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First published on this site 4 October 2006

Steve Andreas on Symbolic Modelling

with comments by James Lawley

In Six Blind Elephants: Understanding Ourselves and Each Other, Volume I  Steve Andreas devotes a section to analysing the questions and methodology of Symbolic Modelling.

Before the book was published Steve kindly sent Penny Tompkins and myself the manuscript of the relevant chapter for our comments.

We thought Steve had captured as much of the essence of the approach as could be expected in four pages and had contributed a valuable and novel perspective. After a short email dialogue Steve made a few adjustments to the final version which he has generously allowed us to reproduce below.

Following the extract you will find my comments on Steve's original manuscript. Steve's analysis raised some fascinating questions and in my reply I attempted to make some fine distinctions about clean questions and a clean methodology.

From Six Blind Elephants, Volume I (Real People Press, 2006) by Steve Andreas, pages 130-134:

Scope and category in psychotherapy

Most therapies are pretty vague about exactly what questions to ask or what statements to make in order to help people change. General methods, like “paraphrasing,” “reflecting feelings,” or “empathizing,” are taught without specifying how they can be used systematically to change scope or category. Accordingly, we would have to study extensive transcripts of sessions in order to find out how most therapies change scope and category.

However, there is a very systematic approach developed by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins called “Symbolic Modeling” (40) using “Clean Language,” based on the work of David Grove. In addition, the book describing this approach is exceptionally clear and specific, and the authors have also produced an unedited videotaped demonstration, (53) something that very few therapists are willing to do. A videotape makes it possible to review exactly what the practitioners of an approach actually do in a session – which is often very different from their description of what they think they are doing. A videotape also provides a wealth of nonverbal information, which is a very important aspect of communication, often even more important than the verbal.

In very condensed outline, in Symbolic Modeling the therapist begins with “a short personal history and asks them to define an overall outcome.” After this, the “self-modeling” process starts with the “basic opening question,” “And what would you like to have happen?” The therapist listens carefully to the words in the client's response, and also for the symbolic or metaphoric aspects of the client’s communication. The therapist then asks a question that includes some or all of the exact words just used by the client. These questions are also sometimes asked in response to nonverbal postures or gestures, including them in the client's scope of experience.

The question is usually taken from a list of nine “basic developing questions,” (40, p. 54) and less often from another list of 21 additional “specialist” questions, (40, p. 283) which are asked less than 20% of the time.

    In the list of nine “basic developing questions” below, three dots (. . .)  indicate where the therapist repeats the client’s words, which “can be a single word, a phrase, or everything the client has just said, depending on where you want to direct their attention.” Read these questions and decide whether each one elicits a change in scope or category.

    1. And is there anything else about . . . (client’s words)?
    2. And what kind of . . . is that . . . ?
    3. And that’s . . . like what?
    4. And where is . . . ?
    5. And whereabouts . . . ?
    6. And then what happens?
    7. And what happens next?
    8. And what happens just before . . . ?
    9. And where could . . . come from?  
Question 2 asks the client for an explicit categorization of their experience at a more specific logical level, a subcategory of the existing one. Question 3 asks the client to make a comparison, and invites a metaphoric response, which requires an implicit categorization at a more general logical level.

All the other questions ask for scope. Question 1 asks for more detail, while 4 and 5 ask about scope in space. Questions 6 and 7 extend the scope of time into the future, and 8 and 9 extend the scope of time into the past. There is a good deal of redundancy in the questions; 4 and 5 are nearly identical, as are 6 and 7.

Of the 21 additional “specialist” questions, which are asked less than 20% of the time, two ask for a comparison, which implicitly ask for category; one of these asks "same or different?" and the other asks about a relationship between the two elements of experience.

Again, all the other specialist questions (19 of 21) ask the client to clarify some aspect of scope. Nearly half ask about some aspect of space (“where,” “distance,” “direction,” “far,” etc.), and six have to do with motivation or intention (“like,” “drawn,”). This emphasis on developing awareness of scope is parallel with many meditative and spiritual approaches that say the deep and full awareness of a problem is all that is needed to bring about movement and change.

The repeated use of “and,” and “as” connects each question, and the response to the question, to the client’s preceding experience. The repetition of the client’s preceding words also connects each response and question in the same way, so that each new scope or category is added to what is already in the client’s experience (rather than replacing it). This expands and enriches the client’s experience of the problem or outcome.

To summarize, this psychotherapeutic method is based on asking the client to change the scope of their experience in a variety of ways, occasionally asking them to categorize it metaphorically. Expanding scope always results in more information that can be useful in solving problems. Asking the client to recategorize their experience is also useful, because that associates it with other examples in the new category.

This process continