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First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue 54, Winter 2001

by Philip Harland

Part 1

Conversational clean language and inner-directed change

Self-reflections Cartoon
"Reflective questioning can effectively assist someone to completely re-organize their cognitive/conceptual structure, with the ripple effect influencing 'deeper' organizing metaphors, embodied experience and neuro-chemical processes." James Lawley

A likeness

The 'Mirror-model' was developed in 1998 as a means of introducing a self-reflective, non-interpretative model of conversational change into Organisational Healing's NLP Practitioner and Master Practitioner trainings.

As a psychotherapist and trainer I had never been entirely happy using or teaching the NLP Meta, Milton and Sleight-of-Mouth language models, a brilliant but highly directive, potentially manipulative and assumption-ridden mix. Then Tompkins & Lawley introduced me to David Grove's Clean Language, and I had access to a client-led process which freed me to neither interpret nor presume, and facilitated my clients to generate change with minimal interference.1

However Clean Language makes no claim to work particularly well with highly conceptual or literal-minded clients, and as a therapeutic modality it can be a bit much for everyday situations. Jack Stewart of Organisational Healing and I wanted a simple, colloquial, robust and flexible model of clean questioning that his Community NLP trainees - managers, teachers, hairdressers, rugby players - could adapt to pretty much any counselling or facilitatory situation in which they found themselves. Change for their clients would not be the primary aim. Change would result if that is what their clients wanted. Change, moreover, that would be inner-directed rather than some shift or improvement the facilitator thought they should have.

In teaching the Mirror-model I developed two diagrams, one with an arrangement of frames and another with a set of questions; from these came an article for Rapport; 2 and this was followed by an invitation to present the material to the London NLP Group. People in the Group wanted a practical graphic they could use as a crib, and I have finally got around to designing the one you see below. It combines the 6 FRAMES of the model (Present, Context, Past, Future, Higher and Metaphor) with 20 OPEN QUESTIONS (the original 18 with two new - and I believe profound - ones) in one simple crib.

Part 1 of this article is a summary of that development, and has a few thoughts about adapting a rigorous therapeutic modality to the wider world of conversational change. Part 2 will offer a detailed example of how you can use the frames and the questions with a client.

I happily acknowledge David Grove as the inspiration, and the source of about half the questions; Charles Faulkner, James Lawley, David Gordon and Graham Dawes for other questions; our London Clean Language Practise Group for being there every other Wednesday; and Penny Tompkins & James Lawley for their unfailingly creative suggestions and support.


* Prompted X?
* What happens/ed
just before X?
* Before that?

* Importance of X?
* Purpose of X?
* Meaning of X?
* Enables X?
* How do you know X?
* Related to X?
* What X specifically?
* What kind of X?
* What part/aspect of X?
* Anything else about X?

 * When X, what do you want?
* When X, what about (other) X?

* Learnings?
* Anything else?


*When X,
what happens?
* Then what

* What symbolises X for you?
Or That's an X like what?
* What kind of [part of metaphor]?
* Anything else about [part of metaphor]?
X = client statement or part of statement from any frame
© 2001 Philip Harland


What exactly is your client's present awareness?


What is the wider context for them of this state?


What in the immediate or distant past may have prompted it?


How will it carry over into the future?


Are there higher considerations that might help them deal with it?


Are there metaphor correspondences that will allow them a different perspective / standpoint / flavour?

More than just a chat

I start from the belief that it is possible - if occasionally more difficult - to converse as 'cleanly' in the pub and the kitchen as it is in the consulting room.

The methodology is similar however simple (apparently) or complex (apparently) or problematic (apparently) your client/colleague's first statement. And it demands concentration and discipline, because your outcome is not to try and understand the other person, but to facilitate them; it is not to suppose what they mean by what they say, but to help them know themselves; and it is not to suggest solutions, but to help them generate solutions for themselves - if that is what they wish to do.

Do not be surprised if you are tempted, through impatience or hubris, to stray from this narrow path. If, however, you are prepared to track your client's every move and pay exquisite attention to their every word, you may be surprised at how quickly they get what they want. And with a greater sense of combined purpose than in traditional counselling territory, where most of your energy as a counsellor will be going, consciously or not, into disputing your client's map and redrawing it until it looks more familiar - more like yours, in fact.

Most psychotherapy and counselling clients respond well to therapeutic Clean Language questioning, but some therapists (and inevitably their clients), have difficulty with some of the Clean Language constructions.3 A conversational approach may be an easier way in for both therapist and client. And if you want to facilitate a colleague, or a student, or grandma, you probably won't want to sound as if you're trying to do therapy.

How does conversational clean language compare to therapeutic Clean Language? The Mirror-model is for the most part semantic: client information is sourced in what is said - appropriately enough for a conversational model. The Grovian model, on the other hand, is geared to eliciting embodied perceptions, which are sourced not only semantically (in the client's language), but also somatically (in the client's body), spatially (in the client's metaphor landscape), and temporally (in the client's coding of biographical, ancestral and cosmological time). David Grove's all-encompassing model stems from his innovative work with survivors of abuse, treating negative symptoms as coded solutions from the unconscious that contain positive resources for healing. This can be deep stuff, and is not a casual procedure, though experience shows that even a casual conversation, if it is clean enough, will reach parts that other conversations cannot reach.

