Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling in Psychotherapy

An interview with Penny Tompkins and James Lawley
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Published in Russian in the online journal Atenor, 30 Jan 2017

On 18 September 2016, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley were interview in Moscow by Irina Karopa and Alexandr Yankelevich. The interview, translated into Russian by Maria Demidyuk, is available at

The interview took place at the training “Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling”, organized by Kamilla Nishanova and Sergey Igoshin as part of their Wisdom of the World project.

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley in Moscow 2016

Irina: The first question would be about your background in the method and also about the background of your coming to the method.

Penny: We’ve been registered with the UKCP, the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy since 1993 as Neurolinguistic Psychotherapists. We were seeing clients before we became involved in the work of David Grove and before we created Symbolic Modelling.

Writing our book Metaphors and Mind Transformation through Symbolic Modelling set a trajectory for our work up to the present time. We specialise in working with autogenic metaphor – the metaphors that people create themselves. This approach works with the unique and idiosyncratic of each individual through their metaphorical constructs. We use a language model developed by David Grove, called Clean Language, and the modelling of metaphors, which is a way of figuring out how things work. It is not so much that we figure it out as we want to ask clean questions so our clients can figure out themselves, and do what we call ‘self-modelling’, through their metaphorical constructs.

James: My first formal training in psychotherapy was Transactional Analysis and after that I trained in NeuroLinguistic Programming. Penny and I have trained with almost all the original NLP founders to the highest levels. We originally practiced as conventional NLP therapists and that gave us the ability to work with people’s inner worlds. It also gave us the skills to model David Grove so we could find how he did what he did so excellently. And the way I think about it, all my NLP knowledge and skills, which go back 25 years, sits at the back of my mind and informs me. These days I don’t tend to use NLP techniques because Symbolic Modelling is our main process and we just adapt it to the client and the circumstances.

Irina: Penny, you said you were kind of pulled to this method of Clean Language when you came across David Grove. Do you have any idea what in this method was so special that you were so attracted to it?

Penny: I first saw David Grove at a presentation he did in London working with a client on a stage. I saw him asking very precise and very unusual questions of the client’s description of their experience, and I saw the client engage with their own information in a very different way than I’d ever seen before. It was trance-like and yet they were active, their gestures were engaging with their symbols in space outside and inside of them self. None of my training in any modality had prepared me for the changes that I could see happening with the client in the moment. That was the pull. I thought: “I really don’t know what’s going on but I need to know”. That was my desire to follow-up, to start training and find out what on earth he was doing with those questions so that the client found out all these things about themselves. It was an irresistible pull.

Irina: Some questions about the method itself. How are the underlying assumptions of this method or this approach are different from other methods?

James: The approach tries to stay as close to the client’s experience as it can, with the minimal bringing in of theories. One of the primary reasons is that most psychology and most scientific investigations of psychology involve categorisation, populations and averages. Whereas we saw David Grove working with the idiosyncratic pieces of the individual person and that did not necessarily fit with any category or theory related to the averages of groups of people.

What’s more, we came to David’s work with a constructivist philosophy. That came out of our NLP training – that people construct the own maps of the world and they live out of those maps. And every map is unique. And the wonderful learning I got from NLP was that those maps, the structures in them, can either produce the most wonderful life or they can produce great pain. The structures are independent, they are neutral until they are applied in a certain way, and when the structure changes, people’s lives change too.

We discovered  that David Grove was working with people’s metaphorical structures in a very direct way. And when you do that it means you are working with the person’s personal theories of themselves, and their theories of change, many of which are implicit or unconscious or barely conscious. There is no need to add anything else in. In fact, adding anything else in unnecessarily complicates the process of their system changing itself.

David Grove had a wonderful saying, “Clean Language questions are simple because people are complex enough”. David’s genius was to take that idea to an extreme. He got himself out on the way: there are no personal pronouns in any Clean Language questions. I never say “Tell me about what’s going on” because it brings “me” into the conversation. There are no extraneous words, there are no suggestions, there is no attempt to reframe. You are only allowed to work with what you are given by the client. And it takes adhering to a discipline to keep your own stuff, your own map (metaphors, assumptions, perceptions) out of the interaction with the client’s map.

And although I’ve met lots of people who say, “Oh that’s what I do anyway”, I have never met anybody who can actually do it unless they’ve been trained in Clean Language. And the reason for that is their stuff gets in without them knowing. Not deliberately, but it slips in in the little words in their language. Even experienced therapists, without even knowing, will subtly change the client’s idiosyncratic way of describing their experience.

