Article Categories
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
Clean Language
Article Selections
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]

How to do a Modelling Project - Section 3

What is Modelling?

Modelling is a process whereby an observer, the modeller, gathers information about the activity of a system with the aim of constructing a generalised description (a model) of how that system works. The model can then be used by the modeller and others to inform decisions and actions.

The purpose of modelling is to identify 'what is' and how 'what is' works to produce the observed results - without influencing what is being modelled. The modeller begins with an open mind, a blank sheet and an outcome to discover the way a system functions - without attempting to change it.

[Note: We recognise this is an impossible outcome, since the observer, by simply observing, inevitably influences the person being observed. However this does not affect the intention of a modeller to not influence.]

Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works (p. 21) uses an analogy from the world of business to define psychology, but he could just as easily be describing the modelling process:

Psychology is engineering in reverse. In forward-engineering, one designs a machine to do something; in reverse-engineering, one figures out what a machine was designed to do. Reverse-engineering is what the boffins at Sony do when a new product is announced by Panasonic, or vice versa. They buy one, bring it back to the lab, take a screwdriver to it, and try to figure out what all the parts are for and how they combine to make the device work.

Pinker is not saying that people are machines. He is saying the process of making a model of human language, behaviour and perception can be likened to the process of reverse-engineering.

When 'the system' being observed is a person, what usually gets modelled is behaviour that can be seen or heard (sensory modelling), or thinking processes that are described through language (conceptual modelling). Figuring out how great tennis players serve is an example of the former, while identifying their beliefs and strategies for winning is an example of the latter.

What constitutes a learning-to-modelling project?

In general, almost anything that interests or excites you enough to want to acquire another way of doing, being, feeling, thinking, believing, etc. We recommend you go for something that will really make a difference in your life – and/or others' lives too.

You need to choose a topic where you have sufficient access to your exemplars. And you need to remember that your primary purpose is to demonstrate you are learning how to model. The project is the primary means by which you will acquire that learning and then be able to demonstrate your learning.

As a minimum, you need to show that you can model patterns of:

External behaviour
Internal states
Internal processes

One of the most interesting parts of the process will be selecting the 'chunk size' of the project. This will require you to balance your desire to acquire some big chunk skill with the resources available within the time scales. As a general rule, people learning to model initially overestimate what they can achieve (i.e. the try to model too big a chunk) and they underestimate the value of modelling a small chunk in depth.

It's OK to start with a big chunk outcome and refine it as the project progresses. In fact, it is common not to discover "the difference that makes the difference " (Bateson) until well into the process. But when you do, that piece should become the focus of your project.


The field of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) was established as a result of several modelling projects conducted by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. They, in collaboration with others such as Judith DeLozier, Leslie Cameron-Bandler, David Gordon, Robert Dilts did much of the original work to codify the process of modelling sensory and conceptual domains.

A more extensive list of collaborators was published in 2012: The Origins of Neuro Linguistic Programming edited by John Grinder and Frank Pucelik.

We used sensory and conceptual modelling to study David Grove atwork, and as a result discovered a new way of modelling never previously documented which we called Symbolic Modelling (see Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins).

Definition of terms


The outcome (of a pattern of behaviour) which can be described in sensory specific terms.

The model

An abstract formulation constructed from the information gathered from modelling the exemplar(s) which when actioned by an acquirer produces a similar class of results.


The person (or group or organisation) that consistently achieves the results the modeller is seeking to reproduce. (In the early days of NLP, also referred to as 'a model'.)


The person who gathers information from the exemplar, constructs the model, and tests its effectiveness, efficiency, elegance and ethics at reproducing similar results (usually by first acquiring the model themselves). Sometimes they then facilitate others to acquire the model.


The person (usually including the modeller) who 'takes on' the model and attempts to reproduce results similar to those obtained by the exemplar. The acquisition process usually needs to be facilitated by an accompanying narrative, metaphors and activities.


The process of gathering information from an exemplar, constructing a model, and testing its effectiveness at reproducing similar results (which requires someone to have  acquired it). See Figure 1.

Modelling project

Both the plan for accomplishing the production and acquisition of a model, and the implementation of that plan. We distinguish five stages that do not necessarily happen in this order:

1. Preparing to model

2. Gathering information

3. Constructing a model

4. Testing the model

5. Acquiring the model


The process of a person constructing a model of how they achieve the results they get.

Facilitating the exemplar to self-model in Stage 2 is often a very efficient way of gathering information. At Stages 3 and 4, the modeller self-models as a way of making explicit the out-of-awareness information they have gathered. During Stage 5, the acquirer can self-model their response to acquiring an unfamiliar model.

NOTE: A major light bulb moment occurred when we grasped the implication of Michael Breen's statement (at the London NLP Practice Group in about 1993): "All modelling is self-modelling.".

Five Stages of a Modelling Project (Figure 1)

Five Stages of a Modelling Project (Lawley & Tompkins)

 »  Home  »  NLP  »  Advanced NLP  »  How to do a Modelling Project
 »  Home  »  Modelling  »  How to Model  »  How to do a Modelling Project
Article Options


4 workshops
live, online 2020

Penny Tompkins
James Lawley
Marian Way

Join us live
or view the
recording later

enrol at
view all featured events