The Principles of Clean Language

What Clean Language is All About

Clean Language was developed by David Grove in order to help people to access more information about their own experience, rather than be influenced by a therapist’s ideas. He did not want to lead his clients. Of course, there are many more contexts where it is important not to lead someone, such as research interviews, police interviews and in court cases. Teachers, health workers and managers have also found it often helps to keep their own thinking to themselves and to encourage students, patients and employees to access their own ideas. Clean Language offers a way of achieving this.

The fundamental principles of Clean Language are quite simple:

  • Listen attentively.
  • Keep your opinions, advice and interpretations to yourself.
  • Ask Clean Language questions to help someone to explore their metaphors or the effect of metaphors in their thoughts – using their exact words.
  • Listen to the responses and ask further Clean Language questions about what they have said.

Clean Language is particularly useful for people who want to access difficult-to-describe internal states such as fear, anxiety, decision-making and creativity. By asking clean questions of the metaphors people use quite naturally to describe these aspects of their experience, they can learn more about the structure of that experience and this in turn can lead to new thoughts, new decisions and new actions.

Business coach Mike Duckett used Clean Language coaching when working with chef and restaurant owner Heston Blumenthal O.B.E. to develop his metaphor of being like ‘a kid in a sweet shop’. Heston's metaphor included an old-fashioned sweet shop doorbell that rings as you enter, an apparently infinite stock of sweets in jars and the different aromas of the sweets. Within his mind, he wanted to express the feelings of curiosity, excitement and anticipation that arose as one moves around the shoplifting lids off jars and even the somewhat obscure feeling of the weight of coins in his pocket.

As a result, Blumenthal took the decision to design his kitchen at the famous "Fat Duck" restaurant and the clientele’s overall dining experience more like an olde-worlde sweet shop, to promote feelings of excitement and curiosity in each diner.

I found our work to explore my metaphoric sweet shop really helpful on a number of levels. At first it helped me regain my creativity and now that creativity has itself fed back into using metaphor to enhance our customers’ dining experience. 
Heston Blumenthal, 2006.
I use Clean Language to facilitate my clients’ self-modelling in a generative way because they gain so much from the process to lift their performance. Also it offers me a means of staying true to the coaching principle that my clients are the experts and I should add as little as possible to their inner world. 

Mike Duckett, 2006.

Another benefit of using clean techniques and encouraging people to come up with their own ideas is that they are much more likely to act on their own ideas than advice or suggestions from others. This in turn can increase feelings of autonomy and empowerment.

In 2012, Fe Robinson investigated whether Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling  (you can learn this on our course) could have an effect on employee well-being amongst people facing ambiguity and rapid change at work. She conducted well-being measurements using the Ryff Scales of physiological well-being, with sub-scales for self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life and personal growth.

Participants were then divided into three groups:

  • Control group – no intervention
  • One-hour one-to-one Symbolic Modelling session on ‘organisational change at its best.'
  • 90-minute workshop where participants learned and practised Clean Language questions, with a similar focus on organisational change at its best

A week later, when the tests were run again, there was a significant increase in the ‘autonomy’ scores for those who had received individual coaching sessions.

Final tests were run 12 weeks later. At this point the average scores for ‘environmental mastery’, ‘personal growth’ and “overall well-being” were significantly higher for the groups who’d received one of the interventions, while overall well-being fell for the control group. This suggests that Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling interventions may have counteracted the negative effect of imposed change.

Tags: clean language, clean questions, metaphor, symbolic modelling, clean coaching, business, training, coaching

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About the author

Marian Way

Company Director & Trainer, Portchester, Fareham
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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