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Clean Language

Bhavesh Patel, via the OSLIST:

...Yes I would agree that experiencing how clean language and clean coaching works is important, and then clean space as well. It is a bit like open space, some people just don't get it until they jump in and then in makes sense in the first minutes!

The clean approach that I experienced really made sense to me because of my open space experience. Open space supports the force of self-organisation in groups, clean language supports the force of self-organisation in individuals.

Let me try to explain my understanding of it. Normal coaching approaches are quite directive, like many facilitation processes. They involve a series of steps, usually starting with goal identification, and then questions are used as a way of controlling the process and therefore the person to some extent. There are times when this is useful, and other times when it is not.

The clean approach recognises that we are deeply complex individuals with all sorts of stuff going on inside. We are influenced by so much internal and external stuff of which we are only slightly aware and out of all that comes that small part of reality that we are conscious of!!! So WHO KNOWS how it all works, we barely know ourselves... and then add to that all the cognitive science pattern detecting biases that we have.

One way to work with a complex adaptive system called a person is to use symbolic language / metaphor. Words will never describe that deep complex reality of ourselves, however metaphors probably get the closest to expressing it because they can hold so much more than explicit descriptions can. Abstraction rather than explicitness may be much more important than we presently recognise when it comes to human learning.

So the clean approach has 9 very light content free questions that provide just enough minimal structure to support a person work with their dynamic self-organising complexity through noticing their metaphorical landscape from which emerges self, meaning, and all else.

Clean does not attempt to define a goal and reach an action plan like most coaching does. It starts wherever the client wants to start, and even starts wherever the client wants to sit down, and even how they want to sit down, if they want to! Once it starts the coach simply asks the relevant question from the 9, and then sees the response and then based on that asks the next question, and the client ends up wherever they end up by the end of the session.

So if someone is wondering if you can use open space with one person in a coaching context, the clean approach gets close to it.


Opening Question


Developing Questions

Sequence and Source

Intention Questions

For more about the core Clean Language questions and how to use them, get the book here:

 Clean Language applied in coaching, meetings, invitation, planning sorts of conversations:

 The Art of Clean Language, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

Clean Language 5-minute coaching

 Spatial/Temporal? Orienting with Clean Questions (diagram)

via the OSLIST:

"The technology that came to be know as 'Clean Space' evolved alongside Clean Language. Space was no longer empty area. It had properties and peculiarities of its own. Physical space became psychoactive and therapy took a new dimension." —Philip Harland, The Power of Six, p. 18.

The Power of Six, by the way, seems to be simplicity itself (the exact wording varies depending on the situation):




 Clean is... 

Clean taps into things people know that they don’t know they know.

The “goal” is a quality of conversation, quality of sharing, quality of relationship or connection, rather than any particular content

Seems like many different ways to ask, “who do you think you are and/or want to be?”

Keep going until the other person has gotten to say everything that they have to say.

Use in...

Good clean questions...



=> When you are [learning] at your best, you are like what?


 When “all of that” is or happens... what happens next?


 when [problem/upset], what would you LIKE to have happen now/next?
 OR... what would you LIKE to have happen now/next [when/given problem/upset is true]?
 OR... GIVEN all [problem/upset/X], what would you like to have happen now/next?

how will you know [X]?

what/which/where are you drawn to [now/next]?


 What kind of a solution is that (proposed) solution?
 And when it’s [X][that] kind of solution, is there anything else about that solution?


 => What would you like to have happen [in this course]?
 What kind of ______________?
 And I wonder, then what happens?
 How will you know [X] is happening?
 I wonder, how could that be measured?
 What else would you like to have happen?



AND... on the receiving end of feedback, ask a clean question to draw out more.

CLEAN wants us to own our own experience... *I* make the meaning/story that makes the impact on *me*.

Application... e.g. stack them as way to answer a clean questions:



Developing Questions

Sequence and Source

Intention Questions


desire or goal or purpose (power switch):


locate in space:

locate in time:

relationship to other stuff:

then also notice that we can use the feedback model to ask for feedback rather than just giving it...





DISCOVER what someone really wants






What’s the best way to start using Clean Language? Judy Rees suggests you ease yourself into it with six baby steps.

1. Listen in a ‘Clean’ way: not to respond, but to understand what this unique person is experiencing. Be curious, relax your thinking muscles, and hold your attention fully on the person and what they are saying.

2. Listen, then repeat back a few words of what the person has said. That might be the last two or three words, or two or three key words. This has been described as ‘the nearest thing the FBI has to a Jedi Mind trick’. To begin with, it may feel odd, but it is worth persisting.

3. Practice asking a Clean Language question (try ‘What kind of X?’ or ‘Is there anything else about X?’) instead of an ‘ordinary’ question, in a context where where you’re already asking questions. Just one Clean Language question at a time, mind you!

4. Up your game: use two Clean Language questions in succession. (Again, ‘What kind of X?’ or ‘Is there anything else about X?’ in any order.) This might make you (and perhaps the other person) a little uncomfortable. Notice the look on someone’s face when your question makes them think about something they’ve never considered before… and start getting used to it.

5. Next, ask a couple of Clean Language questions about a metaphor you hear someone use. Make sure you ‘go for the good stuff’: asking about metaphors for problems or other unpleasant things can be seriously unpleasant. Remember: where attention goes, energy flows – and the person’s mood will follow.

6. Guide someone’s attention towards what they’d like by asking, “What would you like to have happen <today/in this meeting/as a result of this conversation>?”

What did you notice? And what would you like to have happen next? Please comment below.

The next step from all of this would be to start using a framework for your Clean Language questions. Check out Practical Clean Language for more.

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Last edited November 6, 2018 8:34 pm CentralTimeUSA by MichaelHerman
© 1998-2020 Michael Herman and, unless signed by another author or organization. Please do not reprint or distribute for commercial purposes without permission and full attribution, including web address and this copyright notice. Permission has always been granted gladly to those who contact me and say something about themselves, their work, and their use of these materials. Thank you and good luck! - Michael