Interview with Tompkins & Lawley 1999

How Penny & James facilitate sessions using David Grove’s Clean Language

The following transcript is of the first interview Penny and I gave about how we used Symbolic Modelling in psychotherapy sessions. It took place on 3rd March 1999, a year before we published Metaphors in Mind.

The interviewer, James Harding, was using some Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) modelling frameworks to guide his questions. 

 The interview is interesting because it is a snapshot of our thinking about the way we facilitated sessions using David Grove’s Clean Language back then. And while today we might phrase some of our answers differently and put a different emphasis on some things, the essence of what we were trying to get over has remained relevant over the succeeding 24 years.

NOTE: The transcript has been lightly edited to make it more readable and at 8,000 words it’s a long read!

James Lawley, 22 Dec 2022

JH: When you’re using Symbolic Modelling (SyM), what criterion are you most focussed on satisfying? When you’re working with someone, what’s the main thing you’re trying to achieve?

JL: OK. Well, one of the things is Symbolic Modelling takes place over a period of time. So, what I’m evaluating for, what my criterion is will change depending where we are in the process. So, apart from the traditional stuff like building rapport and all that stuff, when we actually go into Symbolic Modelling, then, at the beginning, the main thing I’m interested in is that the person just gets a chance to express themselves so I can start noticing the metaphors they’re using naturally. I just want to get a sense of their metaphors, of their problem, of their desired outcome, all those sorts of things. That’s the first thing. 

And what I’m looking for then is – what is all this telling me about what the person wants, what their issue is? So initially I’m looking for the big picture type stuff – what’s this all about really?

And then, when we get into the process more, my main criterion is to start developing their metaphors. By asking questions about the metaphors, by bringing the metaphor to life, that person comes to live their metaphor and not just talk about it.

Once that happens, then in the next phase after that, I’m starting to look for patterns, especially patterns that might be binding them, holding them back, preventing them getting what they want. What’s the structure that’s holding everything in place? 

And then, after that, in the next phase – and these phases can take place in one session or over a whole number of sessions – what are the conditions under which that structure will automatically transform? So I’m not looking to change anything. I’m wondering: under what conditions would the system itself evolve?

And then, when I’ve got some sense of those conditions, then, how do those conditions happen? How do we encourage those conditions to manifest in the moment?

And when that’s happened, whenever there is some indication of a change, how do I encourage the change, how do I evolve what’s already happening? “Mature” it is the word we use.

PT: And I would say in addition to that, at the beginning of the process, I have a criterion of staying in “not knowing” and by that I mean just listening to the information rather than trying to understand it.

Also, there is a shift when I move from being in rapport with the client to being in rapport with their information. And when we start moving into Clean Language and using SyM, then I want to be in rapport with the information and not with the person. We share their information. That’s the link between us.

JH: And when you’re developing the metaphor and finding the structure, are there stages that you have, first one stage and then another, or are they interlinked and happening simultaneously?

JL: Well, there are stages in as much as you can’t see the pattern in the structure until you’ve got something to see the patterns in. So you’ve got to actually have some metaphors and some symbols with which to work. However, new symbols keep arising, the metaphor will start to transform and change, so it’s a very systemic process. But there is a general flow through the process in terms of how things evolve. Mostly with, first of all, the information coming out, then, how does it all fit together? and then, how does it move on? In ‘big chunk’ terms, that’s what tends to happen. But you can go round and round 120 loops in that process.

PT: I will say that the most clearly defined places in that process for getting started are the ‘entry points’ into the metaphor landscape. There are a variety of those, but that’s pretty clear-cut, once you’re in you’re in. And the maturing of the information towards the end is fairly clear-cut. The rest of it in the middle is very systemic.

JH: So you have a whole series of criteria …

JL: Yeah, based on where the client’s information is. Not the client! Where the information is. And, you know the fundamental principle in NLP is “pace, pace, pace and lead“, in SyM it’s “pace , pace, pace and follow the logic of the information”. So it’s not a leading process in terms of getting the client to go outside of their information, you work within what they give you.

JH: I was wondering if there where any things that have to happen, when you’re working with Symbolic Modelling, certain things that have to happen first to be able to successfully develop the metaphor, and to get into rapport with the metaphor, and get an idea of the structure? Are there things that enhance this? Is there anything that enables you … ?

JL: Other than hard work … or years of study 365 days a year … ?

PT: (Laughs)

JH: I mean, do you believe that if you do this, then this will enable you to work more successfully?

PT: I just think I’d go back to “respond to what happens in the moment”, rather than to any preconceived idea about what might happen. And to work with what I’m presented with. I think that’s key. Not to try and solve it, not to try and offer any solutions, and to stick with clean questions. Keep those questions clean. That is a key piece. 

