Clean Language is like… Origami

Clean Language is like… Origami

Metaphor is to the human mind what folding is to science.

Everything is made of folds – the earth, our DNA, illness and health in the folding and unfolding of protein molecules, the human brain, our clothes, the folding and unfolding of our memories, metaphors and dreams …

A few weeks ago, as I was watching a documentary about origami (Between the Folds by Vanessa Gould) I found myself thinking about Clean Language, what it means to me, my experiences with it and how I have formed a way of looking at, learning and teaching it to others.

I realized I think of it as the art of Clean Language. Although I know that Clean Language is based in a certain logic – the logic of the client, their desired outcome and the probability that a particular question will elicit a useful answer – to me it is still an art.

Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding. It originated in China in the 2nd century and moved to Japan in the 6th century. Paper was very expensive, so it was originally an art form for the rich: even the smallest scraps were saved to be used in folding.

The epitome of folding is to create intricate design, real and surreal, out of a single piece of paper.

Of course, the human mind has greater complexity than a single piece of paper. But there are some similarities between the art of paper folding and the art of Clean Language. Both were designed by individuals ahead of their time, and both result in the creation of something new: lifelike and surreal forms that are representative of the mind of the person doing the creating.

When the French sculptor Eric Joisel discovered origami he put his career as a sculptor of clay and stone aside.

“Origami is so extraordinary, so magic, that I completely stopped any type of sculpture I have done before. I throw in the trash everything, I don’t have anything to say – and I start origami.”

When I heard Eric Joisel speak of the extraordinary nature and magic of origami, I recognized his sentiments. Six years ago I discovered Clean and began to let go of all the methods I had studied before… dreams, Jungian symbolism, sand-tray, hypnosis, graphology, esoteric arts, the world’s religions… I have been captured by Clean Language the same way Eric Joisel was captured by origami.

In this post I want to highlight some of the ways that Clean Language is like origami. Of course, there are many ways in which they are dissimilar. But just as a metaphor can help to reveal new information for a client, so a look at a completely different discipline shed light on what we do as Clean practitioners…

The Innovators
Innovators are at the forefront of new ideas, either as early adopters of an idea or the creator of something completely new. Innovators tend to be different in thought and lifestyle from the majority of their peers. They are the creators of new seeds, new systems, new ways of doing and thinking about something we think we already understand or know about.

Just after 1937, Yoshizawa Sensei, known affectionately in origami circles as “The Master”, developed the art of “Wet Folding”. This was considered by many to be a paradigm shift that allowed origami to become an art form, rather than a quaint oddity of folk craft. Wet Folding gave rise to a whole new adventure in origami, allowing the artist, or folder, to mold a craft a piece of paper into more lifelike forms and representations of the world around them.

“I wished to fold the laws of nature, the dignity of life, and the expression of affection into my work.”
Yoshizawa Sensei

David Grove, a New Zealander with European and Maori heritage, was a therapist and inventor. David developed a way of working with clients that utilizes the natural metaphors and symbols that arise in a person’s verbal and non-verbal communication.

Over several decades he created new and powerful ways of working with his clients, using simpler and simpler means.

In developing Clean Language, David Grove took plain questions that might be used in everyday conversation and added, not moisture, but the vocal qualities of an Iambic Pentameter and the idea of using the client’s exact language exactly. In so doing, he created a new way of working with people that is uniquely respectful.

David Grove and Sensei Yoshizawa were innovators ahead of their time, taking what came before and changing it ever so slightly to respect the medium more fully – whether that medium is a single sheet of paper of the single system of a human psyche.

The Champions
Every system of science and art has its champions: people who are generally well connected, speak their mind and are generous with their time and resources. When they find an innovation that inspires them, they work tirelessly to bring it to members of their given field or to the general public.

“Between the Folds” presented a number of Yoshizawa’s champions:

  • Michael LaFosse, a paper maker and artist from New York
  • Alfredo Giunta, an origami designer from Italy
  • Eric Joise, a sculptor from France
  • Paul Jackson, a professor from Israel
  • Eric Demaine, winner of the McCarther Genius Award

These artists and researchers have taken Yoshizawa Sensai’s work into studios, schools, laboratories and space. Their work is on the developmental edge of origami and they all have committed more than their professional lives to that development.

Among the champions of David Grove are Penny Tompkins and James Lawley. Penny and James first met David Grove in the early 1990’s. Little did they know at their first meeting that they would go on to dedicate the next five years of their lives to the study of David and his work. From this exceedingly rich joint effort they developed a teachable model called Symbolic Modeling which incorporated David Grove’s Clean Language.

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley have not only modeled David’s methodology but also his generosity. They provide an vast wealth of material on Clean Language and Symbolic Modeling on their website and encourage others to make use of their material (providing they credit David Grove). Penny Tompkins and James Lawley continually share their new learnings and developments freely with the clean community.

The Adopters
Adopters of a scientific or artistic system usual following the lead of a champion.
They are the people who have the interest and the means to continue to cultivate, grow and enhance what the innovators and champions have discovered and promoted.

Each year over 200 academics meet to discuss origami. They are folders of a different kind. They are on the forefront of science, research, product development and more. They discuss ways in which the art and science of folding can be applied across many disciplines. Others meet around the world at different events to simply share in the art of origami – beginners and experts alike.

