Clean Questions and the Power of Metaphors

A year ago I blogged about Non-Violent Communication as a means to avoid judgement and find needs. Now I think I found something even more radical (once again via Andrea Chiou): Clean Questions / Clean Language.

With Clean Language, not only do you forego judgement, you don’t even offer interpretations. It’s a bit like the game “Taboo”: You can only use words that the other person has used first. (As Clean Language was developed by therapist David Grove, the “other person” is usually a client.)

Examples of Clean Questions – X is a something said by your client:

  • And that X is like what?
  • Where is that X?
  • And is there anything else about X?
  • And what needs to happen for X?

Here’s a list of all common Clean Questions. (For my fellow German natives: Clean Questions auf deutsch)

While asking these simple, repetitive questions, you look out for metaphors used by the other person and take them literally. Metaphors make it possible to access, talk and possibly resolve very deep, semi-conscious things that would be hard or impossible to address directly:
If a client feels they don’t make progress at work, then “It’s like smashing myself head-first into a brick wall” vs. “It feels like running on a treadmill, going nowhere” describe very different experiences.

Here’s an excellent TEDx Talk on how Caitlin Walker used Clean Questions to help under-privileged teenagers to deal with anger:


I’m still on the lookout for an opportunity to try this out. If you’d like to try, here’s a great article on how to apply Clean Questions in a business context.

What do you think about the concept of Clean Language? Have you already used Clean Questions? How did it go?

Published by Corinna Baldauf

Corinna Baldauf has filled every Scrum role there is and then some. Currently she spends most of her days writing and occasionally facilitating retrospectives. She's interested in lean, agile, coaching, leadership & UX. You can follow her on Twitter, subscribe to her (Retromat) newsletter and buy her books.

One reply on “Clean Questions and the Power of Metaphors”

  1. Hi Corinna,

    The thought of avoiding to “contaminate” your client’s perceptions (with your own metaphors, assumptions, and presuppositions) is compelling. Also, I have found metaphors to be really helpful tools for clients to express themselves, sometimes.

    I wonder what your thoughts are about metaphors as being contaminations, in themselves? Tokens of a world the client would rather want to leave now – so talking about an problematic landscape just creates further problems, or at best only deepens your understanding of “your problem”? At worst, clichés or stereotypes that hold a client hostage, making them think “That’s just the way the story goes, from the beginning of the world Can’t change it.”?

    What also puzzles me: While reading a few texts about Clean Language, I felt that there was a lot of talking seemingly about metaphors when in fact analogies were described. Metaphors, though, only allude to a single tertium comparationis with the domain they’re applied to; analogies highlight more or less complex, parallel structures in two domains. An example would be “mother Africa” or “the cradle of mankind” as metaphors for our origins; versus “the domain name system is like the telephone system: mapping of numbers to names; phone book lookups; and so on…” as an analogy.

    To me, that distinction makes quite a difference. A metaphor is somewhat “skeptical” with respect to itself being uncritically applied. An analogy, in comparison, triggers an incremental search for allegedly parallel structures, presupposing that a parallel element should exist in domain B for every element in domain A. Analogies might suggest more limits and bonds to a client than there actually are.


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