Metaphors of Movement & Symbolic Modelling

A discussion of similarities and differences
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Andrew Austin has just published a paper on the web: “It Certainly’t Clean – Getting Down and Dirty with Your Client’s Language and Coping Behaviours”. It is a response to people who have asked him about the similarities and differences between his Metaphors of Movement (MoM) work and Symbolic Modelling/Clean Language (SyM/CL), and especially to those who wonder if his work is a “repackaging” of Symbolic Modeling.

I think it is useful to make the similarities and differences clear since it sheds light on both approaches. As Steve Andreas says of MoM, “It’s not a repackaging of clean language, but there is considerable overlap.” (Steve has a short blog on his use of Metaphors of Movement [Link not longer available] and has previously commented on Clean Language.)

Before the paper was completed Steve, Andy and myself had an e-discussion which was based on a friendly respect for each the others’ work and opinions. It was valuable for me, both in that I learned more about MoM and I got to articulate somethings about SyM that rarely get said. On top of that the whole debate was conducted in a manner that was a delight. The world needs more of this type of co-inspiring discussion.

Below are my comments on:

a. Steve Andreas’ assessment of the similarities and differences

b. Andy Austin’s pre-publication draft paper.

My questions to Andy were partially designed to support his self-modelling of his process. Many of these questions could be asked of any process (including a clean approach).

a. My email conversation with Steve Andreas (5 Feb 2011)

SA: One similarity [between Metaphors of Movement and Symbolic Modelling/Clean Language] is that both seek to discover more and more details about the metaphor, and to keep all that is discovered together as a single experience (in contrast to a sequential exploration).


SA: One significant difference – and I think it is very significant – is that Andy’s process sticks with the same metaphor, while in clean language, often many different metaphors are explored in turn, which I think creates a wandering path, a bit like free association, and may end up far from the original metaphor.

A SyM/CL session can sometimes seem like a wandering path, and this is usually for one of two reasons: (a) the client has a wandering way of being in the world which is reflected in the nature of their metaphors; and/or (b) the facilitator’s inexperience means they do not stay outcome orientated enough. [Link available soon]

David Grove attempted to tie in all the loose ends (i.e. the client’s multiple symbols and metaphors) but not necessarily in one session. For example, the process of people who are suffering the effect of serve trauma can unfold over many sessions. The ‘maturing’ phase of David’s work is meant to elegantly weave the changed landscape into a new whole, and then consolidate it until potential objections, reservations, etc have been incorporated and the new feels familiar to the client. David was a master of bringing back client’s metaphors from several sessions ago, sometimes several years previously.

SA: Another difference is that clean language focuses on the language of the client, while Andy’s is focused on the experience that the language describes. I think that this is a another important difference.

I beg to differ. When people are learning CL they tend to focus on the language and the client’s story. But as they become familiar with SyM they realise that the words are a doorway into the  client’s embodied experience – and that’s where the action is. This progression is often mirrored by clients. They start out deeply attached to their words/story until their in-the-moment experience goes ‘psychoactive‘ (as David Grove called it). True, an experienced facilitator is always using the client’s exact words but they are most interested in calibrating the effect of the client’s words, images, feelings on the client, i.e. what they are experiencing.

SA: Another difference is that Andy’s process focuses primarily on the client’s behavioral coping response to the metaphor; the elaboration of the metaphor is the context for discovering alternate behaviors for the client to try, hopefully finding one that works better.

I agree. And I think this is one of the reasons Andy’s process is effective. However, I do not think this approach is always appropriate for, shall we say, more systemic patterns. Some people’s psyche has been severely brutalised. This may result in the person living their life with extensive ‘dissociative’ and ‘fragmented’ aspects of the self. In these cases, the likelihood that the therapeutic process re- or further traumatises the client is high. One of David’s primary motivations in developing his Metaphor Therapy in the 1980s was precisely as a means to honour the person just as they are, and to respectfully seek out ‘parts’ that had been ignored or devalued by the client, their family and society in general.

SA: Another is that Andy often responds in metaphor, introducing alternatives, something that clean language would consider ‘dirty,’ offering content not provided by the client.

I agree this is a fundamental difference between the two processes. And anyone using Andy’s (or any other content-introducing) method needs to answer the following questions:

  • How do you know what kind of content is and is not appropriate to introduce?
  • How do you know when it is inappropriate to offer content?

I strongly believe that trainers of these approaches need to make explicit the calibration required by the facilitator to notice, in real time, what is and what isn’t working for the client.

