Watch Your Language! » Mind Tools Blog

Watch Your Language!

January 2, 2015


Last year I did an introductory counselling course. I thought counselling was about giving people advice, but it’s not – it’s mostly about listening, and using certain techniques to help draw out information from people to help them resolve their issues themselves.

One of the counselling techniques I learned is called paraphrasing – repeating back to a client parts of her story. This helps the other person know that her story is being listened to. For example, if someone was telling you in detail about a family event that had been stressful, and about a hurtful comment that someone made, you might summarize by saying, “The family event was stressful, and the comment hurt your feelings.” This gives the person the opportunity to agree with what you’ve said and continue telling you more, or to clarify what she meant if you didn’t understand properly.

You can take this further with reflecting the same words back to your client that she used. This shows the client that you’re paying close attention and that you’ve understood the feelings and emotions she is experiencing when sharing her story. It is like holding up a mirror to other person. For instance, if the person says to you, “The family event was so stressful. I just feel useless and an idiot,” you might reflect this information back and ask her a question to try and find out more information. For example, “You say the event was stressful and that you felt useless and like an idiot. Why in particular did you feel like an idiot?”

Another way I discovered how to get the most from a counselling session is to adopt the right body language and tone of voice. You need to be aware of what your arms and legs are doing and of your facial expression, to avoid inadvertently influencing the other person. For example, crossing your arms may give out the impression that you are uninterested in what your client has to say. Or, if your voice is monotonous, your client may think you’re bored and don’t want to be there!

There are quite a few parallels between what I learned from counselling and Clean Language, a coaching technique that evolved from psychotherapy. The creator, David Grove, realized that many therapists subtly influenced what their clients were saying during their sessions by using their own thoughts, assumptions and metaphors. Grove observed that it’s important to avoid this kind of ‘unclean’ language because it affects clients’ decision making and limits their ability to resolve issues themselves.

This is why Grove created his Clean Language. The approach is simple. The questioner should keep his thoughts, assumptions and metaphors out of the conversation as much as possible. And, if the other person uses a metaphor to describe something, the listener must use a series of questions to help him or her understand the meaning of what the speaker is saying. Another aspect of Clean Language is mimicking the speaker’s intonation and body language as much as possible to help the person to relax, open up and explore his or her thoughts and feelings.

Although Clean Language originated in psychotherapy, there are many benefits of using it in the workplace. Today’s article explores some of the ways you can communicate with greater clarity, and improve your team’s self-awareness and personal development by adopting this approach.

First, the technique helps increase your team member’s self-awareness. You reflect his own language, and the repetition enables him to spot patterns and associations in his thinking, which helps him develop new insights about himself. Clean Language also helps you build rapport with your team members. When you use the team’s language, people will feel supported, respected and listened to, and motivated to improve their situation.

Clean Language can be useful in coaching or mentoring sessions, as it can bring hidden or subconscious thoughts and perceptions to the surface; and this allows team members to develop greater self-awareness. But you can apply this approach in a number of settings, for instance, you could use it during recruitment interviews, to probe more deeply into candidates’ answers to your questions and find out more information. It’s also useful when resolving conflict, as it can help both parties understand the situation more clearly.

Question: How do you think Clean Language might benefit your team? Share your ideas below!

3 thoughts on “Watch Your Language!

  1. Caroline Smith wrote:

    Thanks to both of you for your comments and suggestions. I think you’re both right about using it in the right environment, such as coaching. The technique is certainly not one that you could use without practice and lots of role playing!

    If anyone has actually used this in a business situation, we’d love to hear from you.

  2. Bruce Murray wrote:

    Used selectively, paraphrasing assures effective communication, especially with emotional issues. Too much of it and the mimicking causes the speaker to feel mocked … especially, as Bruce H.’s suggests, with power imbalances.

    Glad you held off on the “Clean Language” statement until you explained your thoughts or I’d be p)ssed off about your warning me not to use my d#mn swear words. 🙂

  3. Bruce Harpham wrote:

    I can see ways to apply this concept, yet I wonder how it would work given the power dynamics of most organizations.

    In the project management world, this approach can be used to gather requirements from stakeholders.

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