JL: I’d echo that and say, in a way it’s like, to use a metaphor, “wiping the slate clean”, so that when you meet the client you start afresh, even if you’ve worked with them before, because we’ve learnt that so much happens between sessions, not to believe that they, or even their metaphors, are where they were before. It will have moved on, most likely. So to start, as Penny says, from scratch, and then build only from what you’re given. 

People tend to use the same metaphors over and over. So if you know someone’s metaphors and they start using them again, that gives you extra information about them. But the metaphors themselves are only a way of getting to the structure. 

I think one of the things that really makes it possible is the belief that the person really has all the resources they need. You know in NLP there’s this belief that we have all the resources to achieve anything we want. If that’s so, why does the NLP therapist tell us what to do? Why do they get us to do all of this stuff? And I’m being deliberately provocative by saying that. But in principle, NLP therapists will make all sorts of suggestions, reframes for example. What is a ‘reframe’ if it isn’t a suggestion on behalf of the therapist? Whereas what we say is, the metaphor is the way that it is because that’s the way the person is at the moment. When it evolves, it evolves in its own way out of its own structure. And it’s inherently got transformative powers within it, if you like, or a transformative capacity, so our job is to do nothing other than support those natural, inherent capacities to flower.

PT: And one other piece would be to read Lakoff and Johnson’s “Metaphors We Live By” to get an expanded opinion, an expanded knowledge of what is a metaphor. And I think recognising subtle metaphors is vital to this process. Most people will recognise “hitting my head against a brick wall” and “a knot in my stomach” as metaphors, few people recognise the “against” is as much a metaphor as the wall and the head, and that those prepositions, those “in”, “up”, “under”, “over” words are vital clues to the structure.

JH: Why is working with SyM important for you, what does it get you?

JL: OK, for me, it’s important to work in this way because it’s so inherently respectful of the person. It so validates who they are and the way they are, regardless of what they have done or anything else. I see from the responses from clients that this is incredibly important to them. And this is a validation that’s deeper than rapport. This is about validating the patterns that people have had for most of their lives. And I think those are, in many ways, part of who the person is. 

Secondly, why it’s important to me to work with this process is I’ve found, through long trial and error that the less I actually try and do, the more happens. And I’ve found this even using traditional NLP approaches as well. What SyM does, especially with the clean language, is it forces me to keep my stuff out of the client’s model. It forces me to keep my metaphors under raps, so that I’m only working with their stuff. And that’s important because it’s so much easier on me. I don’t have to do anything clever. I’m not here to solve anything, I don’t have to make anything happen.

And the third reason why it’s important to me is that when you work with someone at this level of relationship, with this deepness of their patterns, it’s a very sacred process. And clients report, and I experience too, profound experiences which I would call spiritual experiences. 

And if I can guess your next question – why is that important? Because I actually think this is part of my purpose in life. Working this way feels so right. 

PT: All of that! (Laughs) It was funny, because my first thought was: “It’s inherently respectful”, which is what James said, and I concur. This isn’t specifically answering your question, it’s more about the benefit I’ve gained from doing the process. I have learned to listen in a way I never listened in my whole life. My memory has improved, because when you’re listening in this way, you’re retaining information in a different way. So there’s a lot of benefits that are important to me that are a result of having used SyM for so long. 

JL: And it’s so inherently interesting. (PT: Laughs) People’s metaphors are just so interesting because they’re so perfect for the person. When a person connects with one of their own metaphors, it’s literally like they’ve come home – and there’s another metaphor!

JH: (Laughs) They’re everywhere aren’t they! I was thinking about the state when you’re working with SyM. What kind of a state do you need to be in to be able to work with that?

PT: A state of not knowing. I go into a certain state when the process begins, and it is a different way of listening. I can be at a party and people say metaphors all over the place, and I may hear them and if there’s one that’s particularly interesting it will catch my attention. However, that’s not the same as being in a process where I’m acutely listening. I go in to a modelling state, that’s what I would call it. I could go through all the description of that, but it’s based on acute listening and recognising that it’s my model of, for example, where their symbols are in their perceptual space. So in a sense, the client’s perceptual space becomes like a stage on which their perceptual theatre is played. And they are gesturing and marking out where symbols are in their ‘metaphoric landscape’, as David Grove calls it, and so the state that I’m in is one of acutely observing their space, and listening to their description of their space. 

JH: When you’re in this modelling state, do have any particular VAK [visual, auditory, kinaesthetic] stuff, for example internal dialogue?  If I say to you: “At the moment it’s like I’m at a crossroads, and there are lots of different paths” what happens?