I recently saw Frank Farrelly work and he not only failed to be explicit about how he calibrated whether what he introduced was valuable, he deliberately sidestepped the question when asked. Given that I witnessed a client of Frank’s suffer a severe negative reaction both during the session and, they reported, for several weeks after, I consider Frank’s failure to answer this question unethical.

I am not suggesting what Andy is doing is as impositional as Provocative Therapy, but I am saying that when any method relies on introducing content the facilitator should have ways of knowing when that is inappropriate for the particular client, since any method that is influential enough to get beneficial results must also have the capacity to produce harmful results.

In summary I would say Andy uses many of the same principles related to autogenic metaphor as does Symbolic Modelling (and the work of Charles Faulkner) but in a more traditional NLP facilitator-led style. In SyM we are attempting to work with the client in a different way. We are not adverse to problem solving (David Grove certainly wasn’t, especially in the early days) and we aim to apply principles of self-organisation and evolutionary dynamics to personal change and development. It may not always look as straight-forward and it may not always be as quick at relieving symptoms as some other approaches, but as one of our clients said ‘we have bigger fish to fry’. We make an assumption that the current organisation of a person’s system (from gene to societal level) has an evolutionary trajectory. We aim to acknowledge and work with that trajectory, expecting that the wisdom in the system will find its own best path. Usually the meandering means they stumble upon a serendipitous option that neither they nor the facilitator had dreamed of.

b. My comments (of 11 Feb 2011) on Andrew Austin’s draft of his paper.

(The indented paragraphs are quotes from the final version of Andy’s paper.)

Below are my comments on your paper. Please read them within the frame of my appreciation for your work. One thing I feel you, Steve and I share is directness. We think clients are generally more resilient and robust than they are given credit for. We also value our and the client’s time and that means we attempt to zero in on an issue. Before Penny and I met David Grove our company was called ‘To The Point’ because that’s what we attempted to get to. Since then I also recognise the value of meandering and stumbling upon the unexpected, but the general principle remains.

AA: The skill set for trainees of the MoM model is not about staying out of the client’s metaphors in order to avoid contamination; in fact it is almost the exact opposite.  The therapist gets involved, gives direct suggestions and generally meddles with the client’s response set.

I’ve rarely met anyone who had difficulty meddling in other people’s process. However, I’ve met plenty of people who have real difficulty NOT meddling. I believe that until you can consistently NOT do something, you don’t have much choice about whether to do it or not.

Given that meddling is common to many approaches you need to specify your kind of meddling. From what I have seen it is at the level of the structure or logic of the metaphor. Your interventions seem to be ‘adjacent’ to the client’s metaphors. Perhaps you  have discovered ‘the art of mixing metaphors for change.’

AA: As the metaphor is developed, clients will often discover their own solutions, which can be either specific external behaviours, or changes in attitude, etc.  But when they don’t, then it is the therapist’s job, as expert, to give appropriate, accurate and precise guidance.  It is this precision that the MoM training model develops for the therapist.

“But when they don’t, then …” prompts me to ask:

  • How long do you give them to find out if they can come up with their own solutions?
  • How do you know you have given them enough time?
  • How do you know that, if you hadn’t intervened, they wouldn’t have come up with a better solution a few minutes later?

“It is the therapist’s job, as expert, to give appropriate, accurate and precise guidance.” On how someone else should lead their life? When you have only met them 10-30 minutes ago! How would you know your “precise guidance” is “appropriate” for them? How do you know what effect your intervention will have the next day, in a week, in a month, in years?

AA: This model was primarily developed in response to the clinical needs that arose from working with difficult, uncooperative and/or chronic clients.

How do you know the model maps across to cooperative clients, especially ones that are highly ‘other’ and ‘externally’ referenced (i.e. compliant)?

AA: Using the principle that people are really good at knowing what their experience is not, rather than what something is.

Some are. And for some the issue is that they are happy to take suggestions from anywhere. When the next ‘helper’ suggests something else they eagerly adopt that, and so on.

AA: For example, in NLP, a mismatch would be observed with:
Client:  “It has all blown out of all proportion and the problem just looks too big.”
Practitioner: “Where do you get the feeling?”

I think it would be useful to provide several examples of three responses to the same client statement:

  • Traditional NLP
  • MoM
  • SyM/CL

This would allow for an easier comparison. By the way, the ‘standard’ SyM question to this and almost any client’s opening statement of a problem is: “And when [problem], what would you like to have happen?” (See our Problem-Remedy-Outcome model.)

AA: The MoM model concerns itself primarily with metaphors of movement to work with stuck states and get clients moving again.  It is a very practical methodology, often utilising drama, props and re-enactments.

In our training we often ask facilitators “Where’s the action in the client statement?” Often that involves a metaphor of movement. Clients also use drawing, enactment, props, etc. so there’s a similarity in our approaches.

