What Is Clean Language?

What is Clean Language? If you’re interested in understanding people, how they think and how they change, you’ll want to know about Clean Language. It’s an impressively versatile tool.

Here are six of the ways it can be used:

  1. To harvest information from another person: what they know, what they think, how they feel
  2. To explore “unknown knowns” – the deeper things that people don’t realise that they know – respectfully
  3. To shift someone’s emotional state
  4. To motivate someone to change
  5. To give and get effective, useable feedback
  6. To enhance relationships between people – even people in conflict.

But it’s not a language! It’s not even, really, about language. It’s not about speaking clearly, or not using jargon, or not swearing!

Fundamentally, it’s a precision enquiry technique. It’s a set of questions, and a way of asking them. The structure of the process forces you to really listen to what the other person is saying, and to choose your next question mindfully.

Clean Language Results

People who’ve learned the basics of Clean Language report results such as:

Clean Language Infographic

  • being more skilled at stimulating and directing the flow of conversations – for example, in all kinds of interviews
  • choosing more effective questions to seek specific information, while reducing unintended bias
  • being more present in conversations, listening in a more empowering way, appreciating people more. Listened-to people notice, and appreciate it!
  • being able to spot potential misunderstandings at an early stage and take appropriate action to clear things up, defusing conflicts
  • better appreciating difference and diversity, and responding flexibility to individuals, so as to enhance working relationships, improve communication and increase collaboration
  • achieving greater clarity about goals, objectives, requirements etc.

At a higher level, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, Clean Language is also an effective way to help people to change – a coaching, therapy, and facilitation methodology. At its best it can be like DIY brain imaging. Clients get a completely new view of the way they are constructing their experience, and often find themselves able to change it almost effortlessly.

Clean Language, created by the late David Grove (1950 – 2008), lines up with modern ‘enabling’ or ‘facilitating’ principles, as opposed to ‘manipulative’ methods of influence and persuasion or ‘directive’, controlling approaches. In that, it’s similar to many other coaching and facilitation methods. It works particularly well in complex contexts, as a “probe” in Cynefin’s probe-sense-respond approach.

But the way Clean Language uses a person’s own metaphors is, as far as I can tell, unique.

Metaphors: Going Deeper

Let me explain. This is going to get a bit technical, so please bear with me.

If the mention of “metaphor” takes you back to the classroom, you’re not alone! Many of us remember being told that using metaphor – comparing one kind of thing to another kind of thing – was something great writers and orators did. Shakespeare and Aristotle were quoted as masters of metaphor.

What our teachers didn’t realise is that there’s a whole lot more to metaphor than that.

  • They didn’t know that we use about six metaphors a minute in ordinary conversation in English.
  • They didn’t appreciate that the metaphors in our language are a side-effect of the metaphors in our thoughts.
  • They didn’t know that not just our brains, but our bodies, “think” in metaphor.

Metaphor is the native language of the non-conscious mind. We can’t not think in metaphor. Metaphor is the atom of thought.

‘Metaphor’ here simply means talking or thinking about one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing. And we’re thinking about one kind of thing in terms of other kinds of things from the very moment we’re “thinking” at all. Love is like warmth, for example. Important things are big. As we grow, and we learn about different things, each of us forms a complex, individual network of this-is-like-that comparisons.

Recent research into embodied cognition crystalises this. If you hold a warm drink, for example, you’ll find other people “warmer” than if you hold a cold one.

The metaphors in our words mostly emerge unbidden. We can’t not speak in metaphor, because the metaphors in our words represent the metaphors in our minds. Mostly, all this happens outside our awareness, automatically.

This way of understanding metaphor isn’t a wacky idea, by the way. It’s common knowledge, at least within the academic community.

Clean Language Questions

So, where does Clean Language, come in? Well, in Clean Language we notice metaphorical words and phrases, pay attention to them, and ask our precision questions about them. We treat them as as clues to the deeper-level thinking beyond.

In the process, people become more aware of the structure of their thinking, which can be fascinating – and useful.

For example, I often help team members to find out about each other’s metaphors for working at their best. What starts as a fun game becomes a revelation. And once a team knows that it has a Formula 1 racing driver, a butterfly, and a meditating monk on its hands, it can quickly establish ways of working together that suit the diverse individuals.

Clean Language is spreading. When people experience it, they typically want to share it. So it’s being used in a huge variety of situations: in business, in education, in healthcare and more, and all over the world.

It doesn’t just work in English, either – it’s been used in at least 20 different languages, including Danish and Indonesian. My co-authored book, Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors And Opening Minds (Sullivan and Rees, 2008) is available in Russian and Japanese.

To find out more, download a free ebook here: https://judyrees.co.uk/your-clean-language-questions-answered/

4 thoughts on “What Is Clean Language?”

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