Setting up Clean Space

The craft behind the technique
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When David Grove was developing Clean Space he was inspired by Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science.[1] Wolfram demonstrates how unexpected complexity can emerge from the iterative application of a few very simple ‘algorithms’ or ‘routines’ – sequences of instructions for performing a task that are part of a larger operation.

Change techniques are typically designed to be followed step by step from start to finish. Their linearity and straight-forwardness is their attraction. Clean Space is not a traditional technique. It is an interesting mixture of following a strict formula and applying algorithms creatively in response to what is happening for the client in the moment.

Clean Space draws on the original Greek meaning of ‘technique’ – the method used by an artist. An artist may employ standard techniques but if they are to produce something original these cannot be applied formulaically.

When Penny Tompkins and I produced our first model of David Grove’s Clean Space in 2003 we attempted to preserve the spirit of David’s innovation – the artistic technique as well as the technology. In our diagram of the model, the circularity of the arrows between the core routines was meant to show that:

Clean Space is not like a traditional technique: the steps cannot be predefined since neither you nor the client knows what will happen next. Each move is contingent upon what has just been said or done and on the logic of the client’s information. How many spaces the client identifies, their location, the order in which they are located, the information emerging from each space, and the number of iterations are determined during the process.[2]

Over the years however, Clean Space has often been presented as a linear technique: First do this, then this, etc. (I too have fallen prey to this over-simplification when time was short.) Having said that, I am still amazed just how much a person can get from being facilitated through even the most formulaic version – but sometimes I feel it loses something.

This blog is an attempt to redress the balance by attending more to the artistic aspects of Clean Space.

Rather than think of Clean Space as a linear process I regard it as a number (six as it happens) of interacting ‘set ups’. Each set up is designed to contribute to the overall aim of “encouraging the conditions” for creative emergence.[3] Or in David Grove’s words, for the space to become psychoactive and therefore your co-facilitator.[4] That’s as much as a clean facilitator can do. After that it’s up to the client’s system to do what it does.

Psychoactivity occurs when the physical space is populated with the client’s symbolic content and those symbols give rise to reactions in the client’s mind-body. David was particularly interested in ‘network effects’. Once a critical number of symbols/spaces exist and relationships between them are established, ‘emergent properties’– features and functions that could not be predicted from the components – appear.

At the first workshop on Clean Space David Grove explained how to start: “Encourage the client to write a mission statement or draw a picture on paper and then place it somewhere in the room, which sets up the observer, the observed and the space in between”.[5] David was obviously using “set up” to mean establish (make firm) and inaugurate (mark the beginning); and I’d like to think he was also meaning to provide or create an opportunity (as in ‘The player set up a goal-scoring chance’). However, reserving this term for the initial routine implies that the other routines do something else. I suggest that if we regard all of the routines as setting up something then our relationship to the process, the client and the space changes – hopefully in the direction of being more attuned to the spirit of the process.[6]

In the following when I use ‘set up’ it will have all three meanings.

Facilitator’s Role

My job in Clean Space is to facilitate the client to establish a network of spaces, and when this becomes psychoactive to respond to whatever happens – especially the unexpected. Where it goes, nobody knows – that’s the nature of an emergent process.

Since clients can lose track of the mundane when they are engaged in their symbolic world, it is also the job of the facilitator to manage the external context such as physical safety and any time constraints.

Six Set Ups

Let’s look at the function of each of the six set-up routines:[7]


This routine sets up the whole process. It provides the grain of sand from which the pearl of the network can grow. It establishes a location for the client’s written words or drawing (a reference point that David called “the space of B”); an initial location for the client (“the space of A” or “Position 1”); and a spatial relationship between the two (“the space of C”).

The space of A situates the client’s initial response to what they decide the session is to be about (B). In addition, it opens a loop and establishes a place to come back to. I think of Position 1 as setting up a ‘control point’ against which the effect of the process can be compared at the end.

