“Clean Language” Is Not What You Think.

Yesterday, Multnomah County Court treated its mediators to a seminar on “Clean Language.”   It was not about avoiding F-Bombs.  Hell no. 

“Clean language” is a method of listening, facilitation and gathering information that seeks to minimize “interference” from the facilitator’s assumptions.  Think of interviewing alleged victims of child abuse.  How does one interview the girl or boy in a way as to not suggest answers?  How can we help the party  express information and interests free from –  or “clean” of – the biases or experiences of the facilitator?

But it’s not just about eliciting information.  Counselors use the technique to help people reflect upon themselves and identify their issues, patterns, problems and interests.  Then, clients may identify resources and attain outcomes.  Clean language takes motivational interviewing to the next level of pure client-driven discovery and transformation.

The Ted Talk on the topic is below.

Correct questions are the method, sum and substance of “clean language.”  Merely take the words from the client’s mouth and plug them into a few question formats.   Ted Talker Caitlin Walker used the key questions in the following example:

Q:  What would you like to have happen?

A:  I’d like to find my path.

Q:  And what kind of a path.

A:  One that I know I have to follow.

Q:  And where is that path?

A:  It’s there!

Q:  And is there anything else about that path?

A:  It’s not where I’m going!  It’s not with a partner I do not love and a career in front of a computer.

Clean language practitioners elicit metaphors from clients.  “It’s like an elephant,” for example.  And what kind of an elephant?  It’s a stuffed toy.  And where is the stuffed toy elephant?  In my bedroom.  And is there anything else about the stuffed toy elephant?  It reminds me of my mom, who gave me the elephant . . . . 

I tried the technique on my wife.  And you had a ‘productive day,’ what kind of a ‘productive day?’” She thought starting every question with “and” and repeating her words precisely was creepy and like a call center located in India.  (Maybe clean language techniques are not so good for spousal communications.)

“Clean language” applied to mediation?

The seminar reinforced my goal of helping parties identify their interests.  My ethical duty is to encourage self-determination of the parties and not to impose my own views about what the parties should want or accept.

But, mediating claims is not counseling.  A mediator’s job is not to guide people through their personal forest of self-enlightenment and transformation.  Instead, my job is to help the parties make informed decisions about whether it is in their best interests to resolve their dispute or leave the decision to a judge or jury.

Repeating words of the parties is not always productive in mediation.  Yes, we must offer people the opportunity to express their feelings and feel understood.  We should validate whenever possible and appropriate.  Then, we must move on, which often requires using DIFFERENT words to highlight the constructive or common aspects of the parties’ expressions.  This technique is “reframing.” 

In summary, clean language is an interesting and possibly powerful technique to listen, gather information and facilitate change.  My thanks to Bev Martin, who did a great job presenting the technique to us.  It reinforced certain mediator duties and techniques, even though it has limited application to mediation.

Jeff Merrick, Mediator

Copyright, 2016