Proximity and Meaning

A ‘clean’ approach to adjacency
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First presented to The Developing Group 31 July 2004.
Published in The Model, Dec 2006 pp.1-10

Adjacency is about ‘next to-ness’. Texas and Mexico are adjacent. Orange and yellow are adjacent colours in a rainbow. ‘Bittersweet’ is an oxymoron created by adjacency. ‘Synchronicity’ is the meaning we attach to two unexpected events occurring adjacent in time.

Some professions use adjacency with intention: newspaper and magazine editors (when they put two topics or images next to each other to make a point); lawyers (when they cross examine witnesses); ‘spin doctors’ (when they plot how to influence the public mind); politicians (when they kiss a baby or claim a success for their party or themselves); and of course advertising/marketing people (when a Bacardi bottle is placed next to a beautiful sunlit beach inviting you to associate the product with pleasure). The intentional use of adjacency quite successfully creates meaning in people’s minds.

But what about adjacency that occurs naturally in perception? We may not intend for two ideas or symbols to be adjacent in our perceptual space but the fact that they are influences the judgements we make, the emotions we have and the decisions we take. This article examines the significance of adjacency, how we can recognise it, and how we can work with it for ourselves and our clients.

What is adjacency?

The word ‘adjacency’ derives from Latin and originally meant “to lie near to”.

The principal idea is that human beings attribute meaning to the relative location of objects, places or people, and through metaphor the relative ‘location’ of perceptual events, images, words and feelings. Furthermore, people usually attribute a special significance to items next to, beside or neighbouring each other. ‘Adjacency’ is the name we give to this kind of relationship.

When we began to research this topic we became fascinated with the multitude of ways that adjacency affects our lives. Penny for instance believes that a building has added value simply because it is adjacent to a Waitrose grocery store (“the Queen of supermarkets”). We also discovered that there are situations where inviting someone to attend to what lies next to something in their perception can prove invaluable. While in other situations, encouraging separated items to become adjacent or items that are too close together to separate can be equally useful.

Mirror neurons are a hot topic in neuroscience at the moment. Daniel Goleman says “The human brain harbors multiple mirror neuron systems, not just for mimicing actions but also for reading intentions, for extracting the social implications from what someone does, and for reading emotions.” He thinks they have this effect because of their adjacency to motor neurons:

Many mirror neurons operate in the premotor cortex, which governs activities ranging from speaking and movement to simply intending to act. Because they are adjacent to motor neurons, their location means that the areas of the brain that initiate a movement can readily begin to activate even as we watch someone else make that same movement. Our mirror neurons fire as we watch someone else, for example, scratch their head or wipe away a tear, so that a portion of the pattern of neuronal firing in our brain mimics theirs. This maps the identical information from what we are seeing onto our own motor neurons, letting us participate in the other person’s actions as if we were executing that action. [p. 63, our italics]

Later in the article we identify seven ways to make use of the notion of adjacency.

David Grove

In NLP, the submodality of location is rightly given special attention. However, it was not until we studied with David Grove that we realised the full significance of psychological adjacency. At the time, David Grove was developing a process called Clean Space and exploring the relationship between adjacent spaces and how he could make use of the notion of next to-ness. For example, when someone has a goal, the natural tendency for a coach is to want to help them move towards it. But what if instead, the coach facilitates them to explore what is adjacent to where they are? Very often there are valuable resources which are ignored in the client’s quest to move directly toward their goal.

Kinds of adjacency

Prototypically, adjacency has a horizontal motif: a kerb is adjacent to a road, a shore is adjacent to an ocean, and neighbours who live next door are more typically adjacent than neighbours who live above or below each other. In network theory adjacency is a relationship between two network nodes. Adjacent nodes either share a common link or they are connected to a common node with no intervening nodes.

It is important to hold in mind that adjacency is always relational in two ways. First, it involves a minimum of two items that are related by being next to each other. Secondly, those items are considered adjacent in comparison with other items that are not adjacent.

There are a number of distinctions which help to identify different types of adjacency. Let’s start with contiguous – discontiguous:

Contiguous: touching, in contact, abutting, shading one (colour) into another, sharing a common boundary, neighbouring, immediately preceding or following in time.

Discontiguous: separated but still next to each other. To achieve a separation, the boundary or gap will have to be different to that which it separates.

