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Clean Language is like… Permaculture


Permaculture is the practice of working with, rather than against, nature, in order to optimise the output from any piece of land. For example, by observing its natural resources in detail, practitioners are able to design an allotment to minimise weeding and to maximise yield. And although permaculture principles are derived from nature, they can be applied to all kinds of living systems, including business and community design.

Charlotte has been taking a course on permaculture, one weekend a month, for most of this year – and in talking about it, we’ve noticed that there are a number of similarities between permaculture and Clean Language.

Permaculture was first developed by Bill Mollison, who was working in the Tasmanian rain forest when the idea that systems could be designed to work with nature first occurred to him. It was not an entirely new idea, of course – as Mollison himself says:

“Traditional knowledge is always of that nature. I know a Filipino man who always plants a chilli and four beans in the same hole as the banana root. I asked him, “Why do you plant a chilli with the banana?” And he said, “Don’t you know that you must always plant these things together.” Well, I worked out that the beans fix the nitrogen and the chilli prevents beetles from attacking the banana root. And that works very well.”
Bill Mollison, during an interview with Scott London

Mollison, alone at first and later with David Holmgren, began applying the idea more widely, looking for ways to save rainwater, to make gardening easier, to do anything that would make a plot more sustainable and more human-friendly.

While Mollison was interested in the outer landscape, David Grove, a Maori and the originator of Clean Language, was interested in a person’s inner landscape, but the idea at the centre of both practices is essentially the same: to work with nature, rather than against it. Where Mollison rails against the contamination of soil by chemicals, arguing that with the right design, an eco-culture can be self-sustaining, Grove was against the contamination of a person’s inner landscape by a therapist’s assumptions, arguing that a person has the resources they need to resolve their problems and to achieve their own outcomes.

To avoid this ‘contamination’ Grove began to reflect his clients’ words back accurately rather than paraphrasing them and to adapt the questions he asked his clients so they were as assumption-free as possible. He also discovered that if he focused on the metaphors a client used to describe their experience, and questioned them as though they were literal, (E.g. Client: “I don’t want to get too big for my boots”; Facilitator: “And what kind of boots are those boots that you don’t want to get too big for?”) a whole ‘metaphor landscape’ would emerge and evolve, and provide a context within which change could happen.

Later, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley built on Grove’s work to develop “Symbolic Modelling”, a methodology which uses Clean Language to help model a client’s metaphor landscape.

Exploring a metaphor uncovers different aspects of an issue (while hiding others). In this article we endeavour to explore Clean Language by looking at some of the principles of permaculture. By answering the question, “How is Clean Language like permaculture?” we hope to reveal some different aspects of Clean Language, as well as giving readers information about the practice of permaculture…

Observe first, act later

The first thing that needs to happen to achieve the goal of working with nature rather than against it is good observation. During the second weekend of her permaculture course, Charlotte was set the task of spending an hour observing what happened in a small area of land. She did nothing but observe the comings and goings of birds, insects and small mammals, note the direction of the wind and measure the humidity in the air.

“I thought I’d notice everything there was to notice within a few minutes but as time went on, I was able to observe more and more and more. To start with I noticed trees and bigger plants and by the end of the hour I was looking at tiny creatures crawling in the soil and at the detailed markings on leaves.”

When a permaculture designer is planning to change how a plot of land is utilised, they generally watch it for a whole year – through all the seasons – before starting to plan how best to use it. And when they do get going, they make minimal interventions, carefully noticing what happens before making any further changes or adjustments. So progress is slow, but always ecologically sound.

Good observation, along with good listening, is crucial in Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling, too. Key to the whole enterprise is that a facilitator helps a client to self-model – to discover how the system that is them operates. This involves careful observation of non-verbal information (pauses and gazes, twitches, gestures etc.) as well as listening to the words, and the speed and the tonality a person uses to convey their experience.

