First published in Rapport magazine, Issue 33
Picture the scene: A peerless November night in the Lake District. A backdrop of mountains dark against a sky so clear it is obvious why our part of the universe is called the ‘milky’ way. Three heads protrude above the surface of a steaming hot tub. Not a sound can be heard save the occasional lapping of water as each slides and settles into an even more relaxing position.
One of the heads, David Grove, is a New Zealander currently living in the USA and making one of his regular pilgrimages to England to conduct healing retreats and workshops for therapists. He has developed a unique way of working with the metaphoric and symbolic nature of our inner worlds. He is continually expanding and refining his approach as he discovers mo
re about the structure and processes of the magical faculty of humans to represent their deepest experiences as metaphor. Penny Tompkins and James Lawley are about to conduct an interview. Let’s listen in on what they’ve got to say.
James: What might be useful is for people to know a bit about your background and how you became interested in NLP. Where would you like to start?
David: My first association with NLP was back in 1978. At first I wasn’t interested in the therapy side, I really wanted it for business. One time I went along for an NLP business workshop and they said “Oh I’m sorry, not enough people have showed up, you’ll have to join the other group.” So that’s how I first became interested in phobias and trauma.
Penny: What were Richard Bandler, John Grinder and the others doing at that time that attracted you?
David: The whole notion that you could take an experience, find its structure and if you changed its structure it changed the experience was revolutionary. That to me was the significant contribution from the mid 70’s; just the notion that experience had a structure and that structure could be categorised and that you could make changes to experience without it coming through insight and feelings. That was the major paradigm shift ‘the boys’ made at the time, which really started the NLP bandwagon rolling.
Penny: So you went along for business and got interested in the structure of experience. Then what happened?
David: Then I got very involved in Ericksonian hypnosis. And I think one of the key things I did was set up a little study group. There were six of us. We’d meet every couple of weeks and we’d go over some of this stuff. Each of us would do a presentation. That was when I found out they were sitting there listening but they couldn’t understand a word I was saying. I thought, “We’ve all been to the same workshops, why couldn’t they understand me?” And then I realised I was moving in a different direction. It was hard to distinguish at that time but I was interested in a different structure of experience. After that I pretty much just started out on my own with a friend who’s been my office manager ever since. I was based here in England to start with. And it was pretty unsuccessful. That was the beginning of my working with traumatic memories and phobias. And when I went back to the States, the whole Viet Nam war Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was really picking up. There was nothing in the literature that I could find about people trying to resolve memories.
James: Was there a particular time or incident that alerted you to the power of the use of metaphor?
David: No, not really. I mean David Gordon wrote his book but there was nothing else out at that time.
James: Your work with metaphor is radically different from Erickson’s or David Gordon’s use of metaphor. How did that evolve?
David: I found out not everybody had memories. However, even though they couldn’t remember a certain event they still had feelings about it. So if you can’t get a clear memory, what else can you get? So I started observing very carefully what was happening. I noticed, if I didn’t force people when they were talking they would naturally start using metaphor to describe their experience. And that’s when I discovered this work is very amenable to metaphor. So I realised here was another way to structure experience. I decided that metaphor was a whole language worthy of study. It took me a few years just to study the different types of metaphorical language. So that eventually became a book Resolving Traumatic Memories. Gee, that thing is still selling today.
James: You’re talking about naturally occurring client-generated metaphors. About symbolic representations that occur within a person’s body or inner perceptual world. So what do you see is the function of metaphor in your work?
David: Essentially what metaphors do is carry information. Metaphors take information from one source and introduce it to another. So, imagine someone has a symptom of ‘a knot in the stomach’ and through the use of ‘clean language’ they have a corresponding memory that someone is about to hit them. Maybe they can take the knot out of the stomach and put it in the memory and the knot ties the perpetrator’s hand’s and prevents them from being hit. Thus the client has successfully resolved the situation by picking up the metaphor and carrying it across into a memory in which it can do the business. The information contained in the metaphor transforms that memory.
Penny: So metaphors related to the client’s symptoms contain information which lead to the resolution of their traumatic memories. The metaphor is not only symbolic of the problem it also contains pointers, clues, to the solution.
David: Working with metaphors leads to a natural regression and hanging around the metaphor is always an owner who is the client at a younger age ‘frozen in time’. That’s how the notion of a ‘child within’ was born.
