How do you describe Clean Language to a new or prospective client?

Bridge

This is a question that is often asked during trainings such as Clean Language: Core Skills or Systemic Modelling. Participants become very enthusiastic about the skills they are learning and begin to think about putting them into practice – and then they hit a problem: “I don’t know how to describe this in such a way that people will understand what I am talking about.”

My initial response to this question is that it is better to use Clean Language with someone than attempt to describe it to them. When people are on the receiving end of a few clean questions they generally just accept and answer them – whereas our descriptions may well cause their eyes to glaze over. Despite the simplicity of the questions, creating a short and effective ‘elevator pitch’ about Clean Language does not come easy to most people.

If a description does seem necessary – for example, if you want to practise doing a whole session with someone rather than just dropping in a few clean questions – then it’s best to tailor it to the person or group you are talking to. The neutrality of Clean Language means it not only tailors itself beautifully to the needs that come up in the moment, we can also promote whichever aspect seems most salient to the listener in the moment. By listening and asking questions before we launch into a description, it becomes relatively easy to choose the features and benefits of Clean Language that are most likely to resonate with the recipient(s) of our description. With a therapist we may talk about healing, accessing inner wisdom and deep change while with a business group we might talk about reducing misunderstandings, clarifying a vision and improving team cohesion. 

So, there is no one-size-fits-all description of Clean Language, but beginners may like to have a selection of descriptions to choose from… It was this thought that led us to get together on Zoom with 9 clean facilitators who work in various fields and to ask the question: How do you describe Clean Language to your clients?

To start with, we worked in small groups to create some definitions:

  • It’s a way to deeply listen to a person and to identify metaphors that help them access inner wisdom.
  • It’s a way of developing a clean culture and embedding it so that people work in a respectful way.
  • It’s a way to reduce conflict and understanding in a team – crucial for when a team is stuck in conflict and needs to be understood.
  • It’s a way to be respectfully curious.
  • It’s a tool that fosters creativity and encourages collaboration.
  • It’s like walking alongside someone rather than being a person who needs to solve something for them.
  • It uses high quality questions that help clarity of thinking. (Chris de Graal told us that changing ‘clean questions’ to ‘high-quality questions’ when talking with potential clients and their managers creates a lot more engagement.)
  • It’s a fast track to finding a common understanding.
  • It provides a shared language, which reduces assumptions and encourages respectful working collaboration.
  • It reveals assumptions so that conversations are held at a level that everyone can understand.
  • It helps multi-disciplinary teams to bond better by building a bridge between them.
  • It provides coherence in individuals and in groups.
  • It’s a way to improve communication.

When we regrouped and pooled our ideas, we noticed that a couple of people had used the word ‘bridge’ and we explored this metaphor, recognising that appropriate causes and conditions would need to be in place for people to want to make a bridge (Will it provide a way for you to get to know your neighbours on the other side of the river? Or will your enemy cross over and start firing at you?) As with any metaphor, it’s good to think about what it entails before you start using it in your description.

It also became clear that some people had spoken about features of Clean Language (listening, questions) whereas other descriptions were about potential benefits of using Clean Language. This led us to wonder whether a description needs both ‘what it is’ as well as ‘why do it’, and whether it is a good idea to put the benefits first, before the what/how of clean – i.e. tell someone what’s in it for them, and then talk about how it works.

Of course, we can’t know what benefits a person or a group will actually get from using Clean Language, and a lot of our training is about becoming comfortable with that not knowing. And if we hold true to this principle, what we do know is that we cannot promise any particular outcomes, and so we need to word our ‘benefit statements’ carefully.

Caitlin Walker’s solution to this problem is not to promise anything but to describe the benefits other people have had from clean.

This turns a statement such as:

  • It’s a way of developing a clean culture and embedding it so that people work in a respectful way.

Into:

  • One company we know has used it to develop and embed a clean culture so that people work in a respectful way.

Of course, this in turn means that beginners need to collect some evidence of Clean Language having worked well in the context they are hoping to use it in.  Fortunately, there is plenty of this about. If you work with groups, read Caitlin Walker’s From Contempt to Curiosity for lots of stories along with the figures to back them up. My book, Clean Approaches for Coaches, has some one-to-one examples and there are lots more of these within the Client Stories section of this blog as well as on www.cleanlanguage.co.uk.

