Clean Language as a Remote Game-Changer with Judy Rees | DistantJob - Remote Recruitment Agency

Clean Language as a Remote Game-Changer with Judy Rees

Luis Magalhaes

Judy Rees, our guest today, has helped dozens of trainers, coaches, and facilitators through live online training. As a news editor and a media executive, she has extensive experience managing large remote teams. She is the co-author of Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors And Opening Minds, and a regular keynote speaker at Agile and other events around the world.

Judy Rees

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Luis Magalhaes:    Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the DistantJob  podcast. I am your usual host Luis. And today, my guest is Judy Rees. And Judy has a phenomenal career which I will introduce properly once the show actually starts. But for the purposes of this interview. I want to say just that she is a master communicator. And she is an expert at transmitting these skills to other people. And if you have listened to any podcasts at all in this series, in the DistantJob  podcast, you will know that the commonality between almost every guest is that communication is one of the pillars of great remote teams.

Luis Magalhaes:    So, we go into a lot. But of particular interest, is the concept of clear language, which I was introduced to while researching for this interview. And I view clear language as a game changer when it comes to managing your remote teams. And Judy gave us a spectacular interview and a lot of tips in this awesome tool. So, I got a lot out of this interview. And I hope that you will too.

Luis Magalhaes:    Now, if you are building your team, you can also get a lot out of contacting DistantJob . Go to And basically, what we do is we take your requirements, the skill set that you need your employee to have, we talk with you to understand the culture of your company, and we find you the perfect fit. We search worldwide. We have a huge network of recruiters and headhunters. We activate that network to find you the perfect candidate. And we handle all the paperwork, all the HR needs, even the payments, everything. All that you get is the person that you need to make your team shine. And your team doesn’t even have to be a remote team. As long as they are accepting of one employee working remotely, we will make it happen. So, with that said. Ladies and gentlemen. I bring you Judy Rees.

Luis Magalhaes:    Welcome ladies and gentlemen to another episode of the DistantJob  podcast, your podcast of choice for learning how to build, manage, and lead awesome remote teams. I am your host as usual, Luis. And today with me is Judy Rees. Judy has introduced a lot of trainers, coaches, and facilitators to live online learning. She has worked as a new editor and as a media executive. And she is basically a facilitator, coach, and trainer, mostly working over the internet. She has launched a book. She is the author of the bestselling … co-author of the bestselling, Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds, a regular keynote speaker, someone that’s inter agile, which is becoming kind of a pattern on my podcast guests. And I appreciate that. And she is an expert on clean language. So, I think I got all of that right, Judy. You also have a consulting business. Could you remind me? It’s Rees McCann, I believe.

Judy Rees:    Yes. So, the Rees McCann partnership is a relatively new thing, which is basically myself and my husband and business partner doing consulting work in businesses. He’s been a management consultant and a bunch of other things. And he realized that actually there’s a big gap in organizations for this whole thing about, how do organizations get good at working remote or distributed or hybrid? So together, we’re making a number of offerings into larger and medium sized organizations, where there seem to be some fairly big problems with remote working.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Yeah. There seem to be. And we are trying to fight that fight as well. But I really like your angle. So, I was reading your blog. By the way, you are very prolific. Congratulations. There is always something there.

Judy Rees:    As you said, I was a news journalist, so writing for me … People say, “Oh, you must love writing. You write so much.” How can you love writing? It would be like loving breathing.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah, exactly. I can definitely … yeah. I cannot think without writing. And this is actually something that … So, I’ve been congratulated over the past months in the podcast for having a large percentage of female executives and coaches that I interview. And I usually tell people that, “Well, I can’t take credit for that because I really just pick people who interest me.”

Luis Magalhaes:    But that got me thinking about kind of biases that I might have when finding guests for the podcast, and that I found out that I’m definitely biased towards people who write, just because that’s kind of my medium. That’s what I most focused on before starting the podcast was in writing and reading. So, it’s … there is definitely something to be said about speaking to someone who is used to articulating their thoughts in writing.

Judy Rees:    I think writing forces me … I think it forces a lot of people. It certainly forces me to think more clearly.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. So, speaking about thinking more clearly, I would say that when you can speak clearly, that’s definitely a benefit, which leads me to clean language which is a big focus of your writings. And I guess we can start. I guess we can start there. And I would invite you first … because it was a new concept for me before I started reading up on your stuff. So, I guess, could you give our listeners the Cliff notes, like a 60, 90 second introduction of what clean language is about?

Judy Rees:    Okay. So, clean language is not about not swearing.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    It’s not about speaking clearly, well not directly. It’s not about the programming language Clean. What clean language is, is a precision tool kit for helping … for asking questions in a very exact way, helps the other person to do their best thinking.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. So-

Judy Rees:    It’s interesting because of its history, which was 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 to find out what the other person is really thinking and feeling, while reducing the cognitive load on the person asking the questions.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. So-

Judy Rees:    I got this idea from a guy called Martin Burns, who maybe you’ll have on the podcast at some point. But he learned clean language. He’s an agile coach and consultant. And he learned clean language, I suppose, a couple of years ago. And he wrote this fantastic blog post about the impact that it’s had on him and his clients. And it was this idea that by using this precision toolkit. It was as if you just had a small tray of maybe like those little trays of six screw drivers you get.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    You’ve just got those tools. You don’t have to go rummaging around in the entire shed to think about other tools, because these tools are sufficient. And that hugely reduces the strain that doing any kind of interview puts on you.

