it is probably the key to building a sustainable, stable, profitable business.

 What Would get me Fired?

I believe that if you’re going to do Clean in Sales it has to be from the top down – and that’s from the Board, down. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that I’d be fired if judged through a traditional sales lens.

To give you a feeling for why, here’s just some of the reasons I’d be fired in most organisations:

  • No up-front preparation, research etc. “Irresponsible laziness!”
  • No delivery of canned presentation/demo script. “Uncontrolled, risky!”
  • No tracking of individuals, or indeed individual follow up. “How can we control the prospect’s decision making process?”
  • No requirements reengineering/management. “What was the point of you going to see them?”

I don’t have an answer for this; I suspect the culture gap between this approach and traditional sales is as large as between other fields’ tradition and the Clean approach.

Is this sales?

As I’ve been writing this, I do wonder if what I’m doing is what some people would describe as “Sales”.

For our company, any discussion with someone who isn’t a client, and we think they might be – that’s “Sales”.

For a lot of companies sales is inherently aggressive, and manipulative. It is about meeting quota, no excuses.

That’s fine, but I am not sure that’s the best way to build a company. You don’t get to hear back from your target market, and you don’t build genuine relationships.

One of my colleagues has a previous live as an estate agent. I believe the US equivalent is “Realtor” although I suspect they aren’t viewed with the same derision!

In estate agency, despite the large ticket price, the transaction is one-time. Once the sale has completed, there’s no ongoing relationship. I suspect there’s a lot more scope for manipulative behaviour and indeed, taking a Clean approach would probably mean you’re out of business.

But for us – where we would want a mutually beneficial relationship for years if not decades, Clean works really, really well. Sales is the start of a longer relationship and we have to build a solid foundation.

This approach might mean we lose a few deals which a traditional approach would win; that’s fine for us. We want good customers, who renew year after year, stretch us with interesting problems, and recommend us to their friends.

So far this is working well. We have a happy stable company, with loyal, happy customers. I feel blessed that the foundation of this is treating people with genuine respect and curiously in the sales process 🙂

What Else Goes on?

This interaction is only part of a wider sales process. Hopefully I can cover that in other articles… but it is worth bearing in mind this is just a detailed look into one interaction of many.

Evaluating Clean in the Sales Process

  • I can’t manipulate the sale. It is either real or it isn’t. There’s no place for “happy ears”.
  • I learn a huge amount about the customer and their market.
  • I don’t need a huge amount of domain expertise.
  • The essence of the opportunity is neatly captured in a set of words.
  • The customer gains the impression that I truly care about their circumstances and understands their situation.
  • If the deal happens, it’ll be a good quality, solid customer – not one that will be a pain to serve and then abandon us in a few years.
  • I don’t have to do very much in the sales process except remember their words.
  • I no longer have an illusion of control. Sales people are never really in control of the buying process, but there does seem to be a kind of industry-wide conspiracy that demands we pretend to be.
  • My managers no longer believe I have control. I think that’s probably the scariest thing!
  • I can’t force-fit a bad product into the marketplace by sheer force of will.
  • I have to be humble. I don’t win deals by skill, I enable deals with humility. That’s not good for a sales person’s ego!
  • My opportunities can be vulnerable to a very skilled/manipulative sales person from a competitor. But deals always are vulnerable to a skilled competitor.
  • It is very difficult to train an “experienced” sales person in Clean Sales. It isn’t a matter of skill – the problem is ego and attitude. This approach is 180° different from traditional sales.
More on starting the meeting

After I wrote this, there were some really good questions in the Clean Facebook groups about how I start the meetings off and why. So I’ve written a second post specifically addressing that.

Contempt vs Curiosity at Work

Simon Clean Language, Culture, Innovation 0 Comments

I believe there are moments that happen every day in organisations, moments that dramatically undermine a company’s success, but are hardly noticed. 

That moment is when innovation and creativity is crushed beneath contempt, rather than fertilised by curiosity. Contempt is the hidden killer of success and yet we’re all guilty.

An example

I was attending a course, and there was a comment made which I felt deserved to be challenged. A couple of people dismissed my contribution, on account of my inexperience in the area.

