Is Clean Language nonsense?

One of the questions I’m frequently being asked lately is, “Is Clean Language nonsense?”

Actually, the question is being asked in slightly stronger language than that. And I don’t think the people asking it actually want a real answer – their question isn’t coming from a place of curiosity.

But I actually think it’s a question that deserves an answer.

In order to answer it, I think I have to say who I am in more detail than normal, giving the letters after my name. My name is Judy Rees, FRSA, MA. Those letters mean that I am a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society For The Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), and I’m actually on the Fellowship Council of that august body, founded in London in 1754. I also hold a Masters degree (with Distinction) from the University of the Arts London, previously London College of Printing.

Work wise, I was previously executive editor of one of the UK’s best-known media organisations. Nowadays I work as a freelance consultant helping organisations to shrink the communication gaps – to get real people who are spread all over the place to engage more directly and authentically with each other and thus to work more effectively together.

And, I’m best known for my work with Clean Language, as co-author of the book Clean Language and author of a newer e-book which I’m in the process of fleshing out into a print book, Your Clean Language Questions Answered. I’ve been teaching this subject for more than 10 years. Funnily enough, until recently, nobody’d ever asked me, “Is Clean Language b*ll*cks?”

So now you can decide whether it’s worth listening to what I have to say. On the one hand, I have conventional qualifications. On the other, I’ve spent a long time working with this strange shit about metaphors, created by a David Grove – who was slightly dotty bloke, now dead. Should I be wearing a turquoise jumpsuit? You decide.

Exhibit A: Here’s a list of all the academic research that makes use of David Grove’s ideas. It’s a list that’s growing every year. Some of the studies show how Clean Language can be applied – for example, to help students at a university to work better together, so that the proportion getting a degree went from 49 per cent to 73 per cent. Some of the studies use Clean Language as a research/interviewing tool.

Exhibit B: Here are some of the books about Clean Language that have been published over the last few years. My favourite is Clean Language in the Classroom by Julie McCracken – practical and pragmatic, designed to be a genuine support to classroom teachers and in fact to anyone who works with groups.

Exhibit C: Here are some of the books containing ideas which support the truth at the heart of how Clean Language works: that metaphor exists at a profound level in people’s thinking, such that metaphor can be described as the native language of the unconscious mind. The metaphors in our language – about six per minute – are thus a side-effect of the metaphors in thought.

Exhibit D: The background. Now it gets foggy. Where does Clean Language come from? Though the history is a little obscure, the evidence I have been able to access suggests that David Grove’s big breakthrough came from combining three sets of ideas of varying respectability: the work of Carl Rogers and Milton Erickson, which was revolutionary in its time but eventually became fairly mainstream, and the “outsider” work of Richard Bandler and John Grinder, called NLP. A lot of ideas which originated in NLP are now extremely mainstream, but… let’s say you don’t want to mention NLP at an academic social event if you want to enjoy the rest of the evening, maybe get offered another drink. At the very least, all this means that Clean Language can suffer from “not invented here” syndrome.

And then we run out of exhibits. Where are David Grove’s own publications? One co-authored book, now out of print. Where are David Grove’s academic papers? None.

If that means that Clean Language doesn’t meet your criteria for investigation, that’s fine by me. Because there’s something David used to say that rings true for me. He was talking about where he aimed to take a person’s attention with his questions.

Well inside what they already knew, that was boring. Way beyond the known universe, that was baffling and even scary. But when the question takes a person’s attention right to the edge of what they currently know, maybe just a little further, that’s where the insight, the learning, the excitement and the connections emerge.

And if the idea of Clean Language, the idea of a precision toolkit for directing attention and for investigating the hidden metaphors that drive people’s behaviour, is at that learning edge for you, then hopefully I’ve convinced you to dig deeper.

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