Luis Magalhaes:    Oh yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. And I guess that we can start there. So, I got into meditation some years ago. And something that I was told was that … Like 30 years ago, it would be a mad man that would be in a room just lifting weights, unless he was training to be an Olympian. It’s like exercise was not … exercising the body was not something that people did 30 years ago. And now it’s common. Everyone goes to the gym, or has weights at home, or goes on a run or on a walk. But very few people think about training their minds in the same way. People think about learning, that is acquiring knowledge and accumulating knowledge. But that’s not really the same as training the mind, which I guess you could do through mental exercises, through meditation, through stuff like that. But not a lot of people … and writing, I think that writing is a great way to train the mind.

Luis Magalhaes:    And what you are talking about here, what I get from your explanation and from your articles, is that you’re really training people in a better way to use language, which is also part of mind training, I guess. So … yeah.

Judy Rees:    My focus is not on the whole of language. That would be another whole other thing. But what clean language is interested in is on the process of guiding attention using questions. And that can be really interesting. So, one of the things about it is it makes people very persuasive. So, people don’t realize how persuasion really works, because we’re so used to seeing things like Instagram influencers and things just talking and talking and talking and trying to pitch and all that kind of …

Judy Rees:    And we get confused by that. Because it makes us think that persuasion is all about talking. But persuasion isn’t all about talking. 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. And they set up relationship. And what that puts you in a position to do is really generate a win/win.

Judy Rees:    So, you’re not persuading someone like the sort of puppet master trying to persuade someone to do it … 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. So, when we take this stuff to groups and teams, that can produce some amazing results, because it really is getting down to the nuts and bolts of, what are the skills we need people to have in order to collaborate well, in order to generate win/win outcomes? It’s some really interesting research by a team of people at … I think it’s MIT. It’s gone out of my head. But the book is called Collective Genius. Have you read it?

Luis Magalhaes:    No, no, no.

Judy Rees:    Very lovely book by Linda Hill and her team, who went to all the most creative teams around the world and looked at the process of creativity and innovation in places like Google and Pixar and all these places. And they said, “It’s not about individual genius. It’s about collective genius. It’s about creating the conditions in which groups can collaborate effectively.”

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay.

Judy Rees:    And this skill of paying attention and then guiding attention, and only once you have a strong since of what the others are saying, then speaking up into that context, that’s a crucial collaboration skill.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. So, I can definitely see that since there are so many ways that … Definitely, attention is a currency. It’s a social currency. That’s why we pay attention. It’s not like we give attention. We pay it. So, that’s something that I like to tell people. Look. When you put great content out there, maybe it’s a writing, maybe it’s a book, maybe it’s a photograph, you gain followers. But the way …

Luis Magalhaes:    You don’t want followers. You want fans. And the way you get fans is you interact with them. You listen. You reply to their message. You listen to what they’re saying, so that there’s definitely something, there’s definitely something there. And I guess that I want, again … So, because my life right now is remote work and is facilitating remote work and helping people how to do it better. I guess my most … The question that I want to ask you the most is, what was the day when you figured out that this passion of yours for clean language was something that was missing that was going to be very valuable in the remote work arena?

Judy Rees:    That’s a very good question. And I’m not sure I can put my finger on the day.

Luis Magalhaes:    No. You have to give me a date. Sorry. That [crosstalk 00:14:04]

Judy Rees:    Because the way … the actual … The reality of how it worked was because I was a news editor … and in journalism we’ve always worked remotely. It’s not like a new thing at all. For 100 years, journalists have worked remotely. So, when I first became fascinated by clean language and I was working with a colleague, and we wanted to figure out how to train lots of people in this thing ’cause we thought it was amazing and awesome and high value …

Judy Rees:    But in those days, the only way anybody trained anything was get people in a room together.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    But that cost a lot of money. And we couldn’t get enough people to get a group together routinely here in London. So, we just said, “I wonder if we can teach this over a phone conference.” Just an introductory piece, this is before everybody was running webinars. We would get half a dozen people every month, half a dozen people onto a phone conference and teach them the basics.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    And then, we built up from that and built up from that and built up from that. And then, within … By the time I was working on my own, I was teaching whole clean language courses over Google hangouts. Again, because as a freelance on my own, I couldn’t justify bringing people all the way over the world to teach them this. But I could teach them from wherever they were. And what then …

Judy Rees:    And this is back in the day when people were saying, “You can’t do coaching remotely. You can’t do high touch processes remotely. Those things only work in person.” But because I had no choice, I was teaching this extremely high touch, very embodied process remotely. And then, when my colleague Caitlyn Walker … She was doing some really interesting stuff using clean language with groups, helping groups, at that time, all of young people and students, to work better together. She got some astonishing results. For example, there was a group of students, a year group of students, where they taught them all clean language as a way of helping them to help each other to work together.

Judy Rees:    It went from under 50 percent getting a decent degree, to over 70 percent getting a decent degree.

Luis Magalhaes:    Wow.

Judy Rees:    It was really phenomenal results.

Luis Magalhaes:    That’s really good. So, what would you say was the key … Well, I guess the key is hard, but the top three or top five factors that led to that shift?

Judy Rees:    Having to. So, when you have to work out how to do something.

Luis Magalhaes:    I meant the increase in success from 50 percent to over 70.

