Stick or Twist

A facilitator’s most fundamental decision
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One of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental decision a facilitator makes over and over is:

Do I invite the client to stay with what and where they are currently attending, or do I invite them to switch to something or somewhere else?

And it’s not just a facilitator decision. Every client response involves their attention staying where it is or switching elsewhere. Do they stay within the frame of the question or do they attend to something else?

The whole process is repeated in the next iteration: invite the client to stay where they are or attend to something else? … and so on. 

These choices are not necessarily made consciously – by client or facilitator!

Being a card-player, Penny Tompkins likens this process to the “stick or twist” choice in Blackjack (also called Pontoon, 21 or Vingt-et-un). You have to choose either to “stick” with the hand you have or “twist”, by asking the dealer for another card.

Whereas, I think of the words to the song by the punk rock band, The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”.

To be aware of the ‘stay with’ or ‘switch to’ dynamic a facilitator needs to:

    1. Model where the client’s attention currently is (to quote Penny: “We are paying attention to what the client is paying attention to”)
    2. Understand how questions – and that’s every question invites a client’s attention to ‘go’ somewhere
    3. Combine the first two for a purpose.

Clean facilitators often make different choices compared to those trained in other therapeutic and coaching approaches. This is particularly noticeable when their interventions are analysed with a stick-or-twist filter. Likewise, experienced clean facilitators often make different choices compared to novice clean facilitators. For example, those with more experience tend to stay on a vector longer (i.e. they consistently ask more questions heading in one direction). They are also more sensitised to client switches than those less experienced whose questions can zip around a client’s inner landscape like a bee on speed.

Over the years Penny and I have noticed that there is usually a point in a session when clients stumble on something new or significant – often surprising themselves. This is emergence in-the-moment. The inexperienced facilitator may well calibrate that something special is happening for the client. However they commonly take this to mean they need to do something and they twist – they ask a question which inadvertently directs the client’s attention away from where it was.

When we observe these client-facilitator moments, we usually intervene by recommending to the facilitator that they “Stay there, just stay there”. Since the emergent process may only be a few seconds old we think it is vital to support the client to keep their attention on what just happened so they can find out how their system responds – with as little intervention as possible.

At another level, we can regard the whole philosophy of Symbolic Modelling – modelling without an intention for the client to change – as a form of ‘staying with’ with the client’s experience rather than trying to make something happen by ‘shifting’ or ‘reframing’ it.

And, the stay or switch choice doesn’t only apply to facilitators – it is part of many decisions we make in our life, from crossing the road (or not) to changing career (or not).

Here are some related questions for you to consider:

  • What criteria do you use to assess whether your question invites a client to stay or switch?
  • Similarly, how do you assess whether a client’s response represents a shift of attention or not?
  • And what difference does it make whether the client follows your invitation or does something else?
  • Since the choice to stay or go doesn’t only operate at one level, how do you navigate the multiple levels of simultaneous choices?
  • The stick/twist is a binary distinction, but are there degrees or even other categories? (Spoiler alert: I think so.)

Annotated transcript

The following transcript comes from a Symbolic Modelling session Penny and I facilitated over Zoom. It is annotated for our sense of whether the client and/or facilitator sticks or twists.

The right-hand columns mark whether:

The facilitator’s question invites the client’s attention to stay with their current frame or switch to another


The client’s attention stays with the question’s frame, or switches elsewhere.

Note: Much of the repeating back by the facilitators has been left out.



1F And what would you like to have happen? Invitation to switch to a desire frame.
2C I want to be fit, healthy and toned. I want to eat nutritiously, consistently and exercise regularly. Stays within frame with a desired Outcome.
3F And you want to be fit, healthy and toned. And eat nutritiously, consistently and exercise regularly, and is there anything else about that? Stays with client’s desired Outcome as a whole
4C The pattern has been the same since I was a teenager taking drugs and smoking. When I stopped smoking and taking drugs I think the pattern just transformed into the binge eating. Switches to a Problem pattern
5F And what kind of pattern is a pattern since you were a teenager? Stays with Problem pattern as a whole
6C It’s like a gremlin or monster comes out and takes control. The monster is a pet, like a fluffy, black dog which is right behind me. It’s a wolf that looks like a domesticated dog. Stays with Problem frame and moves adjacent into metaphor
7F And is there anything else about that pattern? Stays with Problem pattern as a whole.
8C Once the little monster comes out and once it takes a bite of junk food it just gets even more ravenous and then eats until there is no more and then I just give up. Stays with metaphor for Problem – describing a sequence.
9F And when you just give up, what would you like to have happen? Switches to a desire frame (using the PRO model).
10C It’s gets to the point when I say ‘It’s enough’. I’ve got kids to think of. It needs to be gone, but the bingeing helps me to cope. Stays with Problem sequence Then switches to a  Remedy at a pattern level. And then switches to a lower behavioural level, revealing the Problem is itself a kind of Remedy.

Further reading

If you would like to do some reading around the subject, have a look at these articles:

Vectoring: Systemic Outcome Orientation (2008)Describes clean facilitator choices related to heading in a short-term process direction.
REPROCess: Modelling Attention (2011/2012)Contains a short transcript modelled for how the client’s attention and the facilitator’s questions stay with or invite a switch (see Figure 3 in the article).
Huh? – Shifting Frames (2010)What happens when the client’s attention apparently jumps way of the frame of the question?
Adjacency: Proximity and Meaning (2004/2006)How to utilise the notion of attending to what is ‘next to’.
Joining up the Work of David Grove (2008/2012)Considers when to stay with or shift between different clean approaches.


Penny and I first explored this topic in depth at The Developing Group on 5th & 6th September 2020.

At first glance ‘stick or twist’ may seem similar to the NLP idea of ‘pacing and leading’. However, the differences are significant. According to the NLP Encyclopaedia, “When you are pacing, you are trying to step into another person’s shoes and experience his or her model of the world”. While “Leading involves the attempt to get another person to change, add to or enrich his or her behavior or thinking process” (p. 910). Neither of these intentions apply to a clean approach to stick or twist.

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