Clean Language

Clean Language

Clean Language is a questioning technique that is used especially in psychotherapy and coaching. Clean Language is optimized to have the client discover and develop personal symbols and metaphors, without contamination or distortion of the developing metaphor landscape through the way the questions are put.

Clean Language was developed by David Grove in the 1980s as a result of his work on clinical methods for resolving clients' traumatic memories. As Lawley & Tompkins describe it, "He realised many clients naturally described their symptoms in metaphor, and found that when he enquired about these using their exact words, their perception of the trauma began to change."

Clean Language also is the basis of Symbolic Modelling, a stand-alone method and process for psychotherapy and coaching, which was developed by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins.

Clean Language in Detail

Clean Language combines four general elements of communication in a very specific way, that is syntax, wording, vocal qualities and nonverbals.

Note: we refer to the person asking the questions as the 'facilitator' and the person receiving the questions as the 'client'. This habit comes from the therapeutic roots of the Clean Language process. Depending on the context, these labels could be coach/coachee, interviewer/interviewee, doctor/patient,


The question structure, consisting of three parts, is called "full syntax":
And [client's words/nonverbals].
And when/as [client's words/nonverbals],
[Clean Language question] ?


Clean Language questions are cleansed as far as possible of anything that comes from the questioner's "maps" -- metaphors, assumptions, paradigms or sensations -- that could direct the questionee's attention away from increased awareness of his/her own metaphorical representation of experience.

Clean Language offers a template for questions that are as free as possible of the questioner's inferences, presuppositions, mind-reading, second guessing, inferences, references and metaphors. Clean questions incorporate all or some of the speaker's specific phrasing and might also include other auditory components of the speaker's communication such as sighs, pitch, tonality, etc. The questioner might also draw attention to any non-verbal signals that coincide with the client's auditory output, i.e., a fist being raised simultaneously with a sigh, that might also represent elements of the client's metaphorical representation of experience.

Vocal Qualities

Where client's words are used, the vocal qualities of the client's words are repeated. In therapeutic applications, the questioner's words are often given slower, with a rhythmic, poetic and curious tonality. In more everyday interactions the facilitator can maintain their normal tone of interest. Voice speed and tone and volume can all affect the kind of attention the client pays to their own experience. Slow, rhythmic questions can lead more towards a deeper, more trancy experience for the client while a conversational approach seems to encourage more cognitive, conceptual processing.


'Nonverbals' is the short form of 'non-verbal communication', that is, all the ways the client is expressing her/himself in conversation without the use of spoken language. These include gestures, line-of-sight, sighs, oral sounds (oos and ahs), body posture and movement.

Besides words of the client, also his/her nonverbals are repeated or referenced in the question, as far as the questioner noticed them and if they might be of symbolic significance.

Note: Clean Language facilitators do not follow popular generalised assumptions about the meaning of 'body language' (e.g. assuming that crossed arms mean the person is 'closed'), preferring to ask and find out what such behaviour means to the client.

Clean Language questions

Clean Language questions are designed to reduce to a minimum any influence from the facilitator's 'map of the world' via his/her metaphors, interpretations or unwarranted assumptions. They are also designed to direct the client's attention to some aspect of their experience (as expressed in their words or non-verbal expressions) that the facilitator has noticed and chooses to highlight for the client's potential learning.

In this example B is the 'client' and A the 'facilitator':

B: "I feel strange."

Not-clean response

A says one of: "Have you got a headache?", "Are you ill?", "You're probably catching a cold", "You must be hung-over!", "Stop complaining! Take a pill..." etc.

Cleaner response

A asks one of: "Where do you feel strange?", "What kind of strange?", "Strange like what?", "Is there anything else about that 'feel strange'?", "What happens just before you feel strange?"

While there is a set of 9+3 basic Clean Language questions that get used about 80% of the time, the concept of being 'clean' resides not in the questions themselves (which are merely the medium) but in the intention of the facilitator.


  • Lawley, James & Tompkins, Penny. Metaphors in Mind: Transformation Through Symbolic Modelling. Developing Company Press, London 2000, ISBN 0-9538751-0-5

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