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Rob Williamson on ‘Clean Language’ in our Therapeutic Imagery and Dialogue


In this month’s Symposium Spotlight, Rob Williamson joins us to talk about ‘Clean Language’ in our Therapeutic Imagery and Dialogue, about finding gentle and respectful ways to communicate when talking isn’t possible, and how using non-sensory specific language can build more bridges with our clients and help them to move forward…


What is Clean Langauge all about? How is it different from Therapeutic Imagery and Dialogue?

Well, imaging leads us down one path. What I’m hoping is to get people to understand that if you use this system of language, you can meet the client wherever they are, whether they can image well or not, whether they can represent things well with their bodies, or whether they process things auditorily. However they represent their worlds, this approach leads us to an idea that we can actually have non-verbal communication with clients who are non-verbal. So for example, working with kids with autism, working with stroke victims, we can use Clean Language to help them elicit their experiences without having to worry about imaging, or necessarily talking at all.

We have this paradigm that all behaviour is commmunication. So if we understand that someone is behaving inappropriately because they don’t have the resources to express their needs and ask for help, then we have to look past the behaviour and identify the need. Clean Language gives us the tools to support a non-verbal child, a non-verbal adult, a stroke victim who has lost their speech and probably the use of their dominant hand, where it’s frustrating and the natural pace of communication is stilted.

Where does Clean Language come from?

Clean Language comes originally from NeuroLingusitic Programming (NLP). The way this works is that we have a tendency – as therapists and as human beings – to colour other peoples’ experiences as we try to undertsand them ourselves. So for instance, we might say: How does that look to you? How does that sound to you? What does that feel like?  All of these are sensory specific questions that might leave people thinking: ‘Well, I don’t feel anything.’ ‘Actually, I hear something.’ ‘I don’t see an image.’ What Clean Language does is use non sensory specific language to allow people to use their own metaphors to explore their own experiences. It keeps their experiences intact.

The idea behind this is that someone very kinesthetic (like me) can’t always get an image out easily. With this approach, someone can talk to me through body language, and we can have that kind of dialogue. I don’t need to put my experience into words for someone else. If I’m working with a client who doesn’t have language, I can use their body language when I ask them ‘What happens when….?’ and they can reply in the same way. It’s a more gentle, more respectful, deeper way to communicate with people who can’t image or perhaps can’t communicate with words.

Has your work and experience with autism has informed your exploration of Clean Language?

Yes, absolutely. My son has autism and what was really noticable early on was that people like Mr Tumble ( a Cbeebies character who used signing in communication and was very expressive) was far more effective at building a bridge to communication than an earnest Speech and Language Therapist. This is where what I’m going to talk about meets Intensive Interaction, which was developed by David Hewett. He worked with special needs kids and non-verbal adults, and he realised that if you can join the world of the client and use their language, whether that language be verbal ticks, grunts, squeaks, body movements, however they’re expressing themselves, if you can be in rapport with theose non-verbal communications, then they’re going to be more willing to trust you and to move towards how you’re communicating. 

I’m currently working with a 5-year old autistic boy who holds his hand up and looks thorugh his fingers. So I do the same. He then grabs my hand and looks through my fingers, and I do the same with his…and we’ve made that connection! This way of working is completely respecting your client’s exprience, and doing exactly what we say in this work: meeting them where they are.

So Clean Language sits well within the Upledger paradigm…

Absolutely. From the Upledger point of view, we talk about being ‘grounded, blended and neutral’. And the language itself is very neutral, we could even relabel it ‘neutral language’. Stan Gerome’s Therapeutic Imagery and Dialogue course is brilliant. And if we can broaden that scope, we can interact with and affect more people. At the Symposium I’ll have a handout with a very simple set of basic questions, all non sensory specific, that people can take with them to use straight away. These are questions that allow clients to move forward, to expand their sense of what they’re going through, to move backwards in time.. Clean Language is just moving further from our idea of what language is.

Anything else you’d like to share with people who are thinking of coming to Rhythm & Resonance? Is it worth coming to the Symposium if you haven’t yet taken SER1?

Yes! It doesn’t matter! Your clients will take you there. As we move from CST2 into SER1, we start to understand that everything has an emotional content. We appreciate that mood reflects posture, posture reflects mood, and you can’t separate the two. Your clients will always bring their emotional stuff to a session. So come and listen, it’s part of building those skills, you’ll learn by osmosis and take that back to your clients. It makes you a more rounded and self-aware therapist.

The Symposium is going to be great, and it will be a real honour to be there!

Rob Williamson will be appearing at the UIUK Rhythm & Resonance Symposium in September 2016. Rob has studied Tai Chi, Martial Arts, Tui Na, Acupuncture, Hypnotherapy and NLP – and of course CranioSacral Therapy! He has run The Plumb Blossom Clinic with his wife Alison for the last fifteen years. Rob has vast experience working with children and young adults on the autistic spectrum and his ‘Clean Language’ training has led to his work with both children and adults who have issues around verbal communication.