Judy Rees:    They listen to each other. They pay attention. They appreciate the difference between the different people. So, rather than criticizing each other for being different, they really understand how the diversity within that group adds to the richness of the group. So, somebody who is really good at writing is going to bring one kind of thing. Somebody who is really good at talking is going to bring another kind of thing. Somebody who is really good at listening to the whole group brings another kind of thing.

Judy Rees:    And if they can appreciate each other’s skills, each other’s abilities, and they can notice how to set each individual up for success … So, you had Lizette Sutherland on the podcast recently. And she does a … She has a nice exercise that illustrates something. She says, in her Work Together Anywhere workshop, she says, “Everybody draw your perfect work space.” And what you find is that everybody’s picture is different. One person has drawn a busy office with loads of other people that they can shout to.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah, I always work with that guy.

Judy Rees:    Somebody else has drawn a space like mine, where I’m mostly working on my own. But I’ve got the internet, and I can connect with anybody at will. But I don’t have to listen to them, and so on and so forth. Everybody’s different.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    Now, in the process that Caitlyn pioneered in the room and I now do remotely, we help the members of the team to understand those differences and that diversity. And when people understand the differences, they understand … and they understand how to communicate differently with those different people, then you’re really setting a team up for success.

Luis Magalhaes:    All right. So … oh sorry, you weren’t done. Please continue.

Judy Rees:    One more thing. So, that year group, that same 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 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.

Luis Magalhaes:    Oh.

Judy Rees:    And as a result, they were able to take everybody through to a first class degree. Now, I just think that’s … That, replicated in a work context, is a game changer.

Luis Magalhaes:    It is. It is. There would be really not … Off the top of my head, I really can’t think of a better outcome. That is a very nice example because they really didn’t have any incentive just besides wanting the others to be successful. I don’t think there was a shared score or anything. It was just based on … because we’ve read about this on management books, as far as, I don’t know, let’s say …

Luis Magalhaes:    I’m looking at my book shelves right now. One of my favorite books ever is How to Make Friends and Influence People. And that was written 80 years ago or something like that. And you know, I’ve always remembered the story where the boss in the factory places visible to everyone the score of the last shift to get shifts competing with each other. And then, obviously because the team wanted to win, they made sure that no one was left behind. But here, it’s not even a case where a team wants to win for the sake of winning. They just don’t want to leave anyone behind period. So, that’s super cool. And I guess that the question that what you just told me brings up is really, once you have a deeper understanding of people, of what kind of person each person is … What are their strengths and weaknesses? How do you … would you devise a manager to tie that together in a way that produces those results?

Luis Magalhaes:    Because, for example, I can remember in my own case an exercise with it that was very fun, was everyone did their Myers Briggs test to figure out their personality type. And then, because we’re a very nerdy company, we associated it to Star Wars characters, because we all love Star Wars. Some of us are more Trekkies, but they played along. And it was super cool. And we enjoyed reading the different personality types and taking the test. And now, everyone has a little badge next to their name saying what Star Wars character they are. And it’s fun. It was fun. And it was definitely bonding. But we didn’t find a practical way to act on it, meaning that there’s that person that has a completely different personality type than me and clearly different strengths and weaknesses, but we could not find a system to actually capitalize in that information. It was just a cool badge. So, how would you act upon the information?

Judy Rees:    So, that’s part of the beauty of the process that Caitlyn pioneered and that I now use is that it’s not just about getting the badge on your chest saying, “I’m Yoda.”

Judy Rees:    It’s … Right. Given that you’re Yoda … So, when you’re working at your best, you’re like Yoda. Given that, what are you like when you’re under pressure? What kind of things do you need to be like Yoda? What kind of things stop you being like Yoda? And how do you interact with people? And so, there’s a whole bunch of additional information about how the various characters play nicely together and what stops them that this process would generate. The other piece that I would strongly suggest to a manager is that this is not a one off thing.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    It’s not a … “Let’s all go on a way day and figure out what badge we should have.”

Judy Rees:    It’s, “Right. We’ve done that now. Now, what processes, what ceremonies, what routines do we need to add to our weekly and two weekly and monthly processes, such that we don’t lose track?”

Judy Rees:    And I think that’s even more important with remote teams or distributed teams. Because with the things like time difference, with the fact you’re not seeing each other every day, it would be very easy to forget each other’s badges and so on. So, how can we implement what get called ceremonies to ensure we check in with each other’s patterns, with each other’s ways of working, on a very regular basis? 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? Now, 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.

Judy Rees:    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.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. So, I sense that there is definitely a fork in the road that I can take here. So, let me try to figure out what’s the … I guess I’ll just pick up on the feedback. And I’ll go back to the getting to know people better later. But just to pick on the feedback, what are … what is … If you have any favorite feedback process, feedback giving process, that you can take me through, what are your favorite Jedi mind tricks there?

Judy Rees:    So, very very simple Jedi mind trick this, simple once you know it, absolutely superb insight from Caitlyn Walker who came up with this. So, 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. So, what I saw was that you …

Judy Rees:    When I came on this call with you, what I saw was that you were not wearing a headset. The meaning I made 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?”

Judy Rees:    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.

Judy Rees:    You see, the very same evidence, depending on the inference, has a hugely different impact.

Luis Magalhaes:    Well, I would say that if you ask my mother, this is definitely a low quality podcast. But I do have an expensive microphone. So, I guess you’re half right on both ends.

Judy Rees:    But you see the difference?

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. I do.

