Can Clean Language replace the NLP Meta Model?

I am studying Clean Language at the moment and am reading an excellent book by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees (who runs which is about how Clean Language can be used in business) called Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds which introduces the concept and teaches the basics of how Clean Language can and should be applied.

I’m finding the whole thing incredibly powerful and I suspect I’ll be blogging about it again.

Coming from the NLP world with the meta model and such, Clean Language seems to simplify the processes even further and what I’ve seen and used is actually a much better method of questioning someone on their beliefs and frames than the Meta Model used in NLP [gasp!].

If you’ve not read it or don’t have time/intend to, then checkout the next two questions and, just as an experiment, use them in a few conversations with friends or colleagues and see what happens:

  • What kind of X (is that X)?
  • Is there anything else about X?

They are incredibly simple but a fantastic way of encouraging the speaker to elaborate and explain further what they mean.

The “X” represents the EXACT same words the person spoke repeated in the EXACTLY the same way with intonation, inflection, power etc.

The bit in brackets is optional and will apply in some contexts and not in others. I would trust your unconscious to provide you with it at the right time.

Take for example:

I love Aston Villa” (I don’t btw, I’m just using it as an example)

You ask:

What kind of ‘love’?

The person will likely explain what they mean by “love”.

What is cool is that you can then use the same question again and again as they explain why they feel the way they do about their chosen team. Who knows: you might even discover a secret Spurs fan! (I’m not one of those either).

Lets have another example conversation:

I’m really stressed!

What kind of ‘stressed’?

I can’t sleep properly and my eating is a mess!

And is there anything else about ‘stressed’?

Yeah, my boss keeps piling stuff onto me and I feel like I’m drowning in it!

This initial conversation has elicited the speaker’s symptoms and perceived cause as well as their metaphor for representing how they feel about the situation. Using further clean language questioning you can properly explore all of those and allow the speaker to discover for themselves the solution to the problem even though they may not at first have been able to see (or swim for) a way out of it.

Have a listen to conversations around you and even your own words and listen out for the metaphors that we all use constantly. It is fascinating to do this because we all make assumptions about what “drowning in it” might be like, but you can pretty much guarantee that your image of that scenario will be quite different from mine. That’s where clean questioning can enable all parties in a conversation to understand each other’s metaphors and avoid making potentially incorrect assumptions about what the other person is saying.

If you are interested in reading a brief overview of Clean Language, checkout Wikipedia.

10 thoughts on “Can Clean Language replace the NLP Meta Model?”

  1. Be careful exploring AWAY from states (A) with Clean Language. When I first started studying it a few years ago I dove straight in and asked clean questions wherever I was curious. I learned very quickly not to elicit (A) without first having elicited and developed and strong TOWARDS state (T). You may be surprised how quickly you can rock someone’s inner world with clean question. Tred lightly on (A) stuff at first! Of course you can turn any (A) into a (T) by asking something like…

    “And when not (A)…then what happens…?”

  2. Hi Ben and John, when you realise you’re exploring an (A) state, try a Clean state-switch: “And when you feel like you’re drowning in it, what would you LIKE to have happen?”

    There’s a good chance that the response will also be in metaphor: “I’d like to get my head above the water and start swimming.” Then you can ask “What kind of swimming” etc which will intensify THAT state instead.

    Have fun!

  3. Thanks Judy, its a good point that you both make that eliciting the metaphor will also elicit the state, so exploring a negative state is likely to cause the person to experience that same negative state. Now I’m relatively new to Clean Language, but I do know that sometimes eliciting the negative feelings can be essential for effective change… I’d be interested to know your thoughts on that.

  4. Nice post, Ben.

    I’m a big fan of Clean Language. I kinda stumbled upon it some time ago, when I decided to stick to a client’s metaphors, instead of rejecting them. I’d had an experienced, where I was annoyed with myself, because a client said, “I feel like there’s just a wall and I can’t get over it” and I said something like, “But if you could get over it, what would be on the other side?”

    Clean Language gave me a model for respecting the person in front of me and I’ve been enjoying exploring it ever since!

  5. Hey Ben, how’s it going.

    Nice post. Regarding Clean Language and Meta-Model, the former cannot replace the latter because they work very differently:

    > Meta Model challenges and deconstructs
    > Clean Language explores and develops

    So the different tools give you different choices.

    It would be fascinating to do some research on the qualitative effects of meta-modelling versus clean-languaging though.

    “This is good”

    MM: “compared to what?” (the attention moves away from “good” and into something else).

    CL: “…what kind of good…” (the attention goes ‘deeper’ into good)

    Now I wonder how using the CL full syntax with MM:

    “And ‘good’, and when ‘good’, that’s ‘good’ compared to what?”

    I think a lot of the elegance of CL is in how it is facilitated – it is the facilitation that honours the clients ‘stuff’ perhaps rather than the questions themselves.

    I’m going to play with this – meta-model with CL syntax, e.g.:

    “and ‘people are rude’, and when ‘people are rude’ which people specifically are ‘rude’?”

    “and ‘people are rude’, and when ‘people are rude’ how do you know that ‘people are rude’?”

    Fun to find out!


  6. You’re absolutely right there James. The active listening part of clean language (plus facilitation) is what works so well for me. Its one reason I keep a blog: the “just talking it through” approach that so many people naturally do (its what close friends and family are really good at) is a non-clean version of the same thing and writing out blog articles like this I find that I’ve answered my own question half way through the post. Powerful stuff!

  7. Thanks JP and Judy for the info about how to switch the state. Thats the exact bit I was missing.

    My next few clients are in for a fun ride 🙂


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