For example, Scotland is adjacent to both England and Ireland but in different ways. Physically, Scotland is contiguous with England and discontiguous with Ireland, the Irish Sea being the separator. However if we consider genetics, the Scots are closer to the Irish than the English. So it all depends on the ‘dimension’ you are measuring.

The point is that adjacency – or the lack of it – is a product of human perception. It is a representation of the way we punctuate our world. Because of this we can endlessly disagree and even end up going to war over an entirely invented boundary between two pieces of adjacent land.

Another way to classify kinds of adjacency is in relation to what we call the fundamental components of perception:

SpaceNext to, besides, near by, neighbouring, around, against, side-by-side, alongside
FormNumbers in a sequence: ‘2’ is adjacent to both ‘1’ and ‘3’
Colours that shade into each other
Relatives next to each other in a family tree
Things next to each other on a scale, e.g. height, temperature
TimeJust before or just after
Events that are simultaneous and ‘next to’
PerceiverParts/Selves can be adjacent in relation to position, character trait,
intention, family relationship, age, etc.
LevelThe level above and the level below
Manager and direct reports
Adjacent stages of development

Everyday language

Linguistically there are lots of little words whose job is to put two or more ideas together; to create adjacency in our mind. As well as the words listed in the above table, consider:

while, since, as, then
so, because
from, to
and, or

‘And’ is a simple way to put two ideas side by side – whether they have a relationship or not. For example, starting a question with ‘and’ instantly creates an adjacency between what the person has just said and what you are about to say.

An article called ‘The Phantom Link’ in Time Magazine (September 29, 2003) highlighted an instance of adjacency:

Two years after the Twin Towers fell, nearly 7 in 19 Americans remain convinced that Saddam Hussein played a part in the September 11 attacks – despite the fact that no evidence has been found of such a role. Critics of the Bush Administration charge that the President and his top advisers waged a subtle campaign of insinuation in trying to make the case for war by frequently mentioning September 11 and Saddam in the same breath – while carefully acknowledging, when pressed, that there was no specific link between the two. [our italics]

Note that the Bush Administration can continue to use adjacency to influence without lying. By repeatedly saying, “We don’t know if Saddam was involved in the September 11 attacks”, in many people’s minds “Saddam” and “September 11th” will still get connected just because those words are close together.

Another example appears in an editorial comment on a quote from the Dalai Lama (in the same issue of Time Magazine):

Terrorism is the worst kind of violence, so we have to check it, we have to take countermeasures.” The Dalai Lama, exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and one of the world’s leading nonviolence advocates, suggesting that terrorism might require a violent response.

If you re-read the Dalai Lama’s statement carefully you will find that despite what the editor says, the Dalai Lama does not say “terrorism might require a violent response.” But the closeness of the words “terrorism”, “violence” and “countermeasures” means we have to pay close attention to what is actually said if we want to counter the effects of adjacency.

Making use of adjacency

“Proximity is neither a distance bridged, nor a distance demanding to be bridged; it is not a preamble to identification and merger. Rather, proximity is content to be just that, proximity, ‘the stage of permanent attention come what may’.” Paul Gordon, Face to Face: Therapy as Ethics, p. 89

Following are seven ways you can use adjacency when facilitating clients. First we describe each method diagrammatically and then with examples. The methods are grouped into three categories that:

  • Attend to an adjacent item
  • Attend to adjacency itself (or the lack of it)
  • Encourage items to separate or become adjacent.

The arrows in the diagrams represent where the facilitator intends to direct the client’s attention within their perceptual space.

Attend to an adjacent item:

1. Broaden attention to what is adjacent to (and outside of) the current perception
2. Obliquely attend to an adjacent (problematic) symbol or space (inside current perception)
3. Encourage a momentum for change

Attend to adjacency itself (or the lack of it):

4. Examine adjacency directly
5. Examine a lack of adjacency

Encourage items to:

6. Separate


7. Become adjacent

Seven Examples

In the following examples some of the questions may appear strange to you. This is a common reaction for four reasons. First, all the examples are taken from therapy or coaching contexts, and are not typical of an ordinary conversation. Second, you are an observer on someone else’s process and it is their perceptions that are being modelled therapeutically, not yours. Third, questions related to adjacency direct attention to unfamiliar places – and that’s their value. Fourth, these questions are mostly facilitating the client to self-model their own perceptions – they are not trying to get the client to change.

