The Tree of Wisdom

When a client doesn’t have a clear outcome (VIDEO)
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Watch video of full session
Annotated transcript
Analysis of questions
Client’s post-session feedback


Symbolic Modelling and the Clean Language of David Grove is used in many different areas such as business, education, sports, academia, etc. And it is especially suited for working with personal development topics – particularly those that are tricky, hard to grasp,  intractable or paradoxical (pick your metaphor!).

So when a client comes for coaching or therapy with a topic that is a conundrum, what do you?

One client started by clearly stating her desired outcome: she wanted to be “decisive and assertive” about a decision. But there is a “but”; she was “not getting a clear picture” of the outcome. Instead she says it is like switching on a movie but nothing comes up”. And that was because of a “fog in front of me”.

Naturally, the client wanted the fog “lifted up” so she could see the clear picture, but would that solve the problem? No. When the fog was lifted, the “picture becomes distant … it’s too far out”.  And as a result the client was left “struggling”.

Not only was this a conundrum for the client. It was a conundrum for Penny Tompkins and I as facilitators. In Symbolic Modelling we aim to start by developing the client’s desired outcome. But that wasn’t possible because the fog prevented her seeing it. And enacting her proposed remedy of lifting the fog didn’t help, instead it only revealed another problem. Hmmm. How to approach this?

One of the principles of a clean way of working is that we only work with the information presented. We do not introduce any content, no matter how cleverly it is hidden inside our language, or how helpful we think it would be. Sticking to that principle, Penny’s modelling let her know that even though the client could not see her desired outcome, she had said she had “a sense” that she had one. The beauty of Symbolic Modelling is that from one easily missed word, a whole inner landscape can emerge. With a few clean questions the sense was “liberating” which became a metaphor of “flying”.

This was a key moment. There were a few more twists and turns left to navigate but the client’s new metaphor enabled her to identify a new desired outcome: To “speak my truth” in a “clear voice, directed, unwavering”. It was only seven minutes in to the session but now she was really flying …

Watch the Video

Watch the a 24 minute video to see what happened next:

Clean Coaching Live using Symbolic Modelling Lite 2013

Annotated Transcript

And you can study the whole transcript with our line-by-line comments by downloading: Tree of Wisdom-Annotated Transcript.pdf

Analysis of Questions

In total 48 questions were asked in The Tree of Wisdom session. Of these:

4 questions formed the Set-up and Set-down of Symbolic Modelling Lite (Phases 1 and 6).

44 questions were asked in Phases 2 to 5.

Of these:

42 were ‘basic’ clean questions
2 were ‘specialised’ questions:

1  x What just happened?
1  x Size or shape?

The 42 basic clean questions can be categorised by the ‘four fundamental modelling processes’:


3 x Like to have happen?

Developing Form

10 x What kind of?
8   x Anything else?
8   x Where/Whereabouts?

Relating over Time

7  x  Then what happens?

Relating across Space
6  x  What happens to (about)?

To summarise:

  • 88% of all questions involved just six of the basic Clean Language set.
  • On average, two questions were asked per minute.
  • During the core Phases 2-5, 95% were basic questions and of those 60% were the three basic developing questions.
  • The ‘Like What’ question was not asked since there were no shortage of metaphors.

These figures are representative of the majority of Symbolic Modelling lite sessions. This session is yet another example of how much can be achieved with just six questions. And to reiterate, it’s not the questions, its what happens in the client’s mind-body in response to the flow of the questions – that’s what matters.

Client’s post-session feedback

Two weeks later

As I was watching the video again, it occured to me to check the meaning of “capillary”, as I used the word capillary tube. Here’s what I got and I was dumbfounded: “Capillary attraction, or capillarity, is the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of, and in opposition to external forces like gravity”

Gives me goosebumps especially about the concept of flow and in opposition to external forces like gravity… Both concepts, flow and gravity, have been central themes for me in the past couple of years. I’ve been exploring (or trying to discover) my gravity and at the same time be in flow… I think there’s so much more to this than I consciously realised…”

11 months later

I watched the video again… I still have new insights after watching it. In hindsight I realised it was a different model for decision-making, which I’ve applied in other contexts since.

As I was watching it, almost a year since, it almost felt prophetic. I realised, well maybe because if it changes something as fundamental as decision-making, then it would have that ‘prophetic’ effect… it creates a domino effect of decisions and, of course, pathways.

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