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Living with Ambiguity


A couple of words often used in association with Clean Language are ‘curiosity’ and ‘neutrality’. A Clean Language coach is accepting of everything a client says, not favouring one piece of information over another, but remaining neutral - like an impartial observer. At the same time, clean coaching is about encouraging clients to be curious about their own words, metaphors and gestures; it’s about helping them to find out more about their unconscious patterns – and the best way to encourage that curiosity is for the coach to be curious first.

If you are a newcomer to Clean Language, you may wonder how it’s possible to be curious and neutral at the same time. This can sound like an ambiguous instruction! What’s more, it’s only one example of how Clean Language coaching can be ambiguous. Others ambiguities include:

  • Helping clients to separate out different aspects of their experiences, and, at the same time helping them to create a model of how they do what they do.
  • Encouraging the conditions for change while knowing there’s nothing you can do to make change happen.
  • Recognising that if you try to make something happen, the client is likely to detect this and be distracted, and that in itself will make change less likely. (Conversely, the less you interfere, the more likely it is that change will happen.)
  • Exploring a metaphor to highlight certain aspects of an experience, while knowing that it will hide other aspects.
  • Actively welcoming of each answer the client gives, while your own ‘I-ness ... should appear to cease to exist’. (David Grove)
  • Updating your model of the client’s model (so you can ask questions that fit its logic) while remembering that you can never really know that model.
  • Getting ‘comfortable with not knowing’. (Lawley and Tompkins, 1997).

These ambiguities are not there to make life difficult. They reflect the reality of the situation: client’s models of the world are often complex and ‘fuzzy’. Words are ambiguous and mean different things to different people. Even a word like ‘house’ has many meanings. Plus clients don’t fit neatly into boxes of our making, and if we create a system of coaching that’s full of rules and assumptions, there will always be individuals who differ from the norm, and then what do we do?

Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling are designed to accommodate paradox and improve your skills in dealing with ambiguity:

  • Curiosity and neutrality are built into the design of the questions.
  • The questions enable us to shape the process and stay out of the picture.
  • The process itself enables us to accept and challenge, to separate and build.
  • The discipline of staying clean enable us to keep our ideas, suggestions and assumptions to ourselves.

You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have ideas about what could happen to resolve someone’s issues. When you coach cleanly you can test out your assumptions by asking clean questions. The idea is to ask those questions in such a way that every one of them is experienced by the client as a curious inquiry, so they are not concerned about what you are ‘up to’ at any particular time. If one line of enquiry proves not to be fruitful, then you can easily move onto another, no harm done. Over time, your capacity for dealing with ambiguity will grow, which will further increase your ability to model.

Participants on our trainings will often ask questions beginning with, “What if ... “

  • What if the client doesn’t have any metaphors?
  • What if the client can’t answer my question?
  • What if I ask about ‘blue’, and they tell me about ‘green’?

After a while, everyone knows that my answer will begin with, ‘It depends on ....’ Every situation is different and there is no ‘right’ question or ‘correct’ word or phrase we should be asking about. The best I can do with these kinds of question is offer a rule of thumb, based on my experience over the years. For example, I have realised that the decision about which word/phrase/symbol/metaphor to ask about is more important than the choice of the question itself.

Another rule of thumb is to ask about the metaphors that emerge as you work: but if a client doesn’t seem receptive to this, I drop that in favour of questions that I think will make sense to them.

It’s like I am choosing between several playing cards in a game of bridge: at any time, I am choosing the card that gives my partner (the client) and me the best chance of success. For me:

  • Asking about a metaphor trumps asking about a concept.
  • But asking a question that fits the client’s may might trump asking about a metaphor.
  • Staying clean trumps other kinds of questioning.
  • Questioning trumps telling the client what to do.

The above extract is from my book, Clean Approaches for Coaches, which gives many ideas and models for helping you to determine what question to ask in any particular situation. This book will give you a really good grounding in Clean Language. You’ll learn about the different kinds of information you can be paying attention to and about the effects you can expect different questions to have. You’ll learn to work with the metaphors of form and space and time and you’ll gain an understanding of the general flow of a clean coaching session.

However, there is only so much that can be done in writing to guide you through the ambiguities and paradoxes that are integral to this work. I was speaking with a coach earlier this week who has been reading the book but finding the application of Clean Language quite tricky due to his own feeling that he should say something to fill the silence, that he should provide answers when a client is stuck. Nothing I could have said about this would have set his mind at rest regarding the value of clean questioning. Instead I used clean questions to help him to uncover what was happening for him, which allowed him to find some ideas about how he might progress – he needed some ‘fresh air’ to come from above to cool and support him and give him strength. There is no way I could have guessed at this solution – which, of course, turned out to be just the right thing for him.

If you really want to embed these skills, have the questions at the tip of your tongue and become “comfortable with not knowing”, we recommend you supplement your reading by joining us our Clean Language: Core Skills training.

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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