Clean language and metaphors as containers

by Rossana Espinoza 0

Clean language and metaphors as containers


Clean language has its roots in psycho-therapeutic work in the 1980s. David Grove is commonly recognised as the creator of this approach. Originally, clean language was used in his work with patients, who suffered from abuse and trauma. Clean language has been widely used in coaching and other helping professions.

How did this come about? Through Grove’s work, it was revealed that clients naturally expressed themselves in metaphor when they describe experiences. It was concluded that an effective way of working was ‘to honour’ the clients’ metaphors’ by asking them open questions. However,  those questions were to reflect the clients’ exact words, instead of paraphrasing them.

Clean language recognises that everything that the coaches bring to the coaching conversation belongs to them and not to the client. Its foundation is that coaches don’t impose their language and understanding of the world on to their clients. As a consequence, clean language seeks to minimise the range of questions and neutralise the language used by coaches when formulating those questions.

The constraints and freedoms in how coaches and clients use language play a key role here. The questions and language may vary depending on the specific clean language approach that is being used. However, the commonality amongst those utilising clean language is to elicit responses that bring forth the client’s metaphors. So, the focus and substance of the coaching conversation is then located in the metaphors that clients bring to the table.

A metaphor is usually understood as ‘a figure of speech’ or ‘a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else,’ but in coaching and clean language, metaphors are much more. In coaching, metaphors are regarded as ‘instinctive’ and ‘necessary’ acts of the clients’ minds. In other words, metaphors are the vehicles to explore realities and order experiences (Murray, 1932).

Grove’s definition of metaphors goes back to Latin, where the word was used to mean an object used to ‘carry things over’. A metaphor, in his view, is seen as “a container of information”. In clean language, a metaphor is an object that helps the client to reach their past and provides memory information. A metaphor helps the client to make sense of experiences.

In clean language coaching, coaches manage their language to the extent that they don’t ‘contaminate’ their clients’ language and perceptions. Coaches pay attention to the words clients use. Coaches draw attention to the metaphors. Coaches hold a mirror to what is released during the conversation. Through clean language, clients are supported so they can be aware of their language, own their metaphors, explore their interpretations and sit with what unfolds.

This Friday’s Twitter chat seeks to explore the following questions:

  1. What is your understanding and experience of metaphors and clean language? 12:05
  2. How can metaphors and clean language be used throughout a coaching assignment? Is clean language a one-off coaching technique? 12:15
  3. What can metaphors and clean language bring to your coaching practice? 12:30
  4. What metaphors and clean language questions (or resources) can you share with the #CoachingHE community? 12:45

Here the summary of the chat.


  • Grove, D. (1980). Clean Language.  Video.
  • Murray, J. (1932). Countries of the Mind. London: W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd
  • Sullivan, W. and Rees, J. (2008). Clean Language: Revealing metaphors and opening minds. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing Ltd
  • Wilks, E. (2014). Using Metaphors in coaching. International Coach Academy. Link.