Speak clearly with ‘clean language’

Do you want to get your point across more effectively? Clean language techniques can help you do it.

Good intentions aren’t everything

Imagine you are trying to help someone with a problem. You are doing your best to listen, but the other person keeps saying ‘No, I don’t mean that. What I mean is…’ The conversation is going nowhere fast.

So what is going wrong here? You are genuinely trying to help, so why does the other person feel so frustrated and misunderstood?

Same metaphor – different understanding

One of the problems is the language we use. We often use imagery and metaphor to convey our meaning, especially when expressing our thoughts and feelings. The trouble is that we can interpret meaning very differently.

Take the phrase ‘There’s light at the end of the tunnel’. We’d probably agree that the phrase means that things aren’t going well now, but they’ll get better. However, our perspectives may be very different. You may imagine bounding through a large, airy railway tunnel. For you, things will get better soon. I, on the other hand, might picture crawling through a dank, dark tunnel with only the faintest glimmer of light in the far distance. For me, it’s going to take a while to get to that better place.

Misunderstandings happen when you impose your own perspective and understanding of meaning on to what someone is saying. This influences what you say and how you ask questions. This in turn influences what the other person tells you and, ultimately, whether or not the person feels listened to.

Clean Language – practice and principles

How can you overcome these barriers to communication? One solution is to use Clean Language, a method developed by the psychotherapist David Grove in the 1980s.

The Clean Language technique centres on asking questions to gain insights. There are twelve Clean Language questions, but the two most common ones are:

  • What kind of (person’s own words) is that (repeat person’s words)?
  • Is there anything else about (person’s own words)?

Keep in mind the following principles. First, ask open questions – what, how, where, when. Second, use people’s own words in the questions. Don’t put your own spin on what was said or use language that implies meaning. Remember that the person’s intended meaning may be very different from your own understanding. Finally, listen closely. Clean Language is not an instant solution. You will need to follow up questions with more questions. This will take time and patience. Eventually, however, you will reach a point of deeper understanding.

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