Clean Space

Modeling Human Perception through Emergence
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First published in Anchor Point Vol. 17, No. 8, 2003

“Space speaks.” Edward Hall

David Grove, the originator of Clean Language 1 and the innovator of many processes for working with autogenic (client-generated) metaphor, has done it again. He has created Clean Space, a fascinating new approach that uses emergence to model human perception and facilitate organic change. Steven Johnson notes the importance and ubiquity of emergence:

We have only recently begun to recognize it, yet it exists at every level of our lived experience. It is fast becoming clear that our lives revolve around the powers of emergence. An ant colony behaves with an intelligence no particular ant possesses; a brain is conscious although no particular brain cell is; a city develops districts and neighbourhoods no planner could impose. In each case, complex problems are solved by a profusion of relatively simple elements. Order arrives from the bottom up, not top down. Such systems display emergent behaviour: the movement from low-level rules to higher-level sophistication. (Cover of book)

Symbolic Modelling and Clean Space

Combining David Grove’s work with the latest developments in self-organizing systems theory and cognitive linguistics resulted in Symbolic Modelling, described in our book, Metaphors in Mind. We regard Clean Space as an extension of Symbolic Modelling because, like Clean Language, it facilitates the client to self-model; it requires ‘clean’ interventions; and it works directly with the metaphoric realm.

Our description of Clean Space is derived from observing David Grove facilitating individuals in small groups during 2 or 3 day retreats. Over the last year we have been testing and refining our model, both in our private psychotherapy practice and with executive coaching clients in business. We have also introduced Clean Space to groups. At the NASA Goddard Space Center in Washington DC, Clean Space was used as a creativity process with 30 members of a cross-functional team. And we have used Symbolic Modelling and Clean Space over a four-day period to facilitate 80 members of The Findhorn Foundation spiritual community in Scotland to explore, clarify, plan and implement a joint outcome.2

Below we present a ‘basic’ version of how Clean Space can be applied in many contexts, in addition to psychotherapy. The process aims to facilitate people to experience new perspectives, insights and creativity in 15 to 90 minutes. (The more extensive process facilitates clients to work with multiple ‘worldviews’ or ‘cosmologies’ over several days.)

Universality of Space

Whenever we see something, we see it somewhere; whenever we hear a sound, it’s coming from somewhere; and whenever we touch something, we feel it somewhere.

Likewise, whenever we create an image in our mind, we see it somewhere; whenever we hear a sound internally, we hear it coming from somewhere; and whenever we feel a feeling inside, we feel it somewhere.

Neuroscientists tell us there are no actual images, sounds or feelings in the brain, but subjectively it seems like there are. In other words, our representations are metaphors that exist in a mindspace – a stage in the theatre of our mind where the play of consciousness is enacted.

Metaphors embody and define the intangible and abstract, but this limits and constrains perceptions and actions to those which make sense within the logic of the metaphor. Metaphors are therefore both descriptive and prescriptive. They can be a tool for creativity or a self-imposed prison. Either way, there are some metaphors we simply cannot do without, and space is one of them. Metaphors of space are everywhere:

  • A sense of direction
  • Where is my career going?
  • Moving forward
  • Things are looking up
  • One step at a time
  • Life path
  • Moving up in the world
  • Moving on
  • The way ahead
  • Rise to the top
  • On track
  • A turning point
  • Inflation is levelling out
  • It’s all downhill from here
  • Down in the dumps
  • In the pit of despair
  • We’re stuck
  • I’m going nowhere
  • How do we get out of this mess?
  • Following blindly
  • The roller-coaster of life
  • Over the hill
  • The deadline is approaching
  • Lead astray
  • Going round in circles
  • Put the past behind me

Space is so fundamental to perception that perhaps location should not be regarded as a quality (a submodality) of our sensory systems. Steven Pinker’s view that the metaphor of space is more like the “medium of thought itself” may be more appropriate. He draws this conclusion because:

Location in space is one of the two fundamental metaphors in language, used for thousands of meanings. … Many cognitive scientists (including me) have concluded from their research on language that a handful of concepts about places, paths, motions … underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words and constructions, not only in English but in every other language that has been studied. (pp. 354-357)

As you will see, Clean Space makes full use of the discovery that space is the medium or context for thought itself.

Spatial Sorting

Robert Dilts has made a significant contribution to NLP through the use of ‘spatial sorting’. He has designed a number of processes such as Perceptual Positions, Neuro-Logical Levels, SCORE and Timeline that enable us to ‘sort’ and ‘anchor’ our thoughts and feelings into different physical places. In these processes the practitioner specifies a number of categories and allocates each of them a space. In Perceptual Positions for example, first, second, third and sometimes a fourth position are given a location by the facilitator. The facilitator provides the characteristics associated with these spaces, often with metaphors such as: ‘seeing out of your own eyes’, ‘standing in the other person’s shoes’, ‘a fly-on-the-wall position’. The facilitator guides the client through a sequence of moves from position to position — usually with the liberal use of metaphors to instruct the client to ‘leave that experience there’, ‘step out of that’, etc. In these techniques the location of the space, the form of the perception, and the order of moves are to varying degrees predetermined by the facilitator.

