Cleaning up my practice – I didn’t realize it was dirty!

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Article by Jill Tonks

Cleaning up my practice – I didn’t realize it was dirty!

I stumbled across Clean Language when a friend and colleague introduced me to the technique a few years ago and I have to admit I didn’t get it. I read a book, it was so clean I missed it! Then I volunteered to be a Clean case study and it blew me away!

I never realized how much more detail there was to be found in the metaphor of my problem at the time- I was overwhelmed with the demands of work, kids, life.  From the problem metaphor I had there magically emerged a solution metaphor. That metaphor was so powerful, so personal to me and I still use it to this day!

So what is this ‘Clean ‘stuff?

In the 1980s David Grove, counselling psychologist developed methods of working with clients to resolve their traumatic memories. He found that many clients naturally described their symptoms in metaphors highly personal to them. When Grove enquired about these metaphors using the client’s exact words, they could consider their perceptions in a new way and their experience of the trauma often began to change. This led him to create Clean Language, a way of asking questions of his clients’ metaphors which neither contaminated nor distorted them and allowed the positive strengths of the individuals’ metaphors to naturally unfold.

As human beings, we process everything that is said to us. We seem to be biologically programmed to attempt to make sense of whatever another person communicates and we do it from our own map of the world. For example, when we are asked a question as simple as ‘how are you?’ we have to mentally consider what is meant before we can answer. The surface structure of this question is simple but meaning varies hugely to each of us and we respond according to that inferred meaning and the context of the question.

When the response to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Fine’, with Clean Language questions, I can ask ‘What kind of fine is that fine?’ which facilitates the emergence of more precise information of the individual’s experience from their map of the world, not mine.

The core principles of Clean Language are

  • The use of a small set of distinctive questions that make most use of the client’s exact words and minimal use of words, assumptions and content that from the  worker’s own map
  • In contrast to Ericksonian approaches, in Clean Language, client perceptions and metaphors are unique, self-created, and hold important information about the problem and solution states. This puts the client very much in control of their own metaphors and the solutions that come from them
  • The use of the client’s perception of space. Clean Language prioritises symbolic or metaphoric information which can be found in words, a noise, a sensation, a gesture, a drawing and in the space around a client which in Clean is considered to contain significant, valuable information about the qualities of a client’s inner experience.
  • A requirement to utilise only what is presented or presupposed by the client.  The Clean questions immerse a client in her/his own experience and only add to and expand  that experience rather than reframe or change it.
  • Client metaphors hold resources which can create previously hidden resources and options for change.

What about change?

Some people mistakenly think ‘Clean’ means  only insight and no change. However, Clean Language is a highly influential process, although not in terms of content.  Clean Language’s influence is principally in the worker’s skill in directing attention to what is helpful within a client’s metaphor ‘landscape’, using the client’s exact words and so it feels right to the client. It’s an approach that has a clear focus on outcome.

I now use ‘Clean Language’ a lot particularly when clients are stuck. Let me give you an example.

Me  – ‘What’s holding you back in your life?

Client  – ‘I don’t know’

From here I can choose to use the exploring ‘Clean’ questions  ‘ What kind of … is…?’ or ‘ Is there anything else about that….?’ I can explore the ‘I’, the ‘don’t’ or the ‘know ‘or the ‘don’t know’. There are quite a lot of options here and all would bear fruit.

Me  – ‘And you don’t know, what kind of don’t know is that don’t know?

Client  – ‘It’s a gaping hole, it’s very familiar to me.

Me   – And it’s a gaping hole and it’s very familiar to you’ I would normally explore the hole quite a bit more  – sometimes these metaphors can transform themselves, then ask ‘And what would you like to have happen to that gaping hole?’

Client  – ‘I’d like to get rid of it for good’

Me  – ‘And when you have got rid of it for good then what happens?

Client  – ‘I can lead the life I want to live, the landscape begins to open up, I can see the sky, I can see the future ahead’

Me – ‘And you can lead the life you want to life, and the landscape begins to open up and you can see the sky. And is there anything else about all of that?’

Client – It’s my life for me, seeing possibilities a future ahead of me…’

By using the Clean questions, ‘What kind of…?’ and ‘Is there anything else about…?’ and by developing the metaphors the client presents I keep the session ‘Clean’ by not adding my assumptions about the ‘hole’, the ‘landscape’ and the client’s relationship to it. Clients’ landscapes often develop in ways I would never have imagined because it’s totally theirs. My skill is to facilitate the navigation through the problem to a solution using wholly generated client content.

Clean Space

This is another branch of ‘Clean’ which I have found even more exciting.

By using a representation of their outcome, a written statement or a drawing, the client is invited to ‘Find a space that knows something about that’ (the outcome as drawn/represented by the client.) Through the use of Clean Space questions, and generating 4 to 6 spaces that ‘know something else about’ the outcome, another space, a resource identified, anything from the client’s dialogue, a map of the issue,  a problem, a solution, new information comes to light and by using ‘Clean’ questions, some valuable insight or resourcefulness can emerge. The Clean Space method gets clients to mark out important spaces in the room with which the client can interact, refer back to, and move on from. At the end of this process, the client is invited to consider what they now know, that they did not know before the facilitation. I have had clients who have had major light bulb moments when using ‘Clean Space’.

A woman who presented with confidence issues which were linked to limiting beliefs from the past which we mapped out in the present. In the Clean Space, she identified the resources for change and what she would like to have happen. This is another very useful Clean question. ‘What would you like to have happen?’ This opens the door to client directed change and it’s usually my starter for ten whenever I meet a client.

A food phobic teenager who brought the items he wanted to try and we mapped Clean Spaces around the food which he ended up tasting as he found the space for the part that wanted to try an apple. You can even keep Clean  Space content free, by using something that represents the space, a postcard for example.

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley  have adapted Clean Language and Clean Space into a model they call ‘Symbolic Modelling’, the mapping out of clients’ metaphors and symbols to facilitate change. They explain:

‘The primary purpose of Symbolic Modelling is to facilitate an individual to learn about the organization of their metaphors. In the process of becoming aware of the way their system works, conditions emerge in which change is a natural consequence. Change does not occur in a vacuum – it requires a context, a Metaphor Landscape. Once the context exists, simply using Clean Language within the logic of the client’s metaphors and faithfully following the process as it unfolds, normally activates the change process.’ Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling,2000, by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley.

I’ll be honest and say that I found learning Clean Language a real challenge. Only using a small number of questions (the ‘basic’ Clean question set consists of just 12 questions) and client vocabulary was very different to the way I had worked. Yet, I didn’t realize how much I was muddying the waters with my assumptions, words and phrases. So I have cleaned up my act generally. I wouldn’t say that I’m a completely ‘ Clean’ practitioner but it has provided me with a very valuable set of tools to add to my current bag (spot that metaphor!)  to use with clients and I haven’t found one client who hasn’t found it very useful.

For more information about Clean Language

Clean Language: Revealing metaphors and opening minds Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees – a practical introduction to using Clean

Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling,2000, by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley – a definitive book on the art and science of working with client-generated metaphors.

For information about training go to, they offer a free taster teleclass which is worth a try.

Jill Tonks

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