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Modelling Conversationally


Practice Group Report

At the start of the meeting we acknowledged what a wonderful legacy David Grove has left us and how sad it is that he has died.

As our ‘open space’ meeting last month had gone well, we used that approach again. The topics people brought to the group were:

  • Using Clean Language to model a strength / talent / resource - and what insights could be gained from doing that.

  • Clean conversations

  • Find out about clean

  • Modelling what ‘clean’ is to you

  • Can clean help people who put things off?

  • “Muddying” clean with general rapport building

  • Examples of Clean questions

From this list, the top choice was “Clean Conversations” and the two modelling topics (modelling strengths and modelling what is Clean Language) were equal second. So we decided to use clean conversationally to do some modelling. We worked in threes and it was up to the ‘client’ or ‘focus’ to decide what they would like to self model.

We had a short discussion on our initial ideas about conversational clean (e.g. dropping the three part syntax, having an intention to stay clean) and when we re-convened, we discussed what we had learned about working with clean conversationally… This mainly involved sprinkling the conversation with more ‘normal’ phraseology such as:

  • You said that…

  • You know you said…

  • Can I just remind you…

  • Remember you said…

  • Shall I just recap?

  • My understanding of… (either use their words or make own assumptions explicit)

  • Reflecting on what you’ve just said…

  • Tell me more about that…

  • I suppose that… (again make assumption explicit - if wrong this may provoke them to get clarity about how it really is for them)

We also noted that saying ‘So…’, or ‘Aha’ didn’t seem to work (in the conversations in question) and we talked about the importance of staying with a person’s metaphor and being curious.

It became clear during our discussions that (not surprisingly) people had interpreted ‘clean conversation’ in different ways. The word ‘conversation’ implies a two-way interaction*, so some people were aiming to have some input of their own during the conversation, while others interpreted it as meaning ‘going in and out of clean’ during the conversation.

In terms of modelling people’s perceptions of Clean Language, here are some snippets that emerged:

  • the value of showing respect
  • enjoying the community of practitioners whose value is sharing
  • the ability to move beyond the conscious mind to the unconscious mind where solutions might be
  • being able to trust my intuition
  • it’s an anchor - it stops facilitator and client from drifting away - and gives me confidence
  • a memory trigger
  • it’s simple - fewer words means less contamination
  • it gives me freedom - it’s a ‘forgiving’ way of working - every question can lead to an insight and as long as I’m using their words I am still being clean
  • there’s no resistance
  • even with limited skills, I feel reassured that as long as it is my intention to be clean it will be ok
  • it gets to the heart of things quickly
  • it puts meat on the bones
  • it is like I am going through the jungle - and Clean Language is the map in my pocket
  • it is like having a blank sheet of paper on which the person’s words appear, like a treasure map
  • it’s like I write on the sand and then the sea comes along and hides some of the writing, and more is written

Those who spent the time modelling their strengths and talents reported that they gained a lot from the exercise, although no one shared specific discoveries.


After the meeting, Monica was looking at the messages about David on www.cleanforum.com and came across a description of David talking about Clean Language at a practice group in Yorkshire about 10 years ago…

“It’s not a language of discourse.” David is strong on this point, that Clean Language is not about having a conversation. One of the main considerations is “where is the locus, the centre point of your piece of communication?” he asks.

David gave the example of “I want you to tell me about yourself”, and how the locus shifts. “I want” (speaker) “you” (to the subject) “to tell me” (back to the speaker) “about” (somewhere) “yourself” (back to the subject). Here the locus is moving backwards and forwards.

With Clean Language the locus shifts to the other person and stays there, it resides in their experience, which is why Clean Language questions are felt.

He then went on to talk about how Clean Language is information centred. Instead of the locus moving backwards and forwards, as it does in the me-discussion-you type set up, the locus stays with the information coming from the client - that is, it doesn’t stay with the questioner OR the client but with the information. David explained how the word “you” is disastrous in terms of Clean Language, since it goes to the ego state which can do nothing. It also discriminates, ignoring the basic principle which is that ALL information is of importance.

Repetition is also important in Clean Language, by packing the active component (the repeating of the client’s own words) in an inert substance (the expanded syntax of a Clean Language question) it becomes more powerful. This is allied to the delivery of the question and the importance of the rhythm, tone and poetry of the questions. A good Clean Language question feels right rather than being grammatically right. Ending a question with the client’s own words ‘rhymes’ with them even though it may not be grammatically ‘right’.

As he said, “it’s Clean Language when it feels right”.

After I had been reminded of all of this, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the term “Clean Conversation” is an oxymoron?

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

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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