Watch Your Language!

Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling
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Published in Anchor Point Vol. 15, No. 3, March 2001

Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same, and even today words retain much of their magical power.
Sigmund Freud

In their first book, The Structure of Magic [1], Richard Bandler and John Grinder probed the source of the “magic” described by Freud. They explained that when people use language, they are creating a model or representation of their experience. That experience, in turn, is based on their perceptions of the world. Completing the cycle, those perceptions are shaped and limited by the model.

If a person says, “Life is just a rat-race with one hurdle after another,” that person is giving the listener a peek into his internal mental landscape. It would never occur to him to perceive events in life as “smooth sailing” or “a piece of cake” because those are not consistent with the hurdle-filled race course/track that makes up his model of life. He expects hurdles, so his perceptions are tuned to notice more hurdles. It’s the old “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” syndrome.

You may have a vivid and possibly humorous picture of his rats racing through life, jumping one hurdle after another. But as all good NLPers know, your map is not his territory. While getting the rats to quit racing or removing the hurdles may seem a logical way to change his experience from your point of view, there is no guarantee that it will work for him.

NLP’s therapeutic use of language in the Meta and Milton Models works admirably with the sensory and cognitive domains of experience. There is a third domain – metaphors – and now, a third linguistic model that can be used to explore the metaphoric landscapes that people describe as they share their mental experience. In the early 1980s, New Zealand-born therapist David Grove studied transcripts of renowned therapists such as Virginia Satir and Carl Rogers. Grove realized that these therapists continually shifted their clients away from their original frames of reference – away from the metaphors in which the clients’ symptoms were encoded. By subtly rewording what the client had said, the therapists introduced their own maps of the world.

For example, in response to a client’s “I’m stuck with no way out,” a therapist might say, “What would happen if you could find a way out?” This question presupposes that “find a way out” is what the client needs to do. The presupposition comes from the therapist’s map rather than the client’s. Grove assumed that since “stuck” is a part of the person’s metaphor, there must be valuable information in the stuckness. He developed a number of very simple questions that honored and preserved the client’s experience. The first five basic questions are designed to help clients add detail and dimension to their perceptions.

And is there anything else about [client’s words]?

And what kind of [client’s words] is that [client’s words]?

And that’s [client’s words] like what?

And where is [client’s words]?

And whereabouts [client’s words]?

Notice that the questions employ just a couple of metaphors that are common in everyone’s “map” – anything else (content free but presupposes that there may be something more to be discovered); kind of (category); like (comparison); and where/whereabouts (location). Because the questions contain minimal presuppositions, they are called “Clean Language” or “Clean Questions.”

London-based psychotherapists James Lawley and Penny Tompkins have studied Grove’s techniques for a number of years. In their recently published book entitled Metaphors In Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling [2] (see my review), they provide a detailed explanation of the syntax of the questions and how they are used. The following is a simplified version.

In the case of the “stuck” client, here’s what happens when Clean Questions are used with three different people who are “stuck with no way out.”

Therapist: And what kind of “stuck with no way out” is that “stuck with no way out”?

Client 1: My whole body feels as if it’s sinking into the ground.
Client 2: I can’t see the way forward. It’s all foggy.
Client 3: Every door that was opened to me is closed. [3]

Notice that the meanings the three clients assign to “stuck” are very different. They are still metaphoric, but may not correspond to the therapist’s meaning of “stuck.” How many would think to ask about “fog” or “doors” when a client says they are “stuck?”

The functions of the Clean Questions are threefold:

  • First, they acknowledge a client’s experience just as the client describes it with no “contamination” from the therapist’s map.
  • Second, they direct the client toward some aspect of his or her perception or experience.
  • Third, they send the client on a search for self-knowledge.

It is difficult to discuss Clean Questions without considering what they accomplish. Clean Questions are a tool that therapists use to help clients explore the symbols and metaphors that make up their mental landscapes. Metaphors are much more than “interesting” ways of describing perceptions. They are the “stuff” out of which mental landscapes are formed. They are very different from perceptions or cognitive descriptions. For example, a client might say, “I see red.” The therapist may assume that this statement means the same thing as “I feel angry.” In fact, the “red” may be a critical component of the person’s experience. Unless the client addresses that redness, change may be difficult, or at best, temporary.

Using the method of Clean Questions, Lawley and Tompkins have developed a therapeutic model that facilitates clients in self -modelling or exploring their own metaphor landscape. They call this Symbolic Modelling. The model presupposes that clients have access to the resources needed to change. The therapist’s role is to assist clients in developing familiarity with their mental symbols – in gathering information about their symbolic worlds. When sufficient information has emerged – when larger patterns or relationships are perceived – change often occurs spontaneously.

