What happens next?

Clean Language is a  tool to explore the metaphors used during discussions and conversations.  The term metaphor is being used in a broad sense to include similes and other subcategories.  Clean Language was originally developed by David Grove, a psychotherapist, in his practice working with trauma survivors. While many of us have been involved with death march projects over the years, a psychotherapy technique feels like overkill, especially since it takes a lot of effort to learn Clean Language Questions. However, the payback is worth the effort. I recently was sitting in the airport listening to a conversation between two colleagues. In a five-minute slice of the discussion, I counted 42 separate metaphors. Perhaps all the metaphors were understood, or perhaps they were participating in mutual mystification. A few well-placed Clean Language Questions would have been useful to ensure the conversation was synchronized. There are several categorizations of clean questions.  For example ‘Metaphors in Mind’ by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins group questions into nine categories. Other schemes range from four to nine.  The number of categories is less important than the idea that different questions will elicit different responses. Clean Language Questions seek to get the person answering the questions to recognize:

  1. What happens just before. (Sometimes called source and sequence questions.) 
  2. The broader environment they are interacting with.
  3. What needs to happen for the metaphor to be true. (What is the intention.)

Grove and others have developed a specific set of questions. For example, two clean language questions I often use are:

  • And is there anything else about …? (substitute the object of the metaphor for the ellipsis)
  • And what kind of … is that …?

The basic format is 

  1. Acknowledge the speaker’s statement
  2. Use a joiner word (typically and or that)
  3. Direct their attention to a component of the metaphor
  4. Ask the question so they begin to examine the meaning of their metaphor.

An example in response to the statement, “We want to be more agile” (agile is an implicit metaphor in this example): 

  1. And you would like to be more agile 
  2. And
  3. When you are more agile
  4. What happens next?

Some basic clean question “rules”

  1. All clean questions are framed using present tense.
  2. Drop most of the verbs in the questions.
  3. Do not use additional pronouns unless they are specifically part of the metaphor.
  4. Don’t introduce any metaphors or comparisons in the question.

The rules remove shifts in attention and presumptions. I have noticed that I often ask, “what are you thinking about X?” The question presupposes that the person is thinking specifically about a topic and limits their response.  A cleaner question would be “is there anything else about X?”

There are a relatively small number of basic Clean Language Questions (I will publish the list I have compiled once I find Grove’s original list and understand the copyright). A web search will return a number of sources. The first few times you use the question set the syntax will feel funny and not grammatically correct. DO NOT FIX THEM. Use the structure and syntax as they are. You need to practice role-playing is a great way to get used to using Clean Language Questions. 

Next: Using Clean Language Questions in establishing business needs.