Language in Shiatsu – The idea of Clean Language

Maria Illgen, Berlin 2019

Shiatsu works with our body knowledge, with our intuition. It touches, it can be very clear and simple. And yet it is difficult to put into words what it means to us.
Shiatsu is understood with the right side of the brain, language is found in the left side. The experience of Shiatsu is part of the experience of the moment and is comparable with the effect of nature, art, music…
In everyday life the focus is often on precision, structure, classification, naming.
And we find wholeness where we consider both. Where intellect combines with wisdom. Where we can talk about feelings and where spirit, soul and body belong together.
When we can talk about our body-consciousness, we connect two worlds. Then we consciously invite the mind into the depth of the body, then we take the experience of Shiatsu home with us. With language the thought world finds the door to the body and language strengthens our experience.
I’m not a psychotherapist. I’m a shiatsu practitioner. That’s why I need a simple tool. A path that doesn’t require evaluation and interpretation. Which needs nothing but the attentive listener who leans back, who holds the space in which movement can take place. A language that does not set a goal, but researches, appreciates and acknowledges. It dares to approach challenges without being overburdened. Just like a treatment that strengthens the client’s self-perception and responsibility.
It is tricky and there are many ways to integrate the language well into Shiatsu, be it Focusing, Somatic Experiencing or Clean Language. I introduce Clean Language here.

The idea of Clean Language

The essence of Clean Language is firstly to promote images and metaphors and secondly to recognise their place.
When we use images in our language, our feelings come into the boat. We don’t just use our head for this, we perceive it in our whole body. The moment we locate it, in the body or in the space around ourselves, we strengthen the relationship with our body.
Third, the essence of Clean Language is to use only the exact words of our client. In this way we remain listeners who appreciate and reflect, who do not interpret, but give space for what wants to happen.
David Grove, psychotherapist from New Zealand, developed the idea of Clean Language in the 1980s. There has been a lot of research and development into the idea and it has been introduced into many different areas. Nick Pole brought it into Shiatsu.
Clean Language is very simply structured. There are about a dozen questions that are asked. They are designed to be as neutral and open as possible. For a start, two or three questions are enough.
And what kind of…?
And is there anything else about…?
And where is…?

One day I hear my sick son. He threw up several times last evening and now says:
– My stomach feels so full. I would like to eat something so much and I have the feeling that there is only water in my stomach.
– Would you like me to do Clean Language with you?
– Yes.
And is there anything else about your stomach that feels so full?
– It’s bubbling like that. Quite wild.
And where is the bubbling, quite wild?
(He points to the middle of his body and makes movements with both hands up and out.)
And what kind of bubbling, quite wild (I accompany the question with the same gesture he showed.)?
– It wants to come out.
And where does it want to come out?
(He thinks long, long.)
– It wants to be free. It should go away completely. (With his hands he accompanies it from the torso horizontally outwards into the room.)
(I give the feeling even more time.)
– And how is your stomach now?
– Good, it’s moving.
Half an hour later he started to eat a small portion and had no more stomach problems.
For me it was nice to see with what attention he recognized his complaints. And at the same time he was willing to trust his sense of his own needs.

Clean Language itself does not change anything here. But Clean Language supports his own clarity. Clean Language is the tool here that helps to come to oneself and to get involved with oneself. It gives space and the inner movement can flow.

Listen to Clean Language

Clean Language is a language of its own that you can practice. We all know the few elements it needs. The questions we can ask are not unusual. It’s just unusually hard to do without what we’re used to. Not to give advice, not to express opinions, not to bring new ideas to our counterparts, not to rethink, not to provoke another point of view, not to interpret. And at the same time be respectful and present. From Shiatsu we know the idea of keeping a free empty space that something can develop on its own. So we can do that with language. Not every client will (immediately) get involved in it, and we are allowed to respect that.

A client says:
– I work so much and I always put my shoulders forward. They’ve sunk a bit forward anyway, but that’s a lot more at the moment. (She shows her shoulders collapsing forward.)
And is there anything else about the shoulders sinking forward? (I’m mirroring that sinking forward.)
– It does something to my lower back. There is no power.
And is there a connection between the shoulders sinking forward and your lower back where there is no power?
– Yes. I don’t have time to do sports and that’s why. My shoulders can already open! (She straightens up.) But when I work, they walk like that again. (Collapse.)
And what do your shoulders want to have happen?
– I don’t know.
And what do you want to have happen?
– I want them to open.
And what happens when your shoulders open?
– (She opens her shoulders and looks a little unhappy.) I don’t know.
And opening your shoulders is like what?
– (After a moment she smiles timidly.) I have an inner picture. Should I say it?

