“It’s not clean and it’s not a language”, so said “Clean Language” expert Judy Rees at the fourth meeting of Together Tools. Judy should know, she has written a bestselling book on the subject and works regularly to introduce the concept in a variety of circumstances. This was just one of the revelations during the session which also featured (among other things), a Zen Jedi, a unicycle-riding octopus, a dolphin and a magician.
Luckily, this does not indicate any role play taking place, but rather an exploration of metaphor and the range of situations where is can be used or probed to reveal hidden messages, create connections and enhance understanding between people.
In contrast to the History Pin and Unusual Suspects events covered in my last blog, the exercises Judy introduced demonstrated how diverse individuals’ thinking is, even when given the same basic “brief”.
I’d previously been introduced to Clean Language in an Action Learning for Facilitators session where I’d found it quite a challenge to seamlessly blend the two methods. I can, however, see the irony in this given the shared aims to pose open questions that feature as little of the questioner’s content as possible.
I found Judy’s focus on just two “lazy Jedi” (another Jedi) questions helpful (1) What kind of “x” is that? 2) Is there anything else about “x”?), as this really demonstrated the contrast between the sparseness of the questions and the detail of the answers as mental images were explored. It was also fascinating to observe how each member of the group responded, with some fully running with their metaphors while others were more reserved or sceptical.
Following some simple activities using Clean Language both 1-1 and in a group, Judy shared a little more on the theory and practical application before closing with some reflections on how we each might use what we’d learned in the future.
My immediate reaction was that with the simplified version of just 2 basic questions in mind I might look for more opportunities to try them in future. However, reflecting afterwards revealed a number of further takeaways:
- I was amazed by the variety of situations where Judy has used or seen Clean Language applied successfully, from medicine to coaching, to working with disengaged young people. My query has always been how far one could keep delving into a metaphor before the person questioned became frustrated or tied in knots. The examples suggested that my fears lack foundation and also demonstrated what a powerful tool this could be in breaking down barriers and working across cultures.
- Which leads to a second point around the questioner becoming comfortable in the technique. As most of us were new to it, using what seemed an unnatural syntax and interaction felt a bit laboured but Judy’s observation was that the questioner being at ease makes a big difference. Considering this in the light of other techniques such as Action Learning facilitation, I could envisage this being the case.
- The group work also revealed that as a technique to hone listening skills, a Clean Language exercise where participants needed to hear, hold and repeat what others have said several minutes after they’ve heard it, could be as effective, or more so, than any that we tried in the previous session on listening skills and could serve as a great opener to a session where the quality of attention is paramount.
- In the later discussion, Judy talked about how the questions could be used beyond metaphor to explore gestures. This potential was particularly interesting to me and something I’d definitely like to explore further.
- For all that Clean Language aims to remove the questioner’s content and focus on exploring the responses, it was abundantly clear that the person shaping the session and asking the initial question has a significant advantage in setting the context to work with. Repeating 1-1 interactions using the same initial metaphor also demonstrated how each of the questioners homed in on a different aspect leading the responses in different directions.
As usual the opportunity to experience a new technique and reflect on it with others was useful and left me with many further thoughts. I’ve yet to channel my “lazy Jedi” and try it out again, but it’s definitely something I’d like to try in future and I’m keen to learn more about situations where Clean Language has been used successfully and also where it hasn’t worked.
Our next Together Tools meetup is on a subject that’s very new to me. Another expert led session on “Constellations” led by Heather Day on 4th May. There are more details on the website so join us if you can!
For more information about Clean Language and Judy’s work and writing on the subject, I’d encourage you to visit her website .