Research Paper By Michael Seelman
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
What is Clean Language, and what are the benefits of using it in coaching? Coaches employing Clean Language questions can assist clients with “profound personal exploration: a route to a deeper understanding of themselves, to transcending limiting beliefs and behaviours, and to resolution and healing.”[i]
Clean Language is a technique used in coaching, therapy, research interviews, teaching, and many other endeavours. This article focuses on explaining its use and benefits in professional coaching. As appropriate, it will also emphasize in parentheses which International Coach Federation (IFC) Professional Certified Coach (PCC) Core Competencies are demonstrated with various aspects of the methodology. For a complete listing of the competencies, see https://coachfederation.org/pcc-markers.
A coach can use Clean Language to help clients direct their attention more deeply to some aspect of their own experience. They do this by exploring the client’s symbols and metaphors through employing a set of neutral questions and the client’s own words.[ii]
Clean Language was devised by counselling psychologist David Grove in the 1980s to help clients’ resolve traumatic memories by using their personal metaphors and minimizing the facilitator’s verbal and nonverbal influences. However, his methodology has since been used successfully to help clients with a variety of different backgrounds and goals.
What is a metaphor? Its essence has been defined as“understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another.”[iii]Clients may use metaphors in their speech as frequently as several times a minute.[iv] By saying things such as “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” or “I am lost in the wilderness,” or “I feel a great weight on my chest” clients are providing mental models of how they see the world. Coaches that are aware of their clients’ metaphors and how to incorporate them into their practice are empowered to assist their clients on a deeper level.
It is essential to understand that a “metaphor is more than a linguistic device; it is central to the way people think, make sense of the world and take decisions,” and when a client’s “basic metaphor changes so does their view of the world, the decisions they make and the actions they take.”[v] Therefore, a skilful coach can employ Clean Language to help clients adopt new perspectives and take purposeful action toward goals (PCC Competency 8.5).
Metaphors help the coach quickly understand the underlying structure of a client’s experience without getting bogged down in the content or “story.” This time saving makes Clean Language a very efficient coaching tool.[vi]
Furthermore, Clean Language can increase the likelihood that the actions devised will be well suited to the client’s context and will be implemented. “Each person knows more about their own challenges than anyone else. Their problem-solving ideas will fit themselves and their problems perfectly – someone else’s may not. And, their own ideas are more likely to motivate and empower them to take action. Their ideas will continue to work when the advisor is not there to give advice because Clean Language questions encourage people to think for themselves”[vii] (PCC Competency 3.3).
Three Categories of Clean Questions
What are clean questions? There are three categories of basic Clean Language questions: developing questions, sequence and source questions, and intention& necessary conditions questions. In the questions below, the use of “X” and “Y” indicate where the coach would insert the words and/or non-verbal communication signals(hand gestures, sighs, vocalizations, body movements, etc.) used by their client to explore them further[viii](PCC Competencies 5.2, 5.3, 6.6, 7.3).In Clean Language, any non-verbal communication can be used as if it were a word because they can also be closely related to the symbols in the client’s metaphorical landscape.[ix]
Developing questions invite a client to elaborate and be more specific or clear about what is true for them. A coach can ask about a word or short phrase the client has used. Through Clean Language, the coach helps bring the symbols the client mentions into greater focus. The higher resolution imagery brings a greater understanding of the symbols’ attributes and the relationship between the symbols[x](PCC Competencies 5.2, 6.6, 7.3).
The developing questions are:
- “(And) what kind of X (is that X)?”
- “(And) is there anything else about X?”
- “(And) where is X? or (And) whereabouts is X?”
- “(And) that’s X like what?”
- “(And) is there a relationship between X and Y?”
- “(And) when X, what happens to Y?”[xi]
In the example below, imagine a client says they “can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” and the coach uses developing questions to explore this further.
- Coach: And what kind of light is that light?
- Client: It has warmth and fluctuates in intensity.
- Coach: And is there anything else about the warmth?
