Clean Language

It Certainly Ain’t Clean – Getting Down and Dirty with Your Client’s Language and Coping Behaviours.” (Revised Feb. 2013)

Please note, this is waaaay out of date and the two models have diverged even more since this was written.

A Brief Overview by Andrew T. Austin

This is a brief overview of my “Metaphors of Movement” work prompted by the question, “How is ‘Metaphors of Movement’ different from ‘Clean Language’?”

A similarity between the two is that both seek to discover more and more details about the client’s metaphor and to keep all that is discovered together as a single experience (in contrast to a sequential exploration). A significant difference with Metaphors of Movement (MoM) is that the MoM process focuses on the same metaphor, while in clean language often many different metaphors are explored in turn and may end up far from the original metaphor.

Clean Language is a model developed by David Grove (1950-2008) and systematised by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley. Clean language is a model designed to have the client discover and develop and explore their personal symbols and metaphors, without contamination or distortion being created by the questions asked, or statements made, by the therapist. In short, Clean Language is a model that seeks to avoid content imposition.

Clean Language (CL) also is the basis of symbolic modelling, a stand-alone method and process for psychotherapy and coaching, which was also developed by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins following the modelling of David Grove. To learn more about these processes, please see their website:

Metaphors of Movement (MoM) is much less about the metaphors a client uses and much more about the coping behaviours a person employs in dealing with the problems and issues in their lives, something that Charles Faulkner has explored in detail in his work on metaphors. The skillset for trainees of the MoM model is not about staying out of the client’s metaphors in order to avoid contamination; in fact it is almost the exact opposite. The therapist gets involved, gives direct suggestions and generally meddles with the client’s response set. Principally, the therapist explores the client’s metaphor, focusing on changing and developing the client’s response set (coping behaviours) to the metaphor. In NLP parlance, this work is a generative change process created by direct intervention. By comparison to Clean Language’s avoidance of content imposition, Metaphors of Movement exploits the effects of content imposition for therapeutic advantage.

At the heart of the model are the following suppositions:

  • The client is very good at knowing what their experience is not. But they are often not so good at knowing what their experience is. Ego, self-talk, psychological defence mechanism and just plain self-deceit are very powerful in preventing the realization of how they continue to maintain their problem.
  • When a chronic client is caught up in inappropriate and self-defeating behaviours, outcomes are of secondary importance. What is important in this context is where and how they are stuck now. When you have four flat tires, where you want to go is irrelevant until you get the tires fixed.
  • The client does not usually have the resources or the ability to know what to do about their situation – that is why they are the client. As the metaphor is developed, clients will often discover their own solutions, which can be either specific external behaviours or changes in attitude, etc. But when they don’t, then it is the therapist’s job, as an expert, to give appropriate, accurate and precise guidance. It is this precision that the MoM training model develops for the therapist.

Four things should be noted here.

  1. This model was primarily developed in response to the clinical needs that arose from working with difficult, uncooperative and/or chronic patients.
  2. Clients are usually far more selective about responding to suggestion than is usually assumed by many therapists, often rejecting ones that do not fit well for them.
  3. The MoM model is not a grand unified theory of therapy; the above principles are inevitably not going to be true in every instance.
  4. MoM is an additional way of working, not a substitute or replacement for other skill sets and models of working.

The most striking difference between CL and MoM is the degree to which a therapist using MoM gives metaphoric and direct suggestions to the client’s metaphorical description. For example, the client may report in the middle of the description of their suffering:

“…and I sometimes feel like life is an uphill struggle and I am terrified of backsliding again…”

A typical MoM response would be, “So, it is like you are on a slippery slope?” in order to gather more information. Using the principle that people are really good at knowing what their experience is not, rather than what something is. Thus the client may respond either in the affirmative or negative.

In this real-world example, the client responded in the negative. Saying, “I just don’t know if I’ll ever get on top of it all.”

This tells the MoM practitioner of the intended outcome of the client. “To get to the top of the hill.”

Thus we might infer that this speaker wants the following:

    • to be the top guy
    • to feel like he has the world at his feet
    • to feel on top of the world
    • to be the guy everyone looks up to
    • to be on top
    • to conquer

In MoM, the metaphor is expanded only as far as is required so that the advice given by the therapist makes perfect sense to the client. The MoM model demands a high degree of creativity, humour, rapport, lateral thinking, and of course sensitivity to the client’s response to all of these. These key skills are essential elements in MoM training.

In most schools of NLP, trainees are taught to match pace and lead the modality (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, etc) and submodality patterns offered by the client.

For example, in NLP, a mismatch would be observed with:

Client: It has all blown out of all proportion and the problem just looks too big.”

Practitioner: “Where do you get the feeling?”

The MoM model expands this and encourages the practitioner to match the metaphors of the client. Frequently in NLP oriented sessions, the client’s metaphorical utterances are ignored. For example, the client may say, “I feel lost and don’t know which way to go” at which point the NLPer asks the client to remember a resource state and then starts anchoring kinaesthetic resources. The client may end up feeling better but the central issue of being “lost” and not knowing “which way to go” has been ignored.

MoM training seeks to eliminate these mismatches. This takes rapport building to a new level – not only does the therapist pace and lead V-A-K modalities and submodalities, but also the metaphorical identity of their experience.

The MoM model concerns itself primarily with metaphors of movement to work with stuck states and get clients moving again. It is a very practical methodology, often utilising drama, props and re-enactments. Clients and trainees of the process report that they find it practical, fun, effective, relatively fast, and most commonly, that it changes many of the accepted rules and practices of contemporary change work.

From a personal perspective, what is interesting is how many new distinctions and developments occur during workshops. MoM is very much a “living” and developing process, and I expect that a more formalised and expansive set of MoM premises and heuristics will emerge. Already, following extensive input from Steve Andreas, a number of distinct aspects and patterns have been identified and clarified.


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