What do you say before you say goodbye?

Drawing a Symbolic Modelling session to a close
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Presented at The Developing Group 28 Sept 2013


  1. Purpose and background
  2. Why ‘set-down’?
  3. Peak-end rule
  4. Clients’ feedback about the ends of coaching sessions
  5. Extracts from Metaphors in Mind

– Translating
– Assignments
– Six Approaches

  1. A David Grove assignment
  2. Emergent Knowledge action plan
  3. NLP future pacing
  4. Clean future pacing
  5. Symbolic future pacing
  6. Unlocking the emotional brain
  7. The end

1. Purpose and background

This paper explores an aspect of change-work that receives little exposure – how to use the end of a coaching or therapy session to maximise the benefit to the client. We call this the ‘set-down’ phase. We examine ways to link what happens during a Symbolic Modelling session with what might or could happen after the session. We concentrate on two aspects; how to:

– Prepare for the effects of the session to be utilsied in the future
– Suggest useful therapeutic or developmental assignments.

While the topic will be of most use to coaches and therapists, other kinds of facilitators of change – teachers, managers, consultants – should be able apply the principles to their line of work. And, of course, there is an application to ending important conversations as well.

In 2002 we used a Developing Group day to investigate endings and beginnings. We examined how people punctuate their experience so they know an event has ‘started’ and how they know when it has ‘finished’. Our experience since has confirmed what we discovered on that day: there is a massive variation among individuals. Now we are interested in how best to end a coaching or therapy session. Three events in the last year have brought to the fore our interest in this subject.

The first was a three-day self-modelling residential retreat we ran in Austin Texas. We facilitated 17 participants on their personal development outcomes in a series of short sessions. By the end of the retreat we had given over 50 assignments, each tailor-made for the individual. Having  documented the assignments we organised them and looked for: What makes a clean assignment and what factors are involved in the design of a useful assignment?.

The second influentce was James’ involvement in research into how clients evaluate the coaching they receive. Interestingly, during clean evaluative interviews, and without being asked, every client interviewed gave critical feedback about some aspect of the end of their session.

The third was reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman describes several experiments which demonstrate a “peak-end rule” (chapters 35 and 36). The rule states that memory of an event is more influenced by a ‘peak’ representative moment and how we feel at the end of the event, than it is by an aggregation of moment-by-moment experiences at the time. In other words, the two most memorable aspects of an event, regardless of its duration, are the most intense moment, and our evaluation of the end. This is significant because we use this memory to make decisions about future events. 

It would seem that how ends end are important.

2. Why ‘set-down’?

The diagram shows the six phases and the iterative loops involved in Symbolic Modelling Lite:2

We struggled with naming the phases that start and finish the process,3 finally borrowing the first and last terms from John McWhirter’s “Three Sets Model: Set-Up, Upset, And Set-Down”. In this paper we will concentrate on the ‘set-down’ phase which McWhirter defined as:

Experiences change our behaviour by changing our model of the world. We may do this while we are experiencing and any time afterwards. The changes can be considered to be what we ‘Set-down’ because of the experience. What we set-down in turn sets us up for the next experience and so on.4

Each of the six phases of Symbolic Modelling Lite prepares the ground for what follows. The set-down phase aims to prepare the client for what happens outside the session. Within as clean a frame as we can, we often use the set-down to:

  • Check the client is in an appropriate cognitive mind and emotional state
  • Ask them to reflect on what (if anything) was valuable about the session
  • Invite them to consider what is likely to happen next (including potential difficulties)
  • Suggest an assignment to encourage the change process after the session.

This paper focusses on the latter two. A way to think of set-down is that at the beginning of a session you are entrusted with the mantle of facilitator-modeller while the client delves into their symbolic domain; and the end of the session is a time for you to set it down so the client can take it back.

3. Peak-end rule

Daniel Kahneman explains that the peak-end rule is counter-intuitive. Having been put through two painful procedures, people were asked which one they would choose to repeat. Most people chose the longer procedure rather than the shorter one even though the ‘peak’ or maximum intensity of pain was evaluated as the same in both procedures. 

The only other difference between the two procedures was the level of pain reduced at the end. A similar result occurs with measures of well-being.5 People give completely different answers when randomly asked over a period of time ‘How happy are you now?’, compared to when later asked ‘How happy were you during that period?’. 

Although we might expect the two answers to be correlated they are not, because, Kahneman says, “confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion. (Thinking, p. 381). In both pleasant and unpleasant events, our experience at the end disproportionately influences our evaluation of the whole event

These findings have obvious applicability for coaches and therapists, clean or otherwise and may explain why comments about the endings of coaching sessions were so common in our research. It would seem paying close attention to what kind of experience the client is having toward the end of a session is vital. So what kind of endings do clients say they want?

