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Wellness Institute Blog

The Art of Clean Language in Hypnotherapy

Posted by Diane Zimberoff  Jan 23, 2014 6:55:00 AM

psychotherapyIn hypnotherapy we directly access the client’s unconscious, and the words he/she uses to communicate their experience are precise and personally deeply meaningful to the client. We always want to use the client’s exact words, not substituting “angry” when they say “pissed” or “alone” when they say “lonely”. Our language conveys interpretation and suggestion, and we want to avoid either one.

Explicitly introducing Clean Language into one’s approach to psychotherapy sharpens the focus on the client’s own inherent wisdom. The less we attempt to change the client's model of the world, the more they experience their own core patterns, and organic, lasting changes naturally emerge. David Grove (Resolving Traumatic Memories: Metaphors and Symbols in Psychotherapy, 1989) quite radically modified the traditional philosophy of NLP by using clean language (containing a minimum of presupposition) to replace typical NLP patterns of language which are designed to have maximum influence, often through the covert use of suggestion. NLP is based on the notion that you can take an experience, find its structure and if you change its structure it changes the experience. Thus the Clean Language therapist follows the natural direction of the process rather than leading it.


What Grove discovered was the more he used Clean Language, the more clients naturally used metaphor to describe their symptoms. When Clean Language questions were then directed to the metaphors and symbols, unexpected information became available to the client, often with profound results. By interfering with a client's description of their symptoms with interpretation and suggestion, well-meaning therapists can rob clients of the very experience needed to resolve their unwanted behaviors.

Working with symbol and metaphor is the forte of Clean Language. The aim is for the client to gather information about their own subjective experience, not necessarily for the therapist to understand it. Common by-products of being asked Clean Language questions are: a state of self-absorption (trance often spontaneously develops); a sense of connecting with some deep, rarely explored aspects of ourselves; and a sense of wonder, curiosity and awe at the marvelous ingenuity of our unconscious.

When a therapist makes even minute changes to a client's words the implications can be significant. Clients often have to go through additional translation processes and mental gymnastics to reorient to the therapist's presuppositions. Thus the therapy subtly goes in a direction determined by the therapist's map of the world.


To illustrate how easy it is to unwittingly interfere in a client's process, let's explore an example. A therapist could respond in a number of ways to the following statement: “I'm stuck with no way out.”

It is highly therapeutic to begin by fully validating the client's 'current reality' that there is no way out of stuck through the use of Clean Language. It may be tempting to want to direct the client, subtly or not-so-subtly, toward a solution. But that is short-circuiting the client’s exploration of their dilemma.

There are 9 basic Clean Language questions. Two questions request information about attributes and two ask for location information. There are two questions which reference the past and two which reference the future. One question offers the client the opportunity to make a metaphorical shift in perception. The 9 basic Clean Language questions are:

  1. And is there anything else about ......?
  2. And what kind of ...... is that ......?
  3. And where is ......?
  4. And whereabouts?
  5. And what happens next?
  6. And then what happens?
  7. And what happens just before ......?
  8. And where does/could ...... come from?
  9. And that's ...... like what?

Reference: Grove, David J. & B I Panzer. Resolving Traumatic Memories: Metaphors and Symbols in Psychotherapy, Irvington, New York, 1989.

Topics: hypnotherapy, Heart-Centered Hypnotherapy, hypnotherapy best practices