Similarly, each year growing numbers of people from around the globe meet at the Clean Conference to hear news of what others are doing with Clean Language, share their insights, create studies, have fun and share in their enthusiasm for this way of modeling change. The number of Clean practitioners and enthusiasts is growing around the world as information becomes more available through books, translations, the internet and global training. We meet online and in practice groups to continue learning and foster connections.

The Practice
The practice is what we do as innovators, champions and adopters. It is the application of the process to either the paper or the client’s information. Both result in the creation of something that can be viewed from the outside (as either personal creation of art in origami, or a metaphor landscape in Clean Language and Symbolic Modeling).

Here are just three of the practices origami and Clean Language have in common:
1. Keep it simple
2. Use the logic of the medium
3. Stay steady and be patient

1. Keep it simple
In both origami and Clean Language, the rules are simple and intensify the challenge:

no scissors, no tape, no glue
no suggestions, no fixes, no rescuing

In Between the Folds, origami is described as

“…a metamorphic art form. In sculpting and painting – when you add clay or paint it is an additive process. In sculpture, the chipping away at wood or stone, the cutting paper is subtractive. Origami you’ve got that piece of paper – you don’t add to it, you don’t take away from it, you change it.”
Michael LaFosse

Many therapeutic and coaching methods are also additive or subtractive.

Psychiatry is additive in its prescription of medicines

Mentoring is additive – mentors advise and make suggestions based on their personal experience.

Addiction Counseling is subtractive – the deletion of the substance of abuse is the first step to health.

And although Clean Language is additive in that we acknowledge and work directly from what a clients brings to a session, it is also, like origami, metamorphic. Where origami uses the sole medium of the paper, in Clean Language we use the exact words of the client. We are not adding in suggestions, trying to tell them a different story or trying to take away someone’s pain, suffering or concerns.

At the same time,

“When you put a crease in a piece of paper you are essentially changing the memory, if I try to unfold it, it will go back to the crease, the fold – not flat – I am essentially changing its memory.” Eric Domain, top origami theorist in the world

And when we ask a Clean Language question, we are directing a client’s attention in a certain way, and any knowledge that results from that process stays with the client. Just as creasing leaves a fold in a piece of paper, Clean questions influence a client’s thinking. In this sense Clean Language is additive:

“The repeated use of “and,” and “as” connects each question, and the response to the question, to the client’s preceding experience.”
Steve Andreas, Six Blind Elephants, vol 1

And then there is this…

“One crease – what can you do with one fold?”
Professor Paul Jackson

One question – what can you do with one question?

James Lawley tells a story where the use of one question brought about significant change for a training participant. The participants working in pairs and as James watched, the facilitator continued to ask, “And is there anything else?” until the client had quite a significant change happen. When asked about his reason for repeating this question, the budding new facilitator said that he could not remember any of the other questions.

Clever is not necessarily more effective in Clean Language or origami. Another of David Grove’s innovations, Emergent Knowledge, is intentionally based on the repetition of one question. It can be sheer simplicity that allows the paper or the psyche to give out its form.

2. Use the logic of the medium

“There is a logic and patterning needed to create the basic origami forms – and modeling after to give life to the form.”
Eric Joisel

And there is logic in the questions we ask as Clean Language facilitators – commensurate with the inherent logic within a client’s system. Using Clean Language with a client is like unfolding their metaphors and their relationships, one metaphor to another. David Grove said clients came to him with an “undifferentiated mass of information”. Perhaps information is being opened and unfolded from the recesses of our brains, which is also full of folds?

3. Stay steady and be patient

“There is something about the constraints of the medium … It always feels awkward like it isn’t going to work and this part, the part in the middle (at a juncture where he free folds his origami piece) is the part I can not write down.”
Chris Palmer

There is part of every Clean session that has that kind of feel. We have to be comfortable with not knowing what will happen next, or how a person will answer the next question. Indeed, we want to ask questions they don’t already know the answers to, we want to take someone to the edge of their knowledge. We do this by keeping track of the client’s information and sticking with the logic of that client’s individual system of thought and expression.

“Take it to the edge of something, because that’s where the interesting things always happen.”
Professor Paul Jackson

The shape of things to come

“Origami, the shape of things to come”
NY Times

Origami is being used more and more in the laboratories of science, space and technology. It is being used in class rooms in Israel to teach geometry, in car manufacturing to develop airbag technology, in space to design of folding satellite dishes, in laboratories to look at how DNA and protein molecules fold and unfold in relation to illnesses or lack of them.

As we become more individualistic and less homogeneous, Clean will be the shape of things to come whenever clear communication and sustainable change is desired. We are becoming less amenable to being put into a group or a box or a generalization. We want to be heard, listened to exquisitely and respected for our uniqueness as singular human beings.

Origami is an art form that could allow everyone to make their interpretation of the world in paper. Clean Language and Symbolic Modeling could allow everyone to make their interpretation of the world in metaphor… not just in the natural process of comparing or contrasting one thing to something else, but in a recognized restructuring of our folds, of our mind, our memory, our desires.

There is something elegant and simple in Clean Language that is like a great piece of art – without extraneous lines or medium – there to facilitate desired change(s) expressed by another human being. By learning this language – one can follow the ebb and flow of that human system, more simply, more expressively.

Whether you are an innovator, a champion or an adopter, it is the practice of folding or asking clean questions that will bring you mastery and bring out the true beauty and metamorphic qualities of the medium you are working with, whether that’s a piece of paper or the human mind.

Can you think of any other ways Clean is like origami? We’d love to know what you think!

Originally Published 22 November, 2011 with Clean Learning, UK. Clean Language, Creativity, Metaphor