Clean Space is like doing a mixture of Perceptual Positions, Neuro-Logical Levels, etc. without the facilitator defining any of the spaces; or deciding the category of experience allocated to the spaces; or predefining the number of steps. In Clean Space, each position is located by the client and its attributes are defined by the client. The whole process emerges out of the client’s innate ability to, as Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner put it, “conceptually blend” their perception of metaphorical space with their perception of physical space.

A New Kind of Process

The philosophy behind Clean Space draws on the latest developments in self-organizing systems theory. Stephen Wolfram’s mammoth 1200 page A New Kind of Science describes how he used simple programs (cellular automata) as metaphors for physical and biological systems. After 20 years research his conclusions are as simple as his programs, and as profound in their implications as the complex behavior those programs produce:

  1. Very simple rules can produce endlessly complex behavior.
  2. Emergent behavior is not predictable from the rules. The only way to know what happens is to set the program running and observe the outcome. (Life can be considered a program that has been running for three billion years.)
  3. Traditional intuitions about how systems work are counterproductive when modelling complex systems. Therefore a new kind of intuition is required based on the observation and analysis of many examples of complex behavior emerging from simple interactions (we call this ‘bottom-up modelling’).

The basic Clean Space process is remarkably straightforward. There is a starting process, three simple routines which are repeated over and over, and a finishing process. Facilitating Clean Space requires only six questions and four directing statements. [See Figure 1]


FIGURE 1: The Basic Clean Space Process

Clean Space is not like a traditional technique: the steps cannot be predefined since neither you nor the client knows what will happen next. Each move is contingent upon what has just been said or done and on the logic of the client’s information. How many spaces the client identifies, their location, the order in which they are located, the information emerging from each space, and the number of iterations are determined during the process.

The model that recognises that complex-adaptive systems (people) learn through embodied activity, feedback and iteration. The result is an emergent property which was not predictable from the underlying rules or initial conditions. Clean Space is a new way to utilize bottom-up modelling in human psychology.

A New Kind of Facilitation

Because Clean Space is so simple, the process so emergent, and the interventions so clean, it requires a different kind of facilitation. One that supports the client to self-model. That is, to construct a model of the organization of their mindbody perceptions. [See Figure 2]


FIGURE 2: Guidelines for Facilitating Clean Space

1. The aim of the process is:

For the client to model a network of relationships between the spaces, rather than to just develop the information contained within the spaces.

2. The general format for the process is:

– The client starts by placing their desired outcome statement and locating Position 1.

– They are facilitated to use the Locating, Knowing and Returning routines iteratively.

– The client completes the process by returning to Position 1.

3. Make minimal interventions:

– Remember you are facilitating the client to self-model.

– Change occurs as a result of the client’s system self-reorganizing, not from your interventions.

– Allow the client’s process to unfold organically, in its own way and at its own pace.

– Incorporate the client’s exact words into your questions and directions, using as few of your own words as possible.

– Do not comment in any way on what is happening.

– Only ask one question at a time, and leave plenty of response-inviting pauses.

– The more psychoactive the space becomes the more the space will be your co-facilitator, and the less you will need to do.

4. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

Repeatedly return the client to Position 1 and to ‘Sweet Spots’ (spaces where there is a lot of new knowing).

5. Keep the process moving

Only spend a short time in each space. You can use Clean Language to briefly develop the client’s metaphors, but keep the process moving by inviting the client to move to new spaces or to revisit existing spaces.

6. Direct each question to

a particular space or group of spaces and make your gaze and gestures congruent with the location of the client’s spaces.

7. Use Clean Logic:

– Notice the spaces the client refers to implicitly, and invite them to move there.

– If the client seems to be talking from a different space than the one they are occupying, move them to that space.

– Clients indicate a higher-level knowing when they name a group of spaces, a relationship between spaces, or a metaphor for a configuration of spaces (lines, shapes, angles, edges, etc.). Use the client’s word(s) for the grouping of spaces to refer to them as a whole.

8. Finishing

Be sure the client completes the process in Position 1. This is their ‘control position’ from which they can notice any changes that have occurred during the session. It is from here that they leave to continue their lives.

David Grove says, “your aim is for the client to establish a network of relationships between the spaces.” Once this configuration is established, the client’s natural ability to detect patterns and make meaning, coupled with their desire to change, results in the system learning from itself.

When you facilitate Clean Space, your language, gaze and gestures must be clean. That is, all that you say and do needs to be congruent with the client’s mental landscape from their perspective. This means resisting the temptation to add in your own words. The moment you do this the client has to stop modelling them self, and start modelling you. This applies not only to meta-comments, reframes and Ericksonian language, but also to those apparently innocuous additions such as “Tell me what you know from there.” The ‘tell me’ unnecessarily brings the facilitator into the equation and implies a dialogue rather than an exploration by the client of the logic of their own perceptions.

