Learning from a Master

From ‘The Work and Life of David Grove’
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First published in
The Work and Life of David Grove: Clean Language and Emergent Knowledge, Carol Wilson (Matador, 2017, pp. 159-167).

Cover of The Work and Life of David GroveWe first saw David Grove working in 1993 and were bamboozled by what we saw. Fortunately Penny had a “pull” to find out more so we attended two retreats thinking we could figure out what he was doing. Watching David work with others close up and experiencing the amazing effects his questions had on us was fascinating and transformative, but it did not get us much further with our figuring out. So we made a decision to model him as an ‘exemplar of excellence’. That was in 1995. 

Modelling is a process for accelerating learning and acquiring new ways of doing and being in the world. We soon realised that if David’s work could be generalised it could be applied outside of psychotherapy and even more people could benefit from it. We called our description of his work Symbolic Modelling to make clear that we were not aiming to replicate exactly what David did, but rather to create a model whereby others could use the principles and practices of a clean approach in a wide range of contexts.

To say David proved a more complex exemplar than we envisaged would be a gross understatement. It took us five years before we were ready to publish Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling which took into account most of David’s developments up to 1999. But David never stopped innovating. No sooner was our book out than he started working on his latest idea, Clean Space. And that meant we could never stop learning from him.

We last spoke to David when we telephoned him from Texas over Christmas 2007. As always he did his best to persuade us to drop everything and come to a workshop in California where he was experimenting with his latest ideas. As tempted as we were, we had family obligations and told him we would catch up with him on his next trip to the UK. Two weeks later as our plane touched down in London our mobile phone rang with the shocking news of his death.

We could say much about our relationship with David but we would rather honour his legacy by describing what we have learned about how to master the master’s work, and we have chosen six pointers for this:

See the work in context
Get to know the nature of metaphor
Think space, space, space
Separate behaviour from commentary
Examine the relationship between questions and answers
Adopt a clean stance

See the work in context

People who gathered at David’s funeral were invited to bring photographs of him, and to lay them out on a communal table for everyone to look at and tell stories about. We soon realised that his supporters were loyal to the aspect of David’s work that he was developing when they met him. Those who knew him in his ‘Healing the Wounded Child Within’ days brought photos of a younger David, and they described how metaphors took shape inside the body and transformed in unexpected ways. Others described strange forays into perceptual space outside the body and journeys back through time, through the generations to sacred redemptive metaphors. Yet others said the simplicity of Emergent Knowledge and Power of Six superseded his previous work. You would have thought they were talking about different therapists.

We don’t see the span of David’s work as a strict developmental process. Of course his later ideas evolved out of his earlier work, yet the later work is not necessarily ‘better than’ nor ‘more advanced’ – it is simply ‘different to’ and was developed for a different purpose. David’s thinking seemed to take a huge leap every few years while continuing in the same general direction. His pursuit of a new idea often meant that he would temporarily dismiss his previous ideas – to the dismay of those who had spent years trying to master his techniques.

David had several attempts (helped by a number of devoted supporters) at integrating all of his work but his speed of innovation meant none of the proposed frameworks lasted. In the mid-1990s for example, soon after developing his Quadrant Model1 David came up with a “fifth quadrant” which sealed the fate of that framework.

Within the three major epochs of David’s developments – early (Inner Child), middle (exploration of perceptual space and time) and late (Clean Space and Emergent Knowledge) – he devised dozens of practices, and came up with many principles and explanations for each. He continually refined these, each time getting cleaner and simpler. So, when you go to source and study David’s work, it is worth considering the context in which the session took place. When did it happen? Where did it come from? And where was he going with it?

Get to know the nature of metaphor

For ten years David set up camp every six months or so at Georgina Evers’ retreat centre in the Lake District of England. After we had been studying his work for a year we asked him “If there was one thing we should concentrate on until you come back, what would that be?” David’s surprising reply was “Get to know the nature of metaphor”. At the time this seemed like a Zen koan, and perhaps it was, because our contemplation revealed layer upon layer of meaning.

David said he “chased ideas and wrestled with them”. He sought to understand the nature of things, and did that by completely absorbing himself in a topic. A classic example, described elsewhere in this book, is Rob McGavock’s story about David’s experiments with flying machines. He used these contraptions to understand the nature of “thin air”. And his desire to cross the Pacific Ocean on a self-made pontoon (which thank goodness didn’t happen) was driven by his desire to understand the nature of space. And the list goes on.

Understanding the nature of something is more than having a cognitive appreciation of the subject. It is about having an intimate relationship with its essence. This comes from spending time in its company, recognising its multi-faceted nature and being changed by the relationship. We think the subjects at the heart of David Grove’s work over 25 years are: metaphor, perceptual space and time, emergence, and of course, a clean approach. We would add ‘modelling’, whether that is as a learner, a facilitator, or a client who is self-modelling. Although David baulked at the word, he was a master modeller – one of the best we’ve ever seen.

Think space, space, space

David experienced the world very spatially. He shuttled between retreats in New Zealand, UK and USA. Lord knows how many times he circumnavigated the globe. His Maori ancestry imbued him with a sense of space and a physicality of time.

David’s funeral in New Zealand included four days of traditional Maori rituals which were followed by a Christian burial. The rituals included laying his body in his tribal marae with his family and friends sleeping there with him for the last night. A marae is an indigenous building constructed by previous generations that holds the visible and invisible tribal history.

