Clean Language

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Clean Language is a technique that is used especially in psychotherapy and coaching, and more recently as a research interview technique. Clean Language helps clients to discover and develop symbols and metaphors without any content introduced by the therapist/coach/interviewer.

Clean Language was developed by David Grove in the 1980s as a result of his work on clinical methods for resolving clients' traumatic memories.[1] As James Lawley and Penny Tompkins describe it, "He realized that many clients naturally described their symptoms in metaphor, and found that when he enquired about these using their exact words, their perception of the trauma began to change."[2]

Clean Language also is the basis of symbolic modeling, a stand-alone method and process for psychotherapy and coaching, developed by Lawley and Tompkins.

David Grove[edit]

Clean Language was founded by New Zealand-born and educated David Grove, who drew on his bi cultural (Māori/Pākeha) roots when designing the therapeutic and coaching communication process. Grove had degrees from the universities of Canterbury and Otago and a Masters in Counseling Psychology at the State University of Minnesota. Grove served as a consulting psychologist with the London Phobic Trust, and published a book with Basil Panzer, Resolving traumatic memories: metaphors and symbols in psychotherapy. (1989, Irvington).[3][4]

Clean Language in detail[edit]

In a very specific way, clean language combines four general elements of communication: syntax, wording, vocal qualities, and non-verbals.

Note: psychiatrists refer to the person asking questions as the 'facilitator' (or questioner) and the person receiving the questions the 'client' (or questionee). This habit comes from the therapeutic roots of the Clean Language process. Depending on the context, these labels could be 'coach' and 'coachee', 'interviewer' and 'interviewee', or 'doctor' and 'patient'.


Clean Language questions are cleansed as far as possible of anything that comes from the questioner's "maps" — metaphors, assumptions, paradigms or sensations — that could direct the questionee's attention away from increased awareness of his or her own metaphorical representation of experience.

Clean Language offers a template for questions that are as free as possible of the questioner's inferences, presuppositions, mind-reading, second guessing, references and metaphors. Clean questions incorporate all or some of the client's specific phrasing and might also include other auditory components of the client's communication such as sighs, pitch, tonality, etc. The questioner might also draw attention to any non-verbal signals that coincide with the client's auditory output, e.g., a fist being raised simultaneously with a sigh, that might also represent elements of the client's metaphorical representation of experience.

Vocal qualities[edit]

Where client's words are used, the vocal qualities of the client's words are repeated. In therapeutic applications, the questioner's words are often given slower, with a rhythmic, poetic and curious[clarification needed] tonality. In everyday interactions the facilitator can maintain their usual tone of interest. Voice speed, tone and volume can all affect the kind of attention the client pays to their own experience. Slow, rhythmic questions can lead towards a deeper, more trance-like experience for the client, while a conversational approach seems to encourage more cognitive, conceptual processing.[citation needed]


'Nonverbals' is the short form of 'non-verbal communication', that is, all the ways the client is expressing them-self in conversation without the use of spoken language. These include gestures, line-of-sight, sighs, oral sounds (oos and ahs), posture and movement.

Besides the words of the client, nonverbals are repeated or referenced in a question as far as the questioner noticed them and if they might be of symbolic significance.

Note: Clean Language facilitators do not follow popular generalised assumptions about the meaning of 'body language' (e.g. assuming that crossed arms mean the person is 'closed'), preferring to ask and find out what such behaviour means to the client.


Clean Language questions are designed to reduce to a minimum any influence from the facilitator's 'map of the world' via his or her metaphors, interpretations or unwarranted assumptions. They are also designed to direct the client's attention to some aspect of their experience (as expressed in their words or non-verbal expressions) that the facilitator has noticed and chooses to highlight for the client's potential learning. An example dialog is as follows:

Client: "I feel strange."
Non-Clean Language facilitator responses might include:
  • "Have you got a headache?"
  • "Are you ill?"
  • "You're probably catching a cold."
  • "You must be hung-over!"
  • "Stop complaining! Take a pill..." etc.
Clean Language facilitator responses might include:
  • "Where do you feel strange?"
  • "What kind of strange?"
  • "Strange like what?"
  • "Is there anything else about that 'feels strange'?"
  • "What happens just before you feel strange?"

While there are between 8 and 12 basic Clean Language questions that David Grove used about 80% of the time,[5] the concept of being 'clean' resides not only in the questions themselves but also in the intention of the facilitator.

Research Methodology[edit]

Clean Language is being used to enhance the authenticity and rigour of interview-based qualitative research. One application is as a method for eliciting naturally occurring metaphors in order to provide in-depth understanding of a person's symbolic world.[6]

A growing number of research projects are using Clean Language interviewing. For example, exploring the subjectivity of coachees' experience and outcomes;[7] comparing the evidence of coach competency from three perspectives;[8] a study at Masaryk University investigated tacit and explicit knowledge acquisition among student teachers.[9]


  1. ^ Grove & Panzer 1989
  2. ^
  3. ^ Death Notices in New Zealand Herald (Auckland) of 17 January 2008.
  4. ^ Obituary, NZAC Counselling Today, June 2008
  5. ^ Lawley & Tompkins 2000
  6. ^ Tosey et. al. 2014
  7. ^ Linder-Pelz & Lawley 2015
  8. ^ Lawley & Linder-Plez 2016
  9. ^ Švec, Nehyba & Svojanovský 2017
  • Grove, David J. & Panzer, Basil I. (1989) Resolving Traumatic Memories: Metaphors and Symbols in Psychotherapy. Irvington, New York ISBN 0829024077
  • Lawley, James & Tompkins, Penny. (2000). Metaphors in Mind: Transformation Through Symbolic Modelling. Developing Company Press, London, ISBN 0953875105
  • Lawley, J. & Linder-Pelz, S. (2016). Evidence of competency: exploring coach, coachee and expert evaluations of coaching, Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice.
  • Linder-Pelz, S. & Lawley, J. (2015). Using Clean Language to explore the subjectivity of coachees' experience and outcomes. International Coaching Psychology Review, 10(2):161-174 September 2015 ISSN: 1750-2764.
  • Sullivan, Wendy & Rees, Judy. Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Crown House, Carmarthen 2008, ISBN 1-84590-125-8 ISBN 978-1845901257
  • Švec, V., Nehyba, J. & Svojanovský, P. (Eds.). (2017). STUDENTI UČITELSTVÍ MEZI TACITNÍMI A EXPLICITNÍMI ZNALOSTMI Brno: Masaryk university MUNI press
  • Tosey, P., Lawley, J. and Meese, R. (2014), Eliciting Metaphor through Clean Language: An Innovation in Qualitative Research British Journal of Management, 25: 629–646. doi: 10.1111/1467-8551.12042

External links[edit]

  • homepage of the developers of Symbolic Modelling, with over 100 articles on Clean Language
  • news of applications of Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling, plus Clean community resources