How does Clean Language work?

“Clean Language is much better, faster and more effective [than NLP], and extremely powerful.”

Who says? Not just me (for once!) but coaching marketing expert Dan Bradbury, quoting leading NLPers such as Topher Morrison and Toby McCartney as he introduced me for an interview we recorded recently.

I wasn’t surprised, because both Topher and Toby have experienced Clean Language first hand. They’ve seen, heard and felt the results of this amazing combination of questions, listening and metaphor (originally devised by the late David Grove).

So they know from personal experience that dramatic change often results very quickly when someone is coached by a Clean Language expert.

But probably most people won’t have that experience – the physical experience which would convince them to become a fan.

Quite reasonably, before they try the process, they don’t just want to know that it works – they want to know how it works. And most of the explanations out there leave at least a little something to be desired.

I offered a partial explanation in this “Elephant Whispering” blog post last summer.

But thanks to insights from James Geary’s new book on metaphor and the brain, I’m groping towards a fuller answer. It has to do with the elephant and the rider, and the role of metaphor not only in language, and in thought, but also in physical action.

Want to hear it? Then read on!

To borrow Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor once again, the mind is like a rider on an elephant. The rider is the conscious part of the mind – the small fraction of our being that we are aware of – and the elephant is everything else.

When we talk in our native language, we don’t usually choose our words carefully. It’s the elephant who “selects” them. And when we talk in English, we use between six and nine metaphors per minute. It’s the elephant who “selects” those metaphors.

It’s well known that linguistic metaphors are a powerful route to influence. As Wendy Sullivan and I said in our book, Clean Language: “Metaphors in the form of stories and anecdotes are the currency of the finest public speakers; of statesmen, preachers, and teachers of all kinds; and of traditional healers and shamans. Metaphors in the form of advertisements surround us constantly, as companies seek a fast-track to our wallets. Metaphors in the form of TV shows and films keep us on the edge of our seat, laughing and crying at the director’s whim.”

For example, as Dan and I were discussing, the metaphors used in writing and talking about the financial markets probably have a profound subconscious effect on our behaviour. Markets typically climb up and fall down: the way up apparently takes effort, while gravity does the work on the way down! So traders may well subconsciously perceive an increase in prices as more likely to falter: a decline likely to continue. Nobody remembers that up and down are “just metaphors” in this context.

The “metaphors” in our physical environment also have a profound influence on us. Modern research shows that holding a hot drink can make your feel “warmer” towards a new acquaintance than holding a cold can. The author of a heavy hardback is more serious than one who’s book is flimsy. And that’s before we go anywhere near more “obvious” metaphors such as white coats and dark uniforms, well known for their subconscious effect on behaviour.

These physical metaphors in our environment probably have a greater impact on us than the metaphors contained in words. After all, we evolved for life in the real world: the world of thoughts, words and ideas is the newcomer. If our ancestors didn’t respond quickly (and thus unconsciously) to environmental cues, we simply wouldn’t be here.

And so, when it comes to change in our own, real lives, we need to do more than explore our thoughts, words and ideas. We need to do more than notice the metaphors we use in our thinking, or to “find a new metaphor” for some aspect of our lives.

To influence ourselves to change, we need to give ourselves physical experiences that influence our elephants on various levels.

A skilled Clean Language facilitator doesn’t just work with any of your metaphors. They use those “funny questions” to focus attention on specific aspects of your experience. Like an expert mahout, they can give your elephant a solid prod!

And the most skilled will, as David Grove often did, take your attention inside, to the most visceral experience of all – that mass of strange and mysterious physical sensations which we label “emotions”. Our emotions drive our behaviour much more effectively than our thoughts.

They do this using a specific feature of metaphor: spontaneous metaphors frequently (I’d say almost always) describe a more abstract concept in terms of a more physical thing. It’s a one-way street. To use James Geary’s example, drawn from a song: “Love is like a bottle of gin, but a bottle of gin is not like love.”

So by exploring metaphor, we take your attention from the abstract towards the physical. From the world of thoughts and words and ideas towards the world of physical experience.

It’s in this physical world that real change happens – and not just in the sense that change normally exists in doing something different, such as eating less or moving more.

Once we become aware of the physical sensations that make up our emotional experience, we experience them differently. That too is a physical change. We literally feel differently about things in our physical bodies.