However, we also value metaphors of not movement; being ‘stuck’ for example can have some great qualities. It can mean: ‘not prepared enough’ or ‘not realised what I could lose by moving on’ or ‘it’s too big a risk to take’ or … (a thousand other meanings, we just don’t know).  Also, some people are ‘stuck’ in continuous movement and they can’t settle in one place for any length of time. Having them move would just perpetuate the pattern.

Postscript 28 March 2013: If you haven’t got Andy’s message yet watch this:

Below are comments on the above discussion posted to the previous website hosting this article:

Comment #1 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse, 7 Apr 2011)

I posted this on my Facebook page, and also want to post it here:

“Good to see that folks of different NLP-related schools can have a relevant, creative and respectful discussion… that had become all too rare! With my thanks to Steve, Andy and James.”

Comment #2 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse, 7 Apr 2011)

“Where’s the action in the client statement?” Yes, and when we zoom in to “there”, this will “activate” the client. In this context it may be relevant to remember that in behavior-therapy models “exposure” and “behavioral activation” are the best established factors of change. And SyM faciltates both of these processes from the bottom up, I’d say.

There seems to be an interesting difference between “going where the action is in the metaphor” and asking the client:

– And what do you do with…. X?
– What have you done until now when… X?”
– And how did that work out?.

There’s probably a place for both styles, and it would be helpful to specify which approach would suit best in which circumstances.

Comment #3 (Posted by Joe Fobes, 7 Apr 2011)

You [James] said: “Given that I witnessed a client of Frank’s suffer a severe negative reaction both during the session and, they reported, for several weeks after, I consider Frank’s failure to answer this question unethical. I am not suggesting what Andy is doing is as impositional as Provocative Therapy, but I am saying that when any method relies on introducing content the facilitator should have ways to know when that is inappropriate for the particular client since any method that is influential enough to get beneficial results must also have the capacity to produce harmful results.”

I wonder about that. If I have a methodology which might indeed harm 1 out of 20 clients, yet gets results in a fifth the time of method B (and method B presumable doesn’t harm any clients), well then that might be a tradeoff worth making.

We drive cars even though we might very well crash and die…

Comment #4 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse, 8 Apr 2011)

A bit as a follow-up to Joe’s post: since there’s often no way of knowing beforehand how a client will respond to an “intervention”, I consider it crucial that therapists know how to respect the client’s feedback, (even when this is it times very painful for the therapist, but that’s his pain and for him to take care of) and to proceed from there.

We also have to weigh in the costs of a “too careful” attitude: costs in effectiveness, costs in respect – we may treat our clients as more fragile than they are, and that can be aggravating; prudence can be just as “offensive” as intrusiveness…

Comment #5 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse, 10 Apr 2011)

Some of this is also related to what’s often described under “the role of therapist’s self-disclosure by the therapist”. From what I understand of Clean, this is to be minimalized (of course it is not possible to not-self-disclose). At heart I think this is related to a “one-person” model of psychotherapy which, despite all the mentioning of systemics, seems part of the Clean model “of information” – which in itself is a metaphor that deserves to be questioned…). But when we consider us primarily as human beings-in-relationship, the role of therapist’s self-disclosure can be seen in a different perspective.

A nice short article about this: [Link no longer working]

Comment #6 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse, 11 Apr 2014)

What I would hope is that we get clearer on “when / with whom” to do what. Surely more Provocative approaches have their place, as does Clean. And surely (?), both have their limitations, too…

Comment #7 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse, 11 Apr 2011)

My guess is that, if I dichotomize (and thus oversimplify) a bit, the “provocative” and the “clean” ways of working with metaphors do lead to different outcomes, i.e. clients feeling better, but better in different way… And not only *feeling* better, but *doing* better. And we’d need good research to get clearer on those differences. Such research is IMO anyway necessary in the NLP-field, if it doesn’t want to choke in its own “mastery” with each selling their own product. Which is why this beginning of a discussion between James, Andy and Steve is so important. But IMO, finally we have to move even further than that, and really start to do the research.

Comment #8 (Posted by James Lawley, 11 Apr 2011)

Thanks for all your comments Maarten – much appreciated.

Re. comment #6: I agree about getting clearer on “when / with whom” as long as we remember we are talking about individuals and as Aristotle said: There is no science of the individual. However, the point I was trying to make is that we also need criteria that can be applied in real-time for “when our method is, and particularly, is NOT working”.

I’d also strongly agree that “more Provocative approaches have their place”, and I agree that all approaches have their limitations. I would add: Surely all facilitators have their limitations too. The point is, can we admit it? And can we seek to identify when those limitations are being approached?

