The Two Bicycles

A case study
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[James Lawley: The following is a lovely example of ‘clean approach’ without always using classically Clean Language questions.

Translated from the original French by the author with assistance by Eric von Saenger in La Bouvetière, Normandy, November 2004]

A young woman whom I had previously facilitated using Symbolic Modelling, calls me asking for an appointment. She tells me she has a problem with her 3-year old son: she is pregnant and her son gets angry and hits her almost every day. The appointment is set at my home, a country house with a garden where toys are available, among which are two bicycles: a blue one and a yellow one.

First appointment, June 2004

On the agreed day, the mother and the son arrive. Getting out of the car, the young boy glances at the bicycles.

Facilitator: (to the boy) Where would you like to be, here (near the bicycles), in the office, or in the garden? (pointing to each place with my hand)

Boy: (He looks in the garden’s direction while holding first the blue bicycle, then the yellow one).

F: Would you like to take the bicycle to the garden?

B: (He nods, then tries to push the blue bicycle but he cannot move it forward)

F: Would you like me to carry this bicycle?

B: (He nods)

F: (I take the bicycle down the stairs to the garden and lean it against a low wall while the boy stays standing by the yellow bicycle upstairs; then I go back to the boy) Would you like me to carry this one too? (pointing to the bicycle)

B: (He nods, walks to the top of the stairs and waits for me)

F: (I pick up the second bicycle and follow the boy downstairs until we are both in the garden) Where would you like me to put it?

B: (He points to a part of the low wall next to the blue bicycle)

F: (I lean the bicycle at the place indicated) Is it all right like that?

B: (he looks at both bicycles, then moves the blue one further away against another low wall on the other side of the garden; he looks at the yellow bicycle that remained against the first low wall, then he walks back to it, picks it up and moves it next to the blue one, keeping the same relative positions and orientations against the wall: blue bicycle first, yellow bicycle second)

F: (I have been following him, replicating Íhis gestures: moving, stopping, hesitating)

At this point, the boy goes round the garden several times repeating the same process of moving the blue bicycle to a new place and then going back to the yellow one and moving it behind the blue one. All along, I keep replicating instantaneously his gestures and following him. On the fifth time of running this process, the boy moves the bicycles back against the wall where they had been initially placed. In the meantime, the mother had come and sat nearby.

Mother: (She looks at her son) It’s hard… (she pauses)

F: (to the mother) Would you like me to facilitate you now?

M: Yes (her breathing becomes more relaxed)

F: (to the boy) I am a little with your mum now, is it all right with you?

B: (He nods and stands leaning against his mother’s shoulder)

F: (to the mother) Where would like me to sit?

M: (pointing to a chair) Here is fine.

For about fifteen minutes, I ask basic clean language questions to the mother. However, I keep paying attention to the boy, watching for any sign from him. Then the boy walks a few steps away from his mother, stops and looks at her. As she looks back at him, he goes a few steps farther and notices a red plastic ball.

B: Oh, the ball! (he runs to get it)

F: (to the mother) I am going with him. Is it all right with you?

M: Yes (and she looks at the boy)

I move next to the boy and, for about five minutes, I replicate his gestures and movements: picking the ball, throwing the ball, going to get it again, smiling, laughing. Then, noticing a decrease in the intensity in the boy’s laughs and knowing that the time for the session was nearly up, I stop replicating the gestures. The boy then walks back to the place where he last threw the ball from, with the ball in his hand, and looks at me.

F: (to the boy) It’s time to end this game now.

B: (He squeezes the ball against his belly)

F: (pointing to the ball with the hand, replicating the gesture of pressing) Would you like to take it with you?

B: (He nods)

ThÍe mother stands up and begins to put away the bicycles. The boy immediately goes to the bicycles and put his hand on the one the mother was about to move, so the mother lets go of it.

F: (to the boy) Would you like to have the bicycles stay right here?

B: (he nods)

F: All right.

The boy walks to the car, pressing the ball tightly against him, and waits for his mother at the car’s door. The mother follows him and they leave.

