Clean Language in Coaching

Clean Language in Coaching

Clean Language was developed by New Zealander David Grove, a counselling psychologist working with trauma victims in the 1980s. He discovered that his patients would often use metaphors to describe their internal experiences and that when he reflected and asked questions of his patients using their own words he avoided distorting or contaminating questions or leading them away from their subjective experiences.

Grove also noticed that when attention was given to the client’s metaphorical language, they could access a deeper and more embodied level of experience – uncovering how they think, their default patterns, and what truly mattered to them. Grove noticed that the use of language can either be directed toward the client’s experience or can be focused on the coach’s interpretation and meaning-making, which directs the experience away from what the client is experiencing.

Clean Language is a technique that takes the client’s exact words, reflects those words back to the client, and uses those words to ask a question. This ensures that the coach does not taint the client’s thinking with their own interpretations or thought processes with the words the coach uses.

Naturally occurring metaphors are enhanced with the use of Clean Language, offering an in-depth understanding and insight into the client’s symbolic world and their experiences. Using the client’s exact words helps them identify their symbolic mind-body perceptions. Through the process of evolving these metaphors, the coach facilitates the client’s increased self-awareness.

Clean Language and Clean Questions are a simple set of questions that use the client’s own words to direct their attention to some aspect of their experience. Directing toward the client’s own experience is important because it takes the focus away from the coach or a thing and focuses it on the client’s experience instead.

Using clean language prevents any influencing, advising, judgment, or opinion offering by the coach. In a coaching relationship, the coach is conscious of and practices respectful dialogue. However, even though the coach may think they are not leading the conversation or bringing in their viewpoint, their processes inevitably come out in their use of language. The more the coach thinks about this, the more likely they are to notice their own language; the metaphors, and the personal landscape they naturally refer to as they speak.

Clean language can be used with any client, and at any stage throughout the coaching session by attending to the client’s experiences and understandings and helping them discover what is underneath or behind the words they use as well as facilitating the understanding of their own patterns, establishing the opportunity to work with new perspectives, including the use of metaphor.

To avoid bringing their own biases into the conversation the coach listens actively for the client’s words and frames their questions with those words. The coach would make use of Clean Language to encourage the client to notice and reflect on their own language and make meaning of their personal landscape.

The Structure of Clean Language

Unless it is the client’s language all pronouns are removed to keep the attention on the client’s experiences and not on the coach or anyone else. Instead of asking “Can you tell me about what matters to you about what [name] said?” the coach would ask “What else about that?”

Make use of the words That and And:

That” – this word points to the aspect of the client’s inner landscape. E.g., If the Client says, “I want to feel less stressed” the coach would ask “What kind of stressed is that?”

And” – this word acknowledges and joins the client’s words with the coach’s words. E.g., If the Client says, “The stress is like a tight grip on me that won’t release” the coach would say “And that tight grip that won’t release, what else about that?”

Most verbs are dropped and replaced with “to be” and “to happen”. E.g., If the client says, ‘I feel like I’m doing it to myself by overloading myself” the coach could say “And what would you like to have happen?”.

From the very start of a coaching session to the end Clean Language can be interspersed carefully. To open the coaching conversation the coach might ask” And where would you like to start?” This example of clean language prevents the coach from influencing a particular approach.

Possible example questions within the coaching session using the client’s exact words:

The client says, “I feel like I’m off track”.
The coach could reply with any one of the following:

  • “And there’s going off-track and going off-track is like what?”
  • “And where does that going off-track come from?”
  • “What more about that going off-track is there?”

The client says, “I’m feeling frustrated”.
The coach could reply with any one of the following:

  • “What kind of frustration is that?”
  • “And frustration, what happens just before the frustration?”
  • What would you like frustration to be?”

The client says, “I feel like in these situations I start to doubt myself”.
The coach could reply with any one of the following: 

  • “And you start to doubt yourself, and what kind of doubting yourself is that?”
  • “And what happens next?”
  • “And what would you like to be?”

Possible example questions to encourage exploration and understanding of self using the client’s own words (in bold):

  • “When you’re at your best, you’re like what?”
  • “What do you see and hear when you’re at your most creative?”
  • “And what happens just before you do the work for them?”
  • “And it’s hard to know, what kind of hard to know is that?”

Possible example questions for supporting the client to reframe or move forward with a new perspective using the client's own words (in bold):

  • “And where would you like to be with presence?”
  • “What needs to happen with that frustration?”
  • “And doubting yourself comes from where?”
  • “How else might this be for directing the conversation?”
  • “What can you do with that?”
  • “If you were to direct the conversation, it would be like what?”

Example of an unclean language conversation:

Client: I feel as though my career has come to a standstill.
Coach: Is there room for advancement in your team? What would you need to upskill on?
Client: Not really, but basically I feel like I’ve come to a grinding halt.
Coach: What are your options?

Example of a clean language conversation:

Client: I feel as though my career has come to a standstill.
Coach: Come to a standstill, what type of standstill is that?
Client: One where I can’t move forwards or sideways.
Coach: And what else about that standstill?
Client: My options don’t feel interesting to me anymore.
Coach: Where would you like to be with options?

You can learn more about Clean Language with Caitlin Walker’s work from this Ted Talk: TEDx Merseyside – Caitlin Walker – Clean Questions and Metaphor Models and her website CleanLearning

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