Our brains process an incredible amount of information through the use of metaphor (comparing one thing against another). When you listen carefully to the words we use, you will begin to notice how often metaphor is used in conversation.

“I was struggling with this problem until the lightbulb came on.” There are two metaphors in here: we weren’t really physically struggling and there was no actual lightbulb.

Sometimes the metaphors are blatent such as “My head was exploding with new ideas” and sometimes they’re very subtle such as “I have a lot of strawberries”. What you’ll begin to notice however, is that they’re everywhere.

This is important to recognize as it reflects how our brains store memories and process information. Metaphor is incredibly important to how we do both and has a significant effect on the quality of the conversations we can have.

One study indicates that we tend to use an average of six metaphors every minute in conversation.

Imagine that I’m working with a coaching client and she says to me “I’m feeling stuck in this new role”. If I respond with “Tell me more about how you’re blocked then I’ve contaminated her metaphor. I took stuck and changed it to blocked. It’s possible that stuck and blocked are equivalent in her mind but it’s more likely that they aren’t. In any case, she’s now going to have to spend time considering whether they’re the same and that distracts her from the message she was trying to communicate.

Imagine now that she’d said she was stuck and I’d replied with “What kind of stuck is that?” In this case, I’m responding with a question that contains only the metaphor that she had presented to me, in exactly the same words that she had used. When I do this, I’m allowing her brain to stay focused on the initial problem that she had been trying to articulate, without any distractions.

This is the essence of clean language. A question is clean if it clarifies the original metaphor without contaminating it.

The purpose of using clean language is to help the subject clarify their own thinking and work through their own problem. We are assuming that they already know how to fix their problem and just don’t know how to access that solution yet.

Done well, the subject will unpack their own thinking and will solve their own problems. We are making use of their unconscious mind to clarify the problem to a point that they can consciously make the right decisions for themselves.

If you find yourself giving advice or explaining what you think their metaphor means then you’re doing this wrong. Your job is to help them unpack their own thinking, not to solve their problems for them.

There are twelve core questions that form Clean Language although any question that doesn’t contaminate the original question can be considered to be clean, whether it’s in the core set or not.

The core clean language questions are below.

Developing Questions

  • What kind of X (is that X)?
  • Is there anything else about X?
  • Where is X? or (and) whereabouts is X?
  • Is there a relationship between X and Y?
  • When X, what happens to Y?
  • That’s X like what?

Sequence and Source

  • Then what happens?
  • What happens just before X?
  • Where could X come from?

Intention Questions

  • What would X like to have happen?
  • What needs to happen for X?
  • Can X (happen)?

Lazy Jedi Questions

If you’re familiar with the Pareto Principle (often called the 80/20 rule), you’ll know that it’s common for 20% of the effort in a thing to give us 80% of the value. The challenge is to identify which 20% we should focus on. With clean language, the first two questions consistently appear to be that 20%. Using just those two questions, we can get significant value out of clean language without diving into the rest. So we’ll spend more time with those.

Judy Rees calls the first two the “Lazy Jedi Questions”, referring to both how simple they are to use and how effective they are.

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

Coming back to that coaching client.

Subject: “I’m feeling stuck in my new role”
Coach: “You’re feeling stuck. What kind of stuck is that?”

For maximum effectiveness, we want to repeat back what she said before we ask our new question. You may feel that this is very awkward and stilted language to use with someone else but the reality is that if you say this with congruence, it won’t feel awkward to her at all. Try this with a willing subject and see how that person feels.

Whenever I run a clean language session at a conference or at a client, I always get people to pair up and try this technique before we get into too much theory. You may be surprised at how natural the wording sounds when it’s being said to you, even when it sounds awkward when the words are coming out of your own mouth. Try it and see for yourself.

In general, you will get better results if you speak slower and show genuine curiosity about the answers. If you’re just following a script then people will pick up on that and it won’t be effective. This is a conversation and it should sound like one.

When I ask “What kind of stuck is that?”, I’m asking the subject to elaborate on what’s in her own mind. We’re getting her to unpack her own metaphors in order to better understand them. Sometimes, unpacking the first metaphor will help bring clarity around it and sometimes it will morph into one or more other metaphors.

In therapy, where clean language originated, it’s commonly accepted that the first problem that the client talks about is often not the real problem that they need help with. It’s just a starting point and that we need to move on from there to determine what the actual problem is.

With this in mind, that first metaphor that the subject presents you with may just be a starting point that will change into other metaphors before you’re done. So we start by asking the first two questions repeatedly on all the things that the subject presents us with. Which question you use at which time doesn’t really matter, other than it should feel somewhat natural and not forced.

Subject: “I’m feeling stuck in my new role”
Coach: “You’re feeling stuck. What kind of stuck is that?”
Subject: “Like I’m sinking in quicksand (second metaphor)
Coach: Sinking in quicksand. Is there anything else about that sinking?”
Subject: “I feel like I can’t breathe.” (third metaphor)

You may have noticed that some of the questions have both an X and a Y in them and that’s when we’re comparing two different metaphors.

In our example above, we could now ask “Is there a relationship between feeling stuck and not being able to breathe?” It might be that the original metaphor wasn’t that important and we can move on from it or it might be that there’s a deeper link between it and where we are now that we need to explore. By explicitly asking about the relationship, we can help clarify that.

Time and Space

Where is X? or (and) whereabouts is X?

For people who are highly analytical, this will seem a strange question and yet if they seriously consider it, there will always be an answer. As our brains store memories, they are coded in a variety of ways including spacial and temporal (space and time). There will always be a location even though hyper-analytical people may struggle to access it.

What if the subject isn’t using any metaphors?

It’s unlikely that they aren’t using any metaphors at all although it’s possible that they’re using very subtle ones. The good news is that this technique can be used with regular nouns and verbs as well, albeit not quite as effectively.

Power Switch

  • And when X, what would you like to have happen?
  • And when X and Y and Z, what would you like to have happen?

Sometimes in a coaching conversation, the client will get stuck in their own problem. When this happens, we need a way to snap them back out to a more positive state. This is where the power switch is most useful.

If the client couldn’t get past the notion of struggling then we might ask “And when you are struggling, what would you like to have happen?”

Within the power switch, we can string many negative metaphors together such as “And when you are struggling and your ideas are falling on deaf ears and you feel like you’re slipping on the ice, what would you like to have happen?”

More information

Clean language is based on the work of therapist David Grove, who evolved this approach through working with his patients. James Lawley and Penny Tompkins then modelled how he worked and refined it down to the core twelve questions. Judy Rees has then been making that work available to a much larger audience through her writing and workshops. Googling any of these people will give you a wealth of information.

Caitlin Walker did an excellent TEDx talk on how she discovered clean language and started to use it with troubled youth. She also has written an excellent book on the subject and runs workshops.


Many factors contribute to the success of clean language. At first, it will be hard enough to get the wording right. Once you’ve got that working then you’ll want to focus on how you say the words, not just what words you use.

In general, speaking slower and with emphasis on the metaphor will give better results. Try varying your pacing and emphasis and see what works best for you. Everyones style is different and so not everyone will get the same results for any given approach.


Mike gave an AgileTO Quick Talk on this topic in March 2021.

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