Penny: What was your relationship with the others who were using ideas of the ‘inner child’ at that time?
David: Charles Whitfield pioneered it in the States. I’ve done stuff with him and we’re still friends. Claudia Black did the ACOA stuff (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and then Alice Small did books on incest. I probably pioneered the clinical side of it in America. I just started from nothing and was getting huge audiences at that time in the late 80’s. And then I got very intrigued with dissociation. It seemed a lot of metaphor and the child within were fragments which were dissociated. So I decided to take a vow of silence for 2 years. I stopped teaching just to study dissociation and fragmentation. And that’s when I started to do retreats in my home. I thought my research would take 2 years but its taken me a lot longer and out of that came even more new material.
Penny: Such as?
David: I discovered, if you put people into trance, they regress and go back into childhood. If they leave their eyes open and you follow where they are focussing then they get to worlds that appear from thin air, in their perceptual space. And because people can choose to go in and out of positive hallucination when they’ve got their eyes open, they have more control. So this was a rude awakening because it was the opposite tenant of working with the client to get the metaphors generated from within. With their eyes closed clients don’t make contact with the outside. But when they keep their eyes open you can observe how their ‘line of sight’ gives clues to their internal perceptual space. It’s like the NLP stuff except now there’s a context, an inner landscape, to make more sense of eye movements and other minimal cues.
Penny: It’s ironic, you have to open your eyes to see your ‘internal world’! Is this when you realised people’s perceptual space, their inner landscape, could be mapped? I know in my own work with you, drawing metaphors and mapping their location has been a real navigational aid. It has helped me keep track of my own process and encouraged new insights.
David: I call this ‘cognitive mapping’. The map is the interface between the client’s internal and external worlds. The map mediates both realities. There is a big difference between metaphors that give a microscopic view of one experience and a map which gives a picture of all experiences. That realisation took me by surprise.
James: Earlier you mentioned the use of ‘clean language’ by the therapist. This seems to be central to your work. What put you on to the idea that clean language was so important, and perhaps you might like to say what defines clean language.
David: I used to watch other therapists work. I wondered, why did they ask that question? I started analysing the questions major therapists used; people like Virginia Satir and Carl Rogers. To begin with I thought it was because they had this huge vast experience. After a while I twigged that, jeepers, they were coming out of their hallucinations, their model of the world. Take Carl Rogers, who I thought would be really ‘Rogerian’! I found his language wasn’t clean in the sense that he kept shifting people. He would use past tense in the present, and then use the future tense and move them back to the present.
So he was often redefining verbally whatever anybody said. He would amplify or redefine the words the client used. Well, when you do that it robs the client of some of their experience. I wanted to know the questions you can ask that don’t have any presuppositions. Erickson didn’t use clean language but at least he was aware of the presuppositions of his language. So I came up with a set of six basic questions which were neutral and did not interfere with a client’s process. And they all start with the conjunction ‘and’… and what that does is facilitates a trance. So the use of clean language is very trance inducing without an induction. It’s a natural induction because the questions don’t pull the client out of their experience. The questions are aimed at the metaphoric part of their experience so they don’t go through normal cognitive processes.
Penny: Can you give us an example?
David: If you ask “And that’s like what?” it’s clean language as it directly addresses the client’s experience and it goes straight to the metaphor. Whereas, if you ask “What’s that like to you?” the client immediately goes to cognitive process and looses their direct relationship with the particular metaphor. So clean language is the language of facilitation. It doesn’t bring the client out of their natural trance and there is no resistance to the questions because they can be answered easily. The acoustical parameters in clean language, the rhythm and tonality, are such that a person can reject the question very easily without much ego affect. I want the client to chuck out any question that doesn’t feel right.
So clean language is language that stays in the experience and in the body of the client. The locus of the information is out here between two people. Its not a shared language as in normal discourse. In normal counselling I ask the question to you, you get the information and then you give it to me so it’s a whole shared experience. The locus of attention moves backwards and forwards between us. But once I ask you a clean language question, the locus shifts from you to where the information is sourced without it having to be triangulated between your head and your body.
That is why you don’t have to think about answers to clean language questions, because the answers come from the source of the information. So any question that drags you out of the experience is not clean language. For example, when a client repeats your question it is a good indication the question wasn’t the right one. So clean language is about a delivery system that delivers a question without any resistance. It’s about a question that’s just the right question a client wants to be asked. As soon as the question is asked, the client already knows.
