David Grove's Clean Language

Communicating With Greater Clarity

David Grove's Clean Language - Communicating with Greater Clarity

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This mirroring technique helps people gain awareness of their feelings.

Janet has just started leading a new team, and she's eager to resolve some of the negative issues left by her predecessor, Rick. She sits down with one of her team members, Maureen, to discuss it.

Janet: I think we should talk about some of the conflicts that developed under Rick's leadership, because I want to help everyone in the team move on. Will you tell me what it was like working with him?

Maureen: Rick made me feel like I was under constant pressure to perform. Because of this, I was always running on empty. Almost everyone on the team felt the same.

Janet: Did he push you to hit weekly goals, or were his expectations too high overall?

Maureen: He just worked everyone on the team too hard. We all had to stay late most nights, and none of us want to go through that again.

Janet: Well, I want everyone to work hard but I'm not going to set any ambitious goals for the group.

If you happened to overhear this conversation, would you think that Janet had got to the root of Rick's mistakes? Probably not!

Janet is assuming that Rick pressured the team with ambitious goals. And – based on that – she made the decision not to set goals herself. But goal setting may not have been the team's problem: it could have been Rick's management style, for instance. But Janet didn't ask questions that would have helped her find that out.

This is a simple example of how communication can fail, especially when someone inadvertently injects her own assumptions into the conversation.

This is where "Clean Language" is useful, especially when you're talking one-on-one with team members. It helps you communicate with greater clarity, and improves people's self-awareness and personal development.

What Is Clean Language?

Psychotherapist David Grove developed the Clean Language technique in the 1980s, when he realized that many therapists subtly influenced what their clients said during their sessions. He noted that this was particularly true when it came to using metaphors.

In their 2003 book, "Metaphors We Live By," linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define a metaphor as a way of making sense of something by comparing it to something else. Here are some common examples;

  • He has a stormy disposition.
  • I'm over the moon about my promotion.
  • Sam is the heart of his team.
  • Efficiency is the driving force of our department.
  • The competition changed, but we buried our heads in the sand.
  • I can't digest what you're telling me.

Grove observed that our choice of metaphors is important because they help us shape our view of the world. He observed that we use metaphors far more than we realize and that, when therapists used them while working with clients, it affected clients' decision making and limited their ability to resolve issues themselves.

To combat this, Grove created 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 speaker uses a metaphor to describe something, the questioner must use a series of questions to try to understand the speaker's meaning.

The questioner should speak more slowly and in a slightly deeper voice than the other person, and try to mimic the speaker's intonation and body language as much as possible. This can help the speaker to relax, open up and explore his or her thoughts and feelings.

Clean Language Questions

There are nine basic Clean Language questions that help you clarify the speaker's meaning when she uses a metaphor:

  • And is there anything else about …?
  • And what kind of … is that …?
  • And where is …?
  • And whereabouts?
  • And what happens next?
  • And then what happens?
  • And what happens just before …?
  • And where could … come from?
  • And that's … like what?

Reproduced with permission from 'Metaphors in Mind' by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins. For more information about the "Symbolic Modelling" process, which uses the Clean Language questions, visit their website.


The Clean Language technique is often best grasped by comparing it with "regular" questioning techniques, which can be described as "Unclean."

Unclean Language

Team member: "I feel stuck in my department."

Coach: "Is your manager hard to work with? Or are there no opportunities for you to advance?"

Team member: "I guess there's little opportunity for advancement. I'm not sure. I just feel like I'm stuck there."

As you can see, the coach added her own ideas to the conversation before the team member could communicate exactly why he felt stuck.

The coach has led him to the idea that he has little opportunity to advance, instead of allowing him to arrive at this realization on his own. With a different use of language, he might have reached a deeper understanding of why he felt this way.

Clean Language

Team member: "I feel stuck in my department."

Coach: "You feel stuck. And what kind of stuck does that stuck look like?"

Team member: "I work on the same projects all the time. It's like I don't really matter."

Coach: "And is there anything else about feeling like you don't matter?"

Team member: "Well, I used to feel like I was valued. My boss always asked my opinion about big projects. But my new manager never seeks my advice or sends me challenging assignments. So I'm just spinning my wheels there."

By using the Clean Language approach, the team member realized that the real reason he felt stuck was because he no longer felt valued – the root of the problem was the relationship he had with his new boss.

