What is Clean Language?

by Tamsin Hartley,  Genius Within Coach


Clean Language is a simple, powerful and respectful way of communicating, and of facilitating change.  At its heart lies a set of questions that help to keep the assumptions, suggestions and interpretations of the questioner out of the way.  This leaves the person answering the questions free to do their own thinking about their situation.


Clean questions can be used to focus on the metaphors that people use to express themselves.  When this happens people experience being listened to at a very deep level, and can be facilitated to make transformative and long-lasting changes.


This questioning tool was developed by David J Grove, a New Zealand counselling psychologist, during the 1980s and 90s.



What kind of questions are clean questions?

Clean questions are a specific set of simple, open questions.  The rules for using them are straight-forward.  Use only the words or phrases that the other person has used, along with a clean question.  This means that the person asking the questions must listen with very careful attention to what the other person is saying.


The two most commonly used clean questions are:

  • Is there anything else about ‘x’?
  • What kind of ‘x’ is that?

(where ‘X’ is a word or phrase that the client has used)


Let’s take a look at an example of these two questions being asked during a conversation between employee and manager:


Employee: I’m stuck with writing this report

Manager: And what kind of stuck is that?

Employee: Well I’m not sure how to structure the recommendations section?

Manager: Is there anything else about that structure?

Employee:  Yes.  I don’t think I’m really clear about what the stakeholders are looking for.  I guess I need to ask them.  Once I’ve clarified that, I’ll know what needs to be included.


In this instance, with just two clean questions the employee has found her own solution to her situation.


A list of the 12 basic clean questions can be found by following this link: http://www.businessballs.com/clean_language.htm



How can Clean Language be used?

The above example shows how clean questions can be used to clarify ideas, and help people to solve problems or make good decisions.


Clean Language can also be used to:

  • clear up or avoid misconceptions
  • clarify desired outcomes at the outset
  • motivate people to take action
  • uncover the structure of someone’s thinking.


Perhaps, for example, there is someone you know who is particularly good managing their team?  Clean Language is an ideal tool for finding out more about that person’s mental model for doing this.   Maybe they see themselves as the conductor of an orchestra, making sure that everyone is playing the same symphony, and that each instrument is ready to play on cue.  Clean questions help you keep your own assumptions tucked well away as you explore this person’s model further.  And likely as not, a richness of information would be revealed: information that would not have seen light of day if you’d jumped in with your comments, suggestions or advice.


This approach can be used to explore any aspect of a person’s personal or work life, from managing time to writing reports, to how they deal with stress in their life.

By asking clean questions it is possible to unpick:

  • What’s working well
  • What’s not working so well

And to become clear about:

  • What would work better instead.


The insights gained from such an exploration frequently leads to significant and lasting change.



How do I find out more about Clean Language?

At the simplest level, Clean Language is a wonderful tool for promoting greater clarity of communication.  However, fuller training in the approach is needed to enable people to work with more complex situations.


You can find out more about how Clean Language is being used to facilitate individuals and teams by following these links:




And the following books are a really useful source of further reading:

Clean Approaches for Coaches by Marian Way

From Contempt to Curiosity: Creating the Conditions for Groups to Collaborate Using Clean Language and Systemic Modelling by Caitlin Walker



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