What is Therapeutic Modelling?

A discussion
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Published in ReSource Issue 8, April 2006

This article has been written in dialogue format. Some of these dialogues have actually occurred, although most of the questions are composites of those we have been asked over the years.

There has been an upsurge of interest in modelling recently. I’ve been reading the debate stirred up by John Grinder, Carmen Bostic St. Clair and Robert Dilts about different kinds of modelling[1]. I’m interested in understanding the difference between modelling as it has been traditionally thought of in NLP, and what you call ‘therapeutic modelling’.

Penny: It seems appropriate that there should be an upsurge of interest in modelling on the 30th anniversary of the founding of NLP.[2] Strangely, for a subject that prides itself on making the structure of subjective experience explicit, much of what is known about NLP modelling is implicit. John Grinder and Richard Bandler hadn’t ever written up how they did their early modelling. James and I had to ‘reverse engineer’ how they did it and then apply that to modelling David Grove.

In NLP, modelling is typically considered a 5-stage process whereby a modeller first identifies an exemplar (a person, or people who exemplify some desired behaviour or skill); the modeller then gathers information about what the exemplar does; constructs a model of how they do that; and tests whether using the model gets similar results to the exemplar. The modeller then goes on to use the model themselves, or facilitates others, acquirers, to learn how to apply the model.[3]

James: John McWhirter calls this “product modelling” because the output is a physical product (representation) which if followed should produce a specific result.[4] In fact, NLP as commonly taught is a ‘product’ of John and Richard’s modelling – NLP didn’t even exist as a concept at the time that they were modelling the original exemplars (Perls, Satir and Erickson). John and Richard’s first five books were the product of their modelling. Some, but by no means all, NLP Master Practitioner programmes still train product modelling in the form of a ‘modelling project’, and many use David Gordon and Graham Dawes “Experiential Array” as the framework for modelling.[5]

This is obviously not what happens in therapy, so what is therapeutic modelling?

Penny: Modelling in a therapeutic or any facilitatory context (such as coaching) uses what we call ‘modelling-in-the-moment’ (or what Phil Swallow calls “modelling for the moment”). In this kind of modelling the therapist does not construct a formal model so there is no ‘product’ in the sense of a physical representation. Sure the facilitator may take notes but these do not constitute a consistent, coherent and complete model. The reason? The therapist doesn’t have time to do this. Psychotherapy is a dynamic process. The client is always producing new information and the therapist has to constantly update his or her model of the client’s model of the world.

James: Therapeutic modelling is a different kind of modelling in part because it is used for a different purpose. The whole point of Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy (NLPt) is for the client to change their existing model of the world, and as soon as that happens, any formal model the therapist had constructed would be out of date.

In therapeutic modelling the therapist uses the client’s patterns of behaviour (movement of their body, vocal qualities and the words they speak) to construct a model of the client’s internal processes. The therapist attempts to figure out how the structure of the client’s subjective experience so consistently gets them the results they get. The therapist holds this model in their mind and body – part consciously and part out-of-awareness. They continually update this model and use it to decide how to respond to the client, where to direct the client’s attention, what question to ask, and how to use their own body and voice for maximum therapeutic effect

So therapeutic modelling ‘produces’ the behaviour of the therapist. If in product modelling there is an ‘exemplar’ and an ‘acquirer’, who plays those roles in therapeutic modelling?

Penny: We suggest that the client is playing both roles simultaneously – and this is an ever-present conundrum of psychotherapy. Think of it this way. Every client is the exemplar of getting the (unwanted) outcomes they so consistently get. Each client is excellent at their form of ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’ or whatever. At the same time clients want to acquire their own desired outcome. They know what a happier or calmer life is like, they just don’t know how to be that kind of person. Acquiring is a different metaphor to those commonly used in NLP which involve a formula (Present State + Resources = Desired State) or a journey (PS –> DS). Both of these are useful, and I’m suggesting we can also think of psychotherapy as a process of the client’s system learning from itself.