4. Clients’ feedback about the ends of coaching sessions

Clients interviewed with Clean Language as part of a research project6 two days and two weeks after a coaching session, said the following about the end of the session. Although we have categorised these comments into ‘what workd well’ and ‘what could have worked better’ the client’s were not asked these questions.

Worked well:

  • “Left me with a tool I could continue to develop by myself”.
  • Walked out “having developed a strategy to be able to deal with a conflict”.
  • Became “confident that a change had really happened”.
  • Thought it was nearly finished when “the most significant change had yet to occur”.
  • Reviewed the “script” to be used in the future situation.
  • Ended up with “an A4 page worth of strengths and other positive experiences” that could be read into a microphone and played back at home.

Could have worked better:
Did not want to …:

  • be “nailed down” to specific actions.
  • “go onto another topic” after a significant change had occurred.
  • feel “pressurised” that something had to change before the session finished.
  • be unsure about what to “target” next.
  • promise to do something when they were “not committed to the path”.
  • be concerned that the change wasn’t “solid” enough and wouldn’t last.

Wanted …:

  • to deal with the “reality, the practicality of the obstacles that might get in my way”.
  • the coach to have “spotted” that the client’s proposed action was a veiled example of their problem pattern.
  • an incongruity (“between head and heart”) to be acknowledged.
  • the change to be “locked in”.
  • “a tool” to apply the changes to their life.

5. Extracts from Metaphors in Mind

Metaphors in Mind provided a wealth of information about, and examples of assignments. Since many assignments involve some form of ‘translating’ of one experience into another, we’ll start there. Then we’ll go on to what we said about ‘assignments’ and follow that with a summary of the ‘six approaches’.

Translating (Metaphors in Mind, pp. 15-17)

Often when a client translates a metaphor or symbol from one form to another they discover something new. The two most common forms of translating are verbalising and physicalising.  In the diagram below the arrows represent the translation process:


Much of the Symbolic Modelling process involves facilitating clients to verbalise the symbolism they ascribe to their imaginative representations, their nonverbal behaviour and to the material objects that draw their attention. Clients can be invited to continue this process by describing to them self or someone else what is happening in their mind and body (and what that is like) and/or describing their maps or other material symbols.


The other common type of translation involves a client physicalising his or her spoken and imaginative metaphors, that is, intentionally creating a physical symbolic representation. This can be drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, prose and making music. Or they an use their body to mime, act or dance their metaphor. Physicalising a metaphor often enables clients to depict things they cannot say, and to encapsulate and convey the overall wholeness of an experience in a single material representation.

As an example, Carl Jung discovered that externalising his inner-symbolic world produced life-long learnings. Once Jung had this realisation for the next 35 years he continued to modify and add to the construction of his home as a way of reflecting and physicalising the development of his inner experience.

Assignments (Metaphors in Mind, pp. 229-31)

When a client leaves your consulting room, the Symbolic Modelling process does not stop. Many clients gain insight, get a different perspective and change their behaviour as a result of noticing correlations between how they think, feel and respond in their ‘real life’, and the organisation of events in their metaphor landscape. You can assist this with a well-chosen assignment.

Assignments are tasks which encourage self-modelling by engaging the client in an activity related to their desired outcome and to the organisation of their landscape.

Depending where in the process the session ends, an assignment can invite a client to:

  • Identify a revised or new desired outcome
  • Develop their symbolic perceptions
  • Explore the effects of their metaphors and desires
  • Self-model their patterns or identify necessary conditions for change
  • Mature changes that have taken place.

Assignments usually involve some type of: mapping, writing, researching or physicalising.

MAPPING – DRAWING or SCULPTING the current landscape

Mapping has numerous functions. Initially it can support the client to develop the form of their symbols and metaphors. Then it can aid them to see patterns that have occurred over sessions, broaden attention, and to contemplate or investigate the relationship between the landscape and their life, e.g. “Now that you know there are six links to that chain, it might be useful to consider in your own time what each one of those links represents.”

If the landscape has already started to change, an assignment can support the development of those changes and encourage them to spread to other areas, e.g. “Now that [change] has happened, consider what difference this will make to the other symbols on your map.”


Some clients report that by writing an account of what happened in the session they can continue the process on their own. Other clients dialogue with their metaphors and symbols by asking them Clean Language questions and writing the answers in a journal. See examples of self-facilitating.


Some clients find it illuminating to research the additional meanings, functions, history and etymology of key words and symbols. For others, a way to identify their patterns is to research the characters, fairy tales, myths, stories, songs, books and films which have appeared in their landscape.


Clients can make all sorts of discoveries by physicalising their metaphors: visiting or revisiting places which have appeared in their landscape; finding environments which match features in the landscape; altering things in their home or work place to replicate the symbolic changes that have taken place; embodying their process by engaging in symbolic acts and creating personal rituals.