Penny: And that can be very valuable and it is the purpose of many modalities, but it is not the purpose of a clean approach.

James: We do not have an intention for the client to change. We do not even believe that it is better that they change. Maybe it is better they stay the same. It’s not for us to decide that. All we require is that they have an intention to change. We assume their desire is enough for their system to make the changes it needs to make in a way that is most ecological for itself.

Secondly, there is a wonderful saying in NLP, “people have all the resources they need to take their next step in their development”. And if I act as if that is true, why do I need to bring in anything? They don’t need me to bring in any clever techniques, they don’t need me to bring in any wonderful reframing, to tell them some artful story. I don’t need to do any of that because they already have massive of resources, they don’t need any of mine.

Irina: So you mentioned that you keep your stuff out, you also mentioned the importance of the intention of the clients to have some change. What are the other necessary elements for the change to take place, to your mind?

James: David Grove said “change takes place in context”. We attempt to facilitate a context where the client can inhabit in their own inner world. If you take yourself out of the equation, if you relate to their inner symbols as if they exist, and you ask questions about their inner experiences located whenever they have them, the client starts to get curious about how their own inner world functions. And they start to build a relationship with their inner world that they’ve never have before, because in every other conversation other people either add stuff in or take stuff out of their inner world – or they try to.  

And here is the interesting thing: if there is nothing else coming in from the outside, what does the client do? They have nothing to fall back on but themselves. If they don’t like what they see, hear and feel – they know it’s them. If they do like it – they know its them. If it works, they know this is who they are, if it doesn’t work, they know this is who they are.

At some level we believe a feedback process is set up between the inner world of their metaphors, the other-than conscious aspects of them self and their conscious mind. We ask a question, they seek an answer, and that produces a response. They answer and have another response, then maybe a symbol or relationship between symbols shifts in some way. Not deliberately, it just happens spontaneously, and that prompts a response, and so on. And slowly, but at times very quickly, the whole landscape starts to evolve in ways that surprises them, and us. We get surprised all the time.

Penny: And there can be another unusual benefit in working the way we do. In certain circumstances we can work content free. For example we had a woman telephone us in quite a state, she had been sexually abused over a very long period of time as a child, and she was finally coming to a place in her life when she knew she had to address it. She said: “I’ve been to several therapists and it’s so painful going over what happened that I can’t stay, and somebody suggested you, I don’t want to come, I really don’t, I’m terrified”. I said your must do what you want to do, but if you do come to see us, you don’t have to go over what happened. All you have to do is to let us know and we’ll stop what we’re doing at any time. And she came and she was in a state and she simply started talking. We had asked her to think of two metaphors, one for how it is now and one for how she would like it to be.

She began talking about a window, she was in a stone room with a lead-glass window, and she could see out in to a forest in the distance. And she talked about the forest and the dark places and light patches. And we just asked her Clean Language questions about her metaphors. That’s all that happened for the whole session. She was fairly calm when she left.

We didn’t even know if she would come back again. But she booked for another appointment the next week. And she came and set down and said: “I have never told anyone in my whole life what I told you last week”. All we knew was the stone room, the glass window, the forest and the dark and the light. But there was a structure, a logic in the metaphor that we could work with.

She never told us the details of her abuse. She didn’t need to. We could work with how she responded to her own metaphor, assessing how the session was going moment by moment. Her metaphor transformed as  did her response to the symbols, and her reaction to her memories changed in a very profound way. It took some time, and we never did find out what happened. And we never asked.

Some clients need to tell, and if they need to tell then we listen, because that’s a the respectful thing to do. And if they don’t need to tell then we don’t force them. So our process can work content-free with the structure and organisation of the metaphor.

Irina: And this brings to question about the structure of reality in a way. Why do you so strongly believe that changing the symbols, the metaphors inside, influences so much real-life. Why is it more important to work on the symbolic level then on the practical level in a way?

James: Because cognitive linguists, in the last 30 years or so, have discovered that much of our way of understanding the world is structured metaphorically. George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and dozens of other cognitive linguists, have shown that the way people think, their decision-making, their understanding and their choices are to a large degree mediated by their metaphorical constructs, most of which are out of awareness.

And one of the fundamental features of humans is the need to keep  our internal world coherent. When our metaphors change, in order to keep coherence, the rest of our internal world and our behaviour has to change. Otherwise we’d have the strange situation where we’d have one set of metaphors for the way the world works but we’d act as if the world was organised differently. The metaphors we generate are a fractal of our way of understanding and making sense to the world. When they change our way of understanding changes in parallel. So we see the world differently, we noticed different things, we take different choices without heaving to try, and then, to our amazement, the world responds differently.

