Questioning Clean Language questions:

Exploring combinations and variations
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

First presented at The Developing Group 7 May 2016

We recently read an interesting study comparing the effect of doctors asking patients one or other of these questions:

 “Is there anything else you want to address in the visit today?”
 “Is there something else you want to address in the visit today?”

They found, surprisingly, “relative to nonintervention cases, the implemented SOME intervention eliminated 78% of unmet concerns. The ANY intervention could not be significantly distinguished from the control condition”.1

Whatever we conclude from this study, it adds to the evidence that changing even a single word in a question can significantly affect a person’s answer. (As an aside, research also shows that very few people are aware that their answers are being influenced in this way.)

As a result of studies like this and our interest in the influence of questions generally we decided to explore what happens when small variations are introduced into the ‘standard’ Clean Language question set.

David Grove's variations

A review of some of David Grove’s transcripts showed that he employed a number of variations to his standard clean questions.2  Here are a selection (client’s words not bold):

And where did it come from, just before it smothered you ?

And where were you just before you were at the edge of the cliff ?

And what kind of me is a me that’s safe ?

And how long would a white fluffy cloud like to float for?

And where did he get his very mean from?

And does speck need anything else?

And does she need anything else when she hides in the corner ?

And when she wants to, what could be the first thing that could happen so she could get up and walk out of the closet and get right out of that house ?

And what would a dark needle like to do next?

And which elbow would a dark needle like to tear flesh first?

And when you don’t have words for it, then what do you have for it ?

As you can see, several of David’s variations combine two standard clean questions into a new formulation, others vary the syntax or verb tense. In addition to examples of combining and varying, below we examine how a range of conjunctions and prepositions can be utilised with the And what would you like to have happen? question.

It is important to note that when used in Symbolic Modelling, the following examples are not seeking to change the client. The facilitator’s aim is for the client to consider (self-model) what happens when they attend to other times/spaces/forms within the logic of their own metaphor landscape. As a result of considering the answer to one of these questions the client may well experience a perceptual reframe or some other kind of change – but that is not the facilitator’s intention.  

We are also not recommending you ask these questions whenever you like. To remain clean only ask one when to do so would be congruent with the logic of the client’s metaphor landscape.

As you consider the following questions, you can decide where each one sits on the clean continuum:

Combining questions

1. Combining:

And where is …?
And what happens just before …?


And where [were/was/are X], {just} before …?


Most likely the “…” will be a location or an event.
David Grove used this kind of question to “pull back” a symbol to a safer time and place when what was happening in the landscape was becoming unproductive for the client, i.e. To pull the perceiver back to T-2, pre-empting T-1 going to T (the worst moment).3


C: I’m at the edge of a cliff paralysed with fear.
F: And where were “you”, before “you” were “at the edge of a cliff”?
C: On solid ground.
C: I can’t get away from the chasing dragon.
F: And where was that “dragon”, before it was “chasing you” ?
C: Strange, it was at home sitting by the fire.

C: In my dreams I am always falling.
F: And where are “you” just before you are “falling”?
C: Just before? I have a decision to make.

2. Combining:

And what kind of … {is that …}?
And what happens just before ….?


And what kind of [X] was that [X] before [he/she/it] was [attribute of X]?


David Grove devised this question to invite the client to “strip the (pejorative) adjective from the noun”, as he put it.


C: I’ve felt bad ever since I was a boy.
F: And what kind of “boy” was that “boy” before he “felt bad”?
C: Free as a bird.


Be careful of doing the opposite: using this question to strip an enhancing adjective from its noun. This can result in the client accessing an unwelcome state (e.g. F: And what kind of “boy” was that “boy” before he was “confident”? C: I feel a wreck).

3. Combining:

And is there anything else {about ….}?
And what needs to happen {for ….}?


(a) And is there anything else that needs to happen {for …}?
(b) And do/does [X] need anything else?


(a) This question is used to identify additional conditions necessary for a desired outcome to be enacted. (See A Clean Framework for Change and Approach E in Metaphors in Mind for how this question can be used repeatedly.) Unless the “…” is a previously stated desired outcome or remedy this question can be highly leading as the facilitator has, by presupposition, has introduced an intention into the conversation.
(b) Could be used to check a symbol, say a “child within”, has all the resources it needs to be the way it would like to be, or do what it wants to do.


