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Clean language: directing your attention within the system to create sustainable change

This is a blog I wrote for Claire Bradshaw in June 2019 about why at Happen Together we use clean language.

At Happen Together we base our coaching and facilitation work with individuals and with teams or organisations in a clean language approach. Clean language is where Claire and I have found with others a real sense of purpose and common ground. This inevitably means that we are often asked, “what is clean language?”

Over the years I have developed a range of simple through to complex answers to this question and asked many other people practising clean what their response is to this question. The best way to explain is by doing. And you can do this by bringing your curiosity to our Manchester & East Cheshire Clean Practice Group, happening the first Thursday of every month, 6-8pm at Federation House in Manchester. You can find more details here.

Assuming that some people at least need to know some more about, “what kind of water, is that water” before maybe “dipping your toe in” I thought rather than writing a lengthy explanation I would share 5 things that I think matter and give a flavour of what we are passionate about:

1. It’s important to recognise counselling psychologist and New Zealander David Grove as the originator of the core clean language questions. He designed these questions when working with people with trauma to direct their attention to their experience without interference from the thinking of the questioner. This is what can create the power of new insight and new possibility for people as we develop new ideas and perspectives about our experiences. There’s a wikipedia page where you can learn more about him.

2. Clean language focuses particularly on the metaphors we use almost constantly to describe our experiences. It recognises these are powerful shortcuts, generally operating at an unconscious level and if we can access them we can create powerful, sustainable change in the way that we think and therefore the things that we do. You can read more about the ‘Magic of Metaphors’ here. I challenge you to think or talk for even the shortest period without using one - once you think about it most people realise we use them all the time!

3. The questions are simple, and the process often results in a lot of creativity and fun being had while we make powerful changes (come along to the Practice Group to see that in action!)

4. We are proud as practitioners of clean language to be part of an amazing and growing community using this approach to create powerful changes for so many people all over the world. To name a few Caitlin Walker, Marian Way, James Lawley, Penny Tompkins, Shaun Hotchkiss and Tamsin Hartley have all inspired us. Clean language has resulted in a global movement to be #dramafree, systemic modelling with teams and systems, Genius Within helping people with neuro-diverse conditions to thrive in the workplace, Clean Space and emergent knowledge, the work Claire is doing in the outdoor space with clean and much other exciting work for a better world.

5. All of this is why we love clean language. It gives us the best tools we have found in a messy world to support people to be at their best and to live and work well together. We use it with ourselves, with individuals, teams, organisations and networks to reveal systems and make things happen….. “what would you like to have happen?”

Nicola Waterworth is co-founder of Happen Together CIC and works as a coach and facilitator of change. You can contact her at

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Happen Together CIC

For you, for your work, for social change

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