Tribal elders lined up at the door to receive all of us. We removed our shoes and received hongi – the pressing of nose and forehead to each elder for the “exchanging of breath” – and a welcoming greeting in the ancient language. Inside the marae where everyone stood or sat had significance. As the Maori leader pointed up towards different spaces, it was explained to us that these were where the history of previous generations resided. He described the history in such vivid detail it was as if the ancestors appeared before us. This felt strangely familiar to working with symbols in a metaphor landscape. No wonder David’s locating of invisible symbols in an individual’s mind-body space took on such realness and believability.

David said “change takes place in a context” and therefore he “made words physical”. The effect was to  turn metaphor on its head. By definition, a metaphor is not a literal description, but David worked with metaphors as if they were literal. This was an astounding leap in the 1980s when the significance of metaphor – and in particular, the pervasiveness of spatial metaphors – were just beginning to be understood by academics.

Location and spatial relationships were at the heart of all of David did. Whether you are studying his work or applying it in practice you will get better results if you think ‘space, space and space’.

Separate behaviour from commentary

David loved ideas and we often discussed his latest theories long into the night. He would send James off on quests to research topics between visits. During the creation of Clean Space, David was particularly interested in James’ knowledge of network theory (since he had once managed one of the largest pre-Internet computer networks in Europe).

David often commented on what was happening during demonstrations. It took us a year before we figured out we needed to keep what he did and his commentary separate. They were both valuable but whenever they appeared to be incompatible we learned to favour the behaviour. For example, David created lots of theories about trauma, the role of metaphor, the numbers 1 to 6, and these changed over time. Whereas, although he added to his Clean Language question set, the basic questions hardly ever changed.

The transcripts Carol Wilson has provided in this book are a wonderful resource. We maintain that if anyone is going to master David’s clean approach, and facilitate similar results, first and foremost they need the knowledge of what he did and how he did what he did deeply embedded in their neurology. Then taking on his fascinating and seductive explanations is more a matter of choice.

Examine the relationship between questions and answers

David did not get his wonderful results because of any particular question asked at a crucial moment (although this did, of course, help). While a question might seem to have magical qualities to transform, it would not be so impressive without the groundwork laid by all the previous clean questions (and instructions in Clean Space). Fundamental to the work is establishing the physical configuration of the immediate environment; the client’s inner landscape; and the psychoactive relationship between the client, their metaphors and their surroundings. In a Power of Six process for instance, the sixth question rides on the back of the previous five.

David demonstrated over and over that a key part of the facilitator’s role was to preserve the integrity of the client’s process; to keep their metaphors in their attention; to “bless” the arrival of each new symbol, to support it to find it’s place within the network of relationships, and to respond to the client’s idiosyncrasies. Without this level of care and attention, iteration cannot do its job and painstaking groundwork can be lost in an instant. Not for nothing did he joke: “You’re only as good as your next question!”

To appreciate the relationship between client and clean facilitator we studied many transcripts of David’s sessions, modelling each question in the context of both the client’s previous response and their next answer. Moving our three-pane window (response-question-response)2 down the transcript one question at a time revealed the background patterns and logic of David’s process. Once you’ve mastered three panes, you can try five, then seven, etc. It takes time to do, but the richness of understanding and learning gained makes it worthwhile.

Adopt a clean stance

David approached a client’s inner world like nobody we had ever seen before or since. Getting good at using Clean Language, Clean Space and Emergent Knowledge will take you a long way. Becoming proficient at modelling will take you further. But the glue that holds it all together is how you ‘position’ your perspective in relation to the person’s inner life. We call this the ‘clean stance’. Of all the learnings this might be the toughest to grok, to get, to understand its nature. We acquired it through direct modelling but it took many more years to find a way to adequately describe it.

It was a comfort to find that someone else, the Chilean neuroscientists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, were using a similar perspective they called “biological phenomenology”. Ken Wilber described this as “a third-person conceptualization of a first-person view from within the third person or ‘objective’ organism”. Unless you are academically minded this kind of language is not easily accessible.

In short, a clean stance is being able to appreciate the inside perspective of a person or group as they perceive it while simultaneously retaining an outside view of the larger system. We discovered that David could work with people who had suffered the most terrible trauma, in part because he did not take on their feelings in his body, but left them where they resided in the client’s perceptual space. At the same time clients knew he was intimately connected with their personal experience. Eventually, thanks to Raymond Tallis, we discovered that a simple metaphor for describing this unusual perspective existed right under our noses – pointing.3

When you see, read or hear David working, the session will make a lot more sense if you keep in mind that at every moment: ‘What is the client pointing to?’, ‘What is David pointing to?’ and ‘What is the relationship between the two pointings?’.

And finally …

While most people would be happy to make one significant contribution to their field in a lifetime – David  made so many that it is hard to count them all. There was only one David Grove and no one else can ever quite do what he did, but with “due diligence” we can all use his work to enrich our own lives and the lives of others. We sorely miss our teacher, mentor and dear friend.

We hope our brief description of the six pointers will support you to learn from and apply David Grove’s marvellous legacy in your area of expertise, be that therapy, coaching, health, education, business, organisations, research or …


1 Grove, D. & McGavock, R. (1998) Problem Resolution through Metaphor Therapy. cleanlanguage.com/problem-resolution-through-metaphor-therapy/

2 Lawley, J. (2016). Analysing Transcripts: The 3-paned window method. cleanlanguage.com/analysing-transcripts/

3 Lawley, J. (2013). Pointing to a New Modelling Perspective, Acuity, Vol. 4. cleanlanguage.com/pointing-to-a-new-modelling-perspective/

James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, 12 September 2014

See also:
Learning from a Master
Other articles by Carol Wilson on this site:
Six Degrees of Freedom
Emergent Knowledge and Clean Coaching
Metaphor & Symbolic Modelling For Coaches [Link to be added]
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