The role of identifying

The first of four fundamental modelling processes
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Having studied hundreds of Clean Language sessions Penny Tompkins and I have concluded that experienced facilitators make maximal use of just four fundamental modelling processes: Identify, Develop Form, Relate over Time, and Relate across Space:1
IDENTIFYTo establish, recognise or distinguish what something is; to name and give something an identity; to individuate an element or characteristic. At each level a different kind of something can be identified: an attribute, a symbol, a relationship, a pattern, a context.2
DEVELOP FORMTo elaborate what has been identified; to identify enough attributes of something that its nature becomes apparent; to bring a (symbolic) perception to life – like a pre-digital photograph emerging from developing solution.
RELATE across SPACETo identify relationships between separated things, places, perceptions, frames, contexts, etc.
RELATE over TIMETo identify a sequence of events (Before – During – After); to identify temporal relationships such as: cause, effect, contingency, precondition, provenance and expectancy.

These four modelling processes are ‘fundamental’ because they are so widely applicable. They can be used them to model resources, desired outcomes, problematic situations, changes, the structure of excellence, conflict, corporate metaphors, etc. The figure below shows how the four processes relate to each other and how they invite a client to attend to different aspects of their experience:

You may have noticed something interesting about our definitions of the four modelling process above – they all include the word ‘identify’. Now what is significance is that?

I think it suggests that the most basic process in modelling is the identification of things, relationships, events, processes, patterns, etc. ‘To identify (with)’ has four meanings, all of which apply to its use in Symbolic Modelling, to:

  1. determine, establish, ascertain, make out, diagnose, discern, distinguish; verify, confirm; figure out, get a fix on

  2. recognize, single out, pick out, spot, point out, pinpoint, put one’s finger on, put a name, to name, know; discern, distinguish; remember, recall, recollect

  3. associate, link, connect, relate, bracket, couple; mention in the same breath as, put side by side with

  4. empathise with, be in tune with, have a rapport with, feel at one with, sympathise with; be on the same wavelength as, speak the same language as; understand, relate to, feel for.

Thus ‘identify’ is a process that involves all of the above simultaneously. To ‘determine’ or ‘distinguish’ something (meaning 1), you have to ‘recognise’ it or ‘pick it out’ from everything else (meaning 2). Having done so, you are now ‘associated’ with it, you have a ‘relationship’ with it (meaning 3), which requires an ‘understanding’ and some kind of ‘feeling for’ it (meaning 4).

This got me thinking: If the four fundamental modelling processes all involve identifying, is modelling a process that consists almost entirely of identifying? For the most part I concluded it was.  This is partly why modelling is such an unusual skill. The aim is to identify the attributes, components, relationships and patterns of an ability in such a way that the resultant model identifies what is salient to the ability. I know that other things are involved, but mostly these happen after most of the identifying has been completed.

Doesn’t this make the whole notion of modelling so much simpler? The modeller is doing one thing over and over – identifying. Sure you are identifying different aspects of experience and different levels of organisation but it is all a process of identifying. This means a modeller is, in effect, continually asking themselves: What am I seeking to identify now? Or if they are facilitating self-modelling: What am I aiming for the client/exemplar to identify now? In terms of the client/exemplar, you are not seeking to remove, replace, reframe, convince, change, explain, justify or any of the other things that humans spend most of their life doing.

One last thought, when self-modelling is involved, and what is identified is an aspect of the self, then the whole process becomes reciprocal. The identifier, the identified, and the identifying process are all intimately connected. They are separate only for purposes of identification and reflection.3

Combining REPROCess with 4 fundamental modelling processes

Below is an extract from notes provided to The Developing Group, 14 May 2011

When the six categories of REPROCess (Resource, Explanation, Problem, Remedy, Outcome, Change) and the 4 modelling processes are considered together it can be depicted as a grid:

The first thing to note is that in expressing an experience (verbally or nonverbally) the client is in effect identifying it. Our job is to model the client’s model from their perspective which will usually enable us to distinguish which of the six kinds of experience the client is ‘having’. If there’s ambiguity, a single developing question such as ‘And what kind of …?’ or ‘And is there anything else about that …?’ will usually give enough information to settle the matter. Having said that, we always hold our model of the client lightly since (a) we can mis-model, and (b) the client’s interior world can change in an instant: a resource taken to an extreme can become a problem; and the most horrid symbol can transform right before the client’s mind’s eye.

Having identified an experience as a R, E, P, R, O or C our first instinct should be to acknowledge what is happening for the client. Then we always have a choice about what to do next. Resources, desired Outcomes and Changes can usually be developed into embodied metaphors. For Problems and Remedies the PRO model is our guide. Ways to respond to Explanations depend on the kind of explanation it is and its relevance to the client achieving their desired outcome.

It is important to facilitate a client to notice relationships across space and over time within a category. Thus the sequence of events which together make up the before-during-after of a Resource, Problem, Remedy or Outcome can be brought into awareness. Similarly the spatial relationship between symbols within a category can be identified, developed and explored with ‘And when … what happens to …?’ (where both … ’s are in the same category).

Spatial and temporal relationships are a primary way people relate different kinds of experience across categories. Thus a Problem can be considered in the context of a desired Outcome or a Change. Equally the effects of applying a Resource or Remedy, recapitulating a problem, or achieving a desired Outcome can be envisioned in relation to other kinds of experience. You can use the same question ‘And when … what happens to …?’, but this time the … ‘s are in different categories.


1 There is a fifth fundamental modelling process, Relate across Level (up or down). It is a different kind of relationship and there are no basic clean questions which specifically invite a client to shift levels. However, the basic questions can be utilised to have that effect. This is mostly not needed because clients shift level of their own accord, and ‘all’ the facilitator has to do is to notice and utilise the shift. For more on this topic see, Levels All the way up and all the way down

2 Attributes, components, relationships and patterns are four generic levels of organisation, see Metaphors in Mind, pp. 29-35.

3 See our PPRC (Perceiver-Perceived-Relationship-Context) model in ‘Paying attention to what they’re paying attention to‘.

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