(a) And when “you want to stand up to your boss, and you need the confidence to do that” is there anything else that needs to happen for “you to stand up to your boss”?
(b) And does “speck” need anything else?

4. Combining:

And is there anything else {about ….}?
And where did/could … come from?


(a) And is there anything else about where … comes from?
(b) And is there anywhere else … comes from?,


(a) Invites a client to keep their attention on the particular source indicated.
(b) Invites a client to consider other sources.


C: I’m sure
F: And when you’re sure, where does “sure” come from?

(a) C: From [touches chest]
       F: And is there anything else about where “sure” comes from?

(b) C: From experience.
       F: And when “sure” comes from “experience”, is there anywhere else “sure” comes from?

5. Combining:

And then what happens?
And when [X] what happened to [Y]?


And when [X], then what happens to [Y]?


Invites the client to both move time forward and shift attention to another symbol or space. Can be used in Phase 4 (Exploring Effects) and 5 (Maturing Changes).
For some people the combined question may imply a more causal relationship (X causes Y) than the two classic non-combined questions.


C: I wasn’t motivated because I thought my goal was impossible but I now feel my goal is possible.
F: And “now you feel your goal is possible”, then what happens to “motivated”?

6. Combining:

And then what happens?
And what’s between [event/space X] and [event/space Y]?


And (then) what happens between [X] and [Y]?


Invites client to attend to an event, action or process occurring between X and Y.
When ‘then’ is added to the question, the client is asked to notice an occurrence  sometime later in time.


C: I start off scared but by the time I’m on stage I’m sure of myself.
F: And what happens between “scared” and “sure”?
C: Something feels the gaps between here [touches belly] and here [touches chest].
F: And then what happens between “there” [gestures to clients belly] and “there” [gestures to client’s chest]?
C: The solid feeling remains with me.

Variations of syntax

Another way of adding variety is to change the syntax (the arrangement of words). For example:

And when … is there anything else ?
And is there anything else when … ?
And when …  is there anything else when … ?
And what kind of [X] is that ?
And what kind of [X] is that [X] ?
And what kind of [X] is [X] that’s [attribute] ?

Compare these with, And that’s what kind of [X]?, which does not seem to work so well. Why not? Although is hard to point a specific reason, it may have something to do with ‘clipped’ rhythm of the question when said out loud, potentially sounding ‘demanding’.

Variations of tense

There can be times when a change in verb tense is useful, consider:

And what happens when you are confident ?
And what’s happening when you are confident ?
And what happened when you were confident ?
And what will/could happen when you are confident ?

Compare the last example with the ‘standard’ syntax which invites attention to go to a similar place but is somehow cleaner:

 And when you are confidence, then what happens

Variations of conjunctions/prepositions

The most common ways to define the micro context and prepare the client for a question is to use when or as. However there are other conjunctions/prepositions that can also work well, e.g. 

And while
And until
And before/after/during
     And before [event] is there anything else about … ?
     And what kind of … is that, after [event]?
     And during [event], whereabout is …?

Variations on 'And what would you like to have happen?’

Like all Clean Language questions And what would you like to have happen? can be asked in a variety of ways, for a variety of purposes, and with a number of variations. It is the classic ‘entry’ question into symbolically modelling a person or groups’ preferred future and it is also used during a session to invite the client to articulate a desired outcome.

There are a number of ‘standard’ variations to this question in common use:

a.  And what would [symbol’s name] like to have happen ?

b.  And when [Problem] what would you/symbol like to have happen ?

c. And what would you/symbol like to have happen now ?

(a) comes from David Grove’s early Child Within work.     

(b) was formalised in our Problem-Remedy-Outcome (PRO) model.

(c) can itself be varied with other time frames such as “in this session” or “during this workshop” or “in the remaining 10 minutes” etc.4

By adding a simple attention-directing word or phrase, And what would you like to have happen? can become a subtly different question.5  Each variation invites the answerer to attend to a different part of their experience. This is because any additional words tend to narrow or limit the frame in which the search for an answer can take place. This has advantages and disadvantages.

Below, And what would [you/symbol] like to have happen? is shortened to AWW y/s LTHH?.

