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Clean Language

 What is Clean Language?

If you’re interested in understanding people, how they think and how they change,

You’ll want to know about Clean Language. It’s an impressively versatile tool.

Tool will demonstrate how you can use Clean Language to make an immediate impact in your work, and personal life.

Here are six of the ways it can be used:
  1. To harvest information from another person: what they know, what they think, how they feel
  2. To explore “unknown knowns” – the deeper things that people don’t realize that they know – respectfully
  3. To shift someone’s emotional state
  4. To motivate someone to change
  5. To give and get effective, useable feedback
  6. To enhance relationships between people – even people in conflict.

But it’s not a Language! It’s not even, really, about the Language.

Purpose of Clean Language

  • “To acknowledge the client’s experience exactly as they describe it”
    • Maintaining the client’s words, emphasis, gestures, information location & their logic
  • “To orientate the client’s attention to a specific aspect of their perception”
    • It is directive and precise!
  • “To send them on a quest for self-knowledge”
    • Increased self-awareness through self-modelling
Than! What is an Experience?
  • Sensory
  • Conceptual
  • Metaphorical
“It is nearly impossible to describe internal states, abstract ideas and complex notions without using metaphor”
  • Penny Tomkins & James Lawley

While people often make use of common metaphors and clichés, the moment these are explored they become idiosyncratic and unique to the individual

An individual’s use of metaphor has a coherent logic that is consistent over time

Once a person settles on a particular metaphorical perspective there are logical consequences that follow, and result in behaviour that is consistent with the metaphor  

When a person’s basic metaphor changes so does their view of the world, the decisions they make and the actions they take.
The client’s experience can be define as follows;

Start by getting the person thinking about the thing, noticing and talking about its features. Encourage them not to judge, just to notice.


Probe a bit deeper, getting them to notice the things they didn’t know they knew about the thing.


Once they are “treating their imaginary friend as real”, and perhaps starting to gesture vigorously, notice the metaphors they are already using to talk about the thing. The chances are that it’s already like… something.

So, what is a Normal Conversation!

If they are using a metaphor at this point, play it back to them in your Clean Language questions so that they start to notice it, validate it and expand on it.


If they don’t seem to be using metaphorical words, ask for a metaphor, using the features of what they’ve been talking about.

“And that’s <feature> and <feature> and <feature> like… what?”

Once you have a metaphor, stick with your non-judgmental attitude and help them to develop it using Clean Language questions;


The basic clean language questions (established by David Grove)

In these questions, X and Y represent the person’s words (or non-verbal)
  1. Developing Questions
  • “(And) what kind of X (is that X)?”
  • “(And) is there anything else about X?”
  • “(And) where is X? Or (And) whereabouts is X?”
  • “(And) that’s X like what?” (this gets you the metaphor that you can then explore)
  • “(And) is there a relationship between X and Y?”
  • “(And) when X, what happens to Y?”
  1. Sequence and Source Questions
  • “(And) then what happens? Or (And) what happens next?”
  • “(And) what happens just before X?”
  • “(And) where could X come from?”
  1. Intention Questions
  • “(And) what would X like to have happen?”
  • “(And) what needs to happen for X?”
  • “(And) can X (happen)?”

How do you know which questions you will ask next? Start from states..

Before closing the conversation, invite them to draw a picture or diagram of what they know now.


Now it`s clear that “Clean Language” is

  • not about speaking clearly, or
  • not using jargon, or
  • not swearing!

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