It was always going to be an
adventure — the first interview maverick therapeutic genius
David Grove had given since 1996. So maybe it wasn't
surprising to find myself dangling upside-down in a dark,
sub-zero November car park on a psycho-active fairground
Maybe I should have expected another
result, too: massive personal change at the deepest level.
That's what I got.
David is the creator of Clean
Language, a set of simple
questions which help clients explore their own metaphors.
The facilitator's ideas stay as far in the background as
possible, the client's words and gestures take centre
But his new work is causing an even
bigger buzz. A packed house at his Saturday-night
demonstration at the London NLP Conference in November was
spellbound — but confused. We could see that big things
were happening for the demonstration subjects. But what was
really going on?
Executive coach Neil Scotton, of
Redhill, Surrey, was one of the demo subjects that evening,
and experienced something deep. He found it hard to put into
words, though, even weeks later. "I have learned something,
but I am not quite sure what. It was a mind-shift
"I didn't end up with a to-do list.
It's like a much greater sense of purpose and being, feeling
much more purposeful and together and — reassured, I
suppose. It's had a very positive influence on my
decision making, a sense of peace in troubled times."
Neil, director of research for the
International Coach Federation, wants to find out more. "I
would certainly recommend other people to experience it. I
think there is something really important in there about the
way in which we ask questions of each other and the way in
which we can better understand each other."
So, what is this process, exactly?
It's not tidily codified; it's still shifting with every
sweep of David's imagination. It involves space, movement,
and as few words as possible. It's about staying Clean. It's
about running a system and allowing new information to
In the version of it that was
demonstrated that night, the client moved from space to
space around the room, with David asking: "What do you know
from that space there?", "What does that space know?"
and "Is there another space that you could move to?"
The mechanics seemed straightforward
enough. David and one of his collaborators, Carol Wilson,
outlined it in Resource a
few months ago: Emergent Knowledge.
But perhaps there was more to it
than a simple exercise. David was noticing little details of
the subjects' body language, such as Neil tapping his watch.
"The information we want is in that tap!" he declared. There
was something unusual about the way David timed his
questions and the subject's movements.
From Neil's point of view, it wasn't
all easy going. "One position was horrible!" he said.
"I was burning up and my heart was going and I felt really
out of control, 'What the devil's going on here?'
"Like NLP it's like a hammer — you
can use it to make things, make things stick together and
stay stuck. By the same token you can do a huge amount of
damage. I'm reminded of when I was growing up in Kent my dad
bought a chainsaw and I read the handbook that went with it.
It said: 'Accidents with chainsaws are seldom
So, what about this interview? By
the time of the conference I'd been trying to pin David down
for weeks, even though he'd agreed to the interview to
promote a training he's doing jointly with Wendy Sullivan in
I'd discovered that David was
notoriously unpredictable; that he'd follow whatever grabbed
his interest; that he'd vanish mysteriously and then appear
without warning, rounding up a group for his latest
enthusiasm. One minute he'd love to meet for lunch, the next
he was sick, travelling, in Yorkshire, in France ...
On that conference Saturday night he
was charming, flirtatious, fascinating, enthusiastic - and
apparently totally oblivious to the fact that it was ten
o'clock and nobody had had any dinner. And the next day,
when we finally sat down together, the charm was turned off
completely. David was direct to the point of rudeness.
Questions were met with hostility or an uncomprehending
stare, making traditional interviewing impossible.
I was slightly tempted to walk away
and talk to somebody civilised
But as a news journalist, the
"Clean" principle is deeply ingrained in me: "People don't
want to hear how you feel or what you think. It's not you or
your stuff that's important. They want to hear the person
And so he talked, and talked, and
talked, while I took shorthand and did my best to follow a
monologue dense with information, speculation,
"In 1991, I set out to answer the
question: 'Where do people go when they dissociate?'" he
explained. "I got the answer to that about five years
ago. Now it's about: 'What do you do about that?'"
Part of the answer to his original
question, which emerged from his work on healing trauma, had
to do with the way people experience themselves as a
collection of "parts". The most comfortable state was for
them all to be integrated, but there was no point in trying
to force them together. His approach was intended to tease
them apart even more, resulting in them reconfiguring
themselves into a whole.
"You can't just bring stuff that has
been split together again. The more you bring them together
the more they repel. In fact, you need to split them more,"
In the work we'd seen demonstrated,
called Clean Space or Emergent Knowledge,
the nine basic Clean Language questions were reduced to just
two or three, combined with movement to six different
spaces. The facilitator's role was to set the space up
carefully so it was fully "psycho-active", keep the process
going until it was finished, and ensure that the subject
stayed in each space for long enough.
It was a trance-like experience for
the subject, but there should be no suggestions from the
facilitator. "That would be a hideous thing to do!"
He was convinced that the number six
was important, with an almost mystical significance, and was
finding sixes everywhere. Just as in the famous Stanley
Milgram experiment, it was found that every person in the
world is connected to every other through six people, 'six
degrees of separation', all kinds of other networks had six
as a key number.
Excitedly, he told how he'd woken in
the night and turned on a hotel TV, only to find a programme
about whirling dervishes, a traditional "Gateway to God"
using dance. Amazingly, they had six sequences. What a
coincidence! That he'd seen it at all, and that it was
"I always said there were six Clean
Language questions, twenty years ago I said there were
And, he said, a network with six
nodes would become an active system, from which totally new
information can emerge. That meant that in Clean Space, six
spaces must be visited and their information fully drawn
out. And that in turn meant six points of view should be
included in this article. It was obvious!
