Published in The Listener, May 2012
How can I bring out and work with my client’s agenda and keep out of the way? An answer in my coaching practice has been to use Clean Language, a way of asking questions that treats the client’s answers as the only ones you will ever need and puts aside your own and always speculative ones. Now that I work as a supervisor, I have been discovering the place Clean Language can have in supervision too.
Clean Language provides a set of simple questions. Though they are simple, they do require a degree of artistry in choosing how to use them. Essentially their purpose is to enable the client to build a model of their experience and of what they want to be different, frequently in terms of the metaphors which emerge in the course of answering the questions.
I find Clean Language very productive in working with supervisees whose confidence has taken a dip. It is of course possible to generalise about where this dip comes from; to assume the coach has an “I’m not good enough” pattern running or is falling into the trap of wanting to help too much. Using Clean Language in supervision can aid the supervisor in guarding against making such assumptions.
I recently had a supervision conversation with a coach, J, who said she was feeling stuck with a couple of clients. After quite an extensive period as an internal coach, she started her own freelance coaching practice. Here are some extracts from our conversation.
After the opening pleasantries, I asked J what she wanted to gain from our conversation today.
J: I want reassurance. I feel powerful with unconfident people but not with higher level people.
K: And reassurance. What kind of reassurance is that?
J: I’ve got to get better at getting to the core.
K: And got to get better at getting to the core. Is there anything else about got to get better at getting to the core?
J: I need to get it right. I know this is all my stuff.
K: And when you need to get it right and this is all my stuff, and you’ve got to get better at getting to the core, where can that “got to” come from?
As there were now two imperatives operating (“need to”, “got to”) I chose to direct J’s attention towards modelling this aspect of her experience. The effect of my question was to generate a more reflective state from which eventually two metaphors emerged.
J: It’s funny but my anxiety’s come from my own success. I got the client that I’m finding most difficult as a result of really good feedback from someone else. (Pause) It’s like a wall.
K: And a wall. Is there anything else about a wall?
J: Yeah, it’s breaking through a boundary in my coach development. So I can forget this thing I have about authority. (Pause) Yeah, I know, (smiling) it’s a cloak of insecurity.
J clearly enjoyed the emergence of this metaphor. I decided to continue working at the level of her previously stated imperatives, rather than elicit very directly the qualities of the “cloak of insecurity”. Also, in Clean Language it can be very productive to treat a client’s metaphor as an independent part of the client; as a separate perceiver.
K: A cloak of insecurity. And a wall. And you’ve got to get better at getting to the core. And when there’s a cloak of insecurity, what does that cloak of insecurity want to have happen?
J: Well it wants not to be needed. Mmmm … I need to sit back (sitting back). I’m in this cloak of insecurity and taking total responsibility, so I feel I need to get it right. Yeah, I need to sit back. I want to sit back.
K: And taking total responsibility. And you want to sit back. And when you sit back, then what happens?
J: The wall’s not really there, well at least I can get through it. And I don’t take total responsibility. And the cloak … (J. indicates through her posture that the cloak falls away or is much lighter. This was my inference, which I didn’t explore, deciding to let J enjoy whatever was happening in the evolution of her metaphors).
You will notice that my questions are very simple, are frequently prefaced by and incorporate J’s own words. This sets up repeated feedback loops, from which new information can emerge out of J’s own system rather than from my interpretations.
Having spent the first part of the supervision working broadly with “reassurance”, and sensing that J had experienced something new there, I now felt we could move usefully into looking at more client-specific territory. This was prompted by J’s repeated reference to responsibility, signalling an issue around coach-client contracting. It is also undoubtedly connected to one of the values underpinning my supervision practice regarding the achievement of a practical action-oriented outcome with supervisees. The emphasis in Clean Language on staying with and utilising with precision the client’s information, however, helps me to hold this value more lightly and gives the balance of reflection and action a chance to settle ecologically.
I opened the next part of the session with a deliberately ambiguous question, without referring to any specific element of J’s experience.
K: And given all this, is this the same or different with all clients?
J: Not really. There’s one client (J goes on to describe her perceptions of the client…..) He is very fast. He has trouble being present for our meetings, his mind’s often on what’s next.
K: Sorry …. he has trouble being present.
Just ahead of hearing J’s comment about her client not being present for her, I had found my attention, by coincidence, drifting away from J towards thoughts of my next appointment. Whether this momentary replication of the coach-client dynamic between J and me was significant in any way could only be guessed at. I wondered whether feeding this back to J, in as Clean a way as I could muster, might bring something to light. I felt the rapport we had made this feasible.
K: Do you know I just had trouble being present then. I was thinking about what I’m doing next. (Pause – considering what Clean Language question might work here.) And what just happened?
J: Really. I don’t’ know. You were thinking of something else? Maybe it’s my voice, maybe it can be a bit hypnotic?
This led to a short, light hearted excursion into the effect of the sound of her voice. This had relevance to her experience of being with the client and also invited her to pay attention to a possible connection between her voice and her own presence.
We next continued our conversation:
K: And when he has trouble being present, what do you want to have happen in this coaching relationship?
J: He just will not set a goal.
K: A goal?
J: Well, he’s not long been promoted and needs to up his game.
K: And he needs to up his game and you need to get better at getting at the core? Is there anything else about that?
I had a strong impression during this part of the conversation that when J was with her client there was a lot of effort in the room between them. I fed this back, through using J’s own words, without interpreting or labelling this as a parallel process between her and the client. This allowed J’s awareness to heighten of how she had been taking responsibility for the client in a way that had been leaving her feeling un-resourceful. It deepened her learning about “sitting back” and revealed that during her next session with the client, the fourth, part of that sitting back could be to offer a challenge to the client about his reluctance to set a specific goal for upping his game.
K: And reassurance and I need to get it right and given everything we have talked about today, what do want to have happen for the next session with this client?
J: I’m going to sit back, stop taking responsibility, re-negotiate the coaching contract. It’s going to be lighter and brighter. That’s how I want my coaching to be, lighter and brighter.
By the end of the session, we had worked with J’s desire for “reassurance”, from which “sitting back” had emerged as a metaphor for a more resourceful way of coaching; found a Clean-ish way of using our shared experience of a part of the session; which had led to an awareness of her voice; and examined her experience of being with the client, and the currently effortful nature of the coaching relationship, from which she identified an action of holding the client to account for his not setting goals.
None of my supervision sessions use Clean Language throughout. There would seem to be things which supervision does which are not easily or most productively delivered by a strict adherence to Clean Language methodology. Clean Language, however, does feature prominently in my sessions, as by its nature it closely supports a central aim of supervision, to develop the capacity for reflective practice in the coach.
Clean Language was created by David Grove. The following books are based on his work:
Sullivan W. & Rees J. (2008) Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds
Lawley J. & Tompkins P. (2000) Metaphors in Mind: transformation through Symbolic Modelling
There is also a wealth of material on Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling to be found at cleanlanguage.com