Clean Thinking and Clean Language

Have you ever been in a situation where you say something that you regret later? For example,  I was with a close friend the other day trying to “help” her work through some problems.  The suggestions that I made to her were taken the wrong way and the conversation broke down.  Purely because I put too many of my own thoughts into the flow.

It made me think: I wondered whether there was a way we could communicate without putting our own ideas, suggestions and bias forward?  In my research,  I came across a whole system of communication that originates in psychotherapy that allows you to do just that!

The originator of the approach was a guy called David Grove (whom I never met) – who died far too young four years ago in January 2008.  The ideas behind the system have various names – but one of the best-known terms is that of “Clean Language” – popularised in an excellent book published shortly after Grove’s death called “Clean Language” by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees.

Rooted in the idea that we all live with our own very personal, subjective metaphors, the technique allows the person being questioned to explore those metaphors without any judgement or bias from the interviewer  or therapist.

The basics of using Clean Language are simple:

  • Keep your opinions and advice to yourself
  • Listen attentively
  • Ask Clean Language Questions to explore a person’s metaphors (or everyday statements)
  • Listen to the answers and then ask more Clean Language questions about what they have said
If the person being asked the Clean Language questions is seeking to change, then the change can happen naturally as part of the process.  It is not a technique to force change on anyone!  I have found that there are equally useful ways in which to use the method: whether it is gathering information on a project, interviewing someone or asking children about their own worlds that they live in.
In the book there are twelve basic questions in Clean Language with a further 19 “specialised” questions.   However, to get going, other articles refer to the five basic questions which are designed to help clients add detail and dimension to their perceptions:

1. “And is there anything else about [client’s words]?”

2. “And what kind of [client’s words] is that [client’s words]?”

3. “And that’s [client’s words] like what?”

4. “And where is [client’s words]?”

5. “And whereabouts [client’s words]?”

There is a great video on the use of Clean Language in therapy – with some interesting results:

Another strand of this line of research was published in an earlier book “Metaphors in Mind: Transforming through Symbolic Modelling” by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins in 2000.  There is a short two-part article by Lawley on some of these ideas as they apply to organisations which can be found here: Metaphors of Organisation – an angle to this whole work that I find fascinating.  There is also a quote from Gareth Morgan at the start of the article which sums-up some of the ideas:

“All theories of organisation and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.” 

To open up our thinking, Morgan seeks to do three things:

(1) To show that many conventional ideas about organisation and management are based on a small number of taken-for-granted images and metaphors.

(2) To explore a number of alternative metaphors to create new ways of thinking about organisation.

(3) To show how metaphor can be used to analyse and diagnose problems and to improve the management and design of organisations.

I wish I had known this a month ago before the encounter I described at the beginning of this thought.  The outcome would have been very different, I’m sure.  I’m also very interested to know if you use any of these ideas in the work that you do.  Please comment below if you have any thoughts or observations.  In the meantime, try using clean language in your everyday work and play – it is a really useful tool – even if you are not a fully-trained psychotherapist!  It is so clean it can’t hurt anyone – and can actually be quite fun realising how much of our own “stuff” we put into normal conversation.