JL: When Penny says it’s listening, the way I’ve described it is it’s “whole-body listening”, because, although, of course I’m listening with my ears, I’m also ‘listening’ with my body. You say you’re at a crossroads and there are many paths, and you spatially marked those paths out with your gestures. My body is not doing what you’re doing, but my body is at a crossroads with a number of paths, and I wonder what’s it like to be at a crossroads with a number of paths? My body’s there. Now it may not be your crossroads, because I don’t know what your crossroads is like yet. I am interested in your particular crossroads because it’s pertinent to you, but what I’m really interested in is: What’s the structure of that crossroads? What could crossroads do and what can’t they do? What sort of issue would a person have at a crossroads that they wouldn’t have if they were somewhere else, say in a prison? 

PT: And when you were just giving your example, were you aware that you had one path, and two crossroads off to each side of that path? [Gesturing to mark them out in his perceptual space.]

JH: (Laughs) No.

JL: In terms of my internal dialogue, I’m often repeating what the client said. I’m listening to it, repeating it, and then there’s a higher-level thinking process, a whole-body thinking process that’s going: “What’s the structure of this? What’s it like? What would it be like being at the crossroads?” I’m not asking myself these questions, I’m just actually at a crossroads. And as you give more and more information, we’ll find out how many choices you’ve got. We might ask you questions about where you’ve come from, and all these sorts of things so that we, and you, get more of an embodied, lived, sense of this metaphor.

JH: What would you call your state that you have to be in to be able to do this? Would you call it a modelling state?

JL: Well I certainly would call it a modelling state. And what’s a definition of a modelling state? Judith DeLozier called it a “nerk-nerk” state, and I think it’s a great name. I’m very much aware, not of my emotions, but I’m aware of the way my body is working. You can’t see it, but inside. And I think a lot of it is to do with the proprioceptive-vestibular system. Most people’s metaphors are involve space and movement. They’re about ‘up’, ‘down’, when they’re ‘in balance’ or ‘off-balance’, when they’re ‘leaning towards’, and so on. These are the things that keep our bodies in an appropriate state. These are not emotions, they are not even feelings in the ordinary sense of the word, but your body senses them, and that’s how you know where your hand is even with your eyes closed. 

I think that I’m making use of these senses to put myself in the position of the client but not in their body. My body’s doing it while my mind is listening and modelling the information. As Penny pointed out, by watching your hands and where they’re pointing, and basically being with that, as David Grove says, until a question begs to be asked. Until a symbol begs to be asked a question. So I would just stay with this … and wait to see if you’re going to emphasise something, either your hand emphasising it or your voice, and I’m going to probably ask a question about that. It’s a very open, receptive state.

JH: Is there a certain breathing or posture associated with it? Can you be in the state sitting or standing?

PT: Sitting or standing. I could do it either way. More often it’s sitting.

JL: David Grove does it on the hoof. 

PT: Yeah, walking!

JL: Up hills.

JH: Your vision … do you have peripheral vision or more focussed … ?

PT: My vision is on the information, where it’s marked out. 

JH: So when I was going like this (gestures with hands), you were … 

JL: Imagining there were crossroads there. We positively hallucinate what the client is telling us. That’s a very important thing and if the client says: “There’s a dragon over there”, then we see a dragon over there. 

PT: Being very careful to recognise that’s our dragon, it’s not their dragon. And that’s the important thing that even if you imagine something in their space, you recognise it’s yours and it can never be theirs. And that’s one reason we have the client do a lot of drawing, to confirm or disconfirm our assumptions. 

JL: You asked about peripheral vision, and I find that when I’m fully in the process, I will often look – and this is me, Penny doesn’t do this and I know a lot of other symbolic modellers who don’t do this – but I often will not look directly at the person, but slightly to one side. That’s for a number of reasons. 

One of them is because I can take in the whole of their body. If I’m looking straight at them, their face takes up too much of my attention, but if I’m slightly off I can concentrate on what they’re saying and also I can see all their movements, but without having to consciously understand them. 

The second reason for that is I don’t actually want eye contact with the person. I want the person to have eye contact with their metaphors, not with me. So an important part of this philosophy is that I as a person, my ego, my “I-ness”, I don’t even want it in the room if possible. So that is different to what happens with a lot of traditional NLP therapists who are very present, and the client knows the therapist is there. But often when Penny and I are working, afterwards the person will say: “I didn’t know who was asking the questions”. Now it’s not that Penny and I sound alike. And we’re obviously we’re not even sitting in the same place. But it’s like, when the client gets so into their process, our “I-ness” is not involved in the process, and so they stop relating to us. And that’s great because it means they relate more to their stuff, their metaphors.