- Client: It’s warm like how I felt when my Mom would lie next to me as a child reading me a bedtime story.
- Coach: And where is that warm?
- Client: It comes from my chest.
- Coach: And whereabouts in your chest is that warm?
- Client: It’s in my heart.
- Coach: And is there a relationship between the light and the tunnel?
- Client: The light keeps me from focusing on the muddy, cold walls of the tunnel
- Coach: When the light keeps you from focusing on the muddy, cold walls -- what happens to the tunnel?
- Client: It dissolves from view, and I am lighthearted again.
Sequence and Source Questions
Sequence questions enable a coach to help a client map out the details in a sequence of events. With this greater awareness, the client has the freedom to chose to do something different in the future, so they don’t make a wrong turn or can recognize the signs that they are heading in the right direction. The coach invites the client to move forward or backward in time in this examination.
A coach can use a source question to direct a client’s attention to the origin of a symbol or attribute they have mentioned. The client’s answers to this question might include five types of information: time, space/location, people, ancestry, and origin.[xii]
The sequence (#1 and #2) and source (#3) questions are:
- “(And) then what happens? or (And) what happens next?”
- “(And) what happens just before X?”
- “(And) where could X come from?”[xiii]
Imagine a client expressed they are “lost in the wilderness” after the death of a friend and mentor. The coach then uses developing questions to elicit that the mentor’s sage advice was the compass the client used to guide him in his life journey. The coach then brings further attention to their experience through sequence and source questions below.
- Coach: And then what happens when you feel lost in the wilderness because you don’t have your compass anymore.
- Client: I am angry and feel paralyzed.
- Coach: And what happens just before you are angry and feel paralyzed?
- Client: I wonder if there is another tool I could use to get out of the forest.
- Coach: And where could this tool come from?
- Client: I guess from other mentors and books. My Scoutmaster, when I was a kid, used the Boy Scout handbook’s diagrams to explain we could use the movement of the sun and the direction of the trees’ shadows to guide us.
Intention and Necessary Conditions Questions
Intention questions are great questions to ask when the client wants something to change and can have several significant benefits. Finding out more about the desired outcome is often enough to help the client to work out how to achieve it. Moreover, framing things in a positive context gets clients focused on the goal rather than the many diffuse ways of doing something different. Finally, “asking ‘what would you like to have happened?’ and holding a speaker’s attention on the answer will encourage them to mentally rehearse their desired behaviour so that when the time comes to put it into practice, they’re ready!”[xiv]
A coach can use necessary conditions questions to invite clients to consider what things need to be in place for and how possible it is that their desired outcome is achieved (PCC Competency 9.3).
The intention (#1) and necessary conditions (#2 and #3) questions are:
- “(And) what would X like to have happened?”
- “(And) what needs to happen for X?”
- “(And) can X (happen)?”[xv]
Let us suppose that a client expresses feeling “great weight on my chest.”
- Coach: What would you like to have happened?
- Client: I want to be able to breathe deeply and have a sense of lightness.
- Coach: And what needs to happen for you to be able to breathe deeply and have a sense of lightness?
- Client: I need to tell my husband that I lost my wedding ring and will get a new one.
- Coach: And, what needs to happen for you to tell your husband?
- Client: I must make him his favourite dinner, so I feel good, and he is ready to listen sympathetically.
- Coach: And, can you make him his favourite dinner?
- Client: Yes, I have the ingredients in the fridge, and neither of us must work this weekend.
- Coach: And, what needs to happen for you to get a new ring?
- Client: I must have the money and know what I want.
- Coach: And, can you have the money and know what you want?
- Client: Yes, I can tap into my savings and get a similar design to the original.
Employing Clean Language
When and how does a coach use Clean Language during a coaching session to facilitate change? Typically, during the early “coaching agreement” part of a meeting, a coach inquires about the topic the client would like to cover and the outcome they would like to achieve. This early stage is an excellent opportunity to use the intention question: “what would you like to have happened?”[xvi] (PCC Competency 2.1).
