Clean Language

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 8-19.

Lately, I have been exploring Clean Language as a method for coaching and interviewing. I first learned about Clean Language at a seminar with Beata Marciniak at the SIETAR USA in October 2019, who presented it as a good method to bridge cultural differences in a coaching session. I then read Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds, by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees as well as Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins. The more I read, the more it intrigued me. Now I am taking a course with Angela Dunbar at The Clean Coaching Centre and am taking the opportunity to practice some clean language skills.

The Clean Language method was developed by David Groove to help clients deal with traumatic memories. Clean Language assumes that people’s experiences are organized symbolically. To access this unconscious symbolic organization, Clean Language facilitates a process of eliciting symbols and metaphors. Clean Language also assumes that the client is capable and resourceful. Through the Clean Language process, the goal is to model the clients’ symbolic representation of their situation to identify resources that can be leveraged or assumptions that can be dismantled. For example, it may be that the client experiences their situation as if locked in a cage. Through Clean Language exploration of this cage, she finds a key hanging by the door and discovers that the door can be opened.

On the surface, Clean Language is pretty simple. There are 12 basic questions (below) that the practitioner repeatedly asks (there are a few additional specialized questions for expert practitioners). And most of the session revolves around a couple of questions. However, there is much more to this method than meets the eye. The questions require the participant to engage in deep introspection, almost in a trance-like state. The practitioner’s goal is to stay as clean as possible to avoid intruding or polluting the clients’ symbolism. A good clean session is one in which it seems as though the practitioner is not there. The practitioner’s role is not to share his or her insights but to hold a process that helps the participant find their own knowledge.

Using clean Language is deceptively hard, as I am learning in my own practice. First, it requires exquisite listening. When listening, it is essential to pay attention and remember the clients’ exact words and repeat them back instead of paraphrasing or summarizing. That requires a complete focus on the client. Second, it requires the sensibility to identify which of the symbols or words the client has asked will be most fruitful to explore.

In terms of using clean Language for research, Tosey and colleagues make a good case. However, they caution, and I agree that it requires significant training to use the method correctly. Even for those not prepared to fully dive into Clean Language, we can learn a few things from it to make our work cleaner.

  1. We can use the participants’ words as loyally as possible. Avoid paraphrasing or interpreting. I am finding that hearing our own words back provides reassurance and a feeling of being heard.
  2. Use come clean questions strategically. The words of Clean Language questions are as clean as they can be. Even if not using the method, borrowing some of the questions will help avoid research interference in the interview process.

Given that the conversation is highly symbolic, the use of Clean Language for research purposes is limited to situations where the symbolism can inform the research question. However, Clean Language is a good tool to address symbolism when it emerges and engage with participants in ways that support them and foster introspection. It also helps to keep the researcher’s views out of the conversation when that is desirable.

12 Basic Clean Questions

  1. (And) what kind of X (is that X)?
  2. (And) is there anything else about X?
  3. (And) where is X?  or (And) whereabouts is X?
  4. (And) that’s X like what?
  5. (And) is there a relationship between X and Y?
  6. (And) when X, what happens to Y?
  7. (And) then what happens? Or (And) what happens next?
  8.  (And) what happens just before X?
  9. (And) where could X come from?
  10. (And) what would X like to have happen?
  11. (And) what needs to happen for X?
  12. (And) can X (happen)?

In these questions, X and Y represent the participants’ words. The questions always start with “And” and often entail repeating the participant’s words. For example, if the participant says she feels like she is in a cage, the practitioner follows up with, “And, when I feel like I am in a cage, what kind go cage is that cage?”

Clean Language conversations follow a different structure, and it is helpful to watch a demonstration, like this one by James Lawley, to understand it fully.

12 more questions to the 100-Question Challenge. The complete list is here.

You may try to explore the power of these questions through a self-guided process starting with:

And when interviewing at your best, that is like what?