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From Stuck to Spark in Three Small Steps

James Lawley CL Space_NTOC 2023

How can you gain deep and actionable insights into a problem, decision or idea simply by moving to three distinct spaces guided by a facilitator? If you’ve not experienced the coaching process known as Clean Space, you might think, “How is that even achievable?”

Surprisingly, it is possible - thanks to David Grove's pioneering coaching process called Clean Space.

In 2003, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley produced their first model of David’s Clean Space. They describe the process as “an interesting mixture of following a strict formula and applying algorithms creatively in response to what is happening for the client in the moment”. In James’ words, his job when facilitating a Clean Space process is to facilitate the coachee to “establish a network of spaces”.

The ‘formula’ is for the facilitator to instruct the coachee to establish six spaces. In his article, Setting Up Clean Space, James calls these spaces ‘set ups’, adding that “each set up is designed to contribute to the overall aim of ‘encouraging the conditions’ for creative emergence”.

At the 2023 Northern Taste of Clean, James also demonstrated that it is possible to encourage the conditions for creative emergence in just three spaces.


What happened for me in three spaces

James started the activity by asking everyone in the room:

“Are you in a space where you want to be?”

This got us thinking and moving and once we had settled ourselves into our respective spaces, he invited us to think of a topic we wanted to explore during the process. We could either answer all questions internally during the process, or we could share our discoveries with the person next to us.

Although nobody in the room nor James knew this, my topic was: “How am I going to move forward as a Clean Language facilitator from my home-base in Malaysia, so that I am contributing to the field, building the community and building a name for myself?”

James then asked:

“From where you are, what do you know here?”
I wrote: “I’m glad to be here. This is where I want to be.”

Next he asked: “And is there anything else you know here?”
I wrote: “I’m with people I will learn with.”

Then: “What could this space be called?”
I wrote: “Home.”

We were invited to share our answers with someone next to us before returning to our individual spaces.

Then: “And find another space… And what do you know here, in this space?”
I wrote: “It’s about real connections. Real meaning in-person.”

Then: “And is there anything else you know here?”
I wrote: “I can’t be here all the time, or even most of the time.”

Then: “What could this space be called?”
I wrote: “Station.”

We were invited again to share our answers with someone else and then to return to this second space. Because we were in a group and he could not know what names we had given our respective spaces, James referred to this space as “the second space”.

Then he asked again: “And find another space… And what do you know from this space?”
I wrote: “I want to contribute to the wider community.”

Then: “And is there anything else you know from this space?”
I wrote: “I don’t have to do it on my own.”

Then: “And what could this space be called?”
I wrote: “Searching.”

We were now in our third space and James then asked: “And what do you know here about the first space?”
I wrote: “It’s comfortable.” (In that space I had been seated cross-legged on the floor with a chair for back support.)

“And what do you know here about the second space?”
I wrote: “Sun on my back.” (I had been sitting by the window where the sun was shining in.)

“And what do you know here about the relationship between the first and the second space?”
I wrote: “It has to be comfortable.”

We then turned to a different person to share our responses before returning to the third space.

Then James instructed us: “Now, return to the first space… And knowing all of that, now what do you know here?”
I wrote: “I am who I am in this community and while I draw from giants before me, I don’t only need to play a supporting role.”

Then, “And what difference does knowing that make?”
I wrote: “I have a bit more energy to move forward for what I want to build.”


What’s happened since

What was interesting for me was how quickly I felt a spark of energy for what I needed to do next, even if it was still not entirely clear – and how much better I felt. This was remarkable considering how stuck I had been feeling about my pathway in this field (I had even called it a “mid-life crisis”). Equally remarkable was how much I’d gotten from only three spaces, when the process normally utilises six spaces.

All James did was (a) give instructions to move to three different spaces, (b) ask the same questions about each space and (c) ask about the relationship between the spaces. The instructions and questions were straightforward and repetitive. This meant that after a while, I no longer needed to pay attention to them as I could anticipate what was coming next. As a result, my attention could turn fully towards the new knowledge that was emerging for me.

As you'd expect, the Clean Space instructions and questions are also clean; nothing James said told us what to think. That meant I only had one place to draw my answers from – me and my stuff.

Since then, Doris Leibold and I have also facilitated the same mini Clean Space process online in a live event on Clean Campus where we could not see or hear the attendees, but they could see and hear us. Despite all of this, this is what participants said after the 15-minute experience:

  • I learned that I need to do some research.
  • I got a new desired outcome at the end.
  • I learned I need to be clear and specific at this point for the practice I am developing, to give it an initial form.
  • There was a real insight about research and finding alignment.
  • I learned that a plan I need to create for the summer holidays needs structure and space for flexibility as well.
  • I know that I need to find a different starting point for my next phase.
  • I learned about my position from being an outsider and now moving to the middle.
  • I found out how I will structure my time during the week I will be away.

For my part, that spark of energy I had at the end of James’ session impelled me to finally complete a submission that was a couple of months delayed. The spark is also motivating me to write for publication again after an unusual year-long hiatus. Writing this blog is just one of many I now feel motivated to convert from an idea on my to-do list for publication.

Before travelling to the Northern Taste of Clean I couldn't imagine that all it would take to nudge me out of my ‘mid-life crisis’ was a mini Clean Space process. Nothing fancy or complex by way of a coaching process. Just clean instructions and questions, and three spaces from which I could figure my stuff out.


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About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.


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