Once the client has a clear desired outcome, the coach can:
- Ask clean questions about their desired outcome, resources, and other positive aspects of their experience
- Ask clean questions about the metaphors they use rather than any story or explanation they may be given
- Collaborate with the client to create a clearer mental model and see if there any notable gaps or missing stages in a sequence of events?[xvii] (PCC Competency 5.6).
How does a coach facilitate change? Clean Language experts recommend coaches:
- “Listen attentively
- Remember that your assumptions, opinions, and advice are your own
- Ask Clean Language questions to explore a person’s words, particularly their metaphors
- Listen to the answers and then ask them more Clean Language questions about what they have said.”[xviii](PCC Competencies 5.2, 6.6, 7.3)
Below is a “Molecule” diagram of potential Clean Language interactions between coach and client.[xix] The client’s perception is central to the model, and the coach’s questions are connected to the whole and indicate which sphere of perception they invite the client to attend to and share their experience.
Significant change can happen anytime during a session. However, it is more likely to occur once the client’s metaphorical landscape has been established through Clean Language questions and is stable. Indicators of change can be verbal or non-verbal.[xx]
Verbal indicators include:
- Symbols changing (a “one lane country road” becomes a “superhighway," or a “caged bird” may “fly free”)
- Change intense (“I would be” turns into “I will” or“It could be” becomes “it is”)
- Change comments (“wow!” or “things seem different now”)
- Pattern change (client starts to act assertively during the session when that has been their desired outcome or accepts something they have been fighting, or their pace of speech may change)[xxi] (PCC Competencies 5.4, 5.5).
Non-verbal indicators include the client:
- Taking a deep breath
- Flushing in the face
- Moving forward or backward in their chair
- Looking in a new direction[xxii]
The coach notices a significant change, now what? Next, the coach can explore and mature the change by using the developing questions and the sequencing questions.
Specifically, the coach should ask about:
- “The change itself
- The effects of the change over time
- The effects of the change on other symbols, including the client themselves”[xxiii] (PCC Competencies 8.1, 8.2).
Maturing the change helps the client persevere when they return to real life and experience past triggers and the temptation to continue past habits. Experienced Clean Language coaches often spend one-third of their time maturing change so that it has a lasting impact.[xxiv]In fact, they may also give a homework assignment– such as asking the client to draw a picture of their new metaphorical landscape– to help solidify the change beyond the session’s conclusion. Many clients have reported that Clean Language coaching has helped them achieve their goals and make profound, lasting change in their lives.
Want to learn more about Clean Language and its catalytic power for helping clients achieve their desired outcomes and lasting change? You can visit explore the resources listed below in the endnotes. Best wishes as you embark on your “clean journey” in the service of your clients.
 Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees, Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds (Bethel, CT: Crown House Publishing Limited, 2015), xiv.
 Marian Way, Clean Approaches for Coaches: How to Create the Conditions for Change Using Clean Language & Symbolic Modeling(Hampshire, England: Clean Publishing, 2013), 18.
 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 5.
 Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, “Coaching with Metaphor,” The Clean Collection (blog), first published September 13, 2006, https://cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/127/1/Coaching-with-Metaphor/Page1.html
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, “Coaching with Metaphor.”
 Marian Way, Clean Approaches for Coaches, 68.
Wendy Sullivan Clean Language, 9-10.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 52.
Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 148.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 53-54.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 51.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 66-67.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 63.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 72.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 63.
 Marian Way, Clean Approaches for Coaches, 170.
Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 159.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 92.
 Penny Tompkins, James Lawley, Wendy Sullivan, and Phil Swallow, Attending to the Molecule of Perception Using Clean Language, 2004, Clean Language Revisited, https://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/Clean-Language-Revisited.html.
Marian Way, Clean Approaches for Coaches, 152.
Marian Way, Clean Approaches for Coaches, 153.
, Marian Way, Clean Approaches for Coaches, 153.
Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 101.
 Wendy Sullivan, Clean Language, 106.