Judy Rees:    When I work with teams doing that, you take … It’s absolutely revelatory that people can … How on earth could you get that conclusion from what I just said? And yet, people do. They jump to the most extraordinary conclusions. But mostly, people don’t pay much attention to the first bit. They just jump to the conclusion without even having awareness of what it was they saw or heard.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. I can see it’s-

Judy Rees:    And they jump straight from whatever happened to, “You made me!”

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Yeah. It’s … I guess it’s a way of separating the actual data from the story that’s in our head.

Judy Rees:    Exactly.

Luis Magalhaes:    Hmm. All right. That’s good advice. It is a good Jedi mind trick. Thank you for that. But I do want to go back to the way that, again, I’ve read in one of your articles and we’ve gone a bit in that direction here when we were talking about getting to know better, people. Part of clean language is about knowing how to harvest information from other people. We know what they know, how they think, how they feel. And I kind of want to ask you. It certainly is harder to do this remotely than in person. Right? So, what are the main pitfalls that you find when trying to get this deep into people remotely and how do you solve it?

Judy Rees:    Hmm. For me, it’s not hard to do it remotely-

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. So, why is that?

Judy Rees:    … is what I noticed. So, maybe that’s because I’m a bit of an introvert. And when I’m in person with people, when I’m in the same room as people, I have … certainly in the past, I’m weening myself off it a bit. But certainly, in the past, I used to be very, very self-conscious. And I didn’t have enough spare thinking power, cognitive power, to really put my attention on the other person. I was too nervous of what they would be thinking about me.

Luis Magalhaes:    Hmm.

Judy Rees:    What I realize now is that when I’m remote, when I’m on a Zoom call or a phone call, I can really put all my attention on the other person. And the quality of my attention can determine the quality of their thinking. So, if I pay them full attention and notice what they are saying and not saying, and use good quality questions, I can have these huge amounts of data. And not only that, but I’ve got the means here to take notes and get stuff written down in a way that, again, I’d be self-conscious if I was sitting there taking frantic notes. It’s easy remotely. One of …

Judy Rees:    An agilist, I don’t know whether you’ve bumped into him, called Tom Meloche …

Luis Magalhaes:    Not yet. I would like to though.

Judy Rees:    … highlighted to me the other day that what clean language does is very similar to, I think it’s called object modeling in the techie world, where you ask questions to find out how the data or the process is structured. And what clean language does is to introduce a similar process to understanding how human beings work and how they interact.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay.

Judy Rees:    And I find that a really interesting idea.

Luis Magalhaes:    It’s definitely an interesting concept. So, let’s talk about paying that attention that remotely … For example, I’m here. I’m on a call with you. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been doing this … I mean, you talked about doing it … being a journalist, and journalists always work remotely certainly. And I remember 15 years ago coordinating groups of 40 people in World of Warcraft, playing video games. Back then, there was not this remote … Remote work wasn’t a thing. But we were already doing it. So, I can definitely say that I have some experience.

Luis Magalhaes:    But I’m here on a call with you. And I’m never sure if I should look into the video window, or if I should look into the cam. It definitely feels better for me to look into the video window. But then, I’m not looking at you. You’re not seeing me look at you. You’re seeing me look somewhere. And it’s not too bad because it’s a laptop. It’s a small screen. But on my other workstation, I have this huge screen so I can write without eye strain. And it’s like, if I’m looking at the screen, people are just faced with the picture of my forehead staring at them. So, how do you feel about this, about eye contact? I find it so important in conversations.

Judy Rees:    I think it’s a really interesting subject. Because not everybody loves direct eye contact. As I said, I used to be very introverted. I used to be very shy. And it used to melt me completely if people demanded direct eye contact. I just couldn’t do it. And of course, Americans culturally have really strong opinions about eye contact. They basically demand that eye contact is available at all times. Other cultures have completely different views about eye contact, that it would be entirely disrespectful for a young woman, for example, to make direct eye contact with a man who was in a senior executive role. And when we’re working remotely and in distributive fashion, we have to assume that there are going to be multiple cultural sensitivities around all sorts of things. But eye contact happens to be one that’s got a lot of emotional baggage.

Judy Rees:    So, what I find and this is the clean language way of thinking about it, is to start by asking the other person what they prefer. And when the technology is that I can’t look at you directly and make direct eye contact, that’s unfortunately or fortunately where the situation is right now, what would you prefer? Would you prefer me to look at the camera? Or would you prefer me to look slightly off? And the fact is mostly people manage.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. I would say that my answer to that question is I’m not quite sure. That’s why I ask you.

Judy Rees:    I think if you’re making video, if you’re recording video, the ability to look into the camera and be cool about that, I think has great advantages. Certainly, Americans, and I suspect other people, think that if you’re able to stare into the camera, then you have higher authority than if you don’t.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Well, I guess that’s … It just feels weird to look into the [inaudible 00:35:51] eye, the blinking [inaudible 00:35:55] eye, of my computer. It’s definitely easier for me to have eye contact with a human being than with a webcam. Maybe that’s just my crippling fear of Skynet or something like that.

Judy Rees:    But I think the trick, the real trick to doing all this stuff in a distributed way, is to develop your other senses for how to know how to do things. So, one of the things you mentioned at the beginning, 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 kind of things. Now, one of the things that those kind of people …

Judy Rees:    If there are specialists doing it in the room and they’re suddenly dropped online, the biggest challenge they all report is that they can’t feel the energy of the group anymore.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    That’s what they say. They say, “I can’t feel the energy of the group. I’ve got no feedback. And then I’m stuck. I can’t do anything with that.” 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 kind 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 …

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Hmm.