The time and attention given to this part of the process is vital. David called the extended version of this routine a Clean Start.[8] The questions authenticate the primacy of spatial relations, that slight adjustments matter, and that the client knows more than they know they know. Often within a minute or two the physical space starts to take on an extra dimension. It starts symbolising aspects of the client’s inner world.[9]

Knowing from a New Space

Once a space exists the first thing to do is to establish a knowing at this space. When setting up the network it is important that the client remains for only a short time in each space. Initially, Clean Space is about working with ‘span’ rather than ‘depth’. The general rule is, until a network is established, ask a maximum of three questions per space. My preference is for:

And what do you know (from) there?

And is there anything else you know from there about [gesture to statement or drawing]?

And what could this space be called?

These three simple questions invite the client to identify a knowing at this space, a knowing about the original grain of sand, and a name – and therefore an identity – for the space. Going through the ritual of these three questions whenever a new space is discovered establishes both the independence of the space and its inclusion in the network. Ken Wilber calls these ‘individual agency’ and ‘communion with others’.[10]

Locating New Spaces

As soon as a second space is established a simple three-point network begins to emerge. Thereafter each new space adds to the complexity and richness of the network. Each time a client “finds” a new space they further commit to the process. Although George Miller said we can hold a maximum of “7 plus or minus 2” bits of information at one time.[11] In Clean Space the equivalent “magic number” is more like ‘3 plus 1 or 2’. Once the number of spaces gets to 3, 4 or 5 most clients have to let go. They become active participators rather than conductors since despite being fully in charge they cannot control what is happening.

While the client gets deeply involved in the content, as facilitators we need to keep thinking ‘space, space, space’. We need to listen and watch for cues to the emerging configuration – and support it to emerge. Spatial metaphors and little movements of the body are the raw materials of our trade. Even if a client does not physically stand in a space, if they mention it verbally or point to it nonverbally it exists. Our job is to put attention on that space so it can play its part in the overall configuration.

For example, a client says “I am on the edge of something here. I can feel it. But if I step back [points behind] I’m outside its influence.” Even though the client has not physically stepped back to “outside”, that space now exists and needs to be acknowledged and incorporated. The most direct route is via an instruction:

And go to [gesture to the space] outside.
And find a space that knows about outside (the edge).

You don’t have to do this immediately but you can’t wait too long since “metaphors have a short half-life” (David Grove) and that space may lose its psychoactivity.12

Relating Spaces

Asking the following question multiple times from multiple spaces puts attention on the relationships between the spaces (the links rather than the nodes, in network jargon):

And what do you know (from) here about there [gesture to location of one of the previously established spaces, and optionally use its name]?

It also serves to check the ‘ecology’ of the network from multiple perspectives – to ensure that all the spaces are involved and ‘have their say’.[13]

[Optional] Relating Spaces – Working with the Network

In some ways, all of the preceding routines are preparing the ground for another phase. Unfortunately, this part of the process gets dropped when time is short or a simplified version is being taught.

Once a network is established then the client can move around it. The varying perspectives give rise to new insights, new connections and new effects. At some point the configuration of the network will likely take on significance. The client may well notice that the relative location and grouping of their spaces is far from arbitrary and itself contains symbolic information. Working at the network level the client can discover deep structures about how they organise their way of being in the world.

It’s important to realise that the opportunity to ‘work with the network‘ can happen at any time after a second space is located. In general though, as more spaces are located and related the more likely the configuration of the network will start to become significant.

Relating spaces is most often used in conjunction with another routine …

Returning to Spaces

By revisiting existing spaces the client’s system updates itself with new knowings and further discoveries. Iterating around the spaces is key to both keeping the whole network alive and to maturing the changes that are happening. As small changes cascade around the network their effects are amplified and consolidated creating a contagion of further unexpected happenings and discoveries.


At some point the client is instructed to return to “from whence they came”, Position 1, the original space of A. Here the client can reflect on what has happened, the effects of that, and the effect of those effects. As T. S. Eliot so eloquently pointed out:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

This is also a practical way to return the client and the space to the physical world.

Clean Space Lite

The six set ups above do not map directly on to the headings of either of our basic or ‘lite’ versions of Clean Space. This is because they are designed to be used as a guide for someone learning to facilitate the process, while the above are describing the general function of each of the routines. Our diagrams are two particular formulations out of thousands that the six set ups could generate.