Space Speaks

Most people naturally scale their inner landscape to fit the dimensions of the physical space available. We have successfully facilitated clients in small rooms as well as outside where some of their spaces were 200 metres apart.

The client’s desired outcome can be anything they want. It does not have to fulfil any ‘Well-formedness Conditions’ or SMART criteria. It is important however, that the desired outcome is in their own words, and written (or drawn) by their hand – uncontaminated by any comments, suggestions or leading questions from the facilitator. The client may rewrite their statement at any time during the process. You may also find that the client starts moving to new spaces and returning to existing spaces of their own accord. When this happens you know they are self-modelling.

If the client wants to move to a space outside the room or building, encourage them to do so if that is appropriate. If not, they can find what David Grove calls a ‘proxy space’ which can stand for the one they are unable to occupy physically. We suggest you say something like: ‘Find a space in here that represents or stands for [client’s words for the space outside].’

Once space becomes psychoactive it is imbued with meaning, and the client is likely to discover deep significance in the coincidence of events and the location of objects. These synchronicities should be incorporated into the process. For example, a client who wanted to “discover his next steps” was being taken though the Clean Space process in a public park. He was standing in one of his spaces when he turned to see a workman in a pond pulling a “No Waiting” sign out of the water. As client and facilitator watched in amazement, wondering whether they should believe their eyes, the workman fished around under the water and brought a second “No Waiting” sign to the surface. The client exclaimed, “I might be able to ignore one sign, but not two!” The facilitator simply replied, “Find a space that knows about not being able to ignore two signs.”

The Clean Space process can easily continue across sessions. At the end of a session, invite the client to map the configuration of their spaces. At the start of the following session, the client can replace their desired outcome and position labels as before. When they are in Position 1, they can notice if anything has changed. Whether it has or not, the next phase of self-modelling will have already begun.

Concluding Remarks

With Clean Space the client lays out the content of their mind in an embodied process that enables them to figure out (self-model) how it all fits together. Amazingly, no specific change technique is required. Clean Space relies on the client’s natural ability to utilize emergence. Change happens organically as a result of the client’s system becoming more aware of its own organization. As Milton Erickson said, “Therapy results from an inner resynthesis of the patient’s behavior achieved by the patient himself” (quoted by Ernest Rossi).

Clean Space is a very flexible process that can be adapted in hundreds of ways. It can be used by individuals to solve problems, to stimulate creativity, as a way to prepare for exams (it’s like walking around your own personalized mind map), and as a generative development process. We have also used it with couples, in conflict resolution and negotiation, and in group facilitation.

Clean Space can easily be incorporated into other methodologies. However, we strongly recommend that you first trial it several times in its pure form. Not only will your clients discover some surprising things about themselves, you are likely to notice how little you need to do. Generally, the less you try to make something happen, the more something unexpectedly productive happens.

To appreciate the full implication of Clean Space you will need to experience it from the client’s perspective. Afterwards you will have a better idea of how creating a psychoactive perceptual space and moving around it engages much more than ordinary cognition.

We’ll leave the last word to one of our clients: “I couldn’t see how standing on another piece of carpet could make any difference, and yet when I did, I instantly had
access to new knowledge, and that opened up a completely new perspective.”

© 2003 Penny Tompkins and James Lawley


In 2009 we undertook a major review and updating of the principles, methodology and choices available to a Clean Space facilitator, see our article: Clean Space Revisited.

And in 2012: James wrote a blog, Setting Up Clean Space, which focuses on the artistic (rather than the technology) aspect of Clean Space.

And in 2017: James and Marian Way wrote the first book dedicated to Clean Space and it’s applications, including how to use it with groups, Insights in Space: How to Use Clean Space to Solve Problems, Generate Ideas and Spark Creativity.

James and Alexandru Ioan Manea published a case study in the Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy, vol. 20, no 4 (80) December 2017. Download: Lawley&Manae2017-Clean_Space-A_case_study_v2


1. See also in Anchor Point: Watch Your Language! March 2001; A Case Study May 2001; A Model of Musing, May 2002.

2. The facilitation team at Findhorn also included Steve Callaghan, Phil Swallow, Wendy Sullivan, Caitlin Walker and Marian Way.


Robert Dilts, Changing Belief Systems with NLP, Meta Publications, 1990.

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, Basic Books, 2003.

Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language, Doubleday, 1981.

Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Penguin, 2001.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling The Developing Company Press, 2000.

Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, The Softback Preview, 1998.

Ernest Rossi, The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, Norton, 1993.

Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science, Wolfram Media, 2002.


Thanks to the London Clean Language and the Metaphor Practice and Research Groups for their continued exploration, challenge and development of our model of Clean Space. And to Philip Harland and Phil Swallow for their useful feedback on this article.

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