Judy Rees:    But if you just try and do all your training in huge groups, which means that everybody’s got to be muted, or you’ll end up with a feedback mess, than you’ve lost another one. You not only haven’t got eye contact. You can’t hear anything either.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Definitely.

Judy Rees:    And then, we explore things like how can you use tools like getting people to draw, getting people to write in an online tool and things, to give you more live feedback in the moment? But I think people tend to have this assumption that working in a distributed way is infinitely scalable. And I don’t think that’s true. I think, in many ways, teams and groups need to be somewhat smaller when you’re working on a zoom call than when you’re in the room together.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Absolutely. I think that when I was studying the agile manifesto, there was something like recommended groups of five to seven, I believe. And I do think that is the perfect group size for online work as well. But yeah, I can see your point. And something that I feel very very strongly about, to feel that group energy … And again, maybe that’s part of me because I have video games in my DNA for having done it so long. But I really appreciate a good task management system like Base Camp, where you can see peoples’ activity. So, as long as people engage in their work by doing their work and then completing tasks, or completing the task, or providing it for feedback, or having a chat on it on the chat, that kind of does it for me. But I guess that it’s different strokes for different folks.

Judy Rees:    And you’ll also be supported by probably a SAC channel with text. Now, I never played World of Warcraft. But I’m guessing you have text communication between members of the group.

Luis Magalhaes:    Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. All the time. Though, it was actually … that’s … It’s actually interesting because most people in remote work don’t appreciate this properly. But it was actually games like World of Warcraft that provided the reason for a huge leap in voiceover IP technology, because text was just not enough. So, it was the original … I mean, there were solutions like Team Speak or Ventrillo, which were light years ahead of Skype, let’s say, just because they had to facilitate communication and moderation between groups of 40 people.

Judy Rees:    And if you’d go back before those came in, when you just had text, if you remember, you could pick up on people’s emotions, on how people were from the tone of how they were writing. And we can still do that. We don’t have to have everything in video all the time. We can tell from a stack channel the tone of someone’s writing.

Luis Magalhaes:    So, this is something that I want to talk to you more in depth about. Because I think that if it’s not the most, it’s probably one of the top three problems in remote work. And I feel it affecting me a lot. It’s like, I call it Twitter rage. And I guess that’s why I haven’t managed to have people from Twitter on the podcast. But it’s like road rage in when you are behind the wheel, you are a lot more unkind toward people that you cross while you’re driving. And you are probably a much kinder person in person than behind the wheel. And I feel that, that’s the biggest problem with Twitter and instant messaging or real time communication in general, that if my …

Luis Magalhaes:    If the President of DistantJob  calls me making a request, I find that absolutely reasonable and we have a pleasant exchange. If he sends me a message over Slack or over Base Camp, using the exact same words … probably it’s a bit short because when you do a call, you tend more to say, “Hello. How are you? Goodbye. Hey, how was the thing, or that?” And when you send text message, you usually just get to the point. There’s something inside that goes, “Who the hell does this guy think he is.” So, what can you teach people to avoid that Twitter rage or instant message rage?

Judy Rees:    I think there’s a different thing between public Twitter where you’re just firing stuff off into the ether, where people don’t even realize that human beings are part of the mixture. Let’s put that on one side for a moment. And let’s think about purely within working relationships, with people that you do work regularly with, and that you have to have actual collaborative relationships with them. For me, the critical piece here is feedback.

Judy Rees:    What needs to happen for you to actually tell your colleague the effect that that message had on you? So, 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, have not been taught, “Well, this is the etiquette for using text message. This is the etiquette for WhatsApp. This is the etiquette for Slack. This is the etiquette for email. And they are different.”

Luis Magalhaes:    That’s [crosstalk 00:44:31]

Judy Rees:    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.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. I mean, in my own case, and maybe this is specific to me, but I just feel that there is an urgency behind it. Right? When you’re having a conversation with someone, it doesn’t feel … and someone says, “Hey, we need this. I would like you to do this.” Something like that, it really doesn’t have the same urgency as a message has arrived. So, what would you say? Do you think there are any general etiquette rules that people could apply? Or is it really completely just a conversation between people [inaudible 00:45:23] personal differences?

Judy Rees:    I think the highest value etiquette rule is to have a team agreement of ways of working. This is how we use this tool. This is how we use that tool. And negotiate as much as you can up front. Because once you’ve got a team agreement in place, if somebody does something different, you’ve got a much stronger place to stand to give that feedback.

Judy Rees:    So, I would say negotiate team agreements as far as possible. Different people have so many … and it evolves as well. The fact is nobody rings each other up out of the blue anymore. I’m really pleased about that ’cause I used to hate it when people rang me up out of the blue.

Luis Magalhaes:    I felt that I’ve developed lower … I have lower tolerance for this.

Judy Rees:    Yeah. But it’s only a couple of years ago that it was utterly normal to ring someone up out of the blue.

Luis Magalhaes:    It was.

Judy Rees:    So, it changes and it keeps on changing. Therefore, we have to negotiate and we have to re-negotiate.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Well definitely. I mean, I can see … You know, you’re absolutely right. Three years ago, my mother called me. And I picked up, “Hi mom!” And now, my mother calls me and I have to remind myself that I love this person. It’s my mom. But why does she call me? Just send me a text mom. Anyway. Okay. So, I know that … Again, I want to be respectful of your time. I wanted to go a bit into meetings, because facilitate …

Luis Magalhaes:    Work on line is hugely dependent on meetings. I do think that some people defend that you can do everything through chat. And I guess that might be based-

Judy Rees:    No.