JH: What happens just before you go into this state? Is there a trigger?

JL: Well it’s a two-way thing. The more they go into their process, the more I will go into mine. The more I go into it, the more will they. So it’s in relation to the client. You know that wonderful thing when they asked Erickson: “Dr. Erickson, do you go into trance and they follow you or do they go into trance and you follow them?” And Erickson said “Yes”.  It’s a bit like that. What I’m saying is, the depth of my state is in relation to the depth of the person’s involvement in their own metaphor. So one of the great things about SyM is there may be three people in the room, but as Penny said, we’re all using one perceptual space – the client’s. 

JH: When you’re in this state, you’ve got the base of the modelling state as the background state going on, do you move through other emotional states as you’re working with the client, as you’re getting feedback ?

PT: I don’t particularly, but I’m not a highly emotionally kinaesthetic person. 

JL: I do, especially at the times when I think something special is happening. One of the things that this process does is it allows me to be fully with the person who’s in their deepest pain, but not actually to be in the pain with them. So I don’t feel their feelings. However there are moments when something special is happening: the person is connecting with something, they’re having a realisation, or, I would say some healing is taking place. In those moments, that’s when I become aware of something that to me is a spiritual experience, and I have feelings of great gratitude, of awe, of being connected to something much larger.

PT: I would agree, and I think that that tends to come after there’s a structure to work on. So I would say yes, I would have a response to that as well, of some kind. But mostly, you know when you’re developing states, formulating the metaphor, tracking patterns, less so, but certainly, there are moments that are profound.

JL: And what’s fascinating about this, now we’ve worked with so many people over the years, is that we often know the signs of when transformation is beginning to happen more than the client. The client, quite frankly often hasn’t got the foggiest idea of what’s happening. We don’t know the content of what’s happening, but we know the signs of when something’s beginning to happen. 

JH: That’s connected with my next question about the test for these different phases. What do you see, hear, feel, to let you know that you are developing the metaphor, the structure, or being in rapport with the metaphor. For example, what do you see, hear and feel to know “Ahh, the metaphor is developing”?

JL: OK, I can tell you that quite clearly. The space, inside and outside the client, begins to fill up with their stuff. The client is involved with their metaphor, i.e. they are gesticulating, looking, responding to their own symbols and not to me. So that would be my test. When the person is having what we call an ‘embodied experience’ of the metaphor. 

PT: So they may say: “He hits me”, and they’ll grimace and hunch down. So for them, there is symbolically someone there, and they’re about to be hit, and their body reenacts that in the work. 

JL: You know in NLP they have the distinction between ‘associated’ and ‘dissociated’. I think there’s not enough latitude in those distinctions. For a start, people are always associated somewhere, you cannot not be associated unless you’re dead. So the only question is where are you associated?, or what are you associated into?

PT: Or where are you that perceiving from? That’s the question.

JH: Could you give me an example of that: “Where are you perceiving from?”

PT: Well, to take a common example of what would traditionally be called dissociation. A lot of people in hospital for an emergency or a women having a baby will say: “All of a sudden I was up in the corner of the operating theatre looking at my body on the gurney. And I can recap every moment of it”. Well it’s not that they were dissociated from their body on the gurney, it’s they were associated in to a perceiver in the corner of the room. So they were associated, that’s where they were associated from.

JL: And the exact location of perceiving from outside of their body is incredibly important. David Grove said: “I started to get interested in if people were leaving their body, where were they going to?” And he found the most incredible information by finding out where people’s perception went, either as children or as adults. 

PT: And I think we’re getting off the subject of modelling here! (Laughter)

JL: Well, yeah OK. Part of it is that’s one of the ways that when people start enacting their metaphors as if it is happening now, that’s stage one. 

JH: For “developing the metaphor” you’ve talked about the test of embodiment and that, is there a different test for getting and building up the structure? 

JL: Yupp. The test for that is that the metaphors and the pattern starts to repeat. So if we’re modelling the information and a pattern comes out and we continue modelling and we see the same pattern, well then know you’re getting the structure. You keep on modelling until it starts to repeat, and eventually not much new stuff comes out. Or, you get new metaphors, but they have the same structure as the old metaphors. So you start getting to a place where you actually, in inverted commas, “get it all”. 

JH: And you mentioned about the transforming quality. Is that a stage you reach as well? When or how do you notice that?

