Is Clean Language Like The “5 Whys” Technique?

“Is Clean Language like the “5 Whys” technique?” I was asked at a recent event. “Not much,” was my immediate response.

But the question deserves a longer answer. And that answer probably begins with a Clean Language question: “What kind of whys are those 5 Whys?”

As NLPers know, “why?” is a very imprecise question. It’s usually taken to mean either:
1. From what cause? or
2. For what purpose?

The kind of answer you get to “why?” depends on how the question is interpreted by the person who is asked. That interpretation will be heavily coloured by the context of the question.

The 5 Whys is “an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem,” according to Wikipedia. It’s about root cause analysis. The 5 Whys are the kind of Whys that mean, “From what cause?”

(It would be quite possible to create an iterative interrogative technique based on asking the other kind of “why” five times – though Clean Language creator David Grove would probably recommend asking it six times in this context, so as to end on a positive note. Would that still be the 5 Whys? I’m not sure.)

Like the 5 Whys, Clean Language is an “iterative interrogative technique,” I suppose. I’d probably use “enquiry” rather than “interrogative”, and it’s not as iterative as 5 Whys. But there’s a fundamental similarity there.

Clean Language is flexible in what it’s used to explore. It can be used in either direction: to explore causes, or purposes. It can be used to explore a person’s inner world (its original purpose), or the structure of a business process.

Most Clean Language practitioners have a definite preference for the positive, purposeful direction, most of the time – but accept that some digging into causes may be needed. Grove sought to be more of an “equal information employer”, accepting both “positive” and “negative” as valuable.

So, you could use Clean Language in a very similar way to the 5 Whys: to establish the root cause of a problem. Rather than asking “why”, you’d probably ask a series of “where could X come from?” questions.

But you could also use it for a bunch of other things. It has more flexibility, and more precision, than the 5 Whys. It helps to motivate people. It brings clarity to communication. It enhances relationships. And I think that makes Clean Language significantly different to the 5 Whys.

  • What do you think? Have you used both techniques? When would you choose to use each? What are the similarities and differences? Please comment below.

2 thoughts on “Is Clean Language Like The “5 Whys” Technique?”

  1. Nicolas Stampf

    To me, asking about a cause is asking about the past. While asking for a purpose is asking for the future someone is chasing.

    So I’d rather use CL for the latter because investigating one’s own metaphors for a future is a way to indeed build it at the very same time.

    Now of course, retrospectively investigating metaphors for a cause is a way to understand the past under a new perspective, thus changing one’s own vision of one’s present… And create new future possibilities.

    So however clean might be the questions asked, the first question asked (cause or purpose) is faithful. Just as is said in Appreciative Inquiry. 😉

  2. Hello. I tend not to use “why?” when coaching, as I believe it has the effect of keeping the client in a very cognitive, cerebral abstract place – and sometimes making what is being talked about as belonging to someone else. For me the joy of CL is that it focusses on the process of a client’s experience, which it treats as always retrievable and open for respectful examination; as if present and owned by the client now. Hence(almost) all the CL questions are in the present tense. So in general: how does this work, not why.

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