And, as with permaculture design, interventions are minimal. As we’ve already described, Clean Language questions are so-called because they are as free from assumption as possible, and are only used along with the client’s exact words. The facilitator’s intention is to ask a question the client is likely to be able to answer (albeit with a bit of searching sometimes). The facilitator is not attempting to change anything, just to draw their client’s attention to what is already there, and what is evolving, by asking questions.

The question that is really being asked is the same in both disciplines: “How does all this work?”

A permaculture designer who observes a garden for a year or more, will eventually get ideas for redesigning it - from the garden itself. For example, if rain collects naturally in a particular area, that would be a good place to dig out a pond. The same is true during a Clean Language session. When a clean facilitator keeps on listening, repeating back and questioning (always based on their most recent model of the client’s model), any changes that need to take place will emerge naturally from within the client’s system.

Make hay while the sun shines

This catchphrase sums up another principle of good permaculture design: to capture and store energy, by rearranging landscapes to make sure that plants can get the energy they need from the sun, the rain and the soil and that the plant systems themselves contribute to the development of healthy soil.

“Everything is potentially a positive resource just waiting for permaculture designers to work out HOW to use it.”
Permaculture Principles Guiding Design for Sustainable Living

“Make hay while the sun shines” could just as easily be a catchphrase for clean facilitators, who are encouraged to identify a client’s own resources and develop (capture) them, so they can access them again in future. A resource is an ability, skill or attribute that a client has and that they value or want to keep: confidence, for example, or joy. Or, within a metaphor landscape, it could be a healthy tree or a ‘heart that knows’. During a session, when a facilitator becomes aware of such a resource, they will spend time developing it, so the client can get to know that aspect of themselves better and so that a valuable and memorable resource metaphor is available to them later (i.e. later in the session and later in ‘real life’).

Sometimes resources can be found in unexpected and seemingly unresourceful features of a landscape. In permaculture, a strong cold wind can be funnelled to a wind power generator or directed into a house to chill food. In a metaphor landscape, a solid impenetrable wall of sea water can be used to stop ‘doubting arrows’ from gaining momentum and getting into a client’s mind.

David Grove saw himself as an ‘equal opportunities employer of information’ and so treated problematic symptoms in the same way as resources, identifying and developing them until they ‘confessed their strengths’.

Tangible results

In permaculture design, buildings, gardens, parks etc. need to provide real tangible yields, and not just be ornamental. For example, fruit trees are grown in town centres, lettuces instead of geraniums are grown in window boxes and lawns are replaced with raised beds of flowers interspersed with crops.

“It is crazy to live in settlements where the only food source is the shop, and to get to the shop you pass gardens and parks, filled up with ornamental plants and gravel.”
Permaculture Association Principles, No. 3

It’s not just about obtaining any yield. It is about maximising resources, getting the most from them, so people can meet their needs with less land; it’s about ensuring you get truly useful rewards as a result of the work you’re doing. As Bill Mollison says:

“The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited, or, limited only by the information and imagination of the designer.”
(Permaculture Association Principles, No.3)

Sometimes people with limited knowledge of Clean Language and what actually happens in a session question the practicality of working with metaphor. It can seem a bit ‘way-out’ or whacky, and so it’s not surprising that people sometimes ask whether it has real-life application; in permaculture terms, they might ask: What is the yield?

In fact, the yield of any Symbolic Modelling session tends to be high and ultra-practical. During the last few years, cognitive linguists have been able to show that we do not just use metaphor as a way to talk about ideas, metaphor is crucial to the way we think. And when we identify and develop the metaphors a person uses to describe their experiences, the ‘story’ can drop away and reveal the structure of how someone is thinking about a particular issue. And when this becomes clear to someone, they can begin to make different choices. (You can read this client story for an example of this.)

Of course, there are many variables and it’s not possible to guarantee any particular result since Symbolic Modelling is an emergent process, but insights tend to come thick and fast in this process and a good facilitator encourages the conditions for change to occur right there and then, in the session, rather than encouraging a person to talk about what they might do when they leave.