PT: Well, for example, the perceiver can shift. So all of a sudden someone’s perceiving from a different location. Maybe they were back behind their head, and you can watch them come back in their body, literally! Or a key symbol will change form or move in space; or two symbols will interact in a way that forms a new symbol or both of them are changed. So you can track changes from what’s happening within the landscape. Time may collapse, so that something that happened in a certain sequence no longer happens in that sequence in that way. Symbols can change their form and their function – the attributes of symbols change. No longer is that rock jagged, it’s now smooth and can roll down that hill and rest. 

JL: If I can sum up those three categories, one is: the metaphors themselves start to change, to transform. Secondly, the perceiver of the metaphor, not necessarily the client, but the symbolic perceiver changes location or the way they’re perceiving. And the third involves the non-verbals of the client. Very often they will go quiet, they’ll be very contemplative, they access deep states. I mean there aren’t any rules because some people will cry their heart out, some others will get an incredible “aha”, some people will jump up – there are physiological shifts but they are different for each client. 

JH: Is there anything else you’d like to add about being in rapport with the metaphor as an important stage, how do you tell that? When you’re in rapport with the metaphor, what do you see, hear feel?

PT: I’m listening, I’m tracking where things are in space, I can gesture back to the client’s space, to exactly where each symbol is, I can call that symbol by its name, which means that it’s “hard, sharp, jaggedy rock”, that’s its name, and I know exactly where it is in space …

JL: … and how it relates to other symbols. 

JH: Has it ever happened that when you work with using the metaphor development, what you normally do doesn’t work? 

JL: Has that happened? Only every time! (Laughter) 

JH: So if what you normally do doesn’t work, what do you do then?

PT: What do you mean “doesn’t work”? 

JH: Well, I was just thinking that if you’re in a TOTE [Test, Operate, Test, Exist], and your normal operation would be to do this to get towards your goal, but if what you usually do doesn’t work? 

JL: I know all the questions that you’re asking so I’m ahead of you, in that I can process those questions because I’ve thought about them, in a different way. 

JH whispers to PT: He’s been on the course! (laughter) 

JL: The interesting thing is often “it doesn’t work”. And by “doesn’t work” I mean “not appear to be getting anywhere”.

JH: So, OK, if you’re progressing towards a goal and don’t seem to be going there, what do you do then?

JL: What we do is we apply the process at a higher level of patterning. Because if nothing is happening for the client’s benefit, then what it means is that there is another structural level that’s stopping the natural transformative process, which we haven’t yet discovered, or they haven’t yet discovered, so we go for a higher-level pattern. 

One of the things we say to ourselves is: “What is happening now that is an example of this pattern not changing? How is what’s happening now, part of the pattern?” What can happen is that you can get into the client’s pattern. Say, if the client’s pattern is confusion and you’re modelling the information, you can end up confused. So personally I would get up and move around, get some distance, go back to basics, start re-modelling the stuff but not at the symbol level, I start modelling at the pattern level, and take it up to a higher level. 

JH: What do you ask to be able to get up to the pattern level?

JL: Same questions except you ask them of the patterns and not of the individual symbols. 

PT: And if it’s “not working”, I’m saying to myself, “yippee!”, because there’s probably a double-bind here. And so even though we don’t know what it is, we know there’s another bind operating that means this isn’t working – the client isn’t getting the change they want. Rather than work on one side of the bind or the other, I say to myself: “Oooh, what’s the structure of what’s happening here?” And then just keep asking questions. 

JL: One of the toughest things for people who train in this process and who are already therapists of one method or another, is that because of their training, generally speaking, when they do SyM and the client gets into difficulties they bail out and do another technique that they know about. And we say to them: “That’s a wasted opportunity” because what you’ve got to model is the problem the client is having right now in the room. So we, internally, jump for joy when a client is stuck, when a client can’t get out of a problem.

PT: They might say, ”I’ve just gone round the whole things again. I’ve gone round this circle many times in my life and here we are, back here again.”

JH: And what would you say then?

PT: And I would say: “And you’ve just gone round the circle again, and around the circle again, and again and again in you life. And when you go around the circle again and again … then … what … happens?” Or, “And what kind of circle is that circle?” Or: … there’s lots of things you can do. But I want to bring that whole pattern into their awareness. I’m not going to back away from it, even if it is difficult for them. 

JH: Ahhh, external behaviours. You said sometimes you work standing up or sitting down. Body movements; is there anything about mirroring, matching? What do you actually do sitting there?

PT: I don’t mirror. I’m not in physical rapport. I said in the beginning that it changes from being in rapport with the client to being in rapport with the information. And so when it goes into SyM and I’m in rapport with the information, then I don’t match, I don’t mirror. 

