Clean language for Agile Coaches!

I've been seeing a lot of talk and activity around the use of Clean Language with agile coaching... But what is it? And what's it all about? To find out more I did a 2 day course back in November last year ran by Judy Rees and Olaf Lewitz to try and delve deeper...

Clean Language is a technique developed by David Grove in the 1980's which was a result of clinical work helping to resolve clients traumatic memories - Encouraging clients to develop and build metaphors which are then explored using clean language questions.

I really struggled with the course - I couldn't do the metaphor concept and as a participant I couldn't construct metaphors for people to explore,  I must have been a right pain for those pairing with me!  I left feeling very uncertain about using it....

However I've since experimented with it several times - In coaching sessions and retrospectives and have been really surprised with the conversations and insights generated.....

So myself and fellow coach Arif Bobat decided to put together a quick course to get across some of the principles in a training session for other agile coaches working for a client of ours.

And here it is...  Clean language in 90 minutes. This certainly isn't a deep dive into Clean Language, But it does cover many of the core basic's you'll need and point you in the direction of further reading!

Exercise 1 - "When you're learning at your best, That's like what?"

Pose the question :- "When you're learning at your best, That's like what?"... And perhaps give an example.... "When I'm learning at my best, It's like my mind is a sponge" (Note the metaphor of the sponge) - The idea is to create metaphors which we will later explore.

The syntax is important so pay special attention to it.

Give the room a minute or two to think and then in pairs :-

Person 1 asks :-

"When you're learning at your'e best, That's like what?"

Person 2 replies :-

"When I'm learning at my best thats like.........."

And then mix the pairs up and repeat until everyone in the room has spoken to everyone.

Exercise 2 - The Lazy Jedi Questions

Moving swiftly on.... We introduce the 'Lazy Jedi Questions' These are the only two clean language questions you'll ever need!!! (Well perhaps that's not totally true) But for now they fulfil the Pareto principle! So learn and practice them!

Going back to the metaphor created in exercise 1 and still working in pairs.

Person 1 asks :-

"When you're learning at you're best, That's like what?"

Person 2 :-


with their metaphor

Person 1 :-

Explores the metaphor using clean language questions....

"What kind of X (Is that X)?"

"Is there anything else about X?"

Again - Switch pairs and afterwards discuss what happened as a group....

As the facilitator experiment using clean language in the discussions.

Exercise 3

This is the listening exercise... Great fun to watch as the facilitator, especially round 2!

Round 1.....

Arrange the room so that people are sat in pairs.

Explain that this section is about developing listening skills.

Give everyone a minute to think about a subject they would like to talk about, any subject but they will be talking about it for 2 minutes.

Then in their pairs :-

Person 1 (the talker) :-Talks for 2 minutes on their subject.

Person 2 (the listener) :-Encourages the talker to talk for the full 2 minutes using non-verbal communication only.

And then the pairs switch, Listener talks, talker listens.

Once everyone has had a go listening and talking - Get together as a group to discuss.

Round 2......

We're now going to repeat the same activity - Except this time the listener will act distracted and uninterested... Again the talker will be speaking for 2 minutes.

Person 1 (the talker) :- Talks for 2 minutes on their chosen subject

Person 2 (The listener) :- Still using non-verbal communication acts distracted, looks away - does everything they can to show no interest in what the listener is saying.

And then swap!

At the end of this round discuss with the group, How did people feel, Is there anything else about that?

Round 3 (Introducing the Repeat)

We're going to introduce a new concept now.....

The Repeat

There are many psychological studies on this subject and it's too massive a concept to go into here.... But in summary people like people who are like them, When Servers in a restaurant repeat a customer order the customer subconsciously feel that the server is more like them than not (They experience sameness with the server) People who are good in rapport mirror each other's gestures and speech.

In this round the listener again uses non-verbal communication techniques to keep the talker talking... But they also pick out words or phases to repeat back to the listener...

When myself and Arif introduced this technique  in our training session we role played the following scenario as an example.....

Facilitator 1 :- "What would you like?"

Facilitator 2 :- "A pint of Bass"

Facilitator 1 :- {Nods}

Facilitator 2 :- "A pint of Thatchers"

Facilitator 1 :- {Nods}

Facilitator 2 :- "A packet of pork scratchings"

Facilitator 1 :- {Nods}

Facilitator 2 :- "And a packet of those posh crisps over there!"

Facilitator 1 :- "Ok"

We then repeated the exercise using the repeat.....

Facilitator 1 :- "What would you like?"

Facilitator 2 :- "A pint of Bass"

Facilitator 1 :- "Pint of Bass"

Facilitator 2 :- "A pint of Thatchers"

Facilitator 1 :- "A pint of Thatchers"

Facilitator 2 :- "A packet of pork scratchings"

Facilitator 1 :- "pork scratchings"

Facilitator 2 :- "And a packet of those posh crisps over there!"

Facilitator 1 :- "Posh crisps"

Again as a group discuss both of these scenarios - How would you feel being the customer in both cases?

In one study - a waitress was able to increase her tips by 70% by employing this technique - It's also a technique used in the book 'The Game: Undercover in the secret society of pickup artists"

It's now time to practice.... 

Person 1 (The talker) :- Again talks for 2 minutes on any subject they like

Person 2 (The Listener) - As in round 1 actively encourages the talker to talk... But this time they use the repeat - They may also like to experiment with the lazy Jedi questions

"What kind of X is that X?"

"Is there anything else about X?"

Again at the end of this exercise discuss - How did it feel? What happened when the talker had their words repeated?

Exercise 4 - The Power Switch

This where it gets exiting... And we introduce the powerful 'Power Switch'

Person 1 :- Talks about a problem

Person 2 :- Listens (Intently) - And then repeats the problem and asks "And when {problem} What would you like to have happen?"

Person 1 :-Replies

Each pair takes it in turns an if time allows mix up the pairs.

Again as a group discuss... What happened when the power switch was used?

And that's it - How to run a clean language workshop in 90 minutes!

The fundamental points are :-

  • Listen attentively

  • Keep your opinions to yourself!

  • Ask clean language questions to explore a person's metaphor

  • Listen to answers - And ask more clean language questions

Clean language is of cause a massive subject... And I'm very much at the early stages of exploring this topic.... However I've already found it to be a really useful tool in my disposal as an agile coach!

For more clean language questions and information check out.....

And lastly many thanks to

Judy Rees

and Olaf Lewitz for running the course.