In Clean Language, as with permaculture, thorough observation of their inner landscape reveals many opportunities for the designer (i.e. the client) to maximise its potential.

And since all of this is done with minimal ‘interference’ from the facilitator, we often use the phrase ‘less is more’ in conjunction with Clean Language, a phrase that can equally well be applied to permaculture.

Additionally, the use of Clean Language encourages people to become self-reliant. It soon becomes clear to any client that this facilitator is not going to give them ideas or suggestions and so they start to figure things out for themselves, to discover their own resources and to stand on their own two feet. Permaculture design also stresses self-reliance, and local solutions to local problems, rather than dependence on global solutions and big business.

When you can’t see the wood for the trees

In permaculture design, while detailed observation of a specific area of land is needed, it’s also important to step back and look at the big picture, and to check it out from a range of perspectives. This includes studying the geology, local biodiversity and social and cultural patterns, the regional economy of the area, as well thinking carefully about what they are trying to achieve.

“I can’t see the wood for the trees” could just as easily be a metaphor for the position many clients are in when they seek help from a clean facilitator. It is easy to get bogged down in the detail of a situation, and the practice of thoroughly exploring their own inner world will include:

  • Getting clear about what they would like to have happen by creating a stable, 3D metaphor landscape for their desired outcome
  • Zooming in and out and looking at that landscape from different perspectives
  • Noticing relationships and patterns in the landscape
  • Paying attention to anomalies and what could be missing as well as what is there

Creatively use and respond to change

“A healthy approach is to start with no complete plan, to allow the process to be emergent. This is not a time when we can work to a rigid plan as conditions will change.”
Permaculture Principles in Business, No. 12

As with many of the phrases we’ve explored so far, this permaculture design principle also applies to Symbolic Modelling.

In permaculture, it applies to the fact that shifts taking place in climate change, peak oil, population growth, technology, etc. mean we don’t know what is around the corner and so all we can control is the way we react to changes as they occur. As well, it means taking into account what changes we do know about such as the seasons and general knowledge about ecosystems.

In Symbolic Modelling, it means working with an outcome orientation – knowing what the client would like to have happen – and at the same time becoming comfortable with not knowing what will actually happen in a client’s landscape. It means being alert for any change as it happens, ready to bring it into a client’s awareness and to develop it so the new landscape becomes as developed as the original. It also means considering what we do know about the real world that a particular metaphor is derived from. So if a client is talking about being unable to withstand a certain emotion, and later they say they would like to be grounded, the ‘fit’ between these two can let us know that it is worth developing the word ‘grounded’ into a full-blown metaphor.

Don’t think you are on the right track just because it is a well beaten path

The last principle of permaculture design we’re exploring here is the value assigned to ‘edges’ and to things that are marginal. Places where two eco-systems or habitats meet (e.g. woodland and meadow) are generally more productive and richer in the variety of species present than either habitat on its own, so designers build as many edges into their designs as they can. They also value marginal ideas and views, unusual plants and wild animals, people on the edge of society; they acknowledge that innovation doesn’t come from the centre.

David Grove had similar ideas about psychotherapy. He believed it unlikely that a client would find the answers and insights they were looking for by going down familiar paths, and so would accompany them to the edges of their experience. He knew that by checking out previously unexplored avenues, a client was much more likely to stumble on some useful resource or come across a valuable insight. Additionally, he constantly explored and experimented with ideas from other fields, pushing at the boundaries of what could be achieved, and always seeking to minimise his interventions. During the last years of his life, he created ever more minimalist tools for coaches and therapists, including Clean Space and Emergent Knowledge.

Neither Bill Mollison nor David Grove was at the ‘centre’ of things. When they developed their respective ideas, they were indeed considered to be marginal and extremely innovative, even revolutionary. But thirty or forty years on, they are gaining acceptance and now paradoxically, both these men are ‘names’ at the centre of growing worldwide communities.

Photo by Tania Malréchauffé on Unsplash

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About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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