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, Grove "realized that many clients naturally described their symptoms in metaphor, and found that when he enquired about these using [the client's] 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. Clean Language can also be used in addition to a therapist or coach's existing, approach.[3]

David Grove[edit]

Clean Language was founded by New Zealand-born and educated David Grove, who drew on his bicultural Māori/Pākeha roots when designing therapeutic and coaching methods. Grove had degrees from University of Canterbury and University of Otago in New Zealand, and a Masters in Counselling Psychology at Minnesota State University Moorhead. 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 (1989/1991). He died on 8 January 2008 [4][5]

Clean Language in detail[edit]

Clean Language combines four elements of communication: syntax, wording, vocal qualities, and non-verbals.[6]

Note: Practitioners of Clean Language often refer to the person asking questions as the 'facilitator' and the person receiving the questions the 'client'. 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'.


In a therapeutic context, Clean Language questions often make use of the “full 3-part syntax” which has the format:

And [client’s words/non-verbals] … and when/as [client’s words/ non-verbals] … [clean question]?

This structure is derived from Grove’s early hypnotic work, and is designed to direct attention, minimize cognitive load, and make it easier for the client to remain in the inner-directed state that the questions generate. Outside the therapeutic context, a more “everyday” syntax tends to be used.[7]


Clean Language questions seek to minimise content 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 thereby "diminishing their epistemological nature" [8].

Clean Language offers a template for questions that are as free as possible of the facilitator'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 facilitator can also draw attention to other non-verbal behaviour (e.g., a fist being raised simultaneously with a sigh) that might also represent elements of the client's experience.

Vocal qualities[edit]

Voice speed, tone and volume can all affect the kind of attention the client pays to their own experience.[9] 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 and poetic tonality. In everyday interactions the facilitator can maintain their usual tone of interest.


'Nonverbals' is the short form of 'non-verbal communication', that is, all the ways the client expresses him or herself without or in addition to spoken words. These include gestures, line-of-sight, sighs, oral sounds (oos and ahs), posture and movement.

Besides the words of the client, nonverbals can be replicated or referenced in a question when the facilitator considers they might be of symbolic significance to the client. The facilitator minimises their own nonverbal behaviour and does not mirror the client's gestures. Rather the facilitator uses gestures and eye-points that are congruent with the location of the client's imaginative symbols from the client's perspective.

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 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:
  • "I know this can be uncomfortable."
  • "Are you ill?"
  • "Do you want to feel normal?"
  • "What would happen if you didn't?"
  • "Stop complaining!"
Clean Language facilitator responses might include:
  • "And where do you feel strange?"
  • "And what kind of strange?"
  • "And that's strange like what?"
  • "And is there anything else about that 'feels strange'?"
  • "And what happens just before you feel strange?"
  • "And when you feel strange, what would you like to have happen?"

While there are between 8 and 12 basic Clean Language questions that David Grove used about 80% of the time,[10] 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.[11]

A growing number of research projects are using Clean Language interviewing. For example, exploring the subjectivity of coachees' experience and outcomes;[12] comparing the evidence of coach competency from three perspectives;[13] a study at Masaryk University investigated tacit and explicit knowledge acquisition among student teachers.[14]


  1. ^ Grove & Panzer 1989
  2. ^ Lawley, J & Tompkins P, Metaphors In Mind: A Case study. Anchor Point Vol. 15, No. 5, May 2001.
  3. ^ Owen, 1989
  4. ^ Death Notices in New Zealand Herald (Auckland), 17 January 2008.
  5. ^ Obituary, NZAC Counselling Today, June 2008
  6. ^ Lawley & Tompkins 2000
  7. ^ Martin 2007
  8. ^ Pincus & Sheikh, 2011
  9. ^ Gordon & Toukmanian, 2002
  10. ^ Lawley & Tompkins 2000
  11. ^ Tosey et. al. 2014
  12. ^ Linder-Pelz & Lawley 2015
  13. ^ Lawley & Linder-Plez 2016
  14. ^ Švec et al, 2017
  • Gordon, K. M., & Toukmanian, S. G. (2002). Is how it is said important? The association between quality of therapist interventions and client processing. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 2, 88–98. doi:10.1080/14733140212331384867
  • 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. doi:10.1080/17521882.2016.1186706
  • 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.
  • Owen, Ian R. (1989) Beyond Carl Rogers: The Work of David Grove, Holistic Medicine, 4:4, 186-196, doi:10.3109/13561828909046386
  • Martin, J.N.T. (2007). Book Review: Metaphors in Mind: Transformation Through Symbolic Modelling, Metaphor and Symbol, 22(2):201-211. doi:10.1080/10926480701235510
  • Pincus, D. & Sheikh, A.A. (2011) David Grove's Metaphor Therapy. Imagination, Cognition and Personality 30(3) 259-287. doi: 10.2190/IC.30.3.d
  • Sullivan, Wendy & Rees, Judy. (2008) Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Crown House, Carmarthen. ISBN 978-1845901257
  • Švec V, Nehyba J, Svojanovský P, Lawley J, Šíp R, Minaříková E, Pravdová B, Šimůnková B & Slavík J. (2017). Becoming a teacher: The dance between tacit and explicit knowledge. Brno: Masaryk University. ISBN 978-8021086050
  • Tosey, P., Lawley, J. & 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