Penny: For instance, with a soldier coming back from Afghanistan with PTSD, you could work with their metaphor for their trauma rather than the actual events itself. And as the metaphor changes and evolves organically in response to the Clean Language questions, the night sweats stop and the panic attacks diminish. This is behavioural evidence of the correspondence of the embodied metaphor to the way we perceive the events in life – when the metaphor changes behaviour changes as well.

James: And I can add another piece to that. We work with the person’s relationship with their memories. In this case  they are disturbed by the relationship.  It is an embodied experience but a  relationship with your own memories is a very abstract idea. How do you describe a relationship with your own memories of things that happened years ago? There is really only one way – metaphor. We don’t have any other language for describing such abstract things; and we don’t have any other language for describing what happens inside the body. Physical symptoms and health are almost always described in metaphor.

Similarly, how else can you describe what’s happening in your family? Unless you describe every individual and you go on for hours, you going to say: “Well you know, meeting my family is like going to a madhouse” or “Living in my family is like being on a rollercoaster”. Metaphor is the natural way to describe complex situations and abstract ideas.

The modern world has until recently undervalued this level of our experience. In traditional cultures and in the East the symbolic is much more privileged. Whereas in the West we’ve lost touch with it a little. Symbolic Modelling helps people to connect back with their inner symbols. And when they do it, it’s a profound experience because they get to know themselves at a very deep level. And once they do that they form a relationship with their metaphors. And these can accompany them through their life journey for years and decades.

Irina: I also wanted to go back to one place about the contact in the therapy or a contact in coaching. You mentioned that you keep out and you don’t want to create a contact to the client and you also mentioned that one of the tasks is to help the client to create contact to his own inner world. In many therapies rapport or contact to a client is one of the key elements for change. You mentioned during the seminar that the concept of contact or rapport is very different in your method. Could you comment on that?

Penny: We aim to be in the rapport with client’s metaphors. There is a relationship of three in the room: the client, their metaphor landscape and me. I am modelling that metaphor landscape from their perspective and that means that I am modelling the inner world of that client through their metaphors and symbols. When you remember and relate to a client’s symbols, where they are, what their function is, their relationship with other symbols, how they relate to the desired outcome it is a form of intimacy that few people have ever experienced. Clients often say it’s like having someone there beside me seeing the world through my eyes. It’s not physical rapport as in NLP, but it is one of the most profoundly intimate levels of rapport that I have ever experienced. I consider it sacred.

Irina: Would the method work without that, what do you think? Just keeping out your material?

James: The keeping out is a precondition. After that, how you relate to their world makes all the difference. Clean Language keeps your language out; and it is also restricts your gestures and voice tone. All of these things are in service to the acceptance of the client’s inner reality – exactly as it is. To start with, sometimes our acceptance of their reality is greater than theirs is!

And here is an interesting thing that separates this work: given that we are not trying to change the client or their landscape, there is nothing to ‘resist’ because they can tell very quickly that we’re not trying to change them. The client may resist themselves, and that will become apparent, and they’ll know that they are resisting the change that they want and that’s what we work with. They soon come to appreciate that this is an accepting and additive approach, nothing gets taken away by us. Even the stuff they don’t like – we pay attention to it with the same respect.

We ask the same Clean Language questions about that horrible ogre in the corner that’s been trying to eat them for years. Just as we do with the beautiful angel that’s flying in the sky. At some level I believe the client comes to appreciate that whatever they say, two things are going to happen: one – we are going to accepted that; and two – we are going to take it seriously.

Penny: And an interesting thing can happen. They have spent their whole life running away from that ogre who is determined to eat them, and yet when you ask questions such as, ‘What kind of determined is that determined?’ and it develops into a symbol on its own, they realise this is what has been missing from their life. That’s why no matter what they did, the ogre wasn’t going to stop trying to catch them – it contained the essence of something that they needed. Once the symbol for that determined integrates into their system the ogre disappears or it takes on a different role or it transforms into something else.

And how come that ogre was chasing them all those years and yet it never got them? It is because the client has some other reciprocal resource which has kept them from being eaten. And usually, that is an aspect of them self they have undervalued.

