Clean Language is a simple, powerful and respectful way of communicating and exploring a situation. At its heart lies a set of Clean questions, used with the exact words or gestures only of the other person. This helps to keep the assumptions, suggestions and interpretations of the person asking the questions out of the way and leaves the person answering the questions free to do their own thinking about their situation.
Clean questions can be used to focus on the metaphors that people use to express themselves. When this happens people experience being listened to at a very deep level and can be facilitated to make transformative and long-lasting changes.
What Kind of Questions are Clean Questions?
Clean questions are a specific set of simple questions that were developed in the 1980s by a counselling psychologist called David Grove. The rules for using them are straightforward — use only the words or phrases that the person has used along with a Clean question. This means that the person asking the question must listen with very careful attention to what the other person has said.
The two most commonly used questions are:
Is there anything else about ‘X’?
What kind of ‘X’?
(where ‘X’ is a word or phrase that the other person has used)
Let’s take a look at an example of these two questions being asked during a conversation between an employee and her manager:
Employee: I’m stuck with writing this report.
Manager: And what kind of stuck is that?
Employee: Well I’m not sure how to structure the recommendations section.
Manager: Is there anything else about that structure?
Employee: Yes. I don’t think I’m really clear about what the stakeholders are looking for. I guess I need to ask them. Once I’ve clarified that I’ll know what needs to be included.
In this instance, with just two questions the employee has found her own solution to her situation.
How Can Clean Questions be Used?
The above example shows how Clean questions can be used to clarify ideas and help people to solve problems or make good decisions. They can also be used to:
clear up or avoid misconceptions;
clarify desired outcomes;
motivate people to take action; and
uncover the structure (or mental model) of someone’s thinking.
Perhaps, for example, there is someone you know who is particularly good at managing his or her team. Clean questions would be an ideal tool for finding out more about that person’s mental model for doing this — in other words, the way they think. Maybe they see themselves as the conductor of an orchestra, making sure that everyone is playing the same symphony and that each instrument is ready to play on cue. These questions help you keep your own assumptions tucked well away as you explore their thinking further. Likely as not, a richness of information would be revealed — information that would not have seen light of day if you’d jumped in with your comments, suggestions or advice.
This approach can be used to explore any aspect of a person’s personal or work life: from writing reports, to managing time, to the way they deal with stress in their life. By asking Clean questions it is possible to unpick:
what’s working well; and
what’s not working so well.
The insights gained from exploring things in this way frequently result in greater clarity about what would work better for them instead.
"Being asked Clean questions and given space to explore was a profound experience and one that I would recommend to anyone wishing to find solutions or explore options."
JO – carer
"Clean Language is the way forward for empowerment and confidence. It’s about valuing each other’s individuality and experiences."
PM – teacher