So the conversation stopped and the moment for exploring another perspective was lost.

That’s what the weight of contempt can do.

In my company, what would have happened is that someone would have been curious about why a person thought differently. There probably would have been a Clean Language question asked such as, “What kind of […] do you mean?” or “Is there anything else about […]?” 

If that had happened over the weekend course, I suspect we would have found out something really interesting. Instead I got contempt – you can bet I didn’t make any other comments after that!

The subtext was that conventional wisdom was correct and my comments were from a place of inexperience.

In this particular situation, I know for certain that a curious conversation would have been very interesting, because they were discussing a problem which has been solved elsewhere.

This is the problem

Companies, and indeed industries are also full of such “wisdoms” which are past their sell-by date. 

The problem is that conventional wisdom never gets challenged. Instead of being curious about alternatives, we fall into contempt of the messenger who we instinctively decide must be wrong.

I appreciate this isn’t the most surprising insight in the world. My point is even though we know this, it still happens. And there’s plenty of people trying to figure out how to fix it, with varying degrees of success.

I think the underlying issue is we haven’t had a way of respectfully enquiring of each other. And I think I’ve managed to create a culture which is curious.

A Curious Culture

In my company, we deliberately create a culture of curiosity – we know it’s good for business!

Contempt happens when someone gets to a place of “I’m OK and you’re not” which is a very easy place to be when someone is different from you. It also happens when someone is not willing to be questioned or to update their view on something – the classic trap of an expert.

Conversely, curiosity in our company has everyone prepared to be challenged and to change their minds when they become aware of another perspective.

Everybody is given a free pass to speak up and challenge anybody else in the company – and that includes me. There are no sacred cows in the office. It is crucial that if I say, “That’s bollocks!”, people are able to ask me more about that. For example, “What kind of bollocks?”

Those Clean questions are always taken as they are meant – from a place of curious respect. Often the silliest starting questions produce the most interesting results. To the extent it has become a bit of a joke, albeit one that we’re often surprised with the results of.

Creating a culture of curiosity

  • Connector.

    Pick the right people

    We recruit people who care enough to be curious, including about their own stuff. Not everyone is prepared to be curious; some people are much happier just looking for reinforcement of their current views. Fortunately, it is fairly easy to ascertain someone’s level of curiosity in an interview.

  • Connector.

    Edit the organisation

    We are prepared to remove cynics and politicians. We call each other out on being contemptuous. Continuous contempt would be a firing offence. Politicians and prima donnas find this kind of environment extremely uncomfortable and generally leave of their own accord.

  • Connector.

    Clean Language

    We trained everybody in Clean Language. Clean Language is a set of simple and neutral questions that reflect back only the other person’s words. These questions invite a person to pay even more attention to their experience so as to generate new insights, ideas and solutions. It is key enabler of Curiosity.

    Clean inherently causes communication to be respectful. You can’t ask a loaded question, you can’t belittle people. That makes Clean questions very easy to respond to regardless of the sensitivity of the topic.

    Clean also gives people a voice outside of their area of expertise. You don’t have to be an accountant to ask Clean questions about finance matters, to shine a light on something that doesn’t seem quite right.

  • Connector.


    The company’s leadership has to be prepared to publicly demonstrate and support curiosity. Anyone can question anyone about anything as long as it is done Cleanly.


So what? How have we benefitted?

  • We are a successful small team with a revenue per employee that is double the industry average.
  • Being curious cultivates creativity and collaboration – we use everybody’s brains better and as a result, we’re quicker and leaner.
  • There’s also greater employee buy-in when there are new, out-of-the-box ideas.

Lots of major shifts have emerged for us through a culture of curiosity. Not top-down, but bottom up innovation with real impact on our profitability.

A crisis of contempt

We hear from the government that there’s a productivity crisis in the UK.

I’d say there’s a contempt crisis – there’s plenty of opportunity for improvement in every company, but we can’t bring ourselves to be curious enough to investigate them. It is much more comfortable to judge each other.

Clean Language has been at the heart of helping us move in the direction of a curious culture.

BTW Caitlin Walker’s book “From Contempt to Curiosity” covers this and much more, well worth a read.

Jacqueline Ann Surin collaborated on this blog posting.