You may be wondering how Clean Questions help the therapist to understand the client’s experience enough to help the client change? They don’t! As Tompkins and Lawley point out, this is a new way of thinking about therapy. It is information-centered rather than client- or therapist-centered. The therapist must still have rapport with the client – must still use sensory acuity and pacing to make the questions most effective. But the therapist does not need to understand the meaning of, or the reason for, the client’s metaphor. The therapist simply works with what is. It is the client who must become aware of how his symbols interact to shape his world – both inside and out.

In Metaphors in Mind , Lawley and Tompkins do a much better job of explaining Clean Questions and Symbolic Modeling than I could, so I’d simply like to share my own experience of the process. I have been told by other NLPers that I am a polarity responder. Of course, I disagree! However, accepting that there might be a modicum of truth in their perception, here’s what a Clean Question does for a polarity responder.

I am a firm believer in the NLP presupposition that communication is the responsibility of the one doing the communicating. When I make a statement and someone “repeats” his own version of what I’ve said, I feel compelled to negotiate until his statement corresponds with what I “really” said. I think of it as agreement by successive approximation! Consider then what happens when someone repeats back exactly what I said. Because nothing was changed, I am under no obligation to find another way to say it. When their repetition is coupled with a question, I immediately go in search of the answer rather than “explaining” myself. Here’s an example.

Me: Something is holding me back.

Therapist: What stops you from moving forward?

Me: Well, it isn’t that I don’t want to move forward …(followed by a long-winded explanation of what I meant in the first place.)

The therapist’s question forces me away from a consideration of the “something” that “is holding me back” and shifts my attention to 1.) clarifying my statement; and 2.) moving forward.

What if the therapist said, “And something is holding you back. And when something is holding you back, is there anything else about that something that is holding you back?”

This question contains nothing that I need to clarify. I am directed toward the “something that is holding me back” and continue to explore it in an attempt to answer the question – and thereby to learn more about it for myself.

During a workshop on Symbolic Modelling, one is struck by the rich variety of metaphoric landscapes that emerge through Clean Questions. Four-dimensional worlds spring into existence–three spatial dimensions moving through time. One person has duplicates of everything – walls, flowers, birds, and colors. Another’s landscape seems limited to a small corner of the room. As the training continues, symbols demand to be spoken to directly rather than through the “client.” Blinking computer cursors seen out of the corner of the eye become a mother’s heartbeat. Symbols morph and with them, the participant’s perception and behavior in the “real world.” By the end of the first day, everyone is careful of where they step in the room – mindful of trampling someone else’s “reality”!

When a question is asked of one participant, it is difficult for others not to silently answer the question from their own models. Upon hearing the actual answer, they are often amazed, saying, “I never would have thought of that!” The infinite variety of metaphoric symbols and relationships making up a person’s experience are logical only within the framework of that person’s metaphoric landscape.

Lawley and Tompkins report that after a therapy session, clients will compliment them for “understanding what it’s like to be me.” In fact, they make no such claim. What they’ve done is to keep meticulous track of the client’s language, at times going back and gathering up a number of symbols in a single question. “And when “something holding you back” and “long cape” and “big rock” and “eagle sitting on your shoulder”, what happens next? ” This seemingly illogical question makes perfect sense in the client’s metaphoric world.

“What happens next?” is one of the four remaining basic Clean Questions, along with “What happens just before …?”, “Where did … come from?” and “Then what happens?” These nine questions are used about 80% of the time. An additional 25 questions can be used sparingly once the symbolic landscape has been developed. Lawley and Tompkins tell of a beginning student who facilitated a major change in his partner by asking the same question over and over. When he was asked how he knew to keep asking that question, the student admitted that it was the only question he could remember! Sometimes, less is more!

Do Clean Questions and Symbolic Modelling work? Over the course of my three-day training, I saw multiple “ahas”, multiple shifts in perception among the participants. My own experience was subtle as I watched a rock change into an anchor. What did it mean? All I know is that since the workshop, I’ve completed a book I’d been putting off writing for years. The rock “held me back.” The anchor centered me.

Metaphors in Mind contains a number of complete transcripts of work that Lawley and Tompkins have done with clients. The transcripts are annotated so that, in addition to picking up the flow of Clean Language, the reader will understand what is happening. In addition to the Meta Model and Milton Model, the Metaphor Model and Clean Questions would be an important addition to NLP training. David Grove, James Lawley and Penny Tompkins have given therapists a tremendously effective tool to help clients create pervasive and ecological change.


1. Bandler, Richard and John Grinder (1975). The Structure of Magic. Vol. 1. Palo Alto, CA. Science and Behavior Books.

2. Lawley, James and Penny Tompkins (2000). Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. London, England. The Developing Company Press.

3. Tompkins, Penny and James Lawley (1997). Less Is More… The Art of Clean Language, Rapport, Issue 35, February 1997.

© 2001, Judith Lloyd Yero

Judith Lloyd Yero is a teacher and director of Mindsight Educational Services. She is certified as an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer. Judy has authored, Teaching in Mind: The Unexamined World of Teacher Thought, a book about the ways in which teachers’ beliefs and metaphors influence their behaviour.

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