Luis Magalhaes:    Well, that might be the case in some circumstances. But for anything that has a bigger … needs a more [inaudible 00:47:37] team, I agree with you that it’s not possible. But there are a couple of issues. And you talked about them … You wrote about them in one of your blogs, which I thought was a very succinct way to put the thing. You talked about the three Ds, disconnection, distraction, and discomfort.

Luis Magalhaes:    And I can definitely feel all of those on a different variety of levels on every conversation, more so when it’s a one on one not so much. But as soon as there are three more people on the call, I can definitely feel several degrees of this. So, I guess, if you could go very quickly, just give me a few pointers about how to deal with each of these. What would be your recommendations for the people listening, which are mostly in leadership and management positions? An obviously, you’re not gonna give here the panacea, but something to whet peoples’ appetite. What would you say for example to deal with disconnection? What is a good …

Judy Rees:    Well, those three Ds all fit under this one big D, which is disengagement. People are busily multitasking during the calls. And you’re not actually getting people working together. So, the hot tips:

Judy Rees:    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, those kind … 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.”

Judy Rees:    This is number two. Get the technology right enough that people are able to engage as human beings. For me, that means video, good video using Zoom with lights, with headsets. People can … Everybody can see and hear each other without having to have the whole group muted. We’ve talked about the size of groups. I think you’re absolutely right. 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.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    So, make sure you arrange the thing so that there’s human connection. You can also …

Judy Rees:    This is sort of getting into detail. But you can design the meeting so there’s more opportunity for human connection. So, if you think about an in the room meeting, you don’t start an in the room meeting by everybody introducing themselves and saying where in the world they are. There’s a thing that happens before that, which is that people chat to the person next to them or say hello while they’re coming into the room. And I’m curious, how could you replicate that? Can you use breakout room functionality to just get people having some warm up conversations before you start? Start before you start. Get people online ten minutes before the official start time to warm up, to start talking about things. That starts to build it.

Judy Rees:    Then, number three is really to take action 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 mistake and ask questions. You’re not going to be judged for what you say. Now, that’s easy to say. It’s harder to create. But there are specific things that you can do, as the leader of a meeting, to make psychological safety increase. And there are ways to decrease it. So, some of the ways to decrease it would include recording secretly.

Judy Rees:    I worked with a group of people in one organization who had a video conferencing system in which you couldn’t know how many people were on the call at any one time or who they were.

Luis Magalhaes:    Wow. Everyone was wearing hoodies. It was like the Illuminati meeting.

Judy Rees:    Yeah. So, you could see the first five people to join the call. And then in the caller you could see a number which is number of people on the call. And it would change. And nobody would know whether people were … oh, it was just weird. So, there are lots of ways you can reduce psychological safety.

Luis Magalhaes:    [inaudible 00:52:34]

Judy Rees:    Not close on the head, increase psychological safety. So, that’s the first three. Tip four is then, once you’ve got all that in place, then you can really design your meeting in such a way that people can stay fully engaged, fully participating throughout the meeting. And that’s where the interesting stuff starts. That’s when you stop being a chairman and you start being a facilitator.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay.

Judy Rees:    And I get really excited about all of that because-

Luis Magalhaes:    No, no, no, no. I’m just trying to keep track of all the questions that come up to mind while you were saying that. But I will try to do my best. So, I guess where I want to start is tying a bit back to the personalities, because there are people that are very forceful personalities, and there are people that are more like introverts. And some people are just, again, when they’re giving their feedback, they aren’t impolite, but they definitely have strong opinions.

Luis Magalhaes:    And there are people that, on the other hand, may fear … may be [inaudible 00:53:48] by that, or may just think that, “Oh! Yeah, this person is making such a strong point. I don’t agree with them. But maybe I’ll just keep quiet because I don’t really … I don’t … he’s probably more right than I am just because he has bigger charisma,” something in this region.

Luis Magalhaes:    And so, how do you think, as a moderator, you can avoid this kind of thing, this kind of problem?

Judy Rees:    There are some very specific techniques that I teach to avoid group speak, which is what you’re describing. But probably, the quickest one to describe is a liberating structure called 1-2-4 All. Liberating structures, I think it’s dot com, gives you a menu of different facilitation processes that you can use to make sure that you’re meetings are very highly participatory.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    1-2-4 All simply says, the first thing you do is invite everybody to think about the issue on their own. Give them 30 seconds or so to think about it. Then you put them into breakout groups of two to talk about their answer. Then, you combine the twos into four and continue the conversation. And then, all the groups share. What that does is very rapidly extract the top nuggets of wisdom from the whole group. Because the shy person, their two and their four group will help them to speak. And the more opinionated person, the two and the four group will help them to hold back.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah.

Judy Rees:    It’s really, really effective and this works.

Luis Magalhaes:    So, this is a very interesting concept, the first time I’m hearing about it, but now I do have a techno … I mean, I’m not a big fan of tools over processes. But here, I do have a technology question. When you’re doing this remotely, do you need to play Zoom musical chairs, or is there actually a video solution that can provide this easy splitting and joining?

Judy Rees:    At the moment, I generally use Zoom Musical Chairs.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay.

Judy Rees:    There are two tools that will enable the splitting and joining, neither of which are yet at the level of stability that I would be happy to recommend them. But I’ll tell you what they are anyway. One of them is

Judy Rees:    If you haven’t already had Peter Lee on the podcast, you might want to get him online.