The ability to get the question that feels right to the client and that they can easily reject if its not, is the art of clean language. In clean language, you’re only as good as your last question. And it doesn’t matter what else you were going to do, if you didn’t get the last question right. The use of conjunctions of language and the use of the indefinite article make it a funny, unusual language, but it’s very simple. It’s a natural language of trance.
James: One of the by-products of using clean language, it seems to me, is that there is a natural separation between the metaphor and the person observing the metaphor. They get a chance to look at whatever it is in a way they probably never have, from an angle they’ve never been aware of before.
David: Yes. There is a separation in that you separate out the ego state of the person and then you objectify the experience so it becomes the client interrogating this other entity in metaphor. I ask the metaphor directly for information and it can answer. And the client is often amazed, amused and somewhat bemused about it. In that sense the client has a discourse with the metaphor. The client becomes a dispassionate observer of what’s going on. So in order to get that type of information you need to split it from the client’s current experience and then it takes on a life of its own. And the reason why that stuff’s there is because it has information in it. The metaphor is a carrier of information.
Penny: You work with people who have had disturbing symptoms, memories and so forth, for a long time. How does working with metaphor allow a process that’s been a source of pain for decades to be healed? Clients will often say they’ve had this problem for as long as they can remember.
David: That’s a very intriguing question because some symptoms seem to be very intractable. What makes them intractable? I had this notion: What if you didn’t stop at childhood? What if there were conditions contained in your family of origin that were passed on ancestrally? What if the anger that you have is simply a continuation of your father’s anger? What if the depression that you experience is an endemic depression and is carried down your family line, and is simply not an expression of situational depression? So that led to a sortie into the world of genealogy.
When I pursued the origins of a particular symptom I found there are some experiences which are not arrived at as a child; they are not born in childhood. You may be a carrier of information passed on for generations and it expresses itself in you. It might have missed your siblings. It might have missed your parents. The depression is not from you. So then your ordinary resources, those resources within your own experience, aren’t sufficient to heal the situation. So sometimes you don’t have everything you need to heal yourself.
Penny: Because you didn’t create it in the first place.
David: The stuff has been passed on. The symptoms are trying their best to heal the situation, but can’t. The metaphor is a container which not only contains information about your symptoms but also your history. Ancestral history gets devolved. You have to treat the historical information and treat the symptoms separately. When those two are meshed together you can’t do anything with them. So this began this whole fascinating journey into the use of ancestry to heal up an experience that occurred in childhood. The beating, the abuse you got may have been a punishment which did not fit the crime. If the crime didn’t deserve that punishment, where did the motivation to punish come from?
James: During today’s workshop we saw how a participant’s traumatic memory of school was still influencing their life today. I was amazed how the process unfolded. You explored the ancestral history of the teacher in order to discover a redemptive metaphor which was used to heal the child at school. Then you brought the healed metaphor into the present.
David: You’ve got to ‘pull back’ a teacher’s history, or the country’s history employing teachers. There will be something in that teacher’s history or something in the system that will heal. So the client gets the opportunity to go back and heal up their ancestry. Then they can pick up all of their ancestry and re-import it back into their body. And then they don’t have the past interrupting their present.
One of the nice things in relation to inter-generational healing is that you can by-pass your parents and access some of your lineage directly, without having to go through the negative stuff they passed on. Instead of having your lineage cut off because of your parents, you can go back and re-own your history. That gives you access to all of the bright stuff that was there without it having to be filtered through your parents’ negative aspects. To go back and heal up your ancestry can be a very stunning thing to experience.
Penny: This explains how you can go from a minimal cue, like a hand movement or a look, and go straight into a really important experience for the person in a few questions.
David: Clean language does that. Because in every gesture, and particularly in obsessional gestures and tics and those funny idiosyncratic movements, is encoded the entire history of that behaviour. It contains your whole psychological history in exactly the same way that every cell in your body contains your whole biological history.
Penny: And it is the same for words and phrases?
David: That’s why we can’t go around changing client’s dialogue, because then you change the experience and you can’t unfold their history out of your words.
James: So sometimes when symptoms are intractable, clients have had too much of their experience changed, many times by-well meaning therapists. As Paul Watzlawick says, the attempted solutions become the problem. Fortunately, the metaphor preserves the information in an uncontaminated form. And are you saying the resolution of the symptom is in the history?