He talked on, and on, giving more
and more details of the process, the possibilities, and the
patterns he was finding.
He was most excited by his
"whirligig". Instead of being able to walk about, subjects
were strapped into a device in which they could be turned to
different positions — upside down, sideways, wherever — as
the exploration continued. The next version would have the
person supported in a sort of duvet ... or be suspended on a
cherry-picker so it could be moved up and down, or from side
to side ... and he could measure their physical changes as
they went ...
And suddenly, we were heading back
to the conference. I was trailing in David's wake, trying to
ask a few more questions ... check details ... and getting
very little joy ...
The facts, as I understand them, are
these. David comes from New Zealand, and has European and
Maori ancestry. He was working in business when he came
across NLP in 1978. Then on one occasion he went along to an
NLP business workshop to find it cancelled. The organisers
persuaded him to join another group, and so David became
interested in phobias and trauma.
He went on to work with NLP's
founders, to qualify as a Master Practitioner and to develop
skills in Ericksonian hypnosis before walking away from NLP
in 1981, during some of its darker days. He later took a
degree in psychotherapy and eventually took a
psychotherapeutic roadshow worldwide, demonstrating his
"Inner Child" processes to a total of around 40,000
More recently, Penny Tompkins and
James Lawley codified Clean Language and produced the
in Mind (2000). And in the
last twelve months, David has been working with new
collaborators, too, developing Clean Space, Emergent
Knowledge and Clean Coaching methodologies.
Jo Hogg, organiser of the NLP Conference, has known David Grove since 1985. He'd put
her in the whirligig during the Conference weekend.
"I certainly got some change from
being in there that was not on any conscious level.
Literally by being reoriented I gained a different sense of
connection to myself. How that worked I have no
idea. What he is doing is tapping into an unconscious
process. Some belief change techniques work on a conscious
level, you are getting insights. With this you don't get any
insights, but you get a change.
"His thinking about how change works
is an all-consuming passion for him. His is a truly original
thinker pushing the boundaries in the field. I feel honoured
to know him.
"David has always been a law unto
himself. Always inspirational - but he just does
what grabs him in the moment. He is totally "in time"
and caught up with the latest ideas that are firing his
And now it was my turn to be a demo
subject. "I'll put you in the whirligig!" David suddenly
announced, before wandering off and leaving me hanging about
for an hour ...
The device, mounted on a trailer
behind his estate car, had a hard, orange plastic seat
suspended in the centre of three steel circles. It needed to
be "driven" by David and a friend. I was freezing cold,
confused, and nervous, not least because NLP's intellectual
heavyweight, Wyatt Woodsmall, had just taken a turn himself
and was witnessing the entire process with a running
commentary from David.
The effect is very hard to describe
in words. It isn't about language; it's about movement and
A particular orientation reminded me
of the day after the London bombings when, in a spirit of
"feel the fear and do it anyway" I had been dropped from a
crane into a cargo net: "scad diving". My body seemed
to remember the whole jumble of emotions I'd felt at that
time, all the fear and panic and stress of the previous
From there I was rotated into
various other positions — upside down forwards, upside down
backwards, looking out at the stars — before eventually
being manoeuvred back to that "scad diving" position.
Wow, what a difference! This time I
was filled with excitement and exhilaration, whooping with
And once released from the device
there was a peace, quietness, a sense of "You don't have to
David had to ask quite sharply, I
think twice, for me to give some sort of verbal report to
Wyatt. I muttered a few words. I have no idea if they made
sense, and I didn't care very much.
I didn't care very much! About
making sense! In front of Wyatt Woodsmall!
Why was that so exciting? Again,
it's hard to explain.
Imagine for a moment, if you can,
what it would be like to live a life dominated by intense
fear around other people. Whenever you were not alone, all
that mattered was controlling your feelings and concealing
their physical symptoms. How could you look normal in a
party? How could you sound normal in a meeting? How could
you have sex? Share a house? What about job interviews or
Now imagine that fear disappearing.
The pressure lifting, the darkness clearing ... breathing
clear, fresh air ... freedom ...
For me, it was as profound as it
gets. Released from my cage, over the next few weeks I
discovered I could now take everything I'd learned in my
personal development journey — NLP, hypnosis and so on —
and easily make it work well for me.
But the adventure still wasn't over.
What about those six additional points of view? We heard
from Jo Hogg and Neil Scotten above. Wendy Sullivan, Phil
Swallow and John Farrell also agreed to chat. And finally
... I interviewed Wyatt himself. I was excited, and I wasn't
So, what's the answer to the puzzle?
What's "really" going on in David's latest work? Much as it
pains the journalist in me to admit it, it's to do with the
fact that people don't experience the world as it really is.
Each of us creates our own reality, by filtering what's out
there through what we believe.
What I think David is doing is
seeking change by working directly with the reality that his
clients experience on the inside, at the deepest level.
Never mind that it's not "true", never mind it's different
to his and therefore seems wrong.
He's working with that part of the
client that expresses itself through symbols, dreams,
physical gestures, movement, and metaphors. And using these
techniques, that part can resolve its deepest traumas, find
its own solutions — and live happily ever after.