The Mirror-model, then, is a simpler variant. And there are two important differences of category between its 20 questions and the 30-plus Clean Language questions. The Mirror model has no direct means of identifying and locating embodied symptoms or resources, a core feature of Therapeutic Metaphor and Symbolic Modelling. It has instead a set of 'importance/purpose/meaning/enabling' questions, which are at a higher level of abstraction and require the client to dissociate from embodied process into cognitive processing. More on this in Part 2.

A few considerations

The first thing to remember is that open questioning of any kind can expose vast oceans of the psyche for self-discovery. It would be wise not to attempt this kind of facilitation unless your level of rapport with the other person is high, and you are confident you can navigate with them, if need be, through choppy seas and uncharted waters.

The next is to keep your questions open and your comments minimal. Genuinely open questioning invariably elicits new information for the client, and in this client-led process you are required to follow client information rather than attempting to interpret it, or find 'meaning' in it, or alluding to your own world view in response. If you are the kind of expert who likes to re-model your client's material into a shape you can recognize, or needs to know what is good for your client before they know for themselves, I suggest you give your brain a rest and suspend your need to understand. Reflective questioning facilitates the client to self-model. It intensifies the ability of the self to learn about the self, and this encourages the system to self-adjust.4

As Charles Faulkner says,

"Each person's experience is a dynamic self-organizing system constantly recreating itself...what is required is not a conscious overhaul, but only a perturbation of the system such that it can reorganize itself along other lines." 5

In other words, trust the wisdom of the unconscious. Who knows it better than itself?

So with any client statement in any frame [X in the diagram], your questioning will reflect as nearly as possible the client's own words. These are, after all, not randomly chosen. They are the end result of a massive amount of deep-structure processing on the part of the individual unconscious, and deserve the deepest respect.6

I say "as nearly as possible" the client's words. You will soon sound contrived if you echo the other person exactly. There is method here, and it needs practice. It's important not to slip back into familiar presumptive (belief-based) language, or assumptive (suppositional) patterns. Your speech should be clean, but not obsessively so. The trick is to construct your part in the dialogue from a combination of your client's words and 'neutral' words - those that activate the emotions as little as possible. Avoid introducing your own assumptions into the conversation, or words that power up the visual and kinesthetic senses - 'You seem very agitated', 'I'm sorry to hear that', 'What I feel you're doing is...', 'I get a picture of...'. This is entirely your stuff. These are metaphors for your own experience, and they can distract or dissociate, or at worst disconnect, the client from theirs.

The 'frames' in the diagram are of, course, my metaphor, a way of organizing the questions conceptually. They are not for the distraction of the client! As a facilitator you could look upon them simply as a visual aid. Or imagine yourself looking from them as perceptual positions. Or view them, in Penny Tompkins' words, as "Mirrors that reflect the client's past, present and future at the same time, each frame a part of the whole that is happening now, so that the client cannot help but know themselves better."

The next issue

In the Part 2 I shall take you on a walk through a parallel world - clean, uncontaminated, and free from assumption. We shall bring the questions in the frames to life with a client who will be prompted to know themselves better - and change if they choose - without our needing to interpret a word they say. And if encouraging this client to take charge of their own mind has the ripple effect of 'influencing deeper organizing metaphors and neuro-chemical processes' within them, so be it. We'll be doing our job as facilitators of change.

10 guidelines for conversational clean language:

1. Rapport
2. Conversational tonality
3. Curiosity
4. Concentration and discipline
5. Respect and reflect client's own words
6. Avoid obvious metaphors in your words
7. No assumptions, judgments or interpretations
8. No suggestions, reframes or linguistic challenges
9. Follow client information
10. Clean questions


1 For more on David Grove's pioneering work in Clean Language and Therapeutic Metaphor, and Tompkins & Lawley's creative account of it in Symbolic Modelling, read James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, The Developing Company Press 2000.

2 Philip Harland, 'The Mirror-model, a Guide to Reflective Questioning', Rapport 42, Winter 1998, and

3 Eliciting and developing the form and spatial coding of symbols in the metaphor landscape, for example: not a very chatty procedure.

4 For a fuller analysis of Self-Modelling see Chapter 2 ('Models We Create By') of Lawley & Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind. For an explanatory diagram ('How Clean Language Works') see Philip Harland, Resolving Problem Patterns Part 2, Rapport 50, Winter 2000, and

5 Charles Faulkner, What is NLP? Taking Self-Organizing Systems Seriously, Rapport 52, Summer 2001.

6 More on Unconscious Information Processing and its relationship to Metaphor in Philip Harland, A Moment in Metaphor, Rapport 51, Spring 2001, and

© 2001 Philip Harland

First published on this site 27 December 2001. Updated 19.2.02 +

Philip Harland
Photo of Philip Harland Philip Harland is a neurolinguistic psychotherapist with a private practice in London, England. He has written many articles on Clean Language for professional journals and the internet. In 2009 Philip published the first book related to David Grove's last innovations, Emergent Knowledge, 'THE POWER OF SIX: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge'. You can order a copy from or

Article Series
This article is part 2 of a 2 part series. Other articles in this series are shown below:
  1. The Mirror Model
  2. Reflections on the Mirror Model
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