JL: You don’t have to be physical matching to have rapport. If the client gestures to a symbol, we don’t match the gesture, we point to where the symbol is in their space and ask, “And is there anything else about that (pointing to its location)?” Because for me it exists there. The other thing about this is that I can get up and walk around, because I’ve got a rapport with their patterns, I don’t need rapport with their body. 

PT: And as we’re asking clean language questions, we’re using their words, their intonation…

JH: Tempo?

PT: Whatever way they say it. We match these for their words but not for the words that form the question.

JH: Are there any other beliefs, anything else you believe around SyM that is important? And I think we’ve touched on quite a few of them: respect, how easy it is …

JL: Penny and I have a presupposition which we’ve labelled: “The system knows”. Which means: if I’m in a state of not knowing, and the client is probably in a state of confusion, angst, or whatever they’re in, then who or what knows what to do? And the answer is, the system knows. And what we mean by that is, somewhere between the client, ourselves and their information, between all of that, and potentially a higher power – I don’t define ‘the system’ – there is a knowing of the next question to ask, the next place to go. And if I am open to that I’ll notice the indicators, and I’ll just follow – but I don’t have to know why. And that’s a great relief. I don’t need to know what to do next: the information will tell me. So I see the information as a signpost, and I’m following the information, and the direction that the signpost is pointing to. It’s saying: “Over here, over here, this way, this way!”. And so I’ll ask questions about that.

PT: I think there isn’t a wrong question. There are only questions that get you different information. In fact sometimes at a practice group, we try asking what we think is the worst question for the position the client is in, and I and others still had incredible experiences. 

JL: Less is more. The less we do, the more they do. Another belief is: the client cannot not do themselves. They are always manifesting their patterns. So if you miss something, so what?, they’ll just do it again in five minutes time or whenever. How can you be anyone but yourself? So whatever happens, whatever they say, whatever they do, they’re doing themselves. They cannot get out of their own paradigm. 

PT: Especially with this process, and I’m sure it happens with others, but particularly with SyM, they end up doing the pattern in front of you. And when it’s happening in the now and you can work with it in the moment, that’s good therapy. 

JL: OK, I’ve got another belief for you: you cannot predict transformation. It is an inherently indeterminate process, which means you can’t know when it will happen, you can’t know how it will happen, you can’t even know what form it will take. So we don’t try. Our aim is not to have things transform. Our aim is to support the conditions under which transformation spontaneously occurs. Serendipitously occurs. And so that’s been a big shift in the way we work. And often the last person to know that transformation is about to happen is the client. And the therapist is equally in the dark, so let’s not try and make something happen. 

JH: Are there any other abilities or considerations that are important if you want to work successfully with SyM?

PT: Listen, listen, listen. Learn to repeat back precisely what they say and match their intonation. Learn the Clean Language questions exactly and stick to them. Stay with the process. 

JH: Logical Levels! Where and when do you work with SyM? What kind of environments?

PT: Anywhere. Inside, outside, over a cafe table, we’ve worked in a pub, anywhere. 

JL: Once the client or whoever starts to get into their metaphor, everything else disappears. All you need to be is uninterrupted. 

JH: So Penny, who are you if you engage in these beliefs and SyM and values around it?

PT: I’m me (laughs). I’m me. My role and identity is – I actually think of myself more as a Symbolic Modeller than a therapist. Although I often say ‘therapy’ and ‘therapist’ because that’s what most people understand, I’m a modeller, and there’s a big difference. So I would say I am myself, a modeller, a facilitator of a process. 

JL: As I was saying earlier, in this process, my sense of myself during the process to some degree disappears. I’m aware of my body and my feelings and those sorts of things, but ’I’, as an individual hardly exists. Now I don’t merge with the other person, and it’s not like in spiritual healing where I become a channel for a healing energy, it’s not like that, it’s like, and this is my metaphor for me when I’m doing the process: the client is going on their journey and I am following one step behind and I’m looking over their shoulder and attempting to see what they see, and I’m asking them questions about where they’re going. So I’m a fellow-traveller for a little while, that’s my metaphor. 

JH: Thanks. The next level up. [JL leaves to answer phone] I have a question about what is your sense or vision of the larger system when you are yourself, a Symbolic Modeller? What is your sense of the larger system in which you are operating?

PT: We referred to this earlier. When I’m using the process, there are times when something is happening in the moment, that I assume is part of the larger system. So I would say there are times when it seems a miracle takes place – in A Course in Miracles sense that miracles are a fundamental shift in perception. I believe that there is a larger system operating, and I believe that there are moments when we experience that in the room. I also believe that a shift in perception can lead to metaphor changes, and the other way round, and then they develop a different relationship with themselves. And those are sacred moments. And so I believe we are all very connected to a larger system. 