All of the questions in the examples are taken from David Grove’s Clean Language. This is a personal preference; you can work with adjacency using other questions or interventions.

Note: C = Client, F = Facilitator. All facilitator-generated words are in bold to distinguish them from the client’s words and to make it easier to see the syntax of each question.

1. Broaden attention to what is adjacent to (and outside of) the current perception

When a client is focussed on one particular aspect in their perceptual space, inviting them to attend to what’s next to, around or nearby that perception can be very revealing. To stay congruent with the logic of the client’s information, you need to notice which of the client’s words entitle you to ask about something adjacent to the current extent of their attention.

C: I think I’m almost at my limit but I’m not sure.

F: And what’s between you and your limit.

C: A line in the sand [indicates the line is to his left].

F: And what’s between you and that line in the sand?

C: That’s the last vestige of solid ground.

F: And what kind of sand is that sand just beyond that line? [Gestures to just past the line]

C: I’ve been there before and I will not go there again [said forcefully].

F: And you’re not sure if you’re almost at your limit.

C: Oh no, I’m sure. Now I know what to do.

The client is “almost at my limit” and this is a delicate situation because it implies they are close to a threshold. Once they go over their limit there may be no way back and the consequences for them and those around them could be enormous. The facilitator’s aim is to slow down any movement across the limit so the client has time to get to know more about that limit and to consider consequences.

Attending to a number of adjacent places enables the client to explore the territory around and just beyond their limit in a safe manner. To do this the facilitator first invites the client to attend to the space adjacent to them and their limit (i.e. between the two). The second attends to the space adjacent to them and the line. The third goes to the adjacent space “just beyond” the line. The facilitator’s fourth statement cum question is different. It asks the client to reconsider if they are still “not sure” or to notice if anything has changed. The result is that the client can now decide from a place of being sure of their limit.

2. Obliquely attend to an adjacent (problematic) symbol or space (inside current perception)

When a client tells you about a topic, symbol or space that is important, but which they would prefer not to explore; or a part or symbol indicates it wants to remain hidden, you can ask about a space or symbol that is adjacent to it. This respects the client’s wishes and obliquely gives their system a chance to discover something about the problematic symbol or place. It is as if the client is invited to look at one thing while keeping the problematic symbol in their peripheral awareness.

Example A

C: It’s an overwhelming pain.

F: And where is the overwhelming of that pain?
F: And what happens just before pain is overwhelming?

Neither of these questions ask directly about the “overwhelming pain” as this may result in the client becoming overwhelmed. Instead the first asks about an adjacent place and the second about an adjacent time. Both stay close to, but do not focus on, the problematic symptom.

Example B

C: It’s an “unspeakable event.” [Quotation marks indicated by finger movements in the air.]

F: And what kind of [nonverbal ” “] could those [nonverbal ” “] be?

Asking about an “unspeakable” event will put the client into a bind: how can they answer a question about something unspeakable? Whereas, asking about the nonverbal quotation marks stays close to but does not ask directly about the event itself.

Example C (during a Clean Space process)

C: I feel a lack of all hope when I am here.

F: Find a space that knows something else about this lack of all hope here.

The facilitator’s expectation is that finding a space that knows “something else about” will give the client an opportunity to get to know more about “lack of all hope” from an adjacent space, rather than from within such a hopeless state.

3. Encourage a momentum for change

When a client’s statement has a forward or backward (towards or away from) motif, rather than asking a question that either follows their habitual direction, or goes in the opposite direction, you can invite them to attend to an adjacent aspect of their perception. This can:

  • Hold the client back from a tendency to charge ahead (or to withdraw) so that they have an opportunity to notice what happens instead.

  • Build response potential and a momentum for change. (David Grove uses the metaphor of an archer. The further an archer pulls back a bow, the further the arrow will fly when it is released.)

