Clean Language: What is it and how can it help you?

Nick Pole, author of Words That Touch, discusses what Clean Language is, his new book and gives his advice for anyone practicing mind-body therapy. 



Nick, you’ve been a mind-body therapist for over 25 years. How did you discover Clean Language?
I wanted to find a way to help my clients make sense of the wordless sensations they experience through touch, and how it might relate to their issues in life. In the west, this is what clients expect. So first I studied neuro-linguistics in depth, and eventually – thanks to James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, who were working closely with the brilliant psychotherapist David Grove who devised Clean Language, I realized it’s potential to help clients make these connections between mind and body, or the verbal mind and the bodymind, as I like to put it. I loved using it, but not all my clients did. When people are coming for bodywork, they can be suspicious of too much talk. Then, after my father died, I started to train in mindfulness as a way of helping with all the stresses that come with the death of a parent. I found it was the missing ingredient – the perfect medium in which to blend Clean Language with meridian-based bodywork. And just like Clean Language, it is about teaching the client life skills – any therapeutic results are just a side effect of that learning.


What motivated you to write Words That Touch?
My dad was an academic historian; he wrote a lot of books. I always avoided writing any. My rebellious inner teenager was in charge of that part of me, I guess. But when I found myself getting such great results with Clean Language, I finally I realized that I was probably the only person on the planet at that time with enough knowledge of both Clean Language and bodywork therapy to write this book, and I knew I had to do it. So, I got the coaching I needed, resolved to face my demons and to enjoy the process of writing. Eventually I managed to write the book I wanted to write: one that tries to make sense in some way to the bodymind as well as the verbal mind, and one – I hope – that you’ll enjoy reading!


In your opinion, how important is language to get to the heart of a client’s physical problem?
This is a question that has fascinated me for a long time. Bodywork therapies are brilliant at getting to the somatic roots of a problem, but I never found it easy to explain to my clients the terms and concepts of the traditional eastern medicine I was trained in. So often in bodywork therapy, clients feel great afterwards, but their everyday conscious mind has very little idea what happened or what to do about the issues that may have been causing the problem in the first place.

On the other hand, the talking therapies – by definition – approach the body through language. We live in a culture dominated by words and imagery. Our felt sense of things is de-prioritised. But pioneering psychiatrists like Bessel van der Kolk emphasize how important it is to involve the body as well as the mind in working with trauma. And of course, the fundamental patterns we develop in how we interact with ourselves and the world have their origins in our earliest, pre-verbal years. Again, there is only so far you can go with talking therapy alone to resolve those things. Touch helps us connect with them in a different way, because touch is the first language that the body knows, but we also need language to be able to name things, to give us the concepts and the detachment we need to help the injured or immature parts of us grow and re-connect with more resourceful parts of our being. So I find Clean Language is a great tool in helping to bridge that gap.


What is it about Clean Language that makes it so versatile for use in different disciplines, e.g. Yoga, Shiatsu and Acupuncture?
It’s just so simple. It’s easy to get started with Clean Language – there are only 12 basic questions that you need to know. In that sense, it’s a lot easier to learn than most languages! And it helps clients to bring their attention to their direct, in-the-moment experience, and to do that with curiosity and openness to what’s happening, rather than through their existing labels and narratives. I think that applies in any kind of bodywork therapy. Clients want your expert input, but more and more they also want to know what they can do for themselves. For example, learning to be kinder to yourself, however clichéd that sounds to some people, really is a crucial part of the healing process.


Are there any challenges you have encountered when teaching or using Clean Language?
When someone repeats your own words back to you in the form of a simple, open question, it sounds strange. The part of the brain that controls speech is not the same as the part that controls hearing, so hearing what you just said in itself creates interesting neurological loops which can take you very quickly into unknown territory. So the main challenge is making sure that it feels safe for each individual client.

When an old familiar negative thought is suddenly discovered to be located in a particular part of the body, and that part of the body becomes a bewildering metaphor – for example, when ‘anxiety’ turns out to live in the solar plexus and that it’s ‘like a gnarled old tree with rotting roots’, things can get quite scary when you thought you were just coming for a relaxing massage. So we need to use all our normal relational skills as therapists, and be prepared to back off gently and respectfully, at the first sign that the client isn’t comfortable with it. When I’m introducing someone to Clean Language, I always explain briefly what it is and why it’s good to use it in bodywork therapy. Then I explain that the whole point of using it is so that they can learn how to develop a more mindful relationship with physical symptoms and mental and emotional problems.


What 3 pieces of advice would you give to mind-body therapists who want to use Clean Language in their practice?
In the book, I interview practitioners who do various kinds of mind/body work, from Acupuncture to Yoga, and one key piece of advice is about getting it right for each individual client. Clean Language is designed to help people explore the unique subjectivity of their own internal world, so the first piece of advice is to be sensitive to how each client responds. If you ask more than one or two Clean questions in a row, your client will soon notice they’re having a very different kind of conversation – essentially they’re having a conversation with their own bodymind – and when you do that you can get some surprising answers back.

Some people might find that scary, so the second piece of advice is to tell your clients what you’re up to before you use Clean Language. Just explain that it’s a useful way of asking questions that help to develop a more mindful relationship with the body, and give them some kind of ‘Pause button’, so they can pause the process at any time.

The third piece of advice is to remember the power of silence. Its not just the Clean questions themselves but the client’s key words that you put into them that make it such a powerful process. Sometimes you don’t need to use a formal Clean question at all; just repeat the last words your client said, and let silence do the rest. This is especially helpful when you can’t remember what question to ask next!


What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
The most important thing that Clean Language teaches you as a mind/body therapist is that you really have no idea what your clients are talking about. That may sound strange. After all, we’re trained to listen carefully for diagnostic clues, to take a history, to listen empathically and so on. We think we know what clients mean when they say they want more ‘energy’ or they want to feel less stressed. But if you ask these very simple, open questions about the exact words the client uses, you soon find a wealth of metaphorical power hidden beneath the surface of normal conversation, metaphors which connect us to the bodymind, which neither you nor your client had any idea was there. So the first thing I want people to get from the book is just this sense of the awesome amount of information hidden beneath the surface of our everyday language, and how little we’re aware of it until we ask the right kind of questions.

The second thing is that Clean Language is a great way to help people develop a more mindful relationship with their own body. Each question you ask is a gentle invitation to bring attention to oneself – to notice how a familiar symptom starts to respond, or how a vivid visual metaphor seems to appear from nowhere when you start to pay attention to some physical or emotional issue. Asking Clean questions is a very simple way to bring openness, acceptance and curiosity to the weird and wonderful complex of bio-psycho-spiritual systems that we call the ‘body’.


To read more about Words That Touch, or to buy the book, please click here.


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