I want the children to be alive

Working with an impossible desired outcome
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The following annotated transcript comes from our twenty-seventh webinar with a group of Ukrainian psychologists and psychotherapists. The group’s purpose is to learn how to use Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling to support themselves and their clients living through the horrors of war.

The sessions have evolved into a mixture of training, supervision of client cases and live facilitation.

This transcript is illustrative of a number of features:

  • How to work with a client who initially has no desires and then wants something that clearly cannot happen: for the children who were killed during a rocket attack the night before to still be alive.

  • How the session’s flow is congruent with the client’s metaphors: when the metaphor had a back-in-time orientation, our questions pointed back; when the metaphor switched to a forward-in-time orientation, our questions pointed forward.

  • We ask a number of contextually clean questions. These are not part of the ‘basic’ or ‘standard’ set of questions which are close to being universally clean, rather they are ‘clean’ because they stay very close to the logic of the client’s metaphors.

The annotation describes our thinking when deciding which Clean Language question to ask.


C = Client, F = Penny or James.

The client’s responses and our questions were translated by Anna Stativka and Yuliia Basmanova.

The format of the Clean Language questions is highlighted in bold to make it easier to see their structure.

Transcripts of other demonstrations with this group are available at:







I have a problem that I cannot concentrate. I cannot concentrate and I feel like I’m underwater because of – because of the situation in Kyiv today where people have died. 



And when you feel like you’re underwater, what would you like to have happen now? 



I have no desires now.  No wants. I feel like I’m just underwater now and I have no wants. I don’t know what I would like to have happen. I don’t now what I want. I know that I have to work but I am just underwater.


And when I’m thinking now about what I would like to have happen I have an idea. Now it’s like hands in slow motion under water. [hands gesturing] They show me that I would like to stop time, and I would like time to go back, and I would like these children who died today – I want them to stand up and be alive.

An unusual situation. First the client has no desires. Then they want something that cannot happen.

We decide that in this case, going into the problem of being “underwater” doesn’t seem like it will be of much help when the client “has to work”.

Our primary aim is to acknowledge the client’s deep desire for those children to still be alive…



And the slow motion is showing you that you want to stop time, to go back, and for those children to stand up and be alive.  [C: nods] And is there anything else about that slow motion?… therefore, rather than putting attention on the children, we invite the client to attend to the nonverbal symbol of “slow motion”.



I understand mentally that it’s not possible. And, when these slow motions, it’s like I can control time somehow. And if I can control time, I can do what I would like to do – and these children would be alive.We note that the client can distinguish between ‘what is’, and ‘what is not’ possible. It means we can work directly with her subjective experience of being able to “control time” in the knowledge that the client is also aware of physical reality.



And mentally it’s not possible. But in slow motion it feels like you can control time somehow. And what kind of control time is that? 



When I do these slow motions I join this surrounding, this water. I become one with this water. And when I do these slow motions I can control the water and let it flow back. 



And so when you become one with the surrounding water then what happens?We are asking the client to stay attending to the effects of becoming one with the water.



Then water becomes time. Water is time. And I can move this water against the current. [Pause] This is magic thinking. I become a magician who is able to do this. I mean to let water go against the current. It’s magic thinking. 



And it’s magic thinking that you become a magician. And so where could magic thinking like that come from?We continue to acknowledge the client’s subjective experience, and to enquire about the source of her “magic thinking”.



It’s like in childhood. 



And it’s like in childhood. Anything else where magical thinking comes from childhood?It would have been more accurate to say “magic thinking” throughout the session.



Yes. When there’s magic thinking as in childhood, then I can accomplish things that are not possible in reality. For example, I can go with the same motion back in time and prevent people to die.We now have names for the two perceptions: “magic thinking” and “in reality”.



So when that magic thinking is from childhood, how old could the child of that magic thinking be?A contextually clean question since it is reasonable to presuppose a child has an age.



Six years old. 