The following example uses both approaches. It starts at the 44th client statement in the transcript of the DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation:

C: I’ve just got everybody that I’m fond of now sort of sitting behind me saying ‘Go ahead, we support you. Everything’s fine.’ As if everyone knows it’s a bit [trembling-hands gesture] for me to do it.
F: And so they’re all behind and supporting. So is there anything else that needs to happen?
C: Well, you’re very thorough. I mean I wouldn’t have kept checking. But maybe I’m a bit quick to do things like that, so now I’m just checking that the ground beneath me is solid and clean and clear. And it is.
F: So when the ground is solid and clean and clear, and all the friends are supporting behind, and a future self is saying ‘OK, but be aware’ and a sister and a father are giving their blessing, and a mother is encouraging, and a weigh station is over there, how will you know when you are ready?
C: [Laughs] OK, then I get the final ‘Do it!’ from on high. And that’s when I know everything’s there.
F: The final ‘Do it’ from on high. And is there anything else that needs to happen before you get the final ‘Do it’ from on high?
C: I don’t think so.
F: So can you do it?
C: Yeah. Yeah, now I can.

The example starts with the client describing the fourth condition necessary for her to make a change she wants. This includes the advice “Go ahead. Everything’s fine.” However, her trembling hands suggest a degree of trepidation.

The obvious next question would be, “And can you go ahead?” as this would be aligned with the forward-moving motif of the advice. Instead, the facilitator asks if there is anything else that needs to happen (with the presupposition: before she goes ahead). This holds the client’s attention next to and just before the moment of change, and temporarily forestalls the movement.

The client’s “Well, you’re very thorough” is a meta-comment to the facilitator that although she appreciates the value of “checking” she is ready to move on and may even be a little irritated at being held back. Unperturbed, the facilitator’s next question “How will you know when you are ready?” again holds back the forward momentum.

Even though the client gets the “final ‘Do it!’ from on high”, the facilitator risks the client’s ire by continuing to wait for confirmation that all the necessary conditions are in place for this change to be successful. The “before” in the facilitator’s next question continues to hold the client’s attention adjacent to the point of change. In this way, all conditions are checked, response potential is built, the chances of the client experiencing a false start are reduced, and finally the arrow is ready to be released.

4. Examine adjacency directly

Sections 1-3 above demonstrate directing attention to what is adjacent. Sections 4 and 5 show you how to direct attention to adjacency itself.

C: I feel rejected because she didn’t phone.

To make sense of this statement we need to consider its two parts, “I feel rejected” and “she didn’t phone”. It takes a high-level of awareness to notice that these are just two events (assuming the lack of a phone call is considered an event!) until the word ‘because’ puts them together in a causal relationship. Clean questions that invite the client to attend to the adjacency itself are:

F: And when you feel rejected because she didn’t phone what kind of because is that because?


F: And where does the because, of I feel rejected because she didn’t phone, come from?


F: And how do you know you feel rejected because she didn’t phone?</

5. Examine a lack of adjacency

A client’s proposed solution or desired outcome statement may include a number of words that sit between the client and the action they need to take. In other words, the in-between words preclude adjacency. For example, compare:

C: I want to consider if I am ready to think about whether I am able to give up smoking.


C: I want to give up smoking.

In the first sentence there are 13 words between the client’s “want to” and the action “give up smoking”. In the second they are adjacent. We assume that the linguistic adjacency or separation of the client from an action is itself a metaphor for the their state of mind, and their motivation to change. Rather than going directly to the proposed action which they are patently not ready for, you can invite the client to:

Attend to the in-between words that prevent, constrain or obstruct adjacency:

F: And what kind of consider if you are ready to think about whether you are able to is that?

Or attend to an adjacent moment:

F: And when you consider if you are ready to think about whether you are able to, then what happens?

Both of these questions, in different ways, invite the client to consider the role played by the separating words.

6. Separate adjacent items

Because the methods described in Sections 6 and 7 have the aim of separating or inviting adjacency, they are less clean and more interventionist than the first five methods.

Sometimes symbols or items are too close for their own good. Their adjacency can mean they are enmeshed and unable to individuate, or one is too easily influenced by the other and inappropriately co-dependent.

David Grove recognised the value of separating adjacent words. In the late 1990’s he noticed that when a troublesome adjective has been “thrown against” a noun, the noun continues to remain tainted for as long as they are joined together. A client who says “I’m like a trapped animal” implies that the adjective “trapped” is permanently attached to the noun “animal”. By separating the adjective from the noun, the noun can be released from the constraint of that particular adjective. To do this David Grove devised a number of wonderful combinations of clean questions which invite the client to attend to the noun before the adjective was attached:

C: I’m like a trapped animal.