Second appointment, August 2004

Fifteen days after the mother’s second baby was born, she called me to set another appointment, which the boy had requested twice. On the agreed day, the mother, the baby and the boy arrive. The boy has the red ball he had taken last time in his hand.

B: (as he gets out of the car, the boy looks at the place where the bicycles were when he first came) Where are the bicycles?

F: The bicycles are in the garage (pointing to the garage).

B: (he looks in the direction I pointed to)

F: Would you like to go and see them?

B: Yes.

I go into the Ëgarage, followed by the boy. He moves towards and picks up the blue bicycle and looks outside.

F: Would you like to take it out?

B: Yes. (he pushes the blue bicycle for a few steps, stops, looks at the yellow one and then looks at me)

F: Would you like me to take this one out? (pointing to the yellow one)

B: Yes. (smiling)

I take the yellow bicycle and follow him to the top of the stairs above the garden. After asking for his agreement, I take both bicycles downstairs and he follows me. As I hold the bicycles standing in the garden, the boy goes to where he had found the ball and puts it back there, then he goes to the blue bicycle, takes it and leans it against the low wall where he had left it last time. Then, he comes back to me – I haven’t moved –, takes the yellow one and puts it behind the blue one.

From that point, he starts the same process as during the first session, successively checking the same places in the same sequence around the garden, each time putting the blue bicycle in front of the yellow one. However, during this second session, he moves more quickly and with a smile on his face. Like the first session, I am beside him, replicating his gestures and movements. As he moves the blue bicycle back towards the initial place, he stops near me and looks back at the yellow one, hesitating. I extend my arms to hold the blue bicycle for him; he releases it and walks to the yellow one. When he comes back with the yellow bicycle, he lays it down on the grass.

B: It is asleep.

F: (looking at the yellow bicycle) And it is asleep.

B: Yes, it is tired. (then he looks at the blue bicycle I am still holding standing)

F: Ah, it is tired. (I look at the yellow one and then I look at the blue one)

B: (he comes to the blue one, takes it and lays it over the yellow one) It is asleep too.

F: It is asleep too. And when it is asleep too, what happens to …? (pointing to the yellow one)

B: (he looks at yellow one, then at blue one)

F: (I replicate looks) And when it is asleep too, is it fine for …? (pointing to yellow one)

B: Yes.

F: And yes. And when it is asleep too, is it fine for …? (pointing to blue one)

B: (he nods)

F: And … (replicating nodding). And can … (I turn to blue one) be asleep too?

B: Yes. (after a short while, he lifts the blue bicycle up)

It is done with sleeping. (he moves it to the initial place, leans it against the wall and stands by it)

F: And it is done with sleeping.

B: (he leaves the blue bicycle and goes to sit on another part of the wall from where he faces the yellow one; he stares at the bicycle then at me, straight in the eyes) Her name is Eva, she’s my little sister.

A long pause follows. Then the boy looks again at the yellow bicycle, and so do I. He looks up towards the house, stands up and goes to his mother who is inside with the baby. I follow him. The boy leans against his mother who is sitting in an armchair, her baby asleep on her lap. She hugs him and strokes him with her hand. Very long pause with exchanges oËf looks between the mother and I.

Before leaving, the boy picks two round cones from under a cypress tree and waits for his mother at the car door. He sits inside and holds the cones on his lap. Then they leave.


The next day the mother calls me, as I had suggested with a gesture when she was looking at me inquiringly while waving goodbye. She wants to talk about the session. It is important for me to offer her the structure of the session without disclosing its content (i.e. the boy’s words). I explain that the play with bicycles has enabled her son to integrate the presence of his little sister. Responding to this, she tells me about her difficulty in playing with him and remembers that he had often asked her to do so, in particular with two plastic toy motorbikes. She had not been able to dedicate time to this play until then and is feeling ready to somewhat do so now.

A month later, towards end September, the mother and I meet ‘by accident’. She tells me how much her son isS calmer now, that he is asking to go to school and that he is talking about his little sister and calling her by her name…

Arielle von Saenger–Bardouin

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