Ent-sprechen says it all

The quality of a Symbolic Modelling session
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I am currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. He quotes George Steiner, the American literary critic, on Heidegger’s concept of Ent-sprechen:

Ent-sprechen seems to capture a quality of what happens in a Clean Language/Symbolic Modelling (CL/SyM) session. We do not ask clean questions so they are ‘answered’, in the traditional meaning of that word. We ask them to envoke Ent-sprechen:

An Ent-sprechen is not ‘an answer to’, but a ‘response to’, a ‘correspondence with’, a dynamic reciprocity and matching such as occur when gears, both in quick motion, mesh. Thus, our question as to the nature of philosophy calls not for an answer in the sense of a text book definition or formulation … but for an Ent-sprechung, a response, a vital echo, a ‘re-sponsion’ in the liturgical sense of participatory engagement … For Descartes, truth is determined and validated by certainty. Certainty, in turn, is located in the ego. … As knower and user, the ego is predator. For Heidegger, on the contrary, the human person and self-consciousness are not the centre, the accessors of existence. Man is only a privileged listener and respondent to existence. The vital relation to otherness is not, as for Cartesean and positivist rationalism, one of ‘grasping’ and pragmatic use. It is a relation of audition. We are trying ‘to listen to the voice of Being’. It is, or it ought to be, a relation of extreme responsibility, custodianship, answerability to and for. (p.152)

Traditionally, when a person asks a question they ask it because they expect the answer to be of value to them. In CL/SyM, the facilitator doesn’t need, want or expect an answer, but they are looking for the “response to”. This provides content and context for the work to occur. (There are always exceptions; occasionally a little clarification is useful to the facilitator. However, being sure or needing to be certain is the nemesis of a therapeutic modeller.)

If the question is not for the facilitator, surely it’s for the client. Well, no and yes. In many approaches to coaching, counselling and therapy the facilitator asks a question because they expect the client to discover something. While that may happen, it’s not the primary reason for asking a CLQ in a SyM session. Rather, questions provide a context where the client “responds to” and “corresponds with” both the question and, more important, themself. This is the “dynamic reciprocity” of Ent-sprechen.

I am often asked by trainees: How do you know the right question to ask? Of course I don’t know. However, over the years I have learned to notice the signs that a question placed in this or that location of a client’s metaphor landscape has a better than even chance of resulting in a “participatory engagement”. Not engagement with me, but with their own psyche. [1] David Grove called this phenomenon ‘psychoactivity‘.

My aim is that clients “listen to the voice of [their own] Being”. To do this I have to listen to the voice of their Being – their essence, their nature, their pattern of organisation (Maturana and Verala), their patterns that connect (Bateson). To do this I have to “trust in the wisdom in the system”. [2]

This ‘listening’ is not something that can be neatly wrapped up in a linguistic definition. It’s about engaging with the nature of the client as it is being revealed through what is happening. It’s a tall order and it can be a risky business since you have little idea where you are going. But when you are “corresponding with” the client and their landscape – in what David Grove called a ‘trialogue’ – extra- ordinary things happen.

Over time the relationship between client and their landscape is one of “extreme responsibility” because both are “custodians” of the other, both have “answerability to and for” the other. Without this mutuality the therapeutic process would be mechanical, even sterile. With it, the client engages with their landscape as if it were a living being. [3]

The facilitator’s job is to support that responsibility and custodianship. How? First by staying clean. Second by setting aside their own intention and agenda for change. Third by being “an equal information employer” (Grove). Fourth by using the client’s Ent-sprechen to increase the chances of stumbling upon those aspects where responsibility and custodianship are the issue (although rarely is it obvious). Fifth, when that happens, by both attending to where the salience is in the landscape and keeping out of the way.

Surprisingly often a miracle occurs and the client and their landscape start working together, accepting that they are both on the same team.


1. I heard James Hillman say that with all the talk about relationship, safe space, early childhood, attachment, cognition etc., psychotherapy is in danger of losing that which defines the profession – the psyche. 30/4/2005

2. Quote from Metaphors in Mind p. xvii. See pp. 30-33 for more on ‘patterns of organisation’. 3. This is why it makes sense to ask “And what would that [symbol] like to have happen?”.


If I had read the above 20 years ago I doubt I would have understood a word of it. That’s because I had a mindset mostly based on “positive rationalism, one of ‘grasping’ and pragmatic use”. At that time I thought all answers could be found in the foreground of experience. It wasn’t until I recognised a background to experience that I knew there was more to ‘mind’ than representations – there was also non-representational knowledge. Mike Warren quoted me as saying:

Metaphor allows us to bring into representation that knowledge which is non-representational (such as most qualitative differences, relationships, patterns, etc.) Bateson says this is ‘non-local’ knowledge and therefore can’t be represented directly. That doesn’t mean we should ignore it, or as traditional NLP says, denominalise it (turn concepts into sensory language). In so doing we lose some of the nature of the ‘wholeness’ that the nominalisation is attempting to capture. This is where metaphor is so important because it allows nominalisations to be examined and their constituent symbols and processes identified while retaining their wholeness as a metaphor. (‘Perceptual Space’, Rapport, Issue 44, Summer 1999)

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