F: And where was that animalbefore it was trapped?

C: It was roaming free.


C: My insides are gripped by fear.

F: And what kind of insides were those insides before they were gripped by fear?

C: They were calm and relaxed.

Looked at through the lens of adjacency these questions have the effect of separating two adjacent items (in space or time) so that they take on a different meaning and can be worked with individually.

Once you get the idea, there are many ways to invite the client to consider adjacent items separately. For example, we devised an exercise for the London Clean Language Practise Group where participants each wrote a statement that was important for them on a piece of paper. They cut up the paper into individual words. First they reassembled the sentence, then keeping the words in the same order they spread the words out (and then spread them out even more) and noticed the effect. They also experimented with removing words and changing the word order. They soon discovered that the relative location of words mattered. And changing the adjacency of words really mattered.

7. Invite adjacency

David Grove devised a precise set of questions which, when working in metaphor, allow you to invite a resource symbol to be introduced to, or brought adjacent to another symbol. These questions are designed to keep your language as clean as possible and to keep the locus of control firmly with the metaphor. The standard questions which invite a movement of one symbol to another are demonstrated in a classic form in the ‘Jubilee Clip’ transcript in Metaphors in Mind:

F:And not wanting to see a look of failure. And would red, mature heart that’shad lots of experience and deep understanding be interested in going to young boy who’s not wanting to see a look of failure?
C:[Long pause.] Yes.
F:And can that red, mature heart go to that young boy?
F:And as red, mature heart that’s had lots of experience and deep understanding goes to that young boy [pause], what happens next?
C:He feels life again.

The first question tests the interest of one symbol, “red mature heart” to go to another symbol, “young boy”. It does not ask the symbol to move, it just elicits the interest and therefore the symbol’s intention. Having established that there is a desire, the second question finds out if it is possible to enact that desire. These questions give the symbols two opportunities to reject your suggestion.

The client may take a while to respond to your questions, in which case you simply wait and watch. When they answer, pay particular attention to the congruence of their responses. A verbal “yes” and a nonverbal shake of the head may indicate that one symbol does not support the move and you would want to address this before continuing.

When you get the signals that it is OK to say ‘And as X goes to Y …’ it is important to dramatically slow your delivery, and pause before asking ‘… then what happens?’. This allows time for the resource symbol to move and enact its function, and for the client to notice the effects of the change.

Remember, the first requirement for a successful introduction is to identify a resource of sufficient significance to the client so that its movement to another symbol triggers a change. However, as Steve Andreas says, “It is not the intensity or quantity of a resource state, but its particular qualities that make it useful in changing a problematic experience.” For more on this process see Metaphors in Mind, pages 203-208.


We are interested in how people construct their perceptions and how they make meaning from those constructs. The next-to-ness of ideas, symbols, people, places, beliefs and values is a natural way to encode meaning.  It matters when things are adjacent to each other.

Understanding adjacency is valuable for two main reasons.  First, simply recognising how adjacency is used to influence will allow you to be alert to the meaning presupposed by the proximity of what is said. And second, when facilitating others you will enhance your ability to model the logic of their perceptions, and to extend the scope of your questions to include what is often ignored – that which is adjacent.


Steve and Connirae Andreas, ‘Selecting a Resource to Anchor’, Anchor Point, Volume 14, No. 7, July 2000.

Daniel Goleman, ‘Neural WiFi: Emotions are more contagious than you think’, The Psychotherapy Networker, November/December, 2006

Seth Lindstromberg, English Prepositions Explained, John Benjamin, 1998.

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley:

Metaphors in Mind: Transformation Through Symbolic Modelling, The Developing Company Press, 2000.

A Strange and Strong Sensation: Symbolic Modelling – Change with Metaphor (a training DVD) 2003.

Clean Space: Modeling Human Perception through Emergence‘, Anchor Point Vol. 17, No. 8, September 2003.

When Where Matters: How psychoactive space is created and utilised’, The Model Magazine, January 2006.

What is Therapeutic Modelling?‘, ReSource Magazine, Issue 8, April 2006.

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