Clean Language is a technique for shaping a discussion. The questions at the heart of this approach are designed to discover and explore a person’s personal metaphor. Clean language is a very useful tool for a wide range of roles from coaching to exploring requirements and needs. Before we explore how to use this approach for developing requirements and breaking user stories down we need to cover some basic concepts. 

  1. History: The concept of Clean Language was originally developed by David Grove, a psychotherapist,  in his practice working with trauma survivors. Dr. Grove noticed that human language is rich with metaphors. Even though Grove died in 2008 the concept has continued to evolve and been actively embraced in the agile community.
  2. Metaphors:  Merriam-Webster defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.” Metaphors are a powerful tool for making ideas tangible by invoking mental imagery. For example, on a calm day in northern Ohio, I might say “the lake is a mirror today”. Metaphors code a lot of information in a nice package but that information is premised on the speaker’s assumptions. Within a tightly knitted group, the assumptions may not need to be exposed.  However, the majority of teams and people I have worked with have a diverse cultural background. Metaphors can obscure meaning. Even knowing that metaphors can obscure meaning it is very difficult to stop using them.  
  3. Questions: Grove developed a set of questions that did not transmit his assumptions or use metaphors. Returning to the lake as a mirror metaphor, an example of a clean language question to ask in response, “is there anything else about the lake today?” (Note: Clean Language Questions seem grammatically strange, this is on purpose – we will return to the approach in a few posts.) The point of the questions is to remove the metaphor from the conversation and identify more precisely the message the speaker is conveying. We will dive deeper into the construction of clean language questions later in this theme. 

I discuss many of the topics that I intend to cover in the Software Measurement and Process Blog with my wife before I start writing. When I began talking about Clean Language as a tool for identifying user stories and business needs for products, her advice was to establish some basics of the concept before diving into usage detail – not everyone is familiar with Clean Language. Thinking back, I am not sure when I was first exposed to the idea but early last year; however, Jaime Valore, Scrum Master at Hyland Software, created a tutorial on the topic that caused me to reacquaint myself and to start thinking about how to use Clean Language Questions as something other than a coaching tool.  


Next:  Types of Clean Language Questions.