Why is ‘And what happens just before …?’ so underused?

Six factors and how to love this question
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In my previous blog I describe how to “pull back time” cleanly. One of the primary ways to do this is to ask the question: ‘And what happens just before …?’ (WHJB?). In this blog I want to examine why this question is often under utilised, even among experienced facilitators.

Frequency of use

To test my assumption that WHJB? is underused, I analysed how often it was asked during 17 sessions by 10 experienced clean facilitators, compared to its use in 17 of Penny Tompkins and my sessions.[1]

The results were clear: about 9% of Penny and my questions were WHJB? compared to about 2% of the other facilitators. This means Penny and I averaged four or five WHJB? questions per session, whereas the other facilitators averaged just once per session (and in 7 of the 17 sessions it was not asked at all).

So, I wasn’t making it up. There is a clear difference.

It is important to note, there is no requirement to ask WHJB?. And as these facilitators demonstrated, it’s possible to do excellent work and clients to get significant results, without ever asking this question. In fact, David Grove managed quite well for over ten years before he started using it!

However, as I hope I made clear in my last blog, there are great advantages of WHJB?. Not just as a one-off question, but asked multiple times with the aim of facilitating a client to self-model a sequence of events, or a choice point at the beginning of a pattern.


In the early days, David Grove was interested in the time just before the worst moment of a traumatic event, which he called “T minus 1” ( T-1). However it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that he started exploring non-verbal behaviour and asking WHJB?. At that time he was particularly interested in what happens just before a person speaks. Asking WHJB? was one way David devised to invite a client to attend to those moments.

Penny and I realised that this question was a super modelling question that could support a client to self-model the events involved in a sequence of a pattern that repeats over time. And hence we incorporated it into our first Clean Language compass presented in our first training of Grove’s approach in 1996.

Factors inhibiting asking WHJB?

So, if WHJB? is such a useful question and it’s been part of the Clean Language question set for 30 years, how come it’s so rarely used to facilitate clients to make the changes they would like to make?

Below I examine six possible explanations.

1. David Grove used to say that people’s stories and explanations have a “forward motif”.

This tendency is exemplified when clients tell a story or give an explanation and they keep moving the timeframe forward: “and then ..”, “after that …”, “later …” etc. If a facilitator is following the client’s attention (modelling the flow of their language) they too will be taken forward in time.[2]

Of course, there are times when we do little else but ‘go back in time’. For example, when we get nostalgic, and when couples argue: “I said … but you said … ”. However, if you examine these conversations, often the flow of the story still has a forward motif, even though those events happened in the past.[3]

Since facilitators are just like everyone else, many also have a tendency to think in terms of moving time in a forward direction. When that is the case, it can be especially hard for these facilitators to consider what happens before.

2. ‘What happens just before …?’ is not an everyday question. By contrast, ‘Is there anything else?’, ‘What kind of?’ and ‘Then what happens?’ are commonly used in everyday speech. Perhaps because we are not used to asking or hearing WHJB?, its rarity is a factor in why it is not asked more often.

3. Penny and I have noticed that often clients start their stories and explanations in the middle of the sequence and proceed forwards from there. Facilitators may not realise that  there may be important information in the timeframes before those the client is describing and that the start of the sequence is missing from the story.

4. One factor that can influence #3 was discovered by Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues. Their experiments showed that when recalling something that takes place over a period of time, people tend to remember the peak and the end of the experience – the so-called Peak-End Rule. This suggests that the beginning of an experience is often not retained as central to the event. Whereas, in terms of both modelling and changework, the beginning of a process – the entry into a pattern – is vital. A change just before the beginning of an unwanted pattern can result in new ways to respond and behave. 

5. There is also a mathematical factor. Seven of what we regard as the eight most basic Clean Language questions either hold time still or move time forward. Thus asking WHBJ? will always be an exception – but this does not explain what appears to be almost a shunning of this question.

6. While swimming backstroke in her favourite pond, Penny had an intriguing idea. Since, perceptually, time and space are intimately linked, and many people have the past located behind them, perhaps going back in time is like doing the backstroke. In open water, it’s hard know where you are going while swimming backstroke and you might bump into things! Whereas, you can see where you are going when you swim facing forward with the breaststroke.

A similar analogy that fits with David Grove’s idea of “pulling back time” likens asking multiple WHJB? questions with rowing backwards rather than sailing forward.