In some of the examples the additional words in bold can be placed before or after the question:

  1.         And WW y/s LTHH next (time)? [or And WW y/s next LTHH ?]
  2.         And WW y/s LTHH after … ?
  3.         And WW y/s LTHH before … [outcome/problem event] ?
  4.         And WW y/s LTHH since …?
  5.         And WW y/s LTHH throughout … ?
  6.         And WW y/s LTHH until … [long-term outcome / problem] ?
  7.         And while … WW y/s LTHH ? [could combine with: next / after / before]
  8.         And during … WW y/s LTHH?
  9.         And then WW y/s LTHH? [or And WW y/s then LTHH?]
  10.         And now that … WW y/s LTHH?
  11.         And given …WW y/s LTHH? [or AWW y/s LTHH given …?]
  12.         And even when/though … WW y/s LTHH?
  13.         And though … WW y/s LTHH?
  14.         And in spite of … WW y/s LTHH?
  15.         And WW y/s LTHH instead?
  16.         And WW y/s LTHH rather than …?
  17.         And WW y/s LTHH in addition to …?
  18.         And besides … WW y/s LTHH?
  19.         And WW y/s LTHH to … ?
  20.         And WW y/s LTHH for …?
  21.         And WW y/s LTHH with …?

Sometimes clients struggle with questions similar to ‘And when [problem] what would you like to have happen?’ if they:

  • just want to problem to go away
  • don’t want to consider a desired outcome while the problem exists.
  • realise that answering begins to move them in a direction the consequences of which they don’t like (e.g. they need to change).

And, it can be a particularly valuable question when the problem has occurred for a good while and it appears will continue to happen in the future (e.g. It’s not a one-off problem, more a ongoing issue of life)

e.g. And when “you always end up in an argument”, what would you like to have happen, when “you end up in an argument”?

Other kinds of variations

And will  … ?6

     C: I really have to act.
     F: And will you act?

And when you “don’t ….” what do you ….?
     C: I don’t have words for it.
     F: And when “you don’t have words for it”, what do you “have for it” ?

     C: She doesn’t care about herself.
     F: And when “she doesn’t care about herself”, what does “she care about”?

And all of that’s like what?
And that’s all like what?

Concluding Remarks

These notes were created to support the members of The Developing Group to experiment and explore clean-related ideas and processes; in this case with combinations and variations of clean questions. However, when we are facilitating outside this context, it is important to retain a clean philosophy and facilitate others to self-model their experience as cleanly as possible.

This doesn’t mean we should only ask the ‘standard’ or ‘classically clean’ questions. The ‘cleanness’ of any question depends on both the general context in which the conversation takes place, and the local context of the moment in which it is asked. A question that might be clean in a police interview might not in a therapeutic session, and vice versa. Similarly, some questions might jar at the beginning of a session but make perfect sense later on. Cleanness can also depend on the intention with which the question is asked.7

While the basic set of David Grove’s Clean Language questions can be considered clean in a wide range of situations, and some questions are inherently leading, ultimately, a question’s position on the leading-clean continuum can only be assessed based on the macro and micro context.  


1. Heritage, J., Robinson, J. D., Elliott, M. N., Beckett, M., & Wilkes, M. (2007). Reducing Patients’ Unmet Concerns in Primary Care: the Difference One Word Can Make. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(10), 1429–1433. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2305862/

2. cleanlanguage.com/category/dg/

3.  For an explanation of “pulling back” and T-2, T-1, T see: cleanlanguage.com/summary-of-david-groves-ideas-as-of-2003/

4.  See: It’s about time: Modelling frames of desire

5.  Based on a presentation to London Clean Language Practise Group, 5 May 2004: [Link to cleanform.com thread.php?165-Practice-Exercises&p;=158#post158 no longer available]

6.  The ‘will’ question was popularised in the Weight Watchers’ booklet and programme, One Minute Motivation, devised by Marian Way, Phil Swallow and Wendy Sullivan. Clean Language: Revealing metaphors and opening minds, Wendy Sullivan & Judy Rees (2008) p. 190.

7.  An example of a clean session where the facilitator does not have a clean intention is at: cleanlanguage.com/calibrating/

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
body * { color: inherit !important; }