Clean Language

Our brains process an incredible amount of information through the use of metaphor (comparing one thing against another). When you listen carefully to the words we use, you will begin to notice how often metaphor is used in conversation.

"I was struggling with this problem until the lightbulb came on." There are two metaphors in here: we weren't really physically struggling and there was no actual lightbulb.

Sometimes the metaphors are blatent such as "My head was exploding with new ideas" and sometimes they're very subtle such as "I have a lot of strawberries". What you'll begin to notice however, is that they're everywhere.

On average, we tend to use six metaphors every minute in conversation.

In a coaching situation, when we ask questions that introduce our own metaphors then those will contaminate or otherwise change the clients metaphors. This will then make it more difficult to get at the heart of the real problem. The solution is to use very deliberate questions that contain only the client's metaphors versus our own. This is the essence of clean language.

Clean language comes out of therapy and is the discovery of David Grove, who used it extensively in his practice. While it continues to be used in therapy, it's also being used today in a wide variety of change work which includes agile coaching and team building.

There are a dozen basic questions in clean language, although most of the time, you'll find yourself just using the first two. These are the ones Judy Rees refers to as the "lazy jedi questions". You will discover that you can uncover and fix many real problems by just asking those two questions repeatedly as the conversation evolves.

Developing Questions

  • What kind of X (is that X)?
  • Is there anything else about X?
  • Where is X? or (and) whereabouts is X?
  • Is there a relationship between X and Y?
  • When X, what happens to Y?
  • That’s X like what?

Sequence and Source

  • Then what happens?
  • What happens just before X?
  • Where could X come from?

Intention Questions

  • What would X like to have happen?
  • What needs to happen for X?
  • Can X (happen)?

In each case, replace X and Y with the clients own metaphor. So if they had said "I'm struggling to understand" then we might reply with "What kind of struggling?" or "What kind of struggling is that struggling?"

For questions that have both an X and a Y, these are different metaphors that we are somehow comparing or contrasting. They might have been used in the same statement as shown in the first example, or they might have been from completely different parts of the conversation. The point is that the client has used both of these metaphors and that we are asking about the relationship between them.

Note that "X" doesn't have to be a metaphor, although it's more powerful when it is. It can also be used with verbs or even nouns.

Power Switch

  • And when X, what would you like to have happen?
  • And when X and Y and Z, what would you like to have happen?

Sometimes in a coaching conversation, the client will get stuck in their own problem. When this happens, we need a way to snap them back out to a more positive state. This is where the power switch is most useful.

If the client couldn't get past the notion of struggling then we might ask And when you are struggling, what would you like to have happen?"

Within the power switch, we can string many negative metaphors together such as And when you are struggling and your ideas are falling on deaf ears and you feel like you're slipping on the ice, what would you like to have happen?"

Caitlin Walker at TEDx

Caitlin Walker did an excellent TEDx talk on how she discovered clean language and started to use it with troubled youth. Well worth the 18 minutes.

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