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These notes were updated following The Developing Group 5 August 2006

Using Symbolic Modelling as a
Research and Interview Tool

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

Our aims are fourfold:
  • To collect a summary of existing research/interviewing projects that use Symbolic Modelling
  • To simulate the Minewater Project research as a context for learning
  • To self-model how facilitators use Symbolic Modelling to research/interview
  • To document the adjustment to the Clean Language protocols required for research/interviewing
We aim to learn from those who have already used Symbolic Modelling as a research/interviewing tool, and widen our appreciation of the various ways in which we can use Symbolic Modelling.

 The following notes are in five parts:

1. Examples of Symbolic Modelling as a Research and Interviewing Tool
2. The Role of Symbolic Modelling in the Minewater Project
3. Learning from Developing Group Day
4. Appendix A: Background to the Minewater Project
5. Appendix B: Proposal - Towards a new mental model for sustainability

1. Examples of Symbolic Modelling as a Research and Interviewing Tool

Below are some of the projects where people have used Symbolic Modelling and/or Clean Language as a method for conducting research and/or interviewing.

The common threads among these projects are:

To gather information ‘cleanly’ about the subjective experience of individuals and groups.

In some cases, to pay particular attention to the metaphors and symbolic representations of those interviewed. 

To use and publish the information gathered with an intention to represent 'what is' without an intention to change the minds of the original interviewees (of course the interviewees may be changed by the experience, but that is not the intention).


Kath Lowery and Nancy Doyle have identified ways to utilise a Clean Language approach within qualitative interviews.  They are also looking to progress the potential of Clean Language as a tool to unbiasedly enrich data within qualitative interviewing. Kath is currently undertaking a research project to Evaluate the Impact of Home Treatment for Older People with Mental Health Problems. The qualitative arm of the project is to explore the experiences of a range of people - be it health, social care and service users - as well as close carers within the home treatment team. The interviews will be analysed both for their original purpose and with a secondary outcome to assess the impact of Clean Language.

Martin Snoddon has been using Clean Language in a variety of situations through his work as the Centre Director of the Conflict Trauma Resource Centre in Belfast. Two examples of him using Clean Language as a research interview tool are:

Research into the experiences of former members of the British Army. This research included 4 workshops where on each occasion upwards of 20 participants attended.  It also included 12 individual interviews.  During both the workshops and the interviews CLQ’s (developing and moving time) were used to positive effect both acknowledging what had been said and to elicit more information.  They also proved extremely useful when identifying the desired outcomes of the group and for developing a service model. The result was published as 'Legacy of War: Experiences of Members of the Ulster Defence Regiment" (CTRC, Nov. 2005)

Current research into the legacy of violent conflict on a small community in north Belfast.  To date there has been one workshop with a group of women, and two individual interviews with leading male community activists.  I have no doubt that CLQ’s will continue to be a part of this process as it unfolds over the coming months.


James Lawley, Louise Oram and Laura Ewing conducted a study into the role of Clinical Program Directors (CPDs) in a large pharmaceutical company in 2003. Each CPD headed a multi-national project team in the development and implementation of a strategic and operational plan for clinical trials, the approvals process and the launch of a new drug. The research investigated how CPDs actually achieve their function and identified the main skill-set needed to perform the job well. The research involved using Clean Language as the primary methodology to interview 15 people in three groups: 4 Vice Presidents, 5 CPDs, and 6 others involved in clinical development in both the US and UK.


Stefan Ouboter, Phil Swallow and others conducted interviews using Symbolic Modelling to gather information for a European Union funded project in 2006. Two ex-mining communities (one in Holland and one in Scotland) were selected as pilots to examine the social and economic viability and environmental effects of extracting geothermal energy from the water in former mines such that it can be used for district heating and cooling of residential and commercial areas. The Minewater Project will enable those involved to express their subjective experience so that these expressions have a place in the communication process and implementation plan. Symbolic Modelling was used in three ways:

Through interviewing key local people and focusing on their symbols (both conceptual and physical) a mapping of symbolic landscapes of the local community can be produced. Similarly the subjective experiences of initiators and managers of the Minewater project can be identified.

By sharing the symbolic landscapes of the local community and the initiators of the project, they can recognise the harmonic elements and the tensions in the network of symbols.

By blending the symbolic landscapes and adapting them to the mutual benefit of all involved parties these can be incorporated into the communication and implementation plans.


Wendy Sullivan has modelled clinicians with excellent doctor-patient relationships. As part of the project she interviewed each doctor and elicited a metaphor for the way they relate to their patients.  When the clinicians were brought together they were invited to share metaphors and ‘to try each other’s on for size' and to agree on the common elements of their metaphors.  One senior consulting physician was so pleased with the aptness of the metaphor that he immediately introduced it into his training of student doctors.  

Sally Vanson has used Clean Language in her research to discover the perceptions of managers who get promoted very quickly to senior positions.   

Dee Berridge used Symbolic Modelling (among other modelling methodologies) to conduct interviews and construct a model of how public relation consultants gather information from the client, create solutions, and deliver solutions.


Clean Language has been used as a recruitment interview method to find a fit between employers and potential employees by both Louise Oram and Dan Rundle.  Louise has been involved in senior manager recruitment in the pharmaceutical industry and Dan in the social services sector.

Interviews by Health Workers
James Lawley and Penny Tompkins in 1996 taught nurses how to use Clean Language to interview Multiple Sclerosis patients so that the patients were able to describe the sometimes bizarre nature of their symptoms with metaphor. The nurses were surprised at just how relieved the patients felt when they could explain their symptoms in this way. Some patients said it was the first time they felt someone had really understood their illness.

Dr. Sheila Stacey uses patient's metaphors to save time and build rapport. Sheila waits for a patient to use a metaphor that sums up what the problem is like for them. She then uses their  metaphor as a shorthand description in future consultations allowing her to make maximum use of the limited time available. Sheila also uses patients' metaphors to explain the effects that treatment methods will have on their illness.

Police Interviewing
The South Yorkshire Police Constabulary established a programme for training 80 of their officers in the specialised interviewing of vulnerable witnesses. This 2002 programme included training by Caitlin Walker in how to use Clean Language as a respectful and lawful way to gather information.   

Chuck Holbink teaches Statement Analysis to policemen in the US. He says that "during interviews interviewers must obtain the 'pure version'. This means removing the main contaminant, which is the interviewer. In other words, you want the subject's exact words and you don't want your words contaminating their statement." Part of his method is to use Clean Language questions.

Journalist Interviews
Judy Rees in England and Francis Colnot in France have made use of Clean Language during their interviews as journalists.

Postscript (more resources):

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – first registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy in 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. James has also written (with Marian Way) the first book dedicated to Clean Space: Insights in Space. Between them Penny and James have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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