Clean Language

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clean Language is a communications methodology, developed by David J Grove, a New Zealand ‘Counselling Psychologist’, during the 1980s and 1990s.

While initially used in clinical therapy, Clean Language offers helpful techniques to all professional communicators, especially those working closely with others.

Clean Language techniques are aligned closely with modern ‘enabling’ principles of empathy, and understanding, as opposed to traditional ‘manipulative’ (conscious or unconscious) methods of influence and persuasion and the projection of self-interest.

Clean Language helps people to convey their own meaning, free of emotional or other distracting interpretation from others.

As such Clean Language promotes better clarity of communications, neutrality and objectivity (absence of emotional ‘spin’, bias and prejudice), ease of understanding, and cooperative productive relationships.


Clean Language is a questioning and discussion technique used especially for discovering, exploring and working with people’s own personal metaphors.

The word ‘metaphor’ here refers to thinking or expressing something in terms of a different concept or image. For example if someone says, “It’s like…” or “It’s as if…” then the next thing you’ll hear is probably a metaphor.

Expressions such as sick as a dog, over the moon, and ready for battle, are all metaphors. The person isn’t really sick as a dog, or over the moon, or ready for battle. The expressions are images, partly for dramatic effect, and partly because a metaphor is often the most natural and easy way to convey a meaning.

A metaphor is the use of imagery, to represent thoughts and feelings. Spoken and written language is full of metaphors.

Metaphors and imagery are potentially very useful in communications because they make abstract ideas more tangible, and can wrap large amounts of subtle and complex information, including emotional information, into a relatively small package. (That’s an example of a metaphor..)

Aside from clinical therapy, Clean Language is most commonly used in executive coaching, but its relative simplicity and its unusual approach to metaphor make it useful in a wide range of other contexts, working with individuals and with groups.

For example Clean Language is now being used in:

recruitment interviews
team development and motivation
gathering requirements for projects, like IT development
market research
business strategy development
and conflict resolution.

metaphor and clean language

We use metaphor easily and naturally to communicate complex ideas, and to understand other people’s ideas.

For example, great speeches and written work tend to contain powerful and memorable metaphors.

Shakespeare’s metaphor ‘All the world’s a stage’ is a particularly notable example.

Advertisers too have discovered that metaphors move us in a way that goes straight to the heart – or to the wallet – because metaphors are such a powerful vehicle for conveying meanings.

Metaphors are also extremely common in our everyday speech.

Research (Gibbs, Raymond W Jr., ‘Categorization and metaphor understanding’, Psychological Review 99[3]) has shown that we use up to six metaphors per minute in English, mostly unconsciously and unnoticed. This is because metaphors underpin our thinking, and bubble to the surface in the words we use. Metaphors are a natural language of the mind, particularly the unconscious mind.

Clean Language uses the casual metaphors that occur naturally in speech to reveal the hidden depths of our thought processes.

Clean Language brings thoughts we have not been conscious of into our awareness, where they can be shared and enjoyed – and understood.

Metaphors are doors to deeper understanding – of self and others. Clean Language provides the key for unlocking the metaphors.

Clean Language techniques help to translate unconscious feelings into conscious awareness (for oneself and/or between people).

This significant feature of Clean Language has many practical applications, for example:

1. Have you ever had a hunch or instinct about something important, but been unable to explain it or convince people around you? Using Clean Language questions can develop that ‘message from your subconscious’ into more detailed thoughts, so turning your ‘gut feeling’ into something really useful.

2. Clean Language can greatly enhance communication within groups. While metaphors may often seem to be shared (e.g., ‘We’re a winning team’) the details of each person’s metaphors are unique. Scratch the surface using Clean Language and you’ll discover the surprises behind a person’s words – for example, is the metaphorical team a football team, a Formula 1 team, or a quiz team? A ‘team’ – with all that the word implies – means different things to different people. When everyone in a group is enabled to share their metaphors, a new level of joint understanding and focus can emerge.

3. Clean Language can be used to discover people’s motivations at quite a profound level. People’s metaphors reveal their values, and drive their behaviour. If a person works at their best when they are like a striker in a football team, their focus may well be on ‘scoring goals’ in any way possible, perhaps by bending the rules. Another person may think of themselves as a member of the pit crew in Formula 1 and pay more attention to combining speed and precision in their work. A third may feel more like a quiz team member, placing a high value on knowing the facts. In this respect Clean Language can help us to deal with different personality types, without requiring great knowledge of personality theory itself.

