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Metaphors And Their Use Within Clean Language Coaching


From Shakespeare to Shelley and from advertisers to politicians, people across the world have leveraged the effects of metaphor to convey new ideas and concepts and to appeal to our emotions.

But metaphors are not just for when we are being creative. We use metaphors every day for communicating complex ideas. In fact, researchers estimate that we use, on average, six metaphors per minute in ordinary speech (Pollio, 1994). This is because metaphors underpin our thinking and rise to the surface in the words we use. Some are very obvious: I’m banging my head against a brick wall; there’s a big knot in my stomach; he’s burying his head in the sand. Others are embedded in our sentences and do not stand out as much: I’m building a new business; I am bottling up my feelings; I need to follow through on my tasks.

Using clean techniques, it’s possible to develop the metaphors that occur quite naturally as we speak and to reveal more about our thought processes. It’s possible to uncover thoughts we’ve not been conscious of and to bring them into awareness, where they can be more fully understood.

This significant feature of Clean Language has many practical applications, for example:

  • To allow us to get in touch with our gut feelings about an issue, even when we don’t yet have words to convey them. By asking Clean Language questions to locate the feelings and find out more about them, a metaphor can gradually be teased out that contains the essence of those feelings. Once expressed as a metaphor those feelings can then be explained to others.
  • To solve problems. Sometimes it’s only when we have an accurate metaphor to describe the problem – one that lets us see a previously ‘hidden’ aspect – that we can find a way to solve it.

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.”
Prof Orson Scott Card

  • To develop our inner resources. Clean Language coaching can help us to get in touch with our strengths and learn more about them. For example, if someone discovers that when they learn at their best they are like a ‘firework’ and need to be around other people who can ignite their ideas, they can then improve their learning experiences by putting themselves in situations where they can meet with people who can spark new thinking. If someone else discovers that they work at their best when they are a like runner in a relay race, with a focus on speed and teamwork, they can use this knowledge to apply for work where those qualities will be valued.
  • Using Clean Language to unpack metaphors can improve understanding within groups. A group may think of themselves as a winning team, and at the surface level it may seem as though the metaphor is shared – but it’s highly likely that the word ‘team’ will mean different things to different people. With training in Clean Language, you can help a group to learn more about each individual’s interpretation of ‘winning team’. For example, is the metaphorical team an athletics team, an aircraft crew, or a team of detectives? By encouraging everyone in a group to share their metaphors, deeper understandings can emerge – and new shared metaphors can evolve which are much more meaningful.

Clean Language was devised by New Zealand-born clinical psychologist, David Grove, while working with sexual abuse survivors and war veterans during the 1980s and 1990s.

David wanted to ensure that his clients were able to explore their own thinking fully, and not be hampered by having to figure out what his questions meant, or having to rebuff any assumptions he might be making. So he developed a number of ‘clean’ questions, where the metaphor ‘clean’ refers to the simplicity of the questions and the lack of assumptions and ideas in them. For example, instead of, “Tell me what you feel about that”, he would say, “Is there anything else about that?” And rather than paraphrasing what his client had said, he would repeat it verbatim.

David’s interest in metaphor coincided with the time he was developing clean questions. He found that by using Clean Language to develop the metaphors a person used, he could work more directly with their unique experience – and their learning experience would be more profound.

“The first objective is to keep the language clean and allow the client’s language to manifest itself”.
David Grove

While David Grove did not publish widely (his only book was Resolving Traumatic Memories) his methods achieved outstanding results, which attracted worldwide attention in the therapeutic community.

David Grove said that Clean Language has to, understandably, be simple because clients are complex. By not introducing any judgement, influence or alien content, Clean Language limits distractions. This means the client has little choice but to work with who they are, whether they like that or not. They can fool themselves and they can fight themselves, but sooner or later they realise they are only doing this to stay the same. And Clean Language can also help them to find out what they would like to have happen when they realise this.

David worked with and trained thousands of people around the globe, many of whom went on to use his methods in their own work. When Penny Tompkins and James Lawley came across David and his work, they went one step further and modelled in detail how David was achieving his results, creating a description of his work they called Symbolic Modelling. Learning this methodology has enabled thousands more of us to benefit from the genius of David Grove, who died in 2008.

Photo: Billy Hicks

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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