James: In other words the client is also a modeller. They are modelling their own system – self-modelling – and as a therapist I’m doing everything I can to facilitate them to self-model those parts of their system that are most relevant to their desired outcome. In this way a client doesn’t just solve a problem, they learn to develop.

If there is no ‘product’ to therapeutic modelling, then what does it produce?

James: Therapeutic modelling does not produce a physical ‘product’, it results in a dynamic ‘process’; and more explicitly, a series of interactions which aim to enable the client to achieve (or be in a position to achieve) their desired outcome. Ultimately the purpose of therapeutic modelling is for the client to achieve a desired change. However change is an effect of therapeutic modelling. The immediate ‘output’ of modelling-in-the-moment is the behaviour of the therapist. The therapist has to gather information, update their incomplete model, make decisions, and respond using their model of the client’s model – all within a few seconds!

Penny: Richard Bandler has said NLP is 95% information gathering and 5% change work.[11] Taking that literally means modelling for 57 minutes of each therapeutic hour. We’ve found that with most clients if we, and they, modelled their system for 57 minutes they had already started to change. So we just kept modelling how they were changing!

James: And if they hadn’t started changing, we modelled how they were managing to stay the same.

Are there any other ways to distinguish between product and therapeutic modelling?

Penny: I can think of two. A fundamental difference is: Who owns the outcome? In product modelling it is the modeller who decides what they want to model – that’s their desired outcome. The exemplar agrees to be part of the process but rarely has any outcome beyond being helpful. Conversely, in therapeutic modelling, it is the client who owns the outcome and the NLP therapist agrees to set aside their own agenda to work towards the client’s outcome.

A second difference is that I consider it unethical for an NLP product modeller to have an intention for the exemplar’s model to change – while psychotherapists are paid to have just such an intention.

James: And a third difference is that a product modeller wants to take on their exemplar’s states and strategies. However, because clients are exemplars of doing behaviours which often cause them great pain, a therapist has no desire to take on their clients’ states and strategies for depression, addiction, etc. A therapeutic modeller needs to be careful to model the structure of the client’s experience, but not acquire it for themselves.

If I’m matching the client’s body movement, voice qualities and words, how do I model and not take on the client’s ‘bad’ states?

Penny: You seem to be describing what is commonly known as ‘second position modelling’. And in therapy it can be used to get an embodied sense of a client’s experience. However if second position modelling is overused it can have an adverse effect on the therapist. Modelling a client’s “lost and confused” state is one thing, being lost and confused along with your client will likely reduce your effectiveness. There are other ways to model which do not have the side-effect about which you are rightly concerned. 

James: For example, if you watch old video tapes of Richard Bandler working with a client, you’ll see he is often not body matching, although he is definitely modelling. Similarly, David Grove, one of the finest modellers I’ve ever seen, almost never body matches but he still has exquisite rapport and modelling skills. When I first worked with him as a client, he seemed to understand me so well that I wondered if he was in my mind with me!

Penny: Apart from second position modelling you can model from a purely “third” or “observer position”. Or you can model by moving your attention in and out of each of the three perceptual positions.  And there is also a place from which to model that we would characterise as neither first, second nor third position. It can be considered an amalgam of all three or, as we prefer to envision it, a middle position between all three.

[NOTE ADDED 2012: See our article, Pointing to a New Modelling Perspective]

James: One particularly effective way to therapeutically model and not ‘take on’ the client’s stuff is to construct your model around the client’s body and in their perceptual space. This way of modelling has a number of benefits. First it will keep your attention firmly on the client. Second, it makes it easier to keep a clear distinction between the client’s information and your inferences. Third, when a client walks out of your office at the end of a session, they ‘take away’ their model and you can start fresh with the next client.

You imply there is more than one way to do therapeutic modelling. Can you say more about this?