Six years old. And what could six years old be wearing when they think magical?Another contextually clean question relying on the presupposition that a child is likely to be clothed. The purpose of the last three questions is for the general symbol of a child to take on a specific form …



A dress, socks and shoes 



And when six is wearing that dress and those socks and shoes, where is six when she is thinking magically?… and location.



In the street of [region of Kyiv]. 



And in that [region of Kyiv].  And then what happens when six thinks magically in that street wearing that dress? Then what happens? 



This child is six years old, and she wants time to go back because now I begin to remember that in this moment my mom got sick and this child would like mom not to get sick.

And this six year old child also invented a game. And this game has very structured rules. And we, with other children, played this game with very structured rules. And with these structured rules I controlled everything.

And in the rules of this game, to go forward somewhere, you have to jump twice, to clap three times, and only after you do this you can go further.  And from the point of view of an adult person it looks like compulsive actions that are a kind of attempt to control the situation.




And so that’s the magical thinking of the six years old child, who wants to control time and play a game with very structured rules. And a child that wants a mother to not be sick.  And when a mother is sick, what would that child like – in reality?The client may not yet have a desire “in reality”, but perhaps the child does.



To hug mum. 



To hug mum. What kind of hug is that hug that hugs mum?Start developing the embodied experience of what the child wants.



Very, very strongly. 



A very, very strongly hug mum. Anything else about that strongly of that hug? 



When it’s so strongly I begin to feel her warm, soft skin and her smell and everything. And she smiles.A point of contact between two symbols.



And as you feel her soft skin and her smile, where is that feel? 



I feel it in the parts of my body that touched my mother when I hugged her. 



And where is that part of the body that touched mother? 



My cheek and chest and hands [touches cheek]. 



And in your cheek and chest and hands. And when that part of the body touched mother – cheek and chest and hands – that’s like what?The fifth developing question in a row that holds time still and attends to the physicality of the moment.



I don’t know what this looked like. It’s like a touch.The question didn’t work for the client so we immediately continue with a different class of question.



Like a touch of a very strong hug of a mother. And as you hug your mother with that strong hug, and you feel the touch, then what happens?  



I have a feeling that everything is okay.This is a different feeling to “feel under water” (3C) suggesting a signifiant shift of experience.



And when you have a feeling everything’s okay, where is that feeling?Start developing the form of this new experience.



Here. [Touches chest] 



And whereabouts here? 



[Touches chest] 



And there. And is there anything else about that feeling there? 



It’s like here. It’s like the feeling of time is here. And I have no other metaphors. It’s like, here [Touches chest] everything is ok 



So when that feeling there that ‘everything is okay’, does that feeling have a size or a shape? 



It’s like a ball, and it’s soft and it’s like energy, like sun.The feeling has now developed into a symbol that has attributes (soft, energy, like sun) …



A soft ball with energy like sun. And so when that ball is soft with that energy, like sun, what would that ball like to have happen?… does it have any desires?



It wants to exist. It wants to exist always. By the way, it looks simultaneously like sun, and like a strong steam of water, like a waterfall. And somehow this steam is also is connected with time, and with time that is continuous.“Time is continuous”, suggest a forward direction, compared to the previous water that “flows back” (7C).



So the ball would like to continue and to exist. And the stream, the waterfall, is about continuous time. And is there anything else about that stream that continues? 



Ah! About this, this stream of water. Now I remember a video that now there is some equipment that allows people to fly. And to be, like, supported by this very strong stream of water. And because of this strong stream,  it’s possible to move above the water by some distance.Another shift, this time spatially, from “below” to “above”.



Above the water! And so then what happens?This question continues the metaphor’s direction of forward in time.



It’s a feeling of freedom and flight. Now I am above the water. I remember now that we started when I was beneath the water, under the water, and now I’m above the water.The client realises her perception has has moved in space from “below” to “above”, and that gives her a new feeling, “freedom and flight”



And what difference does it make now you’re above the water?A contextually clean question since being “above water” is surely a different experience to being “below water”.