After a very interesting discussion, Louise Hockaday and I spoke some more about the idea of including the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ and/or ‘how’ in a description and our discussion reminded me of a book called Teaching Around the 4MAT Cycle which talks about four different kinds of learners and their favourite questions:

  • Why?
  • What?
  • How?
  • What if?

A good lesson needs to include answers to all four questions, so that all the different needs are met. And we wondered whether a good description of Clean Language similarly needs to cover all four bases…

Why use Clean Language? Because it helps people to:

  • Access their inner wisdom
  • Find common understanding
  • Collaborate respectfully
  • Foster their own creativity
  • Gain group cohesion

… and so on.

What is Clean Language?

  • It’s a set of simple questions asked of another person’s exact words.
  • It’s a questioning methodology that keeps your own assumptions out of the conversation.
  • It’s a respectful way of helping people to develop the metaphors they use naturally as they speak.
  • It’s a way of really listening to someone else and helping them come to their own conclusions.
  • It’s a way to be respectfully curious.

Etc.

How does it work?

  • A facilitator may well start by asking “And what would you like to have happen?” They listen carefully to your response and then ask questions about the words you’ve used to describe your outcome.
  • In a group situation, people share their own mental models around different topics and gradually build shared mental models that work for everyone.
  • It reveals assumptions so that conversations are held at a level everyone can understand.
  • You learn a simple set of questions and some rules for asking them, and this frees you up to pay really good attention to the other person.
  • The facilitator asks clean questions of the metaphors a person uses so they can uncover the structure of their thinking.
  • You simply ask the questions of the words the other person uses to describe their experience.

And so on…

What if … ?

At this point, you may want to pause and wait for the person’s own “What if…” rather than pre-empting them. For example:

  • Q: What if I am on my own – can I use it with myself?
    A: The questions are simple and you can use them to facilitate yourself.
  • Q: What if I am already a coach – is this something I can add to my existing toolbox?
    A: Yes of course. Clean Language is neutral and so can be adapted to work with all kinds of models.
  • Q: What if the group I am working with is going through a really difficult patch?
    A: You can use Clean Language, along with the Drama model to help people to sort out such difficulties. That’s when it really comes into its own.
  • Q: What if I work with kids… does it work with kids.
    A: Yes lots of parents and teachers use it with kids, for all kinds of reasons, and there is even a book, called Clean Language in the Classroom.

… and so on.

You could then turn this into a kind of pic-n-mix, where you choose one statement from each box. If you like this idea, we’ve created a pdf with the above ideas for you to download. Describe_Clean_Language_to_a_new_or_prospective_client1.pdf Or of course you can make you own with statements that may be more suitable for the kinds of people you tend to meet.

And of course, you can use the statements in any order, tailoring them to the person you’re speaking to. So if you are speaking to a parent, you may say,

“I’ve come across this great way of tuning into my kids. It’s called Clean Language and it’s a questioning technique that keeps my own assumptions out of the conversation. You simply ask the questions of the words they’ve use to describe what’s happened. A lot of parents and teachers use it for all kinds of situations and it really works well with adults too.”

One last point - another question people often ask is "Why is it called Clean Language?" So you may want to include a few words about this in your 'patter'. E.g. The 'clean' of Clean Language refers to the intention not to contaminate the other person's experience with our own judgments, assumptions and opinions. The 'language' part is because we deal with the actual language a person uses to describe their experience.

If you have a favourite way of explaining Clean Language, or you decide to have a go with the 4MAT idea or have anything else to say on this topic, we’d love to hear from you. Please use the comments box below.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone who contributed their ideas to this blog: Chris de Graal, Bev Martin, Kerry Cadambi, Kat Elliot, Matthew Cooke, Sue Tunstall, Nick Simmonds, Michael Oskam and Louise Hockaday.

Tags: clean language, clean questions, marian way, caitlin walker, metaphor, clean approaches for coaches

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About the author

Marian Way

Company Director & Trainer, Portchester, Fareham
Marian founded Clean Learning in 2001, following a successful career as a maths teacher, then many years developing and delivering world-famous learning programmes with an international organisation. She is an expert Clean facilitator, is an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. Marian designs our programmes and workbooks. She leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She's trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor. Marian's book, Clean Approaches for Coaches was published in February, 2013.

How do you describe Clean Language to a new or prospective client?

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