‘And what happens just before …?’ has been part of the Clean Language question set for almost 30 years. It has been part of every diagram and list of Clean Language questions that Penny and I have produced. WHJB? appears many times in Metaphors in Mind (published in 2000) where its repeated use was featured in an ‘approach’ we called “lengthening attention”:[4]

“MOVING TIME BACK: By repeatedly directing the client’s attention to the timeframe before what is in their awareness, you invite them to sequentially shift the locus of their perception back in symbolic time.” (p. 199)

So why is it so underused?

When you add all of the above potential factors together, it seems we are just not raised to think about processes in their entirety. And, we are certainly not practiced in thinking about “What’s not there that needs to be there, for what is there to make sense” (David Grove). While we intuitively know events have a beginning, middle and end, it seems that once the flow of language is going forward the idea of going against the stream rarely comes to mind.

I don’t think this is merely an intellectual issue or lack of everyday usage. I think there is also an embodied resistance to doing something unfamiliar (possibly experienced as ‘unnatural’). These kind of ‘forces’ that act on our body and mind are very subtle. It takes great self-awareness to: (a) recognise them at the time they are happening; and then (b) do something that goes against our habitual patterns.

However, I can tell you from my own experience, it is possible to develop a love of ‘And what happens just before …?’ especially when you see the value it can have for your clients.

If any of the above applies to you, it can be instructive to explore your ‘resistance’ or ‘blind spot’ to asking the question.

One way I know of overcoming this apparent natural tendency is using a 3-fold strategy:

  1. Set an intention to ask, ‘And what happens just before …?’
  2. Practice, practice, practice.[5]
  3. Keep the intention in mind.


[1] My analysis was possible thanks to Sharon Small‘s extensive analysis of the frequency of questions asked during Symbolic Modelling sessions. 

[2] If the client has moved time forward, asking developing questions that hold time still, will (unwittingly?) keep the focus on a later timeframe. Here is a classic example of a client statement describing a simple 3-event (metaphorical) sequence:

“I need to open my eyes, then go to the mirror and look in it.”

Asking a basic developing question (e.g. ‘And what kind of …’, ‘ And is there anything else about …?’, ‘And where/whereabouts is …?) of “go to” or “look in” the mirror invites the client to attend to the timeframe of those events, both of which are forward in time relative to “open eyes”.

[3] I appreciate that ‘back’ and ‘forward’ are spatial metaphors for time, and that they may not match how some people organise events perceptually. However, I have no choice but to pick a common spatial metaphor since there is virtually no other way to represent time than to spatialise it.

I also recognise ‘start/finish’ and ‘beginning/middle/end’ entirely depend on how a person organises or “punctuates” their experience (as Gregory Bateson would say). These concepts only exist in the minds of humans (and probably some animals). After all, Nature doesn’t have definite boundaries like these – until perceptually we impose them. Bateson thought:

“The universe was not created and maintained by discrete things, events, forces, systems, persons, or processes, except insofar as scientists attributed these separate concepts to it.”
David Lipset, Gregory Bateson the Legacy of a Scientist. (1982, p.283)

For more on this topics see cleanlanguage.com/endings-and-beginnings/.

[4] We listed “six approaches” in Metaphors in Mind which were the forerunners of the idea of facilitating using vectors not explicated until 2008. cleanlanguage.com/vectoring-and-systemic-outcome-orientation/

[5] Gregory Bateson on practice and skill acquisition

Tape 1, Lecture: “How we know what we know” (1976):

Occidentals, when they acquire a skill, they think of practice as something with which you acquire a skill. And a skill is essentially a tool. That is you use your skill but you yourself are unchanged.  I, Gregory will learn the skill of using a saw. And after that I can saw wood better than I could before, but it’s the same old Gregory, it’s still me.

An oriental acquires a skill [and] engages in practice in order to change something which for the moment we’ll call a ‘self’ – to come out of the practice a different sort of person.

The notion is that the discipline of the practice will in a sense be more important than that which is learned.

You engage in archery, not in order to be able to shoot somebody with a bow and arrow for God’s sake, which nobody wants to do anyway. There are better ways. But you practice archery in Zen in order to become a different sort of human being in a sense.

Now, you see when you reach that point, you’re on the edge of being able to say, I am selective of my character. Not of what my character will be today – that I cannot do anything about. But what my character will be like six years hence.

If I engage in these disciplines, over whatever the time required may be. You can’t tell what the time is going to be [in advance] … there is a sort of a freedom. And this is what people who cultivate disciplines and so forth are after – there is a sort of a freedom to choose not what you will be like today. But what you will be like six months hence or six years hence whatever it is.

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