I think that when someone steps out of their existing paradigm, that is a spiritual connection to a larger system. And, one of the things that I love about this process is to be privy to that and to recognise that sometimes it happens in the room. Of course, sometimes those moments happen outside too. I recognise it doesn’t have to happen in front of you for the larger system to be involved. And like James said, you cannot predict when transformation will happen. It’s a blessing when it happens in front of you. I consider it a sort of a gift, but it doesn’t always happen, and that’s fine. 

JH: Yeah, James was saying that it was like like the next question is begging to be asked.

PT: I think, you know, a lot of people want to know that too soon, before they can even say “And what kind of?” rather than “what type of?” or “what sort of?”; ad before they can use the full syntax, which is: “And, (client’s words), and when (client’s words)”, and then the clean language question.”

When you can use the full syntax and you don’t need a little card to remember “And is there anything else about …?”, when you have the questions in the cells in your body, and you learn to listen and repeat back their words precisely. When you have developed these very simple skills, then it’s almost like you can let go of needing to know what question to ask. Your attention can be on what they’re saying rather than, “Oh, gosh, what was it they said?”. That’s when you learn to let go and the next question becomes obvious. 

In the beginning you can’t be learning to do all of that and be thinking about the structure of the information. So we encourage people to get the basics “in the muscle”, that’s what we’re talking about. Then once you’ve got the basics, then you can begin to model some of the structure and then the next question becomes obvious. 

JH:  [To James who has returned] Last question, we’re climbing right up the [Logical Level] ladder, and I’d like to know about your sense or vision of the larger system in which you are pursuing your mission?

JL: I thought you were going to ask as the last question: “And if there was something I should have asked you that I missed out, what would that be? (Laughter)

JH: That’s coming! 

JL: Larger system, OK. I think, that during this process, an opportunity for two people or three people or however many to enter what David Grove calls “a sacred space”, to make this moment in time sacred. And by sacred he means ‘not ordinary’ or ‘out of the ordinary’. I think the process inherently offers that opportunity, and when people take it then for me it is inherently a spiritual process. 

I also think that many people overtly come to us to deal with larger issues: purpose in life, why am I here, and all of those kind of things, and SyM is ideally suited to that. But also, many people, even though they don’t overtly come for that, I think some of there metaphors are about their life’s purpose and where they’re going, the bigger issues anyway, even when they’re dealing with the nitty-gritty. I think the two co-exist, so for me it’s almost inevitably a spiritual experience. And by spiritual I mean it allows us to connect, for me and the client to connect with things that are more important, to get insights related to the whole, rather than parts of the whole. 

I do often feel guided during this process. Now I can easily think of that as I’m guided by the information, or my unconscious, or by a sentient being, or I’m guided by God, or I’m guided by whatever. I don’t really care what I’m guided by but I do follow the guidance. And for me there is a similarity in this process to when I modelled spiritual healers. They didn’t think that they were doing it. Well I don’t think I’m doing it. I think that it happens as a result of the purposeful interaction of two or more human bodies, minds and spirits. 

JH: Is there anything else you’d like to say about how you see SyM in the larger system of NLP?

PT: Well it’s a language model for working with the client’s larger system and higher logical levels. And if David Grove had been practicing when Bandler and Grinder were modelling, I guess they would have sought him out.

JL: I was reading a manual from Robert Dilts about his identity and evolution process, it’s called something like that, and there’s an incredible similarity of some of the stuff that Robert’s doing and some of the stuff that we’re doing here – in terms of working with metaphor. So I think that metaphorical representations are a different domain of subjective experience that Bandler and Grinder didn’t explore. And so you can think of SyM an extension of NLP in that respect. And while lots of people are working with metaphor, the thing that David Grove has that nobody else has is Clean Language. 

And the interesting thing is, the questions that Graham Dawes and David Gordon are developing, and also the questions that Charles Faulkner is developing, have similar characteristics to those of clean questions, but they’re not for working directly with metaphor, they’re questions that work more with the cognitive and conceptual. 

Mostly you’ve been talking to us in a very cognitive conceptual manner, and that’s how we’ve been answering. Sure, metaphors have been coming out, they do all the time, but you haven’t been working with the structure of our subjective symbolic experience with clean language. I don’t know how you could have because, in a way, the metaphor needs that cleanness to make itself known. If you sully it with your own metaphor, it goes “right, I’m out of here”. David Grove says that metaphors, unless they’re respected and dealt with in clean language, have a very short half-life. And clean language encourages them and lengthens that half-life so that they exist for longer and longer. And I think that David Grove will be remembered for Clean Language in a hundred years time. 