Six Approaches (Metaphors in Mind, pp. 177-179 and 192-208)

Each of the six approaches is a different way to invite a client to discover new information, make new connections, take a different perspective and have insights – all in the service of encouraging conditions for ecological change. Below we summarise each approach and say how it can form a template for constructing an individualised assignment.

At the end of a session you can invite the client to attend to …

… a single aspect of their metaphor landscape. By repeatedly concentrating their attention on one form, one space, one time, one perceiver the client may notice additional parts, additional attributes, additional functions and additional relationships – each with the potential for initiating or continuing change.

… the multiplicity of attributes, symbols, locations and relationships. By encouraging the client to accumulate more and more perceptions into one simultaneous mind-body space they can identify patterns, and patterns of patterns. In so doing they can recognise higher and higher levels of communion, of cooperation, of interdependency, of connection to something larger – the next inclusive whole. Three ways to encourage clients to attend to more inclusive wholes are: accumulating perceptions, working with metaphor maps, and physicalising the metaphor landscape.

… the edge, and then to outside and beyond the boundaries of their metaphor landscape. When the client notices what is external, discovers a larger area, widens contexts and extend ranges, they are broadening their perspective. To facilitate this you can ask about the space outside or an outside perceiver. Or you can invite them to extend their metaphor map and suggest they research key words.

… the origin or the long-term consequences of a (symbolic) event; and then to investigate before ‘the beginning’ or after ‘the end’. The client may make historical connections, identify patterns which repeat over time, encounter new resources or (re)discover a sense of their purpose – any of which can lead to a reorganisation of existing perceptions.

… what needs to happen for a desired change to take place, and what need to happen for that to happen, and so on. This will encourage the client to (work backwards to) find the logical associations between the first necessary condition, and all the subsequent conditions that need to occur for their desired change. As a result they may devise a plan of action or identify what is key to their desired outcome happening.

… whether any resource symbols would like to connect and form (or reform) a relationship with another symbol. This involves the client giving two or more symbols an opportunity to commune, to transfer properties and information, for one to catalyse or activate the other, or for them to integrate into a new whole. Often this will initiate a reorganisation of the whole landscape.

6. A David Grove assignment

Philip Harland gives an example in The Power of Six: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge of an assignment given by David Grove to a client, Simon:

David acknowledges Simon’s sore head with a Clean Language question:

Where is your head sore?

Everywhere. Head. Heart. I give grief to others.

For homework, find a space where you can write up a list of things. List the last things – your head is sore, your heart is sore, and you give grief to others – and list the different kinds of sore in your head, heart, and everywhere else, and list out the grief you give to others.

David was never less than ambitious when it came to assignments. If a client managed to do a tenth of what he suggested, he would assume this to be the essential tenth.

7. The Emergent Knowledge action plan

In Chapter 6 of The Power of Six, Philip Harland describes how clients are invited to formulate an action plan as “a bridge to tomorrow, a means by which the client can engage with the knowledge they have recovered, embody it physically and emotionally, and take more control of their lives” (p.162). In its most basic form, the facilitator invtes the client to:

Get a piece of paper. And knowing what you know now, list six specific things you will do when you have left here. For each action, state:

What you are going to do.
Were you going to do it.
And if with someone else, whom.

Philip adds:

The Action Plan is a client-generated list of behaviors aimed at consolidating and capitalizing on what has been learned during the session. The list should not be conceptual or general (“Be kind to myself,” “Take more exercise,” “Keep a diary”). The actions to be taken should be specific, observable, and repeatable. Compiling this list is not a task to be undertaken lightly or left to the last minute. It is integral to the work. The facilitator’s task is to keep the client to the mark in making the plan and to ensure that each point on it is practical and material. (p.162)

8. NLP future pacing

NLP sessions commonly end with a future pace. The aim of future pacing is to assist in the transfer of resources, new skills and behavioral changes to contexts where they will be needed in the real world; outside of training, coaching or therapy. In this respect, we consider future pacing a way to reduce domain dependence and increase cross-domain application.

Developed by NLP founders Richard Bandler and John Grinder, future pacing can be considered as a mixture of mental rehearsal and post-hypnotic suggestion. Or it can be considered as a combination of two NLP techniques: the New Behaviour Generator and Anchoring.

The Encyclopedia of NLP (p. 433) describes the process of future pacing thus:

The primary method of future pacing is to associate a new behavior or response to external cues that naturally occur in a future situation in which the change of behavior is desired. For instance, one might consider, “What is the very first thing you will see, hear, or feel externally in that situation that will remind you of your new learnings or skills?” When a specific item is identified, the individual can mentally focus attention on that item through memory or imagination, associating it with the new behavior or response, performing a mental dress rehearsal. When the individual actually encounters the environmental cue later on, it will serve as a natural and unconscious anchor or trigger for the desired response or behavior.