James: That is the way metaphor works. We saw in the demonstrations several times there was a clear change in the relationship between the client and one of their key symbols. In many ways when that happens we know that work is done, because we know they are going to live their life differently now. We don’t know how the change will manifest, and we don’t know how big or small a change that will end up being. We’ve given up trying to predict  the future development of a person and their metaphors. It’s too sensitive to initial conditions as the complexity theorists say. But we know they are going to start having different choices and they are going to relate to their family, friends and people in different ways. Their life going to start being different. And the full extent of the changes may takes weeks, months and even years to unfold.

Penny: And I think another aspect of our work is that we work with levels. A metaphor landscape is not a flat structure, it can contain patterns of perceptions that have been in place for years. For example, in the landscape there is a ‘go round and round in circles’ metaphor, and after a time the client leans back and says: “This is like my whole life! This is my whole life!” And then you can ask: “And when it’s like your whole life, that’s like what?” and they’ll say: “It’s being in an airplane forever flying around on a string”. Now they have described a metaphor for the pattern of their life. When you work with a pattern, all of the individual incidences can be affected. When necessary the client can work at higher and higher levels of pattern and structure within the landscape. Working in metaphor makes it much easier to spot patterns.

James: Our expression for this is: we are facilitating the client to self-model, i.e. to figure out how their own system works. And as they do, there is something about human that wants to develop, wants to improve, wants to have a better life – and I believe it is that desire that means things start to evolve of their own accord. As we have seen in the demonstrations, you only need the beginning of a tiny little shift and that can develop into something else, which evolves into something else and slowly, slowly the whole landscape starts to transform. But it takes the facilitator to notice that tiny little shift and to invite the client to attend to it. And then stay with that and find out what happens.

 It looks so easy when you watch it but it takes a lot of skill to be able to pick out from all the things the client is saying and doing, those little moments that have extra significance for the them and to keep attention on it with Clean Language questions. We don’t know what’s going to happen with any question we ask, we just wait and see the response and then calibrate that. If the client gets more engaged or they start having insights or things start shifting we fallow those clues. If not, we’ll leave it and go somewhere else.

Penny: We calibrate the client’s response to their own answers. And that’s what guides our questions – how the client is responding to their own information. So calibration is a big part of our work

James: I know that other modalities do many of the things we’re talking about, to some degree. The difference is, this is all we do. We don’t do anything else. We’ve just done three demonstrations in total lasting over two hours and we made use use of just 8 basic clean questions. And yet things happened that are almost miraculous. And I believe it is because there is nothing else going on. The clients are just there with themselves.

When we first saw David Grove, we said we’ve got to go and be his clients. We can’t use this with people unless we’ve experienced it ourselves. So we signed up to go on a therapy retreat as clients. And this is my metaphor for what it was like working with David Grove: I could go into my deepest darkest valleys, into my hellholes, into the places I feared and he was walking beside me. But he was not going to push me, he was not going to encourage me, he was not going to rescue me, he was not going to suggest anything. But I knew he would be beside me whatever. And I cannot tell you how comforting that was. If I didn’t want to go in there, we didn’t go in there. And when I was ready, we would go as far as I wanted to go. He neither pushed nor held me back. And that was the revelation to me. It was so liberating and so comforting that it allows me to go further and further, into my own shadow side. I learned so much from being a client of his.

Irina: We could also ask you about your way as humans in this profession. If you want to share, what where the biggest challenges for you in this profession, working so many years in coaching and therapy, maybe the biggest seductions of this profession?

Penny: I think whether a therapist uses Clean Language or Psychodynamic or TA (Transactional Analysis) or Gestalt or whatever, there is no substitute for hours and hours in front of hundreds and hundreds of clients – and learning from each one. It gave me a way of looking at clients, so that I began to notice things that are not obvious. And it was a challenge for me to see the patterns. For example, a client comes with a gambling addiction, and they are always late for a session, and they talk their way around it, and then they don’t have money with them. And it took me several years of experience before I could realise they are gambling: Are they going to let me in even if I’m late? Are they going to let me come back even if I don’t pay? You see that they are doing their gambling pattern right in front of me.

So noticing how one behaviour can be an example of a larger pattern and being able work with that. Once you get it, it’s a skill that never leaves you. I think that being able to see what they have come for in more ways than what they say when the session begins. I call it having one foot in “I believe” and one in “I don’t believe”. And learning that was a challenge.

A couple of years ago I felt I needed a challenge as a professional, and James and I took a decision to train to work with sexual offenders through an organisation a colleague of ours in England has started called StopSO, “Stop Sexual offending”. Both sexual offending with adults as well as sexual offending with children. And I knew it would be a stretch but I didn’t realise that after 25 years of working with clients the amount of inner work in myself I needed to do to be able to sit in front of some of the clients given some of the things they had done. I deliberately took a step toward in something that would challenge me and it’s been very rewarding on many levels.

