Clean Language and metaphor: a powerful combination for making change happen. You may have experienced this for yourself. But why does it work?

When David Grove first created the process, it probably seemed mysterious, even magical. How can a few simple questions make such a difference?

Nowadays, though, it’s possible to understand. The academics have caught up, and the evidence is out there.

I write about this week-by-week, here on the blog and in my newsletter. But a conversation with Andrea Chiou highlighted the fact that I hadn’t written a brief summary… until now 🙂

Here’s my view.

Metaphor: Clean Language is a precision toolkit for directing attention to the metaphors which underpin our thinking, and which drive our behaviour. In this, it is (I think) unique in the world of change.

Instead of seeing metaphor as something clever, the specialist domain of writers, speechmakers, artists and ad-men, Clean facilitators exploit the fact that everyone is thinking in metaphor continuously. Human beings think by comparing one kind of thing to another. The metaphors we use in our thinking spill out in our language, at a rate of about six per minute.

Much of this thinking is non-conscious. We relate to our environment in metaphor, we relate to other people in metaphor, we relate to our bodies in metaphor – often outside our awareness.

I love Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the mind as being like a rider (the conscious mind) on an elephant (the non-conscious mind). Metaphor is fundamental to the thinking of both the elephant and the rider.  And so, it can be used to enhance communication between elephants and riders: between your own rider and your own elephant (as in coaching and therapy), but also between your elephant and other people’s elephants, and between multiple riders. That’s why it’s so useful in creating the conditions for groups to collaborate.

Recommended book: Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander

Listening, Questioning and Directing Attention: While its approach to metaphor is what sets Clean Language apart, the way Clean facilitators listen, ask questions and direct attention is pretty special.

  • The structure of the questions forces the question-asker to pay attention to what is actually said, and less attention to the questioner’s hallucinations about what was meant.
  • The Clean Language questions minimise the number of presuppositions and metaphors added by the questioner.
  • The process of modelling denies the questioner any opportunity to give advice.
  • Frequently, the questioner’s voice tone and pace of questioning leads to an eyes-open trance state.

The result is that a space is created and held in which the person being asked the questions can do very high-quality, uninterrupted thinking.

This kind of “holding space” is valued across a wide range of change processes and is frequently regarded as a critical element in helping people to make lasting change.

Recommended book: More Time To Think by Nancy Kline

Placebo Effect: It would be foolish to ignore the placebo effect as an important element of why Clean Language works. Usually when someone goes to a change worker for help, perhaps particularly if they pay for the session, they have a vested interest in it working, rather than not working.

Even if there is evidence that lasting change hasn’t happened, cognitive dissonance might well keep the client believing that it has happened. And when the client believes… maybe the change will happen eventually.

  • This is my take – but what do you think? Is this how it works? Please comment below.

    3 replies to "Why does Clean Language help people change?"

    • Silke Gebauer

      I experience Metaphor and using Clean Language like an interactive 3D interface, a touchscreen or even hologram maybe, between the conscious (C) and the other than conscious (OC) part of us. The OC part comes up with a Metaphor based on the sum of experience of a person, be it feelings or sounds or images. How it does that is not really important to me, in fact, I don’t know, just like I don’t know how the ipad works inside. But, the Metaphor it comes up with “on the screen” I understand and can work with.

      Once the Metaphor is out on the interface, I can ask CL question to gain more clarity and also to allow the Metaphor to morph and transform so it works for me. It’s the CL question that “force” the OC (like the inside of the ipad) to come up with the changes based on what’s inside the ipad, the sum of our experience. Which means any Metaphor transformations will change automatically something inside the ipad.

      For me, working with M and CL is a great way to have the most direct dialog with the OC mind, the bit that really runs the show.

    • David

      Well put Judy. A useful reference for all us CL students!

      I also like Silke’s thoughts very much.

      My take based on my limited experience is this:

      The power of Clean Language is, as the client or interviewee, the elegant simplicity of CL questions compel you to search inside yourself (going to your inner world or silent mind?).

      The result of this is that without any apparent influence from the facilitator you tap creative insights from your own deep well of wisdom, thereby finding your own answers to what’s holding you back, limiting you or what you’d like to change.

      The insights we get from this process are translated into metaphors enabling us to make sense of it all and turn what can be complex data into everyday communication we can work with.

      The CL facilitator makes a difference by using their skill and experience to listen carefully, ask the right question at the right time and in the the right way so the client is ‘looking in the right direction’.

    • JR

      Thanks both! I’m currently very excited by the book “Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter” by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie, which is helping me to see why Clean Language works with groups, too. Further blog post follows…

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