Another way to describe the Clean Space lite version is given below. Although it aims to be a minimal process it still engages all six set ups. It is a template for learning to facilitate the process which once mastered can be varied according to the particular circumstances of the client and the moment. Penny and I have documented many of the various ‘add-ons’ and options available to facilitators in our article, Clean Space Revisited:[14]


i. Establish ‘B’, locate it and then locate ‘A’ in relation to B.

Knowing from a New Space

ii. Establish A (position/space 1), its relationship to B, and its name.

Locating New Spaces

iii. Locate another space (space 2).

Repeat steps ii and iii for spaces 3, 4 , 5 and 6.

Relating Spaces

iv. (Starting with space 6) Relate the space currently occupied to some of the other spaces.

Returning to Spaces

v. Return to one of the other spaces.
vi. Discover any new knowings from this space.

Repeat steps iv-vi until spaces 2 – 6 have been revisited and their relationship with other spaces identified.

[Optional] Working with the Network

vii. Use the client’s verbal or nonverbal metaphors for groups or configuration of spaces to work at a higher pattern-level of knowing.


viii. Return to Position 1 and complete the process.

Once you understand the function of the six set ups then you can utilise them as circumstances indicate. For example, if a person refers to a configuration or pattern after just two or three spaces have been established then you can build that into the creation of the rest of the network.

To give you some idea of how creative the process can become, our article, Clean Space Revisited [14] documents many of the various ‘add-ons’ and options available to facilitators.

Out of the Ordinary

My last distinction between applying a formulaic technique and Clean Space relates to how we respond when a client does something ‘out of the ordinary’. In many techniques when a client steps outside the process it is seen as a problem and what happens is either ignored or made fit the technique. Whereas in Clean Space the unexpected is not a problem – it’s the process working. That is the purpose of all the setting up. By acknowledging and working with these surprising events the process transitions from a general format into something tailored to the individual. When a client picked up a post-it note she had written ‘fear’ on, screwed it up, opened up a nearby garbage bin, threw it in and closed the lid, she was not screwing up the process. Quite the opposite. Whether the client was aware of it or not, she has just created a new space in that garbage bin. David Grove welcomed the idiosyncratic and he would have invited that space to be part of the emerging network – that was his artistry.


1. See wolframscience.com for free online access to the whole book.

2. See our original article, Clean Space: Modeling Human Perception through Emergence.

3. For more on ‘encouraging conditions’ see chapters 2 and 8 of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling

4. For more on ‘psychoactivity’ see my article, When Where Matters: How psychoactive space is created and utilised. [Link available soon]

5. My italics. As far as I know the first Clean Space workshop took place in Auckland, New Zealand, February 2002, see the notes of that event. [Link available soon]

6. My general use of ‘set up’ is not to be confused with Caitlin Walker’s Clean Set Up process.

7. The six set ups align with the Criteria for Competence for a Clean Facilitator. [Link available soon]

8. For details of one version of David Grove’s Clean Start see his articles Emergent Knowledge and Clean Coaching. Philip Harland has detailed many more options in The Power of Six: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge.

9. As a bonus, the client is likely to be developing their capacity for “symbolic sight” – their ability to intuit symbolic significance from apparently mundane events. See Caroline Myss books, Anatomy of the Spirit and Sacred Contracts.

10. Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Shambhala, Boston, MA, 1995.

11. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two

12. The space could also be acknowledged and incorporated with a question (see the Relating Spaces routine):

And what do you know from here about there [gesture to] outside?

or, And what does this space know about outside, [gesture to] there?

13. I’ve just realised the similarity of this aspect of Clean Space with the ‘circular questioning’ process of the Milan approach to Family System Therapy where family members are asked to comment on the relationship of other family members in their presence. See ‘Circular Questioning: An Introductory Guide’ by Jac Brown, in The Australian Journal of Family Therapy, Vol 18, No. 2, June 1997.

14. See our extensive review and re-formulation of the process: Clean Space Revisited. [Link available soon]

Revised 27 Mar 2012

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