4. Using Clean Language to explore a person’s own metaphors creates a bridge between the conscious and unconscious minds, enhancing self-awareness and self-understanding. This is a powerful aid towards helping people achieve a desired change, for example during the coaching process. Becoming aware of the metaphors around a difficulty encourages a different kind of thinking, which can lead to transformation.

Clean language – history and origins

Clean Language was devised by a New Zealand-born psychotherapist, David Grove (1950-2008), while working with trauma cases such as sexual abuse survivors and war veterans during the 1980s and 1990s.

Grove later extended the fundamental Clean Language method to a number of related concepts, notably Clean Space, Clean Worlds and Emergent Knowledge. The full extent of Grove’s work will perhaps take a little while to be interpreted due to his early death at 57.

The term Clean Language represents a distinct ‘Clean’ questioning method, and also Grove’s the over-arching methodology.

In developing Clean Language, David Grove devised a set of ‘Clean’ questions.

‘Clean’ in this context meant that the questions introduced as few of Grove’s own assumptions and metaphors as possible, giving the client (or patient) maximum freedom for their own thinking.

Grove discovered that the ‘Cleaner’ the questions were, then the more effectively the patient’s metaphors could be developed into powerful resources (awareness, facts, understanding, etc) for healing and change.

While David Grove did not publish widely (Grove’s only book was Resolving Traumatic Memories, co-authored with B I Panzer; Irvington, 1989) his methods achieved outstanding results, which attracted worldwide attention in the therapeutic community.

During the 1990s Penny Tompkins and James Lawley (leading figures in the Clean Language community) codified and developed David Grove’s work, and wrote about it in their book Metaphors in Mind (2000). Tompkins and Lawley used the term ‘Symbolic Modelling’ for their blend of Clean Language, metaphor and modelling.

The model is likely to continue to evolve and be adapted and adopted in work, learning, personal development, and no doubt beyond, because it is a powerful, appropriate and useful concept.

Clean language principles

The way that we think has profound implications and powerful effects – on ourselves as people, and also on our actions, and consequentially the effects of our actions on our environment and people around us.

Clean Language attempts to enable our thinking (or more particularly the other person’s thinking if viewed from the questioner’s viewpoint) to be as pure and clear as possible so that clarity of awareness, understanding, decision-making and human relations is optimised.

The fundamental principles of Clean Language are quite simple:

  • Listen attentively.
  • Keep your opinions and advice to yourself as far as possible.
  • Ask Clean Language questions to explore a person’s metaphors (or everyday statements).
  • Listen to the answers and then ask more Clean Language questions about what the other person has said.

There are twelve basic Clean Language questions.

Supplementary specialised questions are used less frequently.

The questions are combined with words from the other person (patient, client, whatever) – and theoretically no additional words from the questioner. Inevitably there is sometimes opportunity or need to insert additional questions or words, especially if using the methodology outside of a clinical environment, in which case the principle remains that questions must be free of bias or other influencing input from the questioner.

Very attentive listening is essential to the process – to ensure that the person’s words are accurately repeated in the question.

While at first sight this might seem constraining, once the questions are familiar they become a flexible, multi-purpose toolkit. Like the notes of the musical scale, they can be used to create anything – from a nursery rhyme to an orchestral symphony. (That’s another metaphor incidentally..)

If a person is seeking to change, then change may happen naturally as part of the exploration process.

Clean Language is not a method for forcing people to change. The aim is to help and enable.

A Clean Language facilitator may repeat back some or all of what the person says in order to direct the person’s attention to some aspect of their metaphor before asking their next question.

In common with many positively oriented modern behavioural and coaching methodologies, Clean Language works best when you ‘go for the good stuff’.

This means:

Ask the questions about the positive aspects of a person’s experience.

Ask about the things that the person wants (more of).

Beginners may find that the most obvious metaphors are metaphors for problems, but exploring these is likely to be uncomfortable and less effective.

Focus on the positives.

The basic clean language questions (established by David Grove)

In these questions, X and Y represent the person’s words (or non-verbals)

  • Developing Questions

“(And) what kind of X (is that X)?”

“(And) is there anything else about X?”

“(And) where is X? or (And) whereabouts is X?”

“(And) that’s X like what?”

“(And) is there a relationship between X and Y?”

“(And) when X, what happens to Y?”

  • Sequence and Source Questions

“(And) then what happens? or (And) what happens next?”

” (And) what happens just before X?”

“(And) where could X come from?”

  • Intention Questions

“(And) what would X like to have happen?”

“(And) what needs to happen for X?”

“(And) can X (happen)?”

The first two questions: “What kind of X (is that X)?” and “Is there anything else about X?” are the most commonly used.