Penny: Yes, there are lots of ways. As an example, let’s look at the difference between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ modelling. In top-down modelling you start with a process or structure for organising the client’s information and you fit your observations into that pre-chosen model. Although the content will be new, it is organised in a predetermined way. For example, using the Myers-Briggs categories to model is extremely top-down. Regardless of the individual, we know their answers will fit somewhere on the MBTI pre-given scale – the only question is where.

Many NLP therapists use what we call ‘middle-down’ modelling. For example, they adapt Robert Dilts and Todd Epstein’s timeline, perceptual positions, neurological levels frameworks for modelling the client’s patterns.[6] These models are closer to clients’ natural descriptions than MBTI, astrological houses or Jung’s archetypes. However, since they do not start with an individual client’s verbal and nonverbal behaviour they may miss the idiosyncratic aspect of that client’s particular experience.

James: When a therapist is bottom-up modelling they create a model out of their observations of what is presented by the client. The resultant model emerges out of the patterns and logic in the client’s information and stays close to the client’s description. This means that in the beginning, the modeller has no idea where they are going or what the model will look like when they have finished.  They do not start with a preconception that the client organises their experience into a ‘timeline’ or ‘perceptual positions’ or the ‘neurological levels’ etc. Although the therapist is likely to presume that each client has some way to organise time, perspective and hierarchy, they will not model these unless the client’s information indicates they are relevant to their desired outcome.

Penny: Almost all the great psychotherapists say the same thing: You have to start afresh with every new client. Well that’s what bottom-up modelling does. Bottom-up therapeutic modelling starts from the premise that every client constructs their ‘reality’ in a unique way. Their logic, motivation, desires, values all combine in an idiosyncratic complex. Bottom-up modelling is a way to identify the patterns, structures and organisation that means that client is sitting in front of you with that issue and that unfulfilled desire for change.

Are you saying an NLP therapist should only use bottom-up modelling?

James: No, we’re not saying bottom-up modelling is always the best way to model, even in a therapeutic setting. We are saying that an experienced Neurolinguistic Psychotherapist should have a choice whether to use this approach or not. To have that choice the therapist needs to be able to hold off long enough (from jumping to a conclusion, using a technique, etc.) to allow patterns to emerge from observing the client’s verbal and nonverbal behaviour.

If I’m modelling, be it top-down or bottom-up, what happens to all the NLP techniques I’ve learned?

Penny: There are times when a technique works just fine and there are circumstances when it can be counterproductive. The advantage of a well-researched technique is that it’s a shortcut that can be effective most of the time for most people. Generally, the more specific and standard the problem, the more likely a technique will be useful. Of course you have to decide which technique to use and then you’re back to the need for modelling! A client once described to me how a previous NLP therapist had tried to use submodality techniques to help rid her of her feelings of worthlessness. She said that although she hated those feelings, as soon as the therapist started to try to get rid of them, “I just played along and went though the motions.” Why? Because those feelings were all she had, and if she lost them, she didn’t know what would be left of her. If the therapist had spent more time modelling the structure of this particular client’s subjective experience, they might have thought twice about rushing in with a standard technique.

James: Learning a technique is a good place to start as long as you realise it’s not the destination. On most NLP training courses people only ever see demonstrations of techniques. However, if you ask an experienced NLP therapist about what happens in a ‘live’ session with a ‘real’ client they’ll tell you it’s not like a training demonstration.

Dreyfus and Dreyfus studied (I’d say modelled) the developmental path of many different types of professionals – from chess players to nurses.[7] They found that as an individual progresses from being a “novice” to becoming an “expert”, the more they progress from using rule-based techniques, through top-down modelling, to bottom-up-responding-in-the-moment-to-the-unique-human-being-in-front-of-them modelling. By Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ definition, being an expert is not about just having more knowledge and more techniques, it’s about having a wider and deeper, more systemic perspective based on many years of experience. This is what enables experts to have those apparently magical intuitions.

