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The power of clean language in the workplace

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Clean language coaching is seeing an increase in business with many organisations now looking to clean language and systemic modelling facilitators to help teams work more collaboratively and efficiently and resolve conflicts in the workplace.  

But what is clean language, and why can it be so powerful in supporting teams and leaders?

We have heard all the jokes about it not including swearing, and yes, we don’t condone cursing at your colleagues, but what clean language advocates is allowing everyone to be heard, whatever their opinion, without judgement.

Far from a new tool, clean language has been around since the 1980s and originated from the work of David Grove, a therapist who worked with war veterans and victims of serious trauma.

He realised that if you could describe your experience through a metaphor, it enables you to reorganise your relationship with the original experience without having to relive it.

His work has gone on to be used in many different fields from clean language interviewing in police settings and academia, to within more mainstream HR departments.


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How does clean language work?

So how does it work? Clean questions are intended to allow individuals to ask questions in a curious, rather than judgmental, way.

So, for example, instead of asking ‘Are you okay?’ – which might suggest you think that person isn’t okay –  you might ask ‘I saw x happen and I’m wondering what that is like for you?’.

A simple but effective change in terminology that can automatically change the tone of the conversation.

Imagine a situation in which you have two colleagues with very different work styles.

One is deadline driven – deadlines are a finishing line that motivate them.

The other finds deadlines difficult and anxiety inducing. When they try to talk about timelines, a classic drama triangle emerges, where one is seen as aggressive and the other one defensive, one is the victim and the other the persecutor.

Using clean language coaching, more information can be generated about how they both experience deadlines.

By opening the conversation up, both can understand how the other reacts, so that they can collectively work out the best approach for a forthcoming deadline.

Metaphors are the key to bridging the conversation

Metaphors are key in clean language coaching to convey differing ideas quickly and effectively and can support leaders to visualise how they lead at their best.

So, in the case above the metaphor of a deadline being like finishing a race can help open the conversation, allowing those involved to appreciate the other’s viewpoint, rather than expecting a change in behaviour to suit their working style.

Or perhaps one will notice when the other one is struggling, or feeling stressed if the hurdles keep changing, which might lead to an open conversation ahead of the deadline, rather than conflict at the time of it. So, effectively it allows everyone to be different, while working together.

Clean language coaching is about creating a space where everyone can be heard, whatever their opinion.

It helps those working in teams support their colleagues with challenges like imposter syndrome, time management, balance and boundaries, menopause and EDI among others.

And as the change comes from those in the team, rather than being imposed from above, the changes stick because they are easier to implement and more sustainable.

Rachel Gilmore is founder of We Are Clean

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