Is Clean Language Unchallenging?

Do people see Clean Language as “soft” and unchallenging? It isn’t. But I do wonder if it might be seen that way.

The issue came up for me at Agile Business Day in Venice last week, as the excellent Tony Richards spoke about the role of challenge in coaching. He highlighted the fact that it’s important for coaches to be willing and able to take their clients into the “Zone of Uncomfortable Debate” with challenging question.

As you probably know, Clean Language questions are designed to minimise the amount of content, and metaphor, supplied by the coach. In coaching, they are typically used with a “Clean mindset” – that is, in pursuit of the client’s stated desired outcomes.

The Clean coaching experience tends to be a pleasant one. Clients use metaphors like “being gently guided through a landscape” to describe the experience.

Given all of that, how can they possibly be challenging?

The Clean Language questions have the capacity to go right to the heart of what’s most important about the client and their situation. Clean Language is a precision inquiry methodology.

Plus, Clean Language questions are profoundly persuasive, because they minimise psychological reactance and mirror the client’s own words as exactly as possible.

In the hands of an experienced facilitator, a well-designed Clean Language question can cut like a laser to the heart of the matter. 

“And when <situation>, and <behaviour> and <impact>, then what happens? And when all of that, what needs to happen for <desired outcome to happen>?”

For example, “And when your wife has left you because she said your drinking made life with you unbearable (client’s own words), then what happens? And when all of that, what needs to happen for you to get your dream job (client’s stated desired outcome)?”

And, here’s the thing. To use Clean Language questions with real precision takes training and practice. You don’t get that good from listening to an hour-long conference talk – or even from attending a two-day training. It takes real skill.

When your coach has that skill, the landscape changes. Rather than just being “gently guided”, perhaps you’ll find yourself at the base of a serious climb! But that’s where the big learning happens.

  • What’s been your experience of using Clean Language questions to challenge your client? Please comment below.

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