Clean language: why their words are more useful then yours…

I was invited to speak at the Inspired2Learn conference in Devizes a couple of weeks ago.  Amongst the other presenters were Lynne Cooper and Mariette Castellino, who have been developing the ‘clean language’ approach of David Grove and latterly Penny Tompkins and James Lawley into a very usable short coaching format – the Five-Minute Coach.

Like good teachers, Lynne and Mariette had us using the ideas right away in the session, with a carefully scripted set of coaching questions. The grammar looks a little strange at first, it’s NOT everyday conversational grammer, and very clearly told to stick to the instructions – a cry I frequently make of those learning SF.  To give a flavour, it started like this:

  • Outcome:  And what would you like to have happen?
  • Choosing the best outcome: And when (outcome in coachee’s words), then what happens
  • And when (last answer), then what happens?
  • (Repeat question, with each answer, until no new answers emerge)
  • And (outcome) and (recap all answers), what are you drawn to most?

This is just the first section.  The thing that I found very appealing indeed was the total focus that Lynne and Mariette gave to the client’s actual words.  Listen and use them back in the next question.  That’s all.  I think this is very powerful and also very respectful of the client.  The same spirit applies in SF, the words you are given by the client are totally fine and we practice ‘radical acceptance’ in the words of Steve de Shazer.  This is not to say, of course, that the first answer is the end of the story – as the taster questions above make clear.

Listening to and enjoying Lynne and Mariette’s session, I was reminded of Prof Ralph Stacey’s concept of management (and interpersonal relations in general) as a series of responding gestures.  Some gestures are inviting – for example, ‘what would you like to talk about today?’. Others are subjugating – ‘I want to talk about THIS today…’.  The former allows choice and movement, the latter wants abeyance and contriteness.  If one’s manager says ‘I want to talk about THIS’, then the choices are to accept it, or reject it (and put the relationship in jeopardy).  There are some mid-course options, but they require nerve and skill in a difficult moment.

Here’s my thought.  When we paraphrase, we are subjugating.  We are saying to our clients, ‘your words aren’t good enough, please use mine instead’.  SF workers (and clean language practitioners) are very careful to listen very hard in order to use the clients’ exact words to offer back for further elaboration and construction.  As my friends at the Brief Therapy Practice tweeted the other day, ‘Listen to build, not to understand!’.

You can find out more about Lynne and Mariette’s Five-Minute Coach and other work at .  Their book The Five-Minute Coach is available from Amazon at .


6 responses

  1. Hi Mark,

    You don’t describe this as being SF? A reason for that?

    1. Hi Harry, the people involved would describe it as ‘Clean Language’, so I am respecting that! 🙂 Also it then develops in a slightly different way – more around exploring the language perhaps than crunchy concrete descriptions of what’s working etc. For example, the next question is ‘And when (new outcome), what kind of (word or phrase from outcome)?’. That is the whole question, it’s not a misprint.
      What I would say is that both SF and Clean Language are about language – but in slightly different ways. I think that both are very careful with language – as your microanalysis work shows. I think we may be moving towards a new version of SF where this is very clearly visible and conscious.

  2. ” paraphrase is sublimation”

    Nice turn of (para) phrase, Mark; I’ve been using a number of simple rules for group recorders in my PossibilitySpace workshops since the mid-Nineties, which include: ‘Write down what they said, don’t paraphrase.’

    I explain further that if they feel the need for brevity they must negotiate with the speaker that their briefer version is acceptableto the speaker, and not just by quickly muttering “is that ok?”and turning to the next commenter.

    Once the rule is operating, participants will start to gently (and sometimes bluntly) challenge recorders for over-simplification, omissions and distortions. As I remind the recorders, it’s often easier to just write down what they said.

    Check out:,-David


    1. Hi Arthur, thanks for these highly congruent thoughts. I thought I wrote that ‘paraphrasing is subjugation’… And I like your version too.

      1. You didwrite subjugation and so did I, but my spelll check on my ‘ smart’ phone decided otherwise.

  3. Last night….I happened to be comparing this model with an SF coaching transcript at BRIEF’s blog not really sure what I was looking for, similarities, differences, or or some sort of magic combination of the two!. The two modes start in very similar territory explorig a prefered outcome/best hope/what would you like to have happen? and both develop a description of what would be different, with Clean pursuing this by asking ‘And when (outcome) then what happens? Both use iterations to develop new and richer descriptions, in the case of the SF example a great many questions about details of a day ‘at your best’ and more explicity inviting other perspectives. Here some divergence becomes apparent, as Clean moves into the space of and ‘what needs to happen for (final outcome) and some associated questions to develop this further, more similar than SF to traditional action planning. The SF example finishes when the ‘what else will you/they notice’ have fully run their course (though I know of course that there are many other possible elements to SF coaching).

    Not an exhaustive or rigourous comparison by any means, but interesting al the same – and most interesting would be to look the same client with the same issue experiencing both models.

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