I am afraid to frighten you Penny and James! [Pause] When I have this stream of water and balance and I can move above the water, I can go to Russian ships and destroy all of them. And also the ships that send us their missiles. And also I can destroy all their planes that also drop their missiles. 



So you can do all that when you’re above the water. 



Yeah, I can be under the water, above the water. I can hide and it’s not important anymore.  Then I will hide. And step by step I will find every Russian fucking military ship and destroy all of them one by one. 



And as you do that, as you destroy those ships, those military ships one by one, what happens in the reality of Kyiv?Inviting the other “reality” (13C) back into the client’s awareness.



In reality, if I will do this in reality in Kyiv, children will not die from their missiles anymore. 



And what does your mental thinking think about that?Continuing “in reality” by inviting the client to take the “mental” perspective. Note: At 5C ehe client said “understand mentally” (she did not say “mental thinking”). It would have been cleaner to have asked ‘And what do you understand mentally about that?’.



My mental part is thinking that it’s a very good idea and I have to make donations for our drones. We have special drones that especially go to the ships – to destroy the ships.  And another idea that maybe our trainers today – that maybe you know the President of the United States, and you can ask him about more weapons for us!Even so, the question still seems to fit for the client.



Absolutely! When he comes around for tea.  So what’s happening for you now in terms of your concentration?Checking the effect of the changes in relation to the original problem (1C).



My thinking now is more clear. And I think that maybe I will be able to to work. Thank you so much. 



Is it okay if we leave it there? 



Yes, thank you. 



Is it ok if we talk to the group about the process? [C: Nods] 



We’ll keep this short so you can have time to practice, so I’ll just say a few words about the process.

Remember what the client said at the very beginning – they had no desires. We can’t ask for a desired outcome from someone who doesn’t have a desire. Instead we have to take our direction from the client’s metaphor. And the client’s first metaphor was to go back in time. So what did we do? We went back in time!

Can you see how this is honouring the logic of the client’s metaphors?

And then the client accessed a resource state during a child’s hug with her mother. And Penny spent several questions facilitating the client to really access the feel of the mother and the hugging, because this seemed so important to the client.

The client was clearly in an emotional state, affected by the deaths that had happened the previous night. So we took it very slowly, just working with her metaphors. And then, at one moment, the client changed time perspective – from going backwards, to going forwards.

The ball in the chest wanted time to “be continuous”, indicating a forward direction of time. So we followed this direction, and kept time moving forward with “And then what happens?”.

A really important piece was the client telling us they were aware of what I would call, ‘two perceptual worlds’: The world of “in reality”, and the world of “magic thinking”. And we accepted that both worlds existed simultaneously. First we worked in the magic-thinking world. And then we asked about the in-reality world.

I hope you can see that mostly we were following the logic of the client’s metaphors. And somehow the client’s own system came to a place where, by the end, they were in a more resourceful state than when they started.


So are there any question about the process before we sign off?


I want to say that besides the fact that I became better off, and feeling better, your work with me during this process was aesthetically pleasing.


In what way?


At the same time I was in those feelings, feeling those states, those questions of yours were always quite a surprise for me, and they opened up things for me. So it was strong – something strong happened.


It’s understandable for me how the process was going, about the questions, their logic, and how we had these two realities, and how after the client received enough resource from her mum she was then able to go to the ‘real’ reality. I have only one question [which] was not understandable for me. Why did you ask the question, ‘what is your mental part thinking about all of that?’?


Because the client had mentioned early on, that her mental thinking knew that it was magical thinking. [The client actually said: “I understand mentally that it’s not possible”.] Think about it. If you’re only in magical thinking, you don’t think it’s magical. In order to recognise it’s magical thinking there must be some other aspect of the person that recognises it’s magical. So there has to be a perceiver of the magic thinking.

Okay, so if there are no more questions I’ll leave the Zoom link open for you to practice.

Go well, and stay safe.

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