Clean Language Questions – what are they good for?

IMG_20170902_161409Clean Language Questions were developed by David Grove, psychotherapist, in the 1980s for therapeutic use. Grove realised that Clean Language Questions helped his clients to explore personal metaphors as a way of healing trauma without going into the (often re-traumatising) content of the traumatic event(s).

According to Grove’s guiding philosophy, every negative symptom contains a positive resource, which balances the books, so to speak, and keeps the client stuck in unhelpful behaviours or mindset; it’s like a push-pull effect: the unhelpful behaviour is compelling because it contains a pay off.

Unlike Jung, Grove believed the client’s metaphor did not need the therapist’s interpretation; rather, an exploration of the metaphor allowed the client to come to “a place of peace” (fifth paragraph of Grove’s obituary). Grove’s experience showed him that the way to get at the resource(s) contained within a metaphor was to ask ‘clean’ questions.

Clean questions are formulated from the client’s language and gestures. The questions do not contain opinions or assumptions from the questioner and they generally start with the word “and”. Simply put, Clean Language Questions are curious reflections of the client’s experience and they allow us to “visit the client’s world and unfold solutions using the language and logical boundaries of that world”.

I challenge the claim that clean language questions do not contain assumptions from the practitioner; the practitioner selects bits of the client’s language to repeat and misses out other bits, therefore it cannot be 100% clean. Regardless of how clean the process is, the result is usually a client who feels heard, and has a solution to carry out.

In my study of Clean Language Questions so far, I’ve been using them for two purposes: gathering information, and moving forward. The gathering information questions are great for exploring values and goals, and for getting to know someone better. The moving forward questions work much better than giving advice in that they help people to formulate solutions that work for them.

In The Inner Resources Workshop that I run with my colleague, Veronica, participants seem to prefer asking the moving forward questions to the gathering information questions; they don’t like the clunky structure of the questions and feel like they’re repeating themselves, which they are. However, the people being asked the questions don’t notice any of that because they’re so involved in their metaphor.

Gathering Information Questions

The following Clean Language Questions are good for exploring the subject (hobby, values, goal, for example) in more detail and for exploring around the subject:

And what kind of X is that (X)?

And where(abouts) is X?

And is there anything else about X?

Moving Forward Questions

Uninvited advice can feel condescending and is usually based in the advice-giver’s perspective (more about this below). To help someone move forward, without giving advice, these questions can be used:

And what would you like to have happen?

And what needs to happen?

And can that happen?

And is there anything else that needs to happen?

Although sometimes advice can be helpful, it often misses the mark; in their book, Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds (2015; p.8-9), Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees give three reasons why advice is often not followed:

  1. The advisor is providing a solution to the wrong problem.
  2. The advisor is highlighting the wrong benefits of solving the problem.
  3. The ‘advisee’ is of two minds: one part wants to do something while another doesn’t.

All three reasons highlight that the advisor hasn’t asked clarifying questions about what the advisee wants and is giving advice based on his/her assumptions.

Clean Language Questions can help you to find out what the problem is, which benefits matter, and, if there is a conflict, what to do about it. It is not the practitioner’s role to understand the client; the purpose is to facilitate the client mining the metaphor for information that will, ultimately, help them in some way.

I think Clean Language Questions are good at digging deeper and finding solutions, but as for their ability to heal… I’ve read accounts (Paul’s fear and Ann’s anxiety about cancer) of Grove facilitating clients but I haven’t found much on whether the effects last and for how long after a session – it would be hard to ascertain this anyway because there are so many other factors at play in everyday life.

Veronica and I decided to teach Clean Language Questions in our workshops because of a sentiment that is beautifully phrased by Judy Rees, so I’ll give her the last word in this blog post:

Listening, asking questions, and paying attention to metaphor will make a huge difference in most walks of life.

What’s your experience of using Clean Language Questions?


6 thoughts on “Clean Language Questions – what are they good for?

  1. Julia
    I have just read your latest blog post excellent……. I shall look to use some of it in my future coaching. (What kind of it is that?)


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