Today, Oliver is a bit frustrated with his client Bella. For the last several weeks, she returned to the coaching conversation with the same issue and didn’t seem to look deeper than the surface. Oliver is a great coach; he wants to see Bella move forward in her life. But he realizes this time he needs to try something new that goes beyond the standard questioning techniques.
Oliver turns to the CLEAN language technique for reframing the coaching conversation by connecting with his client at the deeper level of visualization.
Here is an excerpt from the conversation that took place:
Bella: I am stuck.
Oliver: What kind of “stuck” is this?
Bella: As if I am in a tunnel.
Oliver: What kind of “tunnel” is this?
Bella: It’s very narrow with a low ceiling.
Oliver: How do you feel inside this “tunnel”?
Bella: If I stretch my hand, I can touch the walls on the sides and above. I feel scared because it is very dark. I can’t move anywhere. It’s a wall all around.
Oliver: What about “stretching your hand forward”? Do you feel anything?
Bella: No, there is no wall in front.
Oliver: Do you see the exit at the end of the tunnel? What would you like to happen?
Bella: To walk in front and see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Oliver: Can you start walking?
Bella: I think I can.
Oliver: What about feeling scared?
Bella: I’ll keep my hands in front and maybe sing my favorite song to distract myself.
Oliver: Can you start walking?
Oliver: Do you see anything?
Oliver: Keep walking
Oliver: Now, do you see anything?
Bella: Yes, I can see the exit.
Oliver: How do you know it is the exit?
Bella: I can see sunlight.
Did you notice by directing the attention towards metaphor, the coach tries to explore the situation with the client? The solution is within the problem somewhere. Asking further questions to build on that visualization gives a new perspective. During the process, the client generates new ideas and steps about resolving her situation.
In the 1980s, David Grove, a psychologist, was working with traumatic memory patients. He noticed that patients tend to use metaphors to describe their traumatic feelings. That’s when he realized that the effects of trauma could be quickly alleviated by exploring these metaphors.
CLEAN language is an inquiry technique that takes a person on a personal exploration journey to uncover their limiting beliefs and behaviors and find solutions to their challenges. It doesn’t influence, persuade, direct, or control the client’s feelings. It is based on enabling and facilitating principles.
How to use the CLEAN language technique in coaching?
Before discussing how to use the CLEAN language technique, we need to understand what makes metaphors so valuable.
Metaphors aren’t just linguistic elements. They are mental models of how people make sense of the world. When a person’s metaphor changes, it indicates a more significant change has occurred in how they view the world and actions they take towards their goal.
A skillful coach employs Clean Language to encourage their clients to talk about their feelings and thoughts as metaphors. The coach asks various neutral questions to help the client translate their abstract unconscious feelings into a more useful concrete awareness of their deep-seated emotions.
In their book Clean Language Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds, Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees explain three categories of clean questions:
1. Developing questions
The coach invites the client to elaborate and be more specific. A word or short phrase (X) the client has used can be put in focus. This helps to bring a better understanding of the attributes and relationships of X.
Some sample developing questions
- [And] what kind of X?
- [And] where is X?
- [And] is there anything else about X?
- [And] when there is X, what happens?
- [And] is X related to anything else?
2. Sequence and source questions
As the name implies, sequence questions are used to enable the client to map out the order in which things happen. The sequence of events can move both forward and backward in time. These increase awareness about what is missing and helps the speaker to fill in that information.
- [And] then what happens? Or [And] what happens next?
- [And] what happens just before X?
Source questions are used to direct the client’s attention to the origin of a symbol or attribute they have mentioned. Five types of information are sought:
- Time – [And] when did this happen?
- Space/location – [And] where did this happen?
- People – [And] who all were there? [And] who was involved?
- Ancestry – [And] what happened just before this? [And] who was there before this?
- Origin – [And] where did all this begin? [And] what was the source?
3. Intention and necessary conditions questions
Intention questions are asked when the client wants something to change and can significantly benefit from the change. The coach guides the client to focus on the goal. When things are framed in a positive light, it becomes possible to recognize the steps for moving forward.
A sample intention question:
- [And] what would you like to have happened?
Necessary conditions questions get the clients to think about what things need to be in place for achieving their desired outcome.
- [And] what needs to happen for X?
- [And] can X happen?
As the coaching conversation flows and the coach and client explore the metaphors, a significant change may occur. The coach must pay attention to specific verbal and non-verbal indicators of this change.
Verbal indicators are:
- Change of symbol, for example, “like a bird in a cage” to “bird is flying free.”
- Change in intensity, for example, “ I may” to “I will”
- Change in expressions, for example, “Oh my god,” to “this looks exciting.”
- Change in behavior, for example, the client becomes assertive and accepting
- Change in speech, for example, talking at normal pace
Non-verbal indicators are:
- Looking in a new direction
- Moving forward or backward in the chair
- Flushing in the face
- Taking a deep breath
Start a coaching conversation with an intention question asking about the desired outcome and other positive aspects of the client’s experience. Once the client has outlined the desired outcome, inquire more about their metaphors to identify any missing information. Invite the client to establish a clear metaphorical landscape. Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal indicators to notice any significant change. Next, use the developing questions to explore and mature the change. It may be a good idea to ask the client to draw a picture of their new life after the change.
Where best to use it?
Clean language is most commonly used in clinical therapy, but owing to its simplicity and power of visualization, it is used in a wide range of personal and business coaching. Coaches can use Clean Language to help their clients dissolve subconscious blockages and overcome repetitive negative behavior patterns.
- At an individual level, a clean language technique can help a person become aware of the hidden fears, assumptions, and beliefs held in their subconscious mind that act as obstacles in their lives.
- It is useful for business leaders in translating “gut feelings” into vision and strategies.
- It enhances communication between the spouses, parent-child, teacher-student, and work teams. By sharing their metaphors for shared situations, a new level of shared understanding and motivation can emerge.
- It is also used in the business environment for employee counseling, market research, conflict resolution, and recruitment interviews.
A quick conclusion on how to try it
Here is an interesting self-coaching exercise[i]:
Put down some of these clean language questions on pieces of paper. Fold these pieces of paper and put them in a jar. Now, think about a problem or a goal you are currently seeking in your life. Now, take out one piece of paper from the jar. Answer the question. Draw another piece of paper and answer the question. Continue the process until you have responded to all the clean language questions.
Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees, Clean Langauge: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds (Crown House Publishing Limited, 2015)
Marian Way, Clean Approaches for Coaches: How to Create the Conditions for Change Using Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling (Clean Publishing, 2013)
[i] Clean Language Self Coaching Tool To Make You a Great Communicator. Business Coaching Journal.