JH: I remember I read something about “code congruence”. I think Gregory Bateson said that it’s best to think about something the same way that thing itself “thunk”, so maybe a model should be in the same language or style. So that the model that you develop should be somehow congruent with the thing you’re modelling. I’m not sure how it fits in with all this, but…

JL: That was Caitlin Walker on the phone. She runs the practice group Penny mentioned, and tonight we are going to be modelling how people track information while they’re using Symbolic Modelling. One of the things that’s fascinating to me is, given the person presents you with so much information, how do you keep track of it? So we’re going to be modelling, using SyM to model how people keep track of other peoples’ information. Do you see that answers your question, that’s code congruence in action!

PT: At the practice group we use SyM to model all sorts of things. I once said to the group: “I’d like to discover the structure of forgiveness. What are people’s metaphorical structures of forgiveness?”

JL: So we all modelled how people forgave.

PT: And we started to find commonalities in them as well.

JH: How do you use that? I mean, if I want to model something on a behavioural level, maybe I find out about the VAK, or whatever they do, but if someone has a metaphor, their own special metaphor for this, and it’s their thing and no-one knows what it’s like really, how can someone else model that? 

JL: Well that’s what Clean Language and SyM does. 

JH: I mean if you give a metaphor to someone else, can you share it, isn’t it going to be different?

JL: Yes and no. You see you’ve got to separate out the content of the metaphor from the structure of the metaphor.

PT: And the process.

JL: Would you like an example of that? [JH: Nods] When I was on the David Gordon and Graham Dawes modelling training last year, we were practicing taking on, ”acquiring” as they call it, a model. In this case of someone who was very very good at producing written material. I’m in the middle of writing a book, and I thinking “Great, this guy gets stuff published all over the place, so let’s find out how he does it”. 

So, I got all the information to fill out their template, and it was good stuff. But then I just felt there was something missing, I didn’t really have it. So I said to the guy who’d done the modelling of the author, “In answer to your questions, were there any metaphors that came out which gave you a sense of this person’s, you know, the whole thing?” And he said: “Funny you should say that, because one of the metaphors he said was that this process for him, writing, is like leaving footprints in the snow.” And I said to this guy: “Do you have a sense of what he meant by that? Not what he meant but how it works?” 

He said: “Yeah, I do, because I’d spent a long time modelling him”. So I said: “OK, I want you to stand up with me”. So we stood side by side. And I said: “I want you to be this guy. Put yourself in his shoes. OK? So here you are. There’s snow; so where are the footprints?” So he turned round and said “Oh they’re behind me.” And then he said: “That’s interesting, I’d never realised that. Of course, I can’t have footprints in front of me”. So I said to him: “Is there anything else in front?” He said: “Oh yeah, there are lots of footprints but they’re others, they’re not mine.” Then he says: “One of the things that I think is interesting about this metaphor is of course snow is going to disappear. This guy knew his stuff wouldn’t last forever. It’s got a shelf life. So when the snow melted, so would all his ideas. The other thing is, that when he looked back, one of the things he could see was where he’d come from, the footprints gave him that whole sense of direction, of where he’d come from.” 

I’m standing next to him and I’m enacting every thing he says in my mind and body and getting a sense of the footprints and then I say to him: “So how do I know where I’m going?” And he said: “Well it’s like, it’s not that it’s an open plain, it’s like there are certain gateways you can go through, and I’m aiming toward that gateway (points).” 

In my mind,  I’ve got the snow and the footprints. I’ve got the gateway and I’m really getting a tremendous sense of this author’s inner landscape and how it works. 

And one of the things that we do to acquire someone else’s metaphor is to physicalise the metaphor. So what I did that evening is I took some ordinary A4 sheets of paper, and I put them beside my bed in steps. When the alarm rang in the morning, the first thing I did when I got up was to step on the sheets of paper. Now what does it sound like? It sounds like walking on snow. So the first thing that happens to me is that I’m instantly connected with the footsteps in the snow metaphor. And I went straight into the other room and started writing – in a leaving-footsteps-in-the-snow state. 

Do you see how using metaphor helped me get into a state? And when I took that state on I could sense that it was a very high-level state for this author. He wasn’t just talking about the physical footprints, it had a big, big meaning for this guy – that was my guess. So I physically used his metaphor to get into a state in order to write. I did this consciously every day for about two weeks – of course I didn’t need the paper after a few days – and it really helped me.  So that’s one way I used another person’s metaphor, I literally just took it over. 

I think we are done.

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