David: Yes. There will always be good things in the history as well as bad. Three sisters could be exposed to the same stimulus but their reactions might be very different. One might carry the experience in a positive way, one might carry it in a negative way and one doesn’t carry it at all. The question is: How can that happen? Now when you ‘pull back’ sentences from each of those sisters you’ll find they probably go down different ancestral lines. So when you have your first virginal anxiety experience why did you respond that way and not a thousand other ways? I think we are predisposed. There is a susceptibility in that particular person.
James: How come the sisters don’t have the same predisposition if they have the same ancestry?
David: That’s the question. Because their lineage is traced back in different ways. And it would depend on what you pulled back. If you pull back on the pain in the chest it goes down one line, if you pull the breathing back it goes down another. And then there is one sister who doesn’t have any affect so it’s no big deal and there is nothing to pull back.
James: So what’s your idea about how that predisposition and that information is transmitted down the line?
David: I have no idea. I mean it’s the same question about sisters with different hair type and eye colour. Where do we get our initial psychological characteristics from? I mean what genes carry our psychology?
Penny: Hey, we’re asking the questions here! How far do you carry the biological model into the psychological model?
David: I think it’s the same deal. I think feelings are like antibodies. Feelings are unsuccessful attempts by your body to heal a situation when it first happens. If that doesn’t work, any other situation resembling the original will keep manufacturing the symptoms. It’s like cell division … over and over again. As I see it, psychology is going to have to follow medical science, and we’re way behind. At first, all medical science had was gross description of pathology and that’s where psychology is now. Medical science has moved on to the greater level of detail of molecular biology and the replication of systems and diseases. I think that’s the way we’re going to have to go in changing experiences. It’s about replication, not the end product.
James: How do we influence a system that replicates pathologically? I am intrigued by how to interrupt a system’s ability to replicate.
David: The way you do that is the same way nature does it. Most cell division is mitotic; the cell clones or produces an exact replicate of itself. The psychological equivalent is when a set of symptoms from an earlier experience reproduce themselves in the adult, over and over again. A different mechanism is involved in sex cell division. The process is called meiosis where there is a crossing over in which genes are exchanged from one set of chromosomes to another. Unlike cloning, the resultant genetic structure is different from the original. That’s how the inter-generational healing works. We’re going back and picking up information in metaphors from your ancestry and then we’re bringing them into your lifetime.
This exchange of information changes the outcome of your current experience. Then the old experience will not replicate itself. So for example, if a mother is too busy and you were left alone with a person who became the perpetrator of a traumatic event, then you might have to go down the ancestral line of the mother to find the source; to find the redemptive metaphor. Where was your mother? How come she was too busy? This is where the client might need to go to find the information which can interrupt the replicating mechanism. Metaphors are like the genes of cells or the DNA – genetic codes that replicate. So If we want to change a repetitive or habitual experience, it’s the replicating mechanism that matters.
James: The structure of those mechanisms is the same whether we’re talking about physical structures or metaphorical structures. They’re the same.
David: Yes. Find those structures so we can intervene at this level. It’s different from trying to change the content. It doesn’t matter about content. And why I think this intergenerational stuff is so powerful is because you’re using transformative information from the source. When you find the ‘line of sight’ of that source information, it’s not just any angle of the eyes. That information is not sourced with you, its sourced in your ancestry, and that shifts the responsibility.
Penny: Empowerment is a word that’s bandied about a lot…now this is empowerment.
David: Well it ends up that way. It’s a funny thing to start off with that premise when initially there is an unempowering situation. You don’t get empowered until later, until you find the source.
Penny: The neat thing is you can take a behaviour or a line of sight or a symptom and with clean language discover a metaphor and trace that back to its ancestral source. There you find a redemptive metaphor–a metaphor which contains the information needed to heal, not only the initial conditions, but the whole lineage in between. And that makes a big difference. I know — I’ve experienced it and it has had a significant effect in my life!
David: That’ll do.
Penny: Thank you and please pass me a towel!
David Grove and B I Panzer Resolving Traumatic Memorie’ (Irvington) 1989
David Gordon Therapeutic Metaphors (Meta Publications) 1978
Charles Whitfield Healing The Child Within (Health Communications)
Paul Watzlawick et al. Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution (Norton) 1974
Last changed 18.5.01