James: For me one of the biggest challenges was to really trust the process, to trust the wisdom in the client system, to hold back my years of expertise, especially when I was sure I knew a really good solution for them or a lovely bit of advice. I am a great one for giving advice and I really had to learn to hold back. I had to learn, time and time again, it really didn’t seem to actually benefit them. Bit by bit by bit I came to accept that and to learn to be comfortable with not knowing. When you work in metaphors you’re often don’t know very much about what on earth is happening in the client’s ‘real’ world. I don’t think we ever do, but we fool ourselves because we ask all these questions about their real life so we think we actually know something about them. For me the challenge was to learn to work with that degree of not knowing with a wider and wider range of clients.

We’ve worked with people with some pretty strange inner worlds. In the early days I didn’t have the flexibility to work with some inner world that seemed so weird to me I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Inside me I’m thinking “how do they live like that! I don’t understand it!” but I found that if still asked Clean Language questions, I could still be useful to the client. I had to learn to live with not knowing what the hell is going on and still model the structure from their point of view and ask questions that are valuable. It took me years to develop that skill and I don’t think it’s finished, but I think I’ve come a long way in the last 20 years,

This has been a huge stretch for me and it had a profound effect not just as a therapist but in how I relate the world. I now don’t believe any of the people who come on television and tell me what is going to happen tomorrow. They don’t know what is going to happen to the stock market, or to an earthquake or to elections.  I no idea and they have no idea! And that is okay – we’ll find out. So that challenge as a therapist ended up giving me an inner peace. It does not mean I do not have plans and goals, sure I do, but chances are none of them will happen, and that’s okay.

Irina: Would you have change your professional choice if you’ve had a chance now? Do you have any regrets that you went into this profession? What is the basic value of this profession to you?

Penny: It’s been 25 years and I am just as intrigued with the next client who walks in as I was with the first. Because every landscape is different and that keeps me interested. It’s funny when I first became is therapist I kept wanting to specialise in something. And I thought of specialising in kids – no; couples – no; not relationships, not families. And I thought: “well we’ll just wait and see what happens”. 

Then we met David Grove and we started writing our book. It was about two years into writing it when I woke up one morning and thought: “Good Lord, I’m specialising, I am specialising in metaphor and symbol and the symbolic domain of the experience!” I’d been doing it all that time and I was so drawn to it that it just felt so natural to me that I wasn’t even aware. I have never regretted it, following this path. It is different to most psychotherapy certainly, and yet the interesting thing is that the British Association for Counselling asked us to write an article on our work for other modalities (Tangled Spaghetti in my Head). 

Could we explain to other modalities the benefits of being able to recognise a metaphor and ask a few Clean Language questions to develop it without having to do full Symbolic Modelling. They got lots of feedback for that article from different types of therapist saying “It’s given us a context to work in”, or “Now when I have a metaphor I can do a gestalt work with that”. They can develop a metaphor and work with it in their own modality, and they said it added a level of richness and a common understanding between them and their client that they haven’t had access to before. So I’m pleased that other therapists in Britain can see that working with clients’ metaphors and symbols can be of huge value to the client, whatever modality they’ve been trained in. So I love that flexibility and I cannot imagine doing anything else.

Alex: Your work is special because you work as a couple. How did you decide to work together?

Penny: When we first started training to be therapists, we’d work with colleagues and friends to get the practice. We realised that in trying to describe to each other afterward what happened in the session you loose so much. So we decided to see them together. So we both were there, and one can take notes. Afterwards we could discuss what happened and what we could have done better. After a while of doing that, when in the session the therapist wasn’t sure what to do next, they would invite the other one to take over.

We discovered that the more we handed it back and forth the more the clients got from the session. When a client wanted to come back, and I’d say, “I can see you on Monday, and James can see you on Wednesday” and they said “How long do I have to wait to see both of you?” We got so much value out of being able to discuss what happened afterwards. It was like having supervision on tap. And being modellers we learned from each other. We looked at each session from so many different prospective using many NLP filters. So everything we did was a context for learning. When we started using David Grove’s approach we found that it was easy to co-facilitate because you are both modelling the same landscape. It became so comfortable working that way that as you will have seen, we can take over from each other seamlessly, even mid question.

Irina and Alex: Thank you.

Alexandr Yankelevich, Penny Tompkins, Irina Karopa, James Lawley, Maria Demidyuk

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