There’s definitely a relationship between Clean Language and NLP, but the precise nature of it is debatable. Is it a subset of NLP, or a separate field?
In 2006, on the one occasion I interviewed David Grove, the creator of Clean Language, he told me that he had been quite heavily involved in NLP before devising Clean Language. He said he was working in business when he came across NLP in 1978, that his interest in NLP led to an interest in phobias and trauma, that he was involved for about three years and qualified as an NLP Master Practitioner, and that he dated an ex of John Grinder (co-founder of NLP) before finally breaking away in the early 1980s. After David’s death in early 2008 his ex-wife, Cei Davis-Linn, said that simply wasn’t true – he had had only very minimal contact with NLP, maybe a weekend course, and avoided contact with it as far as possible until attending the London NLP Conference in November 2006. Now, I have no way of knowing which was true.
Both Clean Language and NLP share underpinning presuppositions, such as focussing on outcomes rather than problems, the map is not the territory, the client doesn’t need fixing etc. Both are ‘modelling’ technologies. And a connection between the to approaches enabled the popularisation of Clean Language – NLP enthusiasts Penny Tompkins and James Lawley used NLP modelling techniques to study what David was doing. Their model of his way of working, Symbolic Modelling, was written up in their book Metaphors in Mind, which was published in 2000. And so you could say that Clean Language is in NLP’s ‘trail of techniques’: Penny, James and other leading figures in the world of Clean Language have been a regular feature of NLP Conferences in London for many years.
John Grinder appears to endorse the ‘Clean’ approach to change in an online video. He says that in contexts such as training or personal change (e.g. coaching or psychotherapy), “the agent of change has a special responsibility to not make an imposition of their perceptions, beliefs or values. This is almost an impossible task. But it’s one worth struggling to achieve.” Penny and James have also been in correspondence with Grinder about these ethical questions.
In both Clean Language and NLP, it’s considered important to keep one’s language ‘clean’ – that is, using the client’s words wherever possible and the practitioner introducing as little content as possible. But Clean Language extends this idea pretty much as far as it can go, resulting in a limited question set: questions which contain the minimum of assumptions, presuppositions and metaphors and with places to insert the other person’s words.
A key difference between the two approaches is the way Clean Language works with the client’s own metaphors. The questions are typically used to help the client explore their internal metaphoric world: as they become aware of the metaphors which underpin their thinking, the metaphors typically transform. And because the metaphors change their thinking changes, and because their thinking changes their behaviour changes and their life changes. This is quite different from the NLP approach to metaphor, where typically the practitioner will create their own metaphor to ‘deliver a message to the client’s unconscious mind’.
Clean Language is very easy to combine with other modalities, and Clean Language and NLP are often used by the same practitioner, sometimes in the same session. Most standard NLP techniques can be ‘Cleaned up’ to good effect by reducing the amount of input (particularly content input) from the practitioner. For example, they might use Clean Language questions such as ‘What would you like to have happen?’ instead of the NLP opener ‘What do you want?’, or allow the client to chose the layout of any spaces for anchoring activities. An amusing example of the latter occurred when a Clean Language enthusiast had an opportunity to practice Robert Dilts’ ‘SCORE’ model on Dilts himself. As it is normally taught on NLP courses, spaces representing the elements of the SCORE are laid out on the floor by the practitioner, in a straight line, in a specifeed order. But when Dilts was Cleanly facilitated through his own technique, he discovered that a straight line was not the most effective layout for him, and he chose a different arrangement of spaces!