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How clean is your coaching?


Dustpan and brushBob Selden has discovered that the old adage 'It's not what you say but the way that you say it' is particularly relevant to coaching, and is a convert to the method of using 'clean' language - as free as possible of assumptions, opinions and advice. So how clean is your coaching?


"The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people's thinking" Nancy Kline

Over the last decade, coaching has become the real 'in' skill. As people with good communication skills, trainers are often called upon to coach and in many cases, to train others as coaches. But do we know what real coaching is?

I thought I did. I've been a trainer for over 30 years. I have a degree in psychology. I've read all of the good books on coaching (as I recall, two of my earliest reads were Sir John Whitmore's 'Coaching for Performance' and Timothy Gallwey's 'The Inner Game' series). I've attended a training course for coaches. I participate in coaching forums and I regularly attend international coaching conferences. And of course, I've coached people. Oh, and I also write articles on coaching! But it was not until recently that I found out that I knew very little about the really best method of coaching.

Photo of Bob Selden"In its purest form, 'clean' at no stage uses the traditional techniques of reflective listening. Now that was (and is) a revelation for me!"

Let me return to that in a moment. First a story from a colleague of mine, which has always stood out for me as one of the best examples of true coaching I have heard.

My colleague Dennis was flying from Brisbane to Mt. Isa (Australia – a distance of 1,570 kms) on an assignment in a small plane with only he and the pilot. As they had some hours to share, they got to know each other. Soon the pilot started to tell Dennis about his 16-year-old daughter (the pilot lived in Mt Isa) who had disappeared. He and his wife knew she had left home, as her clothes were gone. However, they had no idea where. The pilot had tried everything – friends, missing persons, police, newspaper ads and even a trip to Brisbane, where she might have gone – to no avail.

As they got closer to Mt. Isa, the pilot became more and more distressed – he was openly crying. Now, as Dennis tells the story: "I was getting worried. I could not fly a plane – how were we going to land?" Then the pilot turned to Dennis and said: "Dennis thank you so much for helping me. I now know what I must do. You see, I'm sure my daughter will be OK – she's a mature enough person to be able to look after herself. Naturally I'm saddened that she has left home like this. However, it's now my wife that I have to help. She is completely broken up about this. I must go home and really help her through our difficult time. Thanks for helping me see the way."

What did Dennis do? He didn't suggest (the pilot had tried everything he could think of). He merely listened.

Now, I'm sure as coaches many of you have achieved similar spectacular results using recognised coaching skills, techniques and methods. But have you tried 'clean' language?

Clean language
Clean language, developed originally by David Grove, has been an interest of mine since I read 'Metaphors in Mind' (Lawley and Tomkins, Developing Company Press 2000). So, I was very interested to see the approach taken by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees in a new book 'Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds' (Crown House Publishing 2008). I'm impressed by this book's, simplicity and practicality. For the uninitiated or novice 'clean' user, this book has some great application strategies, techniques and tips.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of 'clean' questioning, it is a way of helping another person find answers without giving advice. This may sound similar to the contemporary model of coaching so popular today, particularly in the business context. However, 'clean' is substantially different. Clean is as clean as possible of the questioner's assumptions, opinions and metaphors.

Less is more
Furthermore - and here I think is the real difference - although listening is an integral component of the process of clean, it definitely does not use techniques such as paraphrasing, summarising etc, for these automatically provide the opinion of the questioner. In its purest form, 'clean' at no stage uses the traditional techniques of reflective listening. Now that was (and is) a revelation for me!

"It was not until recently that I found out that I knew very little about the really best method of coaching."

There are just 12 clean questions. They form three clusters, Developing Questions (to encourage a person to become clear about what's true for them), Sequence and Source Questions (to tease out the sequence of events), Intention Questions (to help the person establish what they would like to change).

Here are just three of the six questions that form the Developing cluster:

  • (And) what kind of X (is that X)? (where 'X' refers to one or more of the exact words the person has used)
  • (And) is there anything else about X?
  • (And) that's X like what?

    Notice that all questions start with 'And'. This forces the coach to help the person focus, enunciate and clarify their own thoughts and feelings by using the person's own words and phrases, not the coach's interpretations.

    Does this 'clean' approach work?
    It has certainly worked for me in my coaching assignments over the last 12 months. Not only that, I believe it has improved my facilitation skills as a trainer. Most of my facilitation questions (although not entirely 'clean') now start with 'And'. The depth and clarity developed by the participants about the issues that are important to them has been amazing.

    If you've not tried 'clean' and are really interested in helping other people, then I would suggest as a starting point reading Sullivan and Rees' book, undertaking the activities, then reading it again. It's a great way to evaluate for yourself the effectiveness of clean as a coaching tool to add to your armoury.

    Bob Selden has been a career trainer for more than 30 years – in fact it's his lifetime passion. Bob can be contacted via - he would be happy to help or advise with your career questions. If you'd like to see where his training career has led, check out the website for his book 'What To Do When You Become The Boss' at

    To read more articles from Bob Selden, click on the following titles:

    Climbing the training career ladder

    How shiny are your goldfish?

    The secret to getting your team engaged

    To lead or to manage?


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