Luis Magalhaes:    I would love to.

Judy Rees:    Nice Australian guy who’s looking to solve this very problem right now. And the other guy who is looking to solve the problem is another … I can’t pronounce your name properly, but is another official Luis.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. That’s fine.

Judy Rees:    And his product is called Qiqo, Q-I-Q-O. And it used to be called Qiqo chats. But I think it’s now just called Qiqo. Let me just check. Yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    So, we will include all of this in the [crosstalk 00:57:00].

Judy Rees:    So, look to qiqochat. And Qiqo officially stands for Quality In, Quality Out. And again, it’s about how do you get groups to combine themselves and move themselves around in an un-conference-y kind of framework.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. Cool. So another question that I had, because you touched on the fact that people are from different cultures. And having people on from different cultures and from different parts of the world means that … And this ties into what DistantJob  does, which is businesses come to us with a set of requirements for an employee, and then we go all around the world finding the best employee that fits their culture and their technical and skill requirements. But something that we always look in addition to that …

Luis Magalhaes:    People don’t tell us outright, but we always find it because we figure that it’s one of the things that most correlates with employee success, is a spectacular almost native level of English. But this is not always possible. And I’ve definitely been in calls where I was dealing with very smart, very talented people. But it’s not that they weren’t able to understand and be understood in English. But there was a bit of lag in communication, a gap in communication. And I’m wondering if you have dealt with this and if you have any good tools, tips and tactics to deal with this.

Judy Rees:    I’m afraid I’m going to confess that it’s not a strong point of mine. I think that the kind of things like the 1-2-4 All processes, making sure you’ve got a participatory process, rather than a … everybody talks all at the same time with six people in the meeting all the time, is likely to help. But I don’t have strong evidence either way.

Luis Magalhaes:    Well, you know, I wasn’t expecting you to solve all my problems at once anyway. Thank you for trying. So, related to that experience of 1-2-4, I’ve also read something written by you, specifically regarding hybrid meetings, which is something that we try to avoid but is sometimes unavoidable. The world isn’t perfect. So sometimes you have to have people that are in the office talking to people who are remote. And one of the tips that you give is to allocate an in the room buddy to every remote participant. And we’ve actually tried this with a Qubie. I don’t know if you know what the Qubie is.

Judy Rees:    I do, yes.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. It’s like … For people listening, it’s like a little robot head that you put on the table and it has an iPad that can look around. So, it’s as if you have your colleagues disembodied head on your table, but a bit less grisly than I’m … think more like Futurama. That’s the kind of thing. And we struggled a bit with it, because it kind of felt a bit demeaning for the person that was being carried around as a disembodied head. How would you recommend proper in the room body etiquette, you know, the physical versus disembodied head in monitored relations.

Judy Rees:    Again, I don’t have a brilliant solution to everything. I think so many organizations don’t have [inaudible 01:00:29]. I’ve mostly experienced the situation where the best you can get is a laptop sitting on the desk, with the remote people on the laptop. And that really is massively sub optimal. I can tell you a story which was that a bunch of us who were remote meetings experts were invited to an event at Agile Florida. So, we were invited virtually to this event. And in the room, there were a bunch of tables with people expecting to have a conversation about remote working. And each table had a different remote working expert remotely.

Judy Rees:    So, we’d all been allocated to a table. Each table had a way of talking to the remote person. So, I was in London. They were in Florida. Lizette was in the Netherlands. They were in Florida. And Olaf was somewhere else, they were in Florida. The only person who managed to have a conversation with anybody in the room, during the whole hour, was the one on the Qubie.

Luis Magalhaes:    Oh, that’s cool.

Judy Rees:    She waggled herself, and waggled herself, and waggled herself. And eventually, someone came and talked to her. The rest of us were just completely ignored. So, I think that the etiquette of being carried around in a Qubie is a really high quality problem to have. I would love that that’s the kind of problem that most remote teams are having. The truth is that most hybrid meetings are still conducted with one person or two people dialing in on a spider phone … worst case scenario from the bus. And it’s shockingly poor.

Judy Rees:    So, one of the things I’ve done recently is I’ve just published a course, a recorded online course. Basically, it’s called Engaging Distant Participants: How to Manage Horrible Hybrid Meetings.

Luis Magalhaes:    That’s a good name for a course.

Judy Rees:    Fundamentally, it’s get them off the spider phone. At the absolute minimum, get them on video on the laptop. See if you can get them on a Qubie. And if you possibly can, avoid having hybrid meetings. Go one remote, all remote. It just works much better.

Luis Magalhaes:    Right. But when you need to do, what do you think is the role of the buddy, besides carrying the Qubie or the laptop to the meeting?

Judy Rees:    The times I’ve done it, the most important thing that I’ve been able to do is basically say, “Mark, out in the remote team, is trying to get your attention Mister Chairman.”

Luis Magalhaes:    Good. Well, you know, that’s direct. But I can see it being valuable. So, what is also valuable is your time and I want to be respectful of it. We’ve been at this for almost an hour now, actually I think it’s been over an hour. So, I just wanted to close with three more straight forward questions that I think nonetheless my listeners would love to hear your answer. So, number one, I guess would be, what books have you gifted the most?

Judy Rees:    The one I’ve gifted the most is From Contempt to Curiosity, by Caitlin Walker.

Luis Magalhaes:    Hmm. From Contempt to Curiosity. Okay. Okay. Got it. Any specific reason why you’ve gifted that the most?

Judy Rees:    I just think it’s an awesome book. It describes all of those clean language base group processes I was talking about earlier.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. That’s great. So, if you had a small budget … well, a small but not … let’s say 100 euros … oh right, you’re in the UK.

Judy Rees:    I know what 100 euros …

Luis Magalhaes:    Let’s say. Actually, you’re not in the UK sorry … you are in the UK.

Judy Rees:    I am in the UK.

Luis Magalhaes:    You are in the UK, yeah, okay.

Judy Rees:    And we’re still in Europe until at least next week.

Luis Magalhaes:    It’s running. The clock is ticking. So, back on track. If you had 100 euros to buy something for everyone that works remotely with you, what would that something be?

Judy Rees:    It would depend what they already had. I think, given that they’d already got a head set and a web cam and a quiet place to call from, my current favorite thing is personify presenter-

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay, I have not heard of it.

Judy Rees:    … which enables me to show my slides with myself in the same Zoom window.

Luis Magalhaes:    Hmm. Cool. So, this [crosstalk 01:05:33].

Judy Rees:    Yeah. Your viewers wouldn’t be able to see. So, that would be cheating, but personify presenter.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. It sounds cool. So, it sounds cool. Okay, so final question. Let’s say that you are hosting a dinner with top silicon valley execs, CTOs, chief technology officers, VPs of technology, important people that are having a round table about the future of remote work and how to make remote work the standard. And the twist here is that you are hosting this dinner in a Chinese restaurant. As the host, you get to decide the message that they’re going to get when they crack open their fortune cookies. What is that message?

Judy Rees:    Ooh, that’s a really good question. I’m going to say, “What would you like to have happen?”

Luis Magalhaes:    Oh, so it’s … oh, so you’re doing a question. Well done. I wasn’t expecting that. But that will definitely get them thinking. All right. This was lovely. This was lovely. Thank you so much Judy for coming. Tell people what are you up to, what is exciting that you are doing right now, and where can people continue the conversation with you should they want to?

Judy Rees:    So, I’m fairly easy to find online, so is my main website where you can get my link letter. I do a weekly newsletter with lots of links from all over the web, including loads of stuff about remote working and clean language and all the subjects we’ve talked about today, so

Judy Rees:    As I mentioned at the very beginning, we’ve also got the Rees McCann partnership,, which is sort of the corporate bit. What’s exciting Luis is this recorded course about hybrid meetings is the first of a whole bunch that I’m going to be doing. The next one is likely to be one about how to make one to one meetings remotely really excellent, because I think it’s a huge challenge for managers and leaders of teams to actually have the quality of conversation that they need to have with remote teams, with remote team members.

Judy Rees:    They have a tendency to say, “Well, they can’t do difficult conversations remotely.” Yes, you can.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Yeah.

Judy Rees:    But you need to know how to. So, that’s gonna be the next piece. So, we’ve got loads of excitement around that. Also, coming up in London in May, I’ve got a one day workshop combined with Lizette Sutherland who you’ve had on the podcast before. She and I are doing a remote meetings masterclass in person up in London which will be interesting. Lots of things like that, so it’s really … yeah. The whole topic of remote working is buzzing. But I think also people are noticing that the human side of remote working is at least as important as the technical side. And that’s where this clean language and associated topics fits in.

Luis Magalhaes:    All right. Sounds great. So, people should definitely check out your work and check out what you’re doing and what you’re going to be doing in the future. Thank you so much Judy, was a pleasure.

Judy Rees:    You’re welcome. Thank you very much Luis.

Luis Magalhaes:    So, you probably know this. But I really enjoyed this conversation and Judy mentioned a lot of tools. And you can find all of those in the show notes. So, don’t worry, we’ve got your back. And if you want to study the episode in more detail, you can go to, press the podcast button on the top right corner of the website, and you will be transported to our podcast page. Now, once there, you can subscribe to get access to the transcript. So, you can study properly the interview to your heart’s delight. If you enjoyed the podcast, the best way to help it is to share it on social media, or leave a review on iTunes or your podcast service of choice. So, that helps a lot. That is really cool.

Luis Magalhaes:    In addition to that, if you are looking for an awesome employee to bolster your team, well, we find you incredible remote employees. This is what DistantJob  does. You go to, you find the contact form, you fill it in and we get in touch with you to discuss your company culture, your requirements, create perfect job descriptions. And then, we are off to the races, searching the whole globe for the ideal candidate to present to you. So, hey, give us a try. You won’t be disappointed. Until next week, this was Luis and the DistantJob  podcast. See you.

Welcome to the DistantJob Podcast, a show where we interview the most successful remote leaders, picking their brains on how to build and lead remote teams who win.

In this episode, we talk about the power of clean language and how it can provide us with the tools and frameworks to develop a deeper relationship with (and better understanding of) our teams. Judy provides the listeners with specific techniques for giving and receiving feedback (actual useful, step-by-step ones, not your usual management blog post snake-oil) and engaging in deep communication with the people working with you.

We also discuss topics such as the challenges of video communication, cultural norms, and degrees of separation, as well as some strategies on how to build psychological safety in the team.

Recommended Books:

  • From Contempt To Curiosity by Caitlin Walker 
  • Clean Language by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees 
  • Your Clean Language Questions Answered by Judy Rees


Judy’s Businesses & Courses:


As always, if you enjoy the podcast, we humbly ask that you leave a review on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice – and if you could share it, that would be even better!

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