As you can see, Clean Language calls for the questioner to keep her thoughts, assumptions and metaphors out of the dialog as much as possible, and allows the team member to develop and explore his own metaphors himself.

Benefits of Using Clean Language

Although Clean Language originated in psychotherapy, there are many benefits to using it in the workplace.

First, the technique helps increase your team member's self-awareness. You reflect her own metaphors, and the repetition enables her to spot patterns and associations in her thinking, which helps her develop new insights about herself.

Clean Language also helps you build rapport with people. When you use their language, they will feel supported, respected and listened to, and motivated to improve their situation.


Clean Language does take practice. Some of the technique might sound awkward or unwieldy at first, but role playing can help you become more comfortable using it.


Clean Language can be useful in coaching or mentoring sessions, as it can bring hidden or subconscious thoughts to the surface. 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. It's also useful when resolving conflict, as it can help both parties understand the situation more clearly.

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How to Use the Clean Language Technique

When you use Clean Language, you hold a mirror up to people and reflect their own words, gestures and vocal tones back to them.

Step 1: Listen for Metaphors

When you sit down with your team member, pay careful attention to what he says. Your goal is to identify when he uses metaphors to define his experiences.

Metaphors are often prefaced with the word "like." For instance, "I feel like a sick dog," or, "This department is like a sinking ship." Is the person describing something he is literally doing, or is he talking about what something is like?

For example, in the phrase, "Samira needs to build her confidence," "build" is a metaphor: she's not literally building her confidence in the same way you would build a house. It's a figure of speech.

Metaphors can also be single words that don't make sense when the phrase is taken literally, such as, "She's nuts!" Again, you're not saying someone's a nut – it's just an expression.

It can be incredibly challenging to identify metaphors at first, because many of them are common and we don't think twice about using them. This makes active listening skills very important!


Remember, your focus should be entirely on the person you're talking to. Don't share your opinions, or offer any advice. Whenever possible, use her own words in your questions.

Step 2: Slow Down and Mimic

When the person has finished speaking, use one of the nine Clean Language questions to help clarify what she's saying. Out of the nine, the first two are most popular.

  • And is there anything else about …?
  • And what kind of … is that …?

Aim to speak 50 percent slower than the other person, try to mimic her intonation and body language as much as possible, and speak in a slightly deeper voice than she does. This can help her relax, and makes it easier for her to explore her thoughts and feelings.

Step 3: Keep Going

Your coachee will likely have new insights with each Clean Language question you use. Keep asking questions until he has full explored his feelings, and has come to a solution for his situation.

Key Points

Psychotherapist David Grove developed the Clean Language technique in the 1980s. It aims to stop one person interfering in, or influencing, another's thoughts, by using specific questions and by "mirroring" the speaker's words and metaphors.

The approach is useful in coaching or mentoring sessions, as it helps team members develop greater self-awareness. Listen out for metaphors and ask appropriate questions to make the most of the technique. Use a deeper vocal tone, and reflect speakers' intonation and body language to encourage him or her to relax and open up.

Apply This to Your Life

  • In your next conversation, pay attention to how many metaphors the other person uses. They are often prefaced with the words, "It was like…," for example. The more you practice, the more adept you'll become at spotting them.
  • Count how many metaphors you use during the day. Try to reduce this number by using Clean Language when speaking with others.
  • Use Clean Language next time you're helping others with issues. Then reflect on what you learned.

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Comments (11)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi KWaid,

    As with many forms of mirroring, closely following the format sometimes doesn't feel genuine. Many people will adapt the model to make it work for them. I like the approach you suggest in your comment. It achieves the same result without repeating what the speaker says verbatim.

  • Over a month ago KWaid wrote
    I too have a concern about feeling like I'm parroting someone. What I find works quite well is to take a moment to contemplate a statement like "I'm frustrated that this project is overwhelming," and simply say "Tell me more about overwhelming..." I find staff tend to respond well and I get more information that helps in joint problem solving.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi markw1509,

    I agree that you have to be careful when applying the clean language approach to not appear patronizing. With any questioning technique it is important to be both sincere and natural. I have been on the receiving end of counselling and therapeutic questions and it really is about how the delivery.

    And dudu20130 you are quite right about the impact that work pressures can have on the quality of our conversations with others. Many of us are under such deadline and performance pressure that we forget to be fully present when speaking with people.

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