And when we feel differently we both think differently and behave differently: there’s no battle between the rider and the elephant. The different behaviour becomes automatic, as automatic as an elephant turning to eat something that looks tasty.

It seems to me that Clean Language works as a catalyst to this chain reaction. It uses the metaphors in language and gesture to help people feel differently, so that they behave differently.

  • This blog represents a piece of thinking which is still very much “in progress” – I’d value your comments below.
  • If you’d like to experience Clean Language for yourself, you can book a session with me.

10 thoughts on “How does Clean Language work?”

  1. Alistair Donnell

    I love the smell of controversy at tea time! I quickly clean languaged myself the other day using the three questions outlined in your intelligent persuasion video I purchased. It uncovered a resourceful feeling I don’t think I’ve experienced before so now I have a reference point to begin to learn how to get at it. Work in progress but fascinating all the same. Not sure if you have seen this paper by Bargh but may add to the pot for you and anyone else interested. Cheers Judy, Alistair

  2. Hi Judy
    great post we love the way you use and describe clean language 🙂
    Our interpretation from what we have been reading and observed about the way you use clean language is that it enables people to spring clean their thought process as they are in the process of expressing themselves and as you know spring cleaning is done thoroughly but rather quickly and when finished everything sparkles with a new clarity that was not clear before the process 🙂
    Thanks insightful as always Judy,
    Bye bye
    The English Sisters

  3. Maarten Aalberse

    I think it is time to go beyond “my … is bigger, stronger and lasts longer” discussions that have characterized the NLP field for too long (and did it a lot of damage, IMO).
    I also think that the underlying process is over-generalization.

    Much more interesting is to specify: which approach when, with whom?

  4. Maarten Aalberse

    Another element that I think is “food for thought”: newer methods often work (apparently) better and faster than older ones… until they aren’t new anymore.
    Now why would that be?

  5. Hi Judy,

    Great post – and very thought provoking as well.

    As you probably know at this stage in my development I’m primarily a practical user of those aspects of Clean Language that I know work for me – rather than someone who has a wide range of both knowledge and experiential use of CL.
    In other words I am anything but an expert!

    I’ve looked at the contexts in which I’ve used those particular aspects of Clean, and the common thread for me and those clients has been time constraint. In most cases including those I’ve chronicled in my blog, I’ve had less than 30 minutes with a client in which to meet and greet, open a dialogue and explore areas that may be useful for them, do some changework if necessary and then close.

    I’ve used my version of ‘speed’ Clean with clients who’ve shown me a metaphorical open door – and yes, I’ve used it in conjunction with elements of other techniques and methodologies, but I would say that (as you suggest) the catalyst – the spark that lights it all up – has been Clean Language.

    The use of Clean helps me to clarify which metaphorical landscape to work in for each particular client. This I think is because they are in their own story, their own film, and I am their lighting engineer and cameraman, say – whilst they are perhaps the director – and when they notice what they notice and match it to their script, then they get those insights and understandings and see how the film might be better.

    Sometimes the metaphorical landscape can be linked to certain physical movements: and often here things become even more powerful for the client.

    I love working with CL because there are always answers, pointers of some immediate use. Clients (especially those with vivid imaginations) present working metaphors quite early in the conversation, and of course, because I’m dealing with their story, the doors to rapport open more readily.

    And, needless to say, the outcomes are always wonderful to behold.

  6. Many, many thanks for your comments, all.
    Maarten, any thoughts on the question of “how does it work?” specifically?

  7. Maarten Aalberse

    In fact, yes, Judy… But a bit too long for this blog. I’m writing an article on this, right now – and it’s slow going…

    It’s about using the knowledge on processes (or factors, if you like) that have been shown to mediate change in psychotherapy (and coaching), knowing which processes need to be especially focused on with which unique client, and then see how approaches in Clean, NLP or whatever do this, and… how they might do it more specifically.
    Sorry for being so general… that’s the limit of blog-commentaries.

  8. Maarten Aalberse

    You’ll have to exercice your patience a bit, Judy:-)
    But I’ll be happy to send a draft to you, once I’m there.
    I will do a poster on this very topic during the international ACT conference in Parma (metaphors is a hot topic in ACT – Acceptance and Commitment therapy – too…
    I hope to get some helpful feedback there, which will help me to +/- finalize this particular chapter.

  9. Pingback: Why Might Remote Leaders Value Clean Language? - Judy Rees

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