As an example, a person could future pace having a state of confidence and focus during a challenging upcoming meeting by connecting the feelings and body posture associated with confidence to the feeling of the doorknob at the entrance to the meeting room, the size and shape of the meeting room table, and the faces and voice tones of key people attending the meeting.7

Future pacing can be elaborated by repeating the process across multiple times and places (contexts), especially when they include previously problematic features of the environment or someone’s behaviour (Encyclopedia of NLP, p. 32).

9. Clean future pacing

In the box below we have designed a version of future pacing using Clean Language:

Clean Future Pacing

a. Identify first relevant context (C1)

Where or when (in your life) would you like [change*]?

b. Apply change to future context

And what’s happening when [change] in [answer to C1]?

And what’s the first thing that let’s you know you are [change] in [C1]?

And what happens just before that?

c. Complete the event

And when [change] in [C1], then what happens?

[Repeat until beyond the end of the context, C1.]

d. Optional elaboration (C2-C6)

And where or when else would you like [change] to occur?

[Repeat (a-c) for five more contexts.]

* A (symbolic) insight / resource  state / strategy / new behaviour / learning / etc. identified during the session.

10. Symbolic future pacing

NLP future pacing is traditionally used at the end of a session to project personal resources (e.g. “confidence”) into an anticipated real-life situation (e.g. “a meeting”). However a similar process can be used to project symbolic and metaphoric resources (e.g. “a steel rod running through me”) into anticipated future events. Instead of connecting the feelings and body posture of the resource to the future event, the attributes of the symbol or metaphor are projected instead.

A creative variation with more flexibility to respond to the unexpected involves representing the future situationmetaphorically, e.g. “Your future is like what?”. While the client may be less sure of specifically when and where in the future the resource will be applied, there is a good chance that a more systemic integration will allow for unforeseen events. For instance it would avoid the potential problem in the NLP example above, of a last-minute meeting change to a room without a doorknob, resulting in the future-paced resources not being available as

11. Unlocking the emotional brain

At this year’s Clean Conference, Jennifer de Gandt presented her ideas based on the work of Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic and Laurel Hulley, Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation (2012).8 

In her handout Jennifer says:

We see that the natural, behavioural process of transformational change of an existing emotional learning – the brain’s rules for unlearning and erasing a target learning – has three steps:

REACTIVATE. Re-trigger the target knowledge / the emotional learning from the past.

MISMATCH/UNLOCK. Create an experience concurrent with the above that is significantly at variance with the model and expectations of the target learning. This step unlocks synapses and renders memory circuits labile i.e. susceptible to being updated by new learning.9

ERASE or REVISE BY NEW LEARNING. During a window of about 5 hours before synapses have relocked, create a new learning experience that contradicts or supplements the labile target knowledge. This may be the same or different from the mismatch.

The idea of a “five-hour window” after “synaptic unlock” when we are more open to create new learning is especially interesting given the frame of this paper. Assuming the first two steps have happened in a session, how can we support clients to “create a new learning experience that contradicts or supplements the labile target knowledge” within five hours of the end of the session?

12. The end

While we have been focussing on facilitators suggesting assignments, we can also give ourselves assignments. In this regard our self-nudge: biasing your future self process may come in handy.

So, take a moment to review all that you’ve read. What did you already know? What was new? What catches your attention? And how come? What contexts come to mind where this would be useful and how you might apply the ideas?


1 With due acknowledgement to the title of Eric Berne’s fabulous book, What do you say after you say hallo?

2 James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Symbolic Modelling: Emergent Change though Metaphor and Clean Language, in Chapter 4 of L.Michael Hall & Shelle Rose Charvet (Eds.), Innovations in NLP: Innovations for Challenging Times, Crown House, 2011.

3 Among others we considered: Start-Finish, Beginning-Ending, Entry-Exit, Start up-Wind down.

4 John McWhirter, Re-Modelling NLP Part Six: Understanding Change, Rapport 48, Summer 2000.

5 Kahneman, Daniel and Jason Riis, ‘Living, and Thinking about It: Two Perspectives on Life’ in Huppert, F.A., Baylis, N. & Keverne, B. (Eds.), The Science of Well-Being, 2007, pp. 284-304.

6 Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier, The Encyclopedia of Systemic Neuro-Linguistic Programming and NLP New Coding, 2000.

7 Download the first chapter from: Unlocking_the_Emotional_Brain.

8 Linder-Pelz, S. & Lawley, J. Using Clean Language to explore the subjectivity of coachees’ experience and outcomes. International Coaching Psychology Review, 10(2):161-174. September 2015. Download the free preprint (PDF) version.

9 A straightforward way of starting a “mismatch/unlock” at Step 2 is to ask:

And when [triggered emotional learning from the past], what would you like to have happen?
And when [triggered emotional learning from the past], how would you like to respond?

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