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Understanding ‘clean language’ in coaching

Helen Mayson

Clean language for coaches

What exactly is clean language, and how can coaches use it to get better results from their coaching sessions? Marian Way explains

First off – what is 'clean' language?
Clean Language is a way of asking questions to help someone to develop their ideas. The word clean refers to the idea of keeping your own ideas out of the conversation, so as to not 'contaminate' the other person's ideas with your own assumptions, judgements or suggestions. And it is clean language because we honour the language the other person uses to describe their ideas and don't make any attempt to 'translate' their words into our own phraseology. In practice, using Clean Language means combining the person's exact words with clean questions. These were devised by clinical psychologist David Grove after he became curious about the effect different questions could have, taking a person's attention this way or that.  He made a basic assumption that a person's words have meaning for them, and by minimising the assumptions in his questions he was able to help his clients to connect with that meaning and learn about themselves through their verbal and non-verbal expressions. He took questions such as, What is your goal?  or What do you want to achieve? and asked instead, What would you like to have happen? He changed questions such as What do you think about that? or Can you tell me more about that? into And is there anything else about that?

How can using clean language help coaches and the people they coach?
Many coaches have a strong desire to adhere to the coaching principle of keeping their own opinions to themselves, believing that clients have all the resources they need. But staying out of the picture isn't as easy as it sounds, and most coaches are inadvertently directing their clients' attention to their own ideas, simply through the language they use and the questions they ask. By using Clean Language, a coach can be sure that the ideas they are developing belong to the client, not to the coach. Another benefit for coaches is that there are relatively few clean questions; I use about 12- 15 different questions in a 90-minute session, and three or four of these do about 60% of the work. Keeping to a small repertoire of questions allows me to give more of my attention to the client and what is happening for them, which in turn improves my decision-making about what to ask at any one moment.

One of the benefits for clients is that the process is really efficient. No time is wasted on coming to a common understanding between client and coach. Instead, the coach adjusts their language and their thinking as they go along. And when their attention is wholly on themselves, clients often gain profound insights and creative ideas within a relatively short space of time. Clients also gain massive understanding of the patterns they are operating by, knowledge which they can use on a continual basis in their lives.

How about for managers – is clean language useful for them?
Clean Language is really useful for managers who want to build and motivate their teams. It's an efficient way to use one-to-one time with staff to help them solve their own problems. It can be used to add clarity to projects and many managers use Clean Language with groups to build trust, manage diversity and create change.  Its neutrality means it can also be used to enhance any methodology already in use.

Most coaches might practice active listening. Do clean approaches differ from this?
There are similarities and differences, which I talk about in my book, "Clean Approaches for Coaches".

Both active listening and clean approaches have their roots in the work of Carl Rogers. He found that the more he was willing to understand and accept the realities of another person, the more change would happen, and so he became less inclined to 'hurry in and fix things'. Instead, he would listen with interest, appreciate without interrupting and pay attention to everything a person was conveying, both verbally and nonverbally. David Grove liked this approach but when he examined transcripts of Rogers' work he found that Rogers would often change a client's words, and he wondered what would happen if he honoured a person's exact language - and so Clean Language was born.

On your website you talk about using metaphors. How can this help your coaching?
Clean Language is an effective tool in its own right but when it is used to explore the metaphors a person uses to describe their experience it becomes really powerful. People use metaphors all the time, and while some coaching topics lend themselves to cognitive reasoning, if you want to encourage change at the heart or behaviour level, metaphor is the ideal medium to work with.  It also enables you to work with the underlying structure of someone's experience rather than getting bogged down in the content. This is another difference between clean and active listening.=

Is clean language something you're seeing taught more in coaching?
Yes. More and more trainers I know are incorporating Clean Language into their coach training programmes, including ILM courses.

How can you incorporate clean techniques into coaching styles?
Although it sounds simple to combine a clean question with a client's words, it actually takes a while to learn the process because it is quite different from our normal way of interacting with people. So the first step is to learn the questions and to practise asking them. Of course, it helps to get some training, for there are many nuances that come along with learning any new skill. Once you have a basic grounding and an appreciation for how Clean Language works, then it is a just short step to adapting it to fit a particular coaching style. For example, a few of us created a process we called "One Minute Motivation" for weight-loss consultants to use with their members, and which is equally useful for coaches. Others have cleaned up the GROW model or NLP techniques, and there is also an outcome-oriented process called Symbolic Modelling, developed by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, which uses Clean Language to help someone to model their individual 'metaphor landscape'. This process most closely reflects what David was doing and can bring extraordinary results, and is what I describe in my book.

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