So far I had the feeling that we were going in circles with our conversation. The questions I asked didn’t fit. But now it suddenly seems different to me. As if she was inviting me to follow her world, which is spreading out in front of her right now. So I say:
– Yes.
– It’s like a little flame inside me. (She holds both hands in front of her sternum as if she had a small flame in her hands protecting it from the wind.) And there’s so much wind from work and stress that I protect the flame and take my shoulders forward.
– (Here I repeat her words. Give the picture space and let it work in me.)
And there is a little flame inside you (I repeat the gesture too.) And there is so much wind from work and stress that you protect the flame and take your shoulders forward.
And is there anything else about so much wind and protect the flame?
– The flame also needs wind and oxygen to burn. (She leads both open hands up over the rib arches to the breastbone and straightens up.)
And is there anything else about the flame also needs wind and oxygen to burn?
– It’s like opening and closing. (She slowly opens and closes her shoulders and chest several times.)
And can the little flame burn when you open and close?
– Yes. (She smiles relaxed.)
And what do you want to have happen now?
– I want this flame to be protected and burn evenly.
After the Shiatsu treatment I ask her again for the image.
– And how is your little flame now?
– It feels much calmer. And it’s all good.
– And would you like to take this picture with you?
– Yes.

The difference between pictorial and normal speech is very clear here. And although the client seemed to be connected with her body from the beginning and moved to narrate, she later spoke much more out of her body feeling, her attitude and her ideas about her body feeling had changed.
Learn to speak Clean Language

Instructions according to Judy Rees

Here is a wonderful guide from Judy Rees to learning Clean Language.
1) She thinks you should learn to listen first without answering. It relaxes the mind and trains curiosity for the experience and the unique world of the other. 2) Then you can begin to mirror a few words. Simply repeat them and give them back to the other. Maybe always the last two or three words spoken or a keyword that echoes in us.
3) Next, you can ask a single question: „And what kind of…?“ or „And is there anything else about…?“.

Until here it should run relaxed. And only when you have gained experience with it, have practiced not having to bring your own contribution into the conversation, and that is really not easy, can you dare to take a step further and
4) ask more than one, i.e. two questions. This can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable for the questioners and their counterparts, because now it becomes clear that this is a different kind of conversation than usual.
Here you can feel whether the person you are talking to is getting involved with Clean Language at the moment. And if it gets too uncomfortable for one of you, you can go back to a normal conversation.
5) The next step in learning is to listen to metaphors / comparisons / pictures and ask Clean Questions. When a person uses images, unlike mere descriptions, his whole being is involved. That is why it is worthwhile to start here. It is often more pleasant when we pick up the positive images.
6) And now we can focus our partner’s attention on her goal: „And what would you like to have happen?

Clean Questions by Nick Pole

There are some slightly different compilations of clean language questions. They are also not to be regarded as one hundred percent solid and it is much more about the attitude when asking questions than about the correct wording. However, they have been developed with care, and it might be a good idea to stick to them first. I present here the 12 Clean Questions from „Words that touch“ by Nick Pole. For the keywords or phrases, here is an X (or Y) to insert.

We started with the question about the
Attribute: (Look at and explore X.) And what kind of X? And is there anything else about X?
And with questions about the
Location: (Include the body and space.) And where (exactly) is X?
And with some experience we can include more questions:
Focus: (Where is the attention, where is the attention going?) And what are you drawn to?
Time and order: (Give the inner landscape a temporal dimension.) And then what happens? And what happens just before X?
Metaphor / Image / Comparison: (This question is likely to provoke images.) And that’s an X like what?
Origin: (Origin) And where could X come from?
Relationship: (Creates connections in the landscape or arranges.) And is there a relationship between X and Y?
Outcome: (If a landscape has already been created, one can well ask how everything could develop.) And what would you like to have happen? And what would X like that to have happen?
Power: (Is it possible?) And can X do Y?

My experience

I’m glad I can use Clean Language. Sometimes clients come to me who are able to say what they want from the upcoming treatment after two or three Clean Questions. They have an idea of what they want to work with and how they want to feel later. This is where Clean Language sums up the idea. And I have the opportunity to ask a few questions after the treatment. It is simple, clear and fast.
There are also people who don’t have an exact idea and prefer to drift. I often get evasive answers to clean questions. Maybe I’m not practiced enough, maybe these clients need another conversation at that moment. And that’s fine, too.
And there are clients who express sudden images in unexpected moments of conversation or treatment. Here I have experienced that clients are positively surprised that I take up their picture and take it seriously by asking them about it. That they can and are allowed to talk about their experience. They can be moved by what they say and what develops in them. I find that impressive. And especially here I have gained a lot of certainty through Clean Language.
It is clear to me that the client should focus on her own experience, not mine. The client’s experience and the client’s ideas may take up the space. Nevertheless, I sometimes share my impression. When I make a statement about myself, I give a frame and a protected space and exactly the signal: Here you can say what you feel.


Further literature:

Nick Pole, Words that touch – How to ask questions your body can answer, Singing Dragon, 2017, ISBN 978-1-84819-336-9

There is a website by Judy Rees with short videos of different Clean Language users or „Six baby steps to start using Clean Language“ at

Bettina and Hans-Peter Wellke, Clean Language Cards, Source Of Performance, 2014, ISBN/EAN 4-260251-440215


Maria Illgen
Shiatsu practitioner GSD
Shiatsu in Rixdorf, Berlin

Original version (German) published in „Shiatsu Journal“ No.97, 2019

Clean Language in Shiatsu
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