As a general guide, these two questions account for around 50% of the questions asked in a typical Clean Language session.

Using clean language in work and business

The Clean Language concept is extremely flexible.

It can be used for all sorts of situations where ‘Clean’ communications and understanding are helpful.

The structure below helps to consider different ways of using Clean Language methods in work and personal development situations:

1. Applications focusing on the Clean Language questions.

2. Applications combining Clean Language and metaphors.

3. Applications using ‘Clean’ principles, but not necessarily using the Clean Language questions or using metaphor.

Applications focusing on the clean language questions

An example of this type of application is the ‘Motivation in a Moment’ process, which was devised by UK-based practitioners Marian Way, Phil Swallow, and Wendy Sullivan, and taught to 1600 leaders of weight management clubs.

Members had just a few minutes of the leader’s personal attention each week, so the organisation wanted the fastest, most effective way to make a real difference.

The process uses just a few of the Clean Language questions to help people to focus on what they want to have happen, and what steps they need to take to achieve it.

1. What would you like to have happen? (Establishing a desired outcome.)

2. And what needs to happen (for that desired outcome)? (Checking the conditions that need to be in place.)

3. And can (what needs to happen, happen)? (Checking that they have confidence that it can be achieved.)

4. And will (you do what needs to happen)? (Checking motivation – note that this is not a Clean Language question.)

Many research and requirements-gathering applications of Clean Language also take this approach, capitalising on the ability of the Clean Language questions to reduce bias in the results.

Applications combining clean language and metaphor

An example of this kind of application is the use of Clean Language to help people increase their experience of desirable states of mind (creativity, confidence etc., or the state they regard as optimal for a particular task).

So, if an executive coach wanted to experience more of their optimal coaching state, a Clean Language facilitator might ask:

“When you’re coaching at your best, that’s like… what?” (Encouraging the client to offer a metaphor for the optimal state.)

The facilitator would then help the person to explore the resulting metaphor, using the Clean Language questions, in any order, but most frequently using the first two questions, ‘What kind of X (is that X)? and ‘Is there anything else about X?’

Other applications in this category include team alignment workshops in which participants first explore their individual metaphors for working at their best, and then combine their metaphors to form a team vision. This application was devised by UK-based practitioner Caitlin Walker of the UK-based Training Attention company under the name Metaphors@Work.

Applications using clean principles…

(… but not necessarily using the clean language questions or using metaphor)

A number of applications exist which are labelled as ‘Clean’ but which use neither metaphor, not the Clean Language questions. These include the ‘Clean Feedback Model’ (again devised by the Training Attention company) which offers a structure for separating what has been observed from the interpretation of the observer.

Clean language – further learning and information

It is possible to use Clean Language based only on the principles in this article. However, fuller training in the approach will enable you to use it in a more directed fashion, and to work with more complex situations.

You can learn more about Clean Language at: – (Judy Rees) – (Wendy Sullivan) – (Penny Tompkins and James Lawley)

These websites, run by leading figures in the Clean Language community, have further articles about Clean Language and its applications and training. – (details of Caitlin Walker’s work)

Read the book Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees (introductory) or Metaphors in Mind by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins (more advanced).

Clean language glosssary

Bind – refers to a ‘catch-22’ situation, i.e., where two interdependent factors lock together to impede progress

Developing Question – a Clean Language question intended to uncover more information about whatever the person is currently paying attention to.

Metaphor – a reference to one kind of thing in terms of another. If you can sensibly add the words “it’s like…” ahead of a statement, then it’s probably a metaphor.

Metaphor Landscape – Clean Language questioning typically reveals a network of linked metaphors within a person’s thinking, referred to as a metaphor landscape.

Relationships – the connections between elements in the metaphor landscape.

Symbol – the individual elements within a metaphor landscape.

Judy Rees – biography

Author, trainer and consultant Judy Rees is an expert in the questioning and listening technique Clean Language, and the co-author (with Wendy Sullivan) of Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds, a best selling book on the subject. A former journalist and media executive, Judy has been working with Clean Language since 2005, and has trained people from all over the world in its use. She has developed a number of business applications and taught these to people in fields ranging from factory floor to boardroom, education to engineering, sales to complementary medicine. Reported outcomes have included greater clarity (reducing misunderstandings and waste), improved rapport (leading to stronger working relationships), and deep insights into what customers and others really want (increasing satisfaction and boosting sales). Judy Ress and her company X-Ray Listening are based in Brentford, West London, UK.

Judy’s contribution of these Clean Language learning materials to this website is greatly appreciated.

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