The aim, as Ken Wilber would say, is to “transcend and include” techniques. Every technique I’ve ever learned sits in the background of my knowledge and informs the models I am constructing. Even after 15 years of practising Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy I am still amazed how, if given the chance, clients devise strategies and solutions for themselves that never occurred to me and which have an idiosyncratic creativity that perfectly fits their way of being.

The Dreyfus and Dreyfus ‘Novice to Expert’ Model

I realise you are known for introducing Symbolic Modelling into NLP, how does it fit in?

Penny: Symbolic Modelling is primarily a bottom-up modelling methodology which has applications in psychotherapy, education, health, organisations, etc..[8] Symbolic Modelling makes explicit several additional ways to model. For example, the facilitator or therapist models the client’s internal symbolic map, or metaphor landscape as David Grove called it. To do this the therapist makes use of the client’s exact verbal and nonverbal metaphors as the raw material for the modelling process. As James said earlier, a client can be facilitated to SELF-model, and Symbolic Modelling encourages this to happen.

NLP has been defined as “The study of the structure of subjective experience”. Symbolic Modelling fits this definition perfectly. There is nothing more subjective than a client’s metaphor landscape – and it definitely has a structure! In fact, the more you study subjective experience, the more you realise just how metaphorically structured it is.

Over the last 10 years, we have found that Symbolic Modelling is especially suited to working with ‘higher levels’ of experience – core beliefs, identity, sense of purpose, the spiritual – as well as complex and seemingly intractable issues, binds and double binds, that are not amenable to traditional techniques.

Well, I certainly have a lot more to think about, but are all these distinctions really necessary?

James: I believe that many NLP therapists are already modelling, it’s just that they have never thought to code their work in this way. Being clear about these distinctions has helped me refine my understanding of modelling in a therapeutic setting so that I am more flexible and responsive to my clients.

For me the distinguishing features of Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy are the combination of our experiential constructivist philosophy and the unique way we model verbal and nonverbal behaviour as the basis for understanding the structure of clients’ subjective experience. For many years The Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy and Counselling Association (NLPtCA) has had a policy that NLP therapists who want to be registered with The United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) must demonstrate:

“a practical integrated knowledge and experience of the application of NLP as a methodology of behavioural modelling in their ongoing supervised practice of Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy (NLPt).”[9]

Penny: I take “behavioural modelling” to mean that we use the patterns of the client’s external verbal and nonverbal behaviours to infer how they organise their internal map of the world – both conscious and unconscious.

To sum up, therapeutic modellers start from the NLP presupposition that “People already have (or potentially have) all of the resources they need to act effectively”[10], and continue with an attitude of: ‘We may not know where those resources are, how they are organised, why they are not being used or how they can be activated – but let’s find out.’

1 nlpwhisperinginthewind.com – “A Proposed Distinction for NLP”.
2 According to Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier in the Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding, page 849, NLP was “founded by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in early 1976”.
3 See “Introducing Modelling to Organisations” in Rapport, Issue 40, 1998 and “How To Do a Modelling Project” both available at: cleanlanguage.com
4 John McWhirter, “Re-modelling NLP: Part 14: Re-Modelling Modelling” in Rapport, Issue 59, 2002, reproduced at sensorysystems.co.uk/dbm-remodelled-nlp-2/
5 David Gordon and Graham Dawes, Expanding your World: Modeling the Structure of Experience, 2005
6 Robert Dilts, Modeling with NLP, 1998
7 Hubert L. Dreyfus and Stuart E. Dreyfus, Mind over Machine, 1988
8 James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, 2000
9 NLPtCA Policy and Procedure for Accreditation and Re-Accreditation of Psychotherapists, 2004 (nlptca.com)
10 Robert Dilts, Strategies of Genius, Vol. I, 1995
11  Quoted by John McWhirter, ‘Re-Modelling NLP Part One: Models and Modelling’, Rapport 43, Spring 1999, download from: sensorysystems.co.uk/dbm-remodelled-nlp-2/
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
body * { color: inherit !important; }