Despite several direct questions of Frank and of other leading Provocative practitioners at the event, the idea of limits and limitations was not addressed.

Gregory Bateson noted that anything done to excess will be harmful to the system. How do we know when we are nearing that threshold?

Comment #9 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse, 11 Apr 2011)

Hi James,

I love the Aristotle quote and… would add that there is a science of (developmental/ therapeutic) process-patterns. Which makes it possible to have this knowledge of key-processes somewhere in the background, and the individual person in the foreground. This as a basis for hypotheses about “which key-processes need to be catalysed with this unique person”? This could also serve as a basis for evaluating the ongoing process, similar to what you mention as the need for clearer criteria.

One way of building bridges between “Andy-land” and “James-country” which I find helpful is to ask, when the therapist has chosen to respond in a confrontative/ provocative/ self-disclosing way,: “and when hearing… (the therapist’s statement), that is like what…?” And then to develop the metaphor that comes as a response to that question. If necessary, this can lead to good “repair” after an unintended “rupture”. Can be challenging though, to hear that it was for instance “like a rattlesnake”, as once happened to me. At those precise moments I find the Clean approach very helpful, as it also helps me to (not necessarily consciously) digest my own responses and differentiate between my subjective response and that of the client.

Comment #10 (Posted by Jennifer de Gant, 1 Aug 2012)

Inspired by Metaphors of Movement and Symbolic Modelling: a discussion of differences and similarities by James Lawley, Andrew Austin and Steve Andreas, I would like to add my thoughts to the discussion. I come from a background in NLP in the 80’s in the USA with Steve and Connirae Andreas and in France with Gene Early then after helping to launch NLP in France and enjoying many years as an NLP Trainer, in the late 90’s I met David Grove and then James Lawley and Penny Tompkins who launched Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling in France.

In looking back over the continuum of ‘getting down and dirty’ with a client’s language and behaviour and ‘staying clean and content-free’ so my client can find his own thinking and acting, I have certainly experimented across a wide spectrum, starting with my excitement at the daring of the early NLPers to challenge long therapeutic processes that seemed to stop at insight without caring for behavioural change, to my present awareness of the effectiveness of minimalist interventions through the power of six downloads! I too am interested in the wisdom of Bateson’s remark that anything taken to excess is harmful to the system and so James’s question ‘How do we know when we are nearing this threshold?’

One answer that comes to mind is, it depends on the environment the facilitator has lived and worked in. I have a lot of respect for those who, like Andrew, have worked extensively in the milieu of “difficult, uncooperative and chronic patients”. Like many people I met in the USA in the first Sub-Modalities Course in Boston with Steve and Connirae, who were ex-drug addicts or alcoholics and who were turning back to the environment they knew so well with the power of what NLP had brought them. The power of the belief that anyone could learn to change was a unique gift from America at that time. The environment of struggle and challenge understood and surpassed is the unique field for a facilitator’s success. What is learned deeply and personally can be coded and handed on to others. All of this was enormously inspiring.

My own field was less dramatic a path through family constraints, insecurities about jobs and relationships and yearnings for a spiritual path to a better world. In the work of David Grove, I found the sensitivity and depths of Jungian Therapy matched with much clearer and more direct ways to accompany a troubled mind through the traps of dissociation, fantasy and illusion. Working with David was always working with presence, we were far from ‘staying out to avoid contamination’: the closeness to the client was energetic, electric, all-encompassing and all we used were questions directing their attention to their metaphors, their body movements, their sudden silences. This way they met themselves and those lost and forsaken parts they needed to grow.

So when I think of for whom this ‘clean’ facilitation would be useful, I think of all the people who have been bullied by other people’s interference in their thinking and feeling by abusive or well-meaning parents and educators, all those who have learned to be compliant and to seek advice from anyone rather than face their own processes, those who got lost in dissociative fantasies in lonely childhoods, those who do not even know they have an inner world to balance with all the outer activity that is pushed upon them.

I am thinking of the example of a woman who had always been bullied by her parent’s opinions and who inevitably chose a husband to do the same and who taught her children to bully her too. Maybe she would have responded to a ‘dirty challenge’ from a therapist, we will never know, but she certainly did respond to the perhaps slower and more winding road of only having her own thoughts to deal with in her interaction with her therapist. Feldenkrais has put this rather well I think, the moment when a person is no longer firing off their anxiety driven dependency pattern has an immediate effect on the body-mind which allows the environment to be experienced as present and actual instead of as remembered threat. In my experience this removal of threat is taught by the discipline of clean language.


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