For Insights 1

Keeping it Clean

Language is one of our most powerful filters and its effects are often beyond our conscious awareness.

Think back to the last time you had a conversation with someone where you thought you were making a clear point, only to realise the other person took away something different to what you had intended. This is actually very common because we all carry around our own past experiences, individual conditioning, thoughts, beliefs, senses and identity, and it is through this lens that we perceive the world. Your ‘map of the world’ will be totally different to mine and may cause you to take different meaning from a conversation than I intended. Wouldn’t communication be much more successful and efficient if we could minimise the chances of misunderstanding?

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a discipline which offers a set of methods and models suitable for any personal or business development or change[1] and tools for better communication. Since the provision of Legal Services centres around communication, as lawyers must understand the problems a client faces and explain complex concepts, the tools offered in NLP can be of great use. Furthermore, with the explosion of New Law, Law Companies and Legal Tech, change is a constant topic of conversation. The Legal profession is facing unprecedented change and lawyers often spend time on projects where it is important to articulate needs and pain points in order to move towards effective change.

A huge factor in successful communication is the ability to hold conversations where we don’t layer the other person’s response with our own interpretation, choice of words, or mind set, but rather we understand it as it was intended. Communicating in this unambiguous, non-judgmental way is a fast track to efficiency and can help identify and solve problems faster. The first step to achieving this can be found in one of the founding principles, or presuppositions, of NLP:

Respect other people’s maps of the world.

When we respect and accept others’ maps, we step into their world and can gain true insight into their goals and perceived problems. Respecting the map does not necessarily mean agreeing with or adopting it. Instead it is about recognising that we all create an internal representation of the world which is, at times, different from reality. Although they may not accurately reflect reality, it is our own internalized representations that we respond to and use to translate our inner experience into words[2]. Communicating based on this helps drives clarity and understanding. Next time you have a conversation, notice the assumptions you are making about what the person means, based on your own map, and how they alter your responses.

Speaking to the Subconscious

One NLP technique called clean questioning can aid communication by helping you speak more directly with the sub-conscious part of a person’s mind and elicit a response from their map, free from your own assumptions, presuppositions, mind-reading, second guessing and references.

The format of these questions can sound strange at first, as in order to keep a question clean, you should use as much of the other person’s language as possible so as not to influence their experience of the subject matter. This is important because the inner state is where they can provide rich responses and true insight. For example, if I was talking about a particular issue I was having with contract generation and said “the business never select the right contract template and we always waste time sorting it out”, clean questions to move this conversation forward towards a solution would be “when you always waste time sorting it out, what happens to your day?”, “what needs to happen for the business to select the right contract template?”, “what type of sorting it out is that?” and “never select the right contract?” (to establish the size of the problem).

The questioner is not assuming anything about my experience of this problem and is allowing me to constructively explore where the real issue might be and the size of that issue. It may be that my frustration primarily stems from another issue which is leaving me time poor and adding to the frustration I experience when someone from the business selects the wrong contract template. The real gains to my efficiency and time may come from solving that issue in the first instance. The point is, you won’t know unless you ask.

Why might you want to do this? Well, firstly good communication is efficient. Think back to a time when miscommunication slowed down progress, wasted time, led to frustration or misaligned expectations. These are all common scenarios in our profession which stand in the way of us and efficiency.

Secondly, in Legal Services, much of our work is about solving problems. However, when we feel there is a problem in our life, in most cases the problem is in the internal representation and not in the outer world[3]. When we ask clean questions, we are essentially asking someone to articulate what is going on for them and being present while they explore why that could be, rather than looking for the source of the problem in an objective reality which may not match their map. Asking clean questions in such situations can help switch people into a problem-solving mode, making it easier for you to work together to find solutions. When exploring problem solving, a great tip is to help cleanly move the person in time to just before and just after the problem occurs, for example if you were experiencing a blocker when deciding on an element of advice to give a client, I might ask ‘What happens just before you feel blocked?’ and, ‘What happens next?’. Thinking around the problem in time can help the source of the issue, and therefore the solution, become clearer.

When experiencing a perceived problem, it is far too easy to get drawn into complaining, but a simple, ‘what would you like to have happen’?, often snaps me out of this and puts me back into a frame of mind where I am thinking about what I can proactively do to get to the outcome I want. This question usually comes from my other half, who is also an NLP practitioner and works in the field of Legal Technology…you can imagine our dinner conversations!  Next time you catch yourself or your colleagues bemoaning the current state of things, ask them what they would like to have happen…and witness the gear shift in their mind.

If you are not already convinced, clean questions combined with close attention to the language of people’s responses can also help us to better understand others’ viewpoints. Language can tell us a huge amount about how a person thinks and the map and models that guide their behaviour. Knowing this context has the potential to radically affect the way we interact with others and provides us with key insights when seeking to make a change, persuade or influence and gathering vital information.

Often, we think we have gathered enough information to understand what someone is telling us. But could this be another assumption that we have heard all there is to the problem? Asking, “Is there anything else about that…?”, can open another thread to the communication you simply would not have thought to ask about.

I will leave you with one further presupposition of NLP to try on for size:

The meaning of the communication is not simply what you intend, but also the response that you get.

My challenge to you is to pay close attention to the responses you get to your communication and reflect on what these say about the meaning you are conveying to others in your communication. You might find the results eye opening!


Stephanie Richards is an NLP Practitioner and a Legal Management Consultant at Duff & Phelps. For support with change management, personal or business development, coaching and all things Legal Technology, contact

[1] The NLP Practitioner, Toby and Kate McCartney



View and Download Article