Using clean language in action learning

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John Heywood

I recently took part in a thought provoking workshop organised by the International Foundation of Action Learning (IFAL) on using Clean Language in action learning sets. Expertly led by Angela Dunbar of the Clean Coaching Centre, the workshop aimed to help participants understand clean language, encourage us to think about how clean language is different from other conversations, give us sufficient time to practice asking the set of clean language questions; and then think about how the ‘clean mindset’ does or could support our work in action learning sets.

So what is ‘Clean Language’? It is a set of completely non-directive questions, it’s a process which encourages deep exploration, it’s a way of enabling the client (or explorer in clean language terms) to look for their own solutions without the questioner getting in the way, and it’s a method of exploration through metaphor.

Specific questions are asked in sequence using particular syntax. The workshop started with,

‘What would you like to have happen?’

and we were asked to choose one word which encapsulated what we wanted from the workshop. My own word was ‘declutter’, because I wanted to identify and get rid of extraneous words I might use when I ask a question in an action learning context. I wanted to be able to strip down my questions to the essential.

Clean language is about the structure of the questions, the repeating back of the client’s words and language – honouring the client’s words, and it’s about linking questions with ‘and’ to give a sense of inclusiveness and encouragement. It’s also about listening at a different level and using the process to keep yourself (as questioner) out of the way, even to the extent of not making eye contact with the client.

There is a beginning, middle and end to the sequence. When a question is clean it uses the explorer’s words as content. When it’s not clean, the questioner has explicitly or implicitly introduced a topic, an idea, or an intention. Our workshop began with ‘what would you like to have happen?’ Using my own word (declutter) as the example, a follow-up clean question is,

‘And when declutter happens, you are like what?’

thus inviting the client to create their own metaphor through which they can start to explore their situation.

Middle questions follow -

‘What kind of declutter is that declutter?’
‘And is there anything else about that declutter’?
‘Whereabouts is that declutter?’
‘Does that declutter have shape and size?’

End questions help move to action, and include,

‘What needs to happen, next?’
‘And can that happen?’

Clean questions, and the sequence in which they are asked, have to be learned: the questions are generative and iterative. The questioner doesn’t add his or her own input but asks the question as it is written. For those used to action learning and coaching, clean questions may seem restrictive.

As I pondered this in the workshop I asked myself whether, when I’m coaching or being an action learning set member, do I really get out of the way and facilitate the explorer / presenter to look for their answers within themselves or are my ‘insightful’ questions just camouflaged opinions?

Clean questions generate metaphors and these self-generated metaphors can be further explored with more clean questions. Demonstrating the technique, Angela asked clean questions, played back the explorer’s words, incorporated those words into follow-up clean questions, stayed within the explorer’s generated metaphor and slowed the pace down so that observers later remarked on the ‘trance-like’ state induced by the process. As questioner, Angela brought to the table the set of clean questions, an enviable capacity for active listening, and an expert recall of the explorer’s own words.

The process is simple and complex at the same time. Practising the technique within an action learning set, I felt the need to re-train old coaching ‘muscles’ to be able to follow the clean process. I was aware of my conscious incompetence and my need to work with the explorer’s metaphors. Honing these skills honours one of the shared principles of clean language and action learning, which is that it is the client/ explorer / presenter who has the answer to his or her own problem and not the questioner.

Thanks to Angela Dunbar for expertly leading this extremely thought-provoking workshop and to Jan Hall and Janie Wilson of IFAL for organising a ‘stunning workshop’ (in the words of participant, Geoffrey Wolfson). If you want to know more about clean language please visit www.cleancoaching.com 

John Heywood

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