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The Art of Asking Good Questions with The Language Compass

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Stefano Mastrogiacomo

A big problem that we often see out in the field is that we humans have a tendency to make a lot of assumptions

Assumptions stem in our imagination and our willingness to accept something as true without question or proof. 

This can be problematic for a variety of reasons. In work teams they can primarily grow a feeling of unfairness, undermine mutual trust and turn fantasy into unnecessary conflict.

What is an assumption ?

Something that you accept as true without question or proof.

Also described as second-order realities by psychologists

What is a fact ?

Something that is known to have happened or to exist.

Also described as first-order reality by psychologists

“The worst distance between two people is misunderstanding.”

Why don’t we always refer to tangible facts and experiences rather than building cathedrals of assumptions? Why is this happening in so many teams across the globe? Because we need to make sense of what we experience. And  we easily omit and distort information when our embedded sense-making process (Kourilsky, 2014) is triggered. That process can be broken down into three main stages:

  1. Perception: We start by perceiving a situation or we make an experience.
  2. Interpretation: We give this situation an interpretation, a meaning or we make a hypothesis. 
  3. Evaluation: Finally, we evaluate, we judge or even state rules in its regard.

Mixing these 3 levels as we speak can lead us directly into one (or several) of the 5 following communication traps:

  • Unclear facts or experiences: Absence of key information in the description. 
  • Generalizations: When we turn a particular case into a universal law. 
  • Assumptions: Creative interpretations of an experience or situation. 
  • Rules: Obligations, strong beliefs inferred from the situation. 
  • Judgements: Individual evaluations of a thing, a situation or a person.

So, how can we avoid falling into these communication traps and prevent any unnecessary tension in the team? 

By asking better questions. To be more precise, by asking clarification questions that help everyone get back to the original facts and experiences hidden behind assumptions, judgements, rules and so on. 

Redesigned by Stefano Mastrogiacomo, the Language Compass helps avoid escalations by suggesting a set of neutral questions that help inquire and understand  the first-order realities (facts) hidden behind unproductive second-order statements (assumptions). This gives a chance to others to reformulate their thinking more accurately and be understood.

As a team member you can use the Language Compass to:


Inquire Like A Coach

Identify and overcome the typical language traps.


Gain Better Information & Decision Making

Clarify what is said, what others are saying and also what you are saying.


Save Time & Effort

Make exchanges shorter and more efficient.

Mastery of the Language Compass sends positive signals in terms of psychological safety it helps speakers demonstrate genuine interest to the listeners, apply professional inquiry techniques to improve understanding and solve problems together.

How to Apply the tool

The Language Compass suggests communication trap examples (in black) and  clarification questions (in blue). When asked, the blue questions propel the conversation from the trap “to the north” of first-order reality (observable facts and experiences). Once the conversion is back to the north, there may still be a problem:  we can also report incomplete facts or experiences. The Language Compass suggests clarification questions for that case too (in blue at the top).

The 4 steps to use the Language Compass:

  1. Realize the conversation is drifting into second-order statements
  2. Identify the communication trap on the compass
  3. Ask/adapt a relevant clarification question
  4. Loop until the facts become clear

Some Examples:

Clarify Incomplete Facts or Experiences:



Clarify Rules:



Clarify Generalizations:


The clarification questions are neutral -they do not convey any form of judgment- and open -they don’t trigger closed binary responses (yes/no).

A good way to get to grips with the tool is to concentrate on one communication trap every day. One to two weeks of practice will be enough to memorize the tool and ask questions like a pro!


Download your free PDF copy today!

Origins of The Language Compass

The Language Compass  has its roots in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a therapeutic communication approach developed by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the 70s. Grinder and Bandler developed a powerful questioning framework they coined the "meta-model".

Implementing the meta-model revealed to be challenging and that led the coach Alain Cayrol to develop a more applicable version: the Language Compass was born. Subsequently, the tool has been completed and developed by Françoise Kourilsky, the French psychologist that inspired the new version presented in the book.

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* This article is an adapted excerpt of Stefano Mastrogiocomo's upcoming book, The Team Alignment Map.

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