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Clean Language is a technique that is used especially in psychotherapy and coaching. Clean Language helps client to discover and develop symbols and metaphors without being influenced by the phrasing of a question.
Clean Language was developed by David Grove in the 1980s as a result of his work on clinical methods for resolving clients' traumatic memories. 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."
Clean Language also is the basis of symbolic modeling, a stand-alone method and process for psychotherapy and coaching, which was developed by Lawley and Tompkins.
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).
Clean Language in detail
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.
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 tonality. In more everyday interactions the facilitator can maintain their normal tone of interest. Voice speed and tone and volume can all affect the kind of attention the client pays to their own experience. Slow, rhythmic questions can lead more towards a deeper, more trancy experience for the client while a conversational approach seems to encourage more cognitive, conceptual processing.
'Nonverbals' is the short form of 'non-verbal communication', that is, all the ways the client is expressing her- or him-self in conversation without the use of spoken language. These include gestures, line-of-sight, sighs, oral sounds (oos and ahs), body posture and movement.
Besides words of the client, also his or her nonverbals are repeated or referenced in the 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 'feel strange'?"
- "What happens just before you feel strange?"
While there is a set of 9+3[vague] basic Clean Language questions that get used about 80% of the time, the concept of being 'clean' resides not in the questions themselves (which are merely the medium) but in the intention of the facilitator.
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. 
- Death Notices in New Zealand Herald (Auckland) of 17 January 2008.
- Obituary, NZAC Counselling Today, June 2008
- Tosey et. al 2014
- Lawley, James & Tompkins, Penny. Metaphors in Mind: Transformation Through Symbolic Modelling. Developing Company Press, London 2000, ISBN 0-9538751-0-5
- Sullivan, Wendy & Rees, Judy. Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Crown House, Carmarthen 2008, ISBN 1-84590-125-8 ISBN 978-1845901257
- 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