NLP and Clean Language

Written by Adam Sprackling

Mountains shrouded in mist

The client’s actual words have a precise personal meaning that can be lost if the counselor tries to substitute words or add what is not there, leading to reduced rapport. A particular set of rules for asking certain very simple questions has been developed in a way that lets the client to go deeper into inner experience. That set of rules and questioning procedures was called “Clean Language.”

As well as therapy, Clean Language is now used in personal and business coaching, education and other fields to enable people to explore feelings, thoughts, ideas, concepts and situations.

There are many different views who created the term ‘clean language’ as it’s such a generic phrase, In NLP we have evolved clean language from the ‘Meta-Model‘, which is a process of asking specific questions which dig deeply into a persons reality to uncover hidden ‘truths’.

Here is psychotherapist David Groves’ take on clean language.

There are twelve basic Clean Language questions and samples of them are:

  • And… is there anything else about… ?
  • And then what happens … what happens next ?
  • And what would you like to have happen?
  • And what kind of ….. is that?
  • where ….. = client’s original word or phrase

Though those questions might look very simple, their purpose is to let the client’s own thinking and feeling processes flow without imposing the helper’s interpretation, choice of words or mind-set. David Grove found that when he persisted with the use of Clean Language, clients tended to find metaphors and symbols to describe their experiences. The metaphors and symbols could be very ordinary things (a pie, a flower, a knife, an orange, a brick wall, a cloud) though sometimes (particularly in work with the inner child) they might seem related to myths, imagination or fantasy.

clean language nlp

When Clean Language questions were applied to those metaphors, a whole new inner world of information was revealed. The metaphors would come alive in the client’s head, rather like in a waking dream, and things happened in that inner space that gave the client insights, new information, and a sense of moving forward through stuck feelings, making sense out of confusion, escaping from problems or contacting positive states of feeling free, happy or full of energy. Sometimes memories arise and are worked with in the same way. The helper’s job is to keep facilitating the experience by asking the questions and to keep track of the unfolding inner landscape so that each part of it is given a chance to reveal its meaning.

When Clean Language questions were applied to those metaphors, a whole new inner world of information was revealed. The metaphors would come alive in the client’s head, rather like in a waking dream, and things happened in that inner space that gave the client insights, new information, and a sense of moving forward through stuck feelings, making sense out of confusion, escaping from problems or contacting positive states of feeling free, happy or full of energy. Sometimes memories arise and are worked with in the same way. The helper’s job is to keep facilitating the experience by asking the questions and to keep track of the unfolding inner landscape so that each part of it is given a chance to reveal its meaning.

In this work, the metaphors come from the client’s own mind, unlike other forms of “metaphor therapy” that use stories and anecdotes told to the client, or where the therapist selects symbols for the client to visualise. The ability to visualise well is not necessary.

A typical Clean Language and metaphor session can take up to 90 minutes (with breaks as necessary) and if a client is working on a very entrenched problem or issue, a number of sessions may be necessary. Between sessions, the client can revisit the metaphoric scene if it is still ongoing in the imagination, and sometimes the client is asked to draw a map or sketch of the internal landscape as homework.

Some possible applications of Clean Language are:

  • Working with dreams
  • Helping people who have had traumatic experiences
  • Resolving stuck feelings
  • Discovering life purpose
  • Working with the inner child or “child within”
  • Identifying the core mission of a business venture
  • Getting an idea for a logo design
  • Helping a writer develop a character or scene or overcome writer’s block
  • Working with adult children of victims of persecution
  • Working with feelings of being lost, having something missing, or “never feeling the same again”
  • Content-free work (where the client does not want to say the exact nature of the problem)
  • Exploring spirituality

More information on Clean Language and NLP

NLP trainers were drawn to David Grove’s work and for a while it became known, in NLP circles, as Symbolic NLP. That evolved into trainings called Symbolic Modelling offered by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley (see www.cleanlanguage.co.uk).

David’s later work produced new techniques called Clean Space and Emergent Knowledge, which are being taught by various trainers. Clean Coaching is an application of Clean Language and metaphor to coaching and can be found, along with information on Emergent Knowledge, at www.cleancoaching.com

Morris Berg has developed his talent for metaphor facilitation over many client sessions and prefers to base his work on the original Clean Language and metaphor therapy techniques as they are most suited to working with clients over the telephone. Sessions can even be conducted by chat if a client has a keen imagination and feels comfortable working that way, and if the presenting issue is suitable. For most people, though, working verbally is best. Using a headset or speakerphone is ideal.

Therapeutic Metaphor, Stuck Feelings (Trapped Emotion) and Energy Therapies

Clean language and the Therapeutic Metaphor of David Grove are ways of working with feelings that do not make it necessary for the client to reactivate the full sense of a painful feeling and do not require the client to have an abreaction (to relive a past event with the original painful emotions) in order to clear its impact. Since David Grove was originally working with Vietnam veterans and abuse victims, it was valuable for him to find a gentler way of doing therapy that did not depend on abreactions. Departing from the traditional Freudian-based view that an abreaction was essential for emotional healing, David would say that abreactions were not necessary and they could retraumatise the client.

Morris Berg’s own metaphor for how emotions can shift when not worked on directly is to compare an emotion to water. Clouds, steam, ice and snow do not look like water, and do not behave like water, yet they have powers that water does not, and when it is time for them to change into water again, they do so.

Likewise, the client’s “clouds”, “steam” and “ice” – the client’s metaphors – carry the energy of emotions and memories and transform them even though the work is not abreactive. To dismiss the metaphors as a form of distancing or dissociation is a mistake – they are not an attempt to get away from the problem but an attempt to solve it using the body-mind’s own creative powers. Anyone who has had a successful metaphor session knows that the work is very real and intensive indeed.

When using advanced Metaphor Therapy techniques with trauma survivors and also as as an adjunct to regression hypnotherapy, Morris Berg found that some clients experienced energy entering their bodies at the conclusion of a metaphor session. This happened especially if the client had been feeling that some part of the self was lost or shut off. This sense of reclaimed energy suggests that there might be a link between some metaphor work and energy therapies. Such a link remains to be explored.

Like Clean Language and Grove-style metaphor therapy, energy therapies offer ways of working with emotions without ab-reaction. So do the eye movement-based therapies such as Shapiro’s Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and various variations of eye movement work. These ways of working with emotional stress and trauma without ab-reaction have interested many counselors, therapists, psychologists and medical doctors worldwide, and reinforce the stance that therapeutic ab-reaction is not the only way to emotional healing. However, this new paradigm remains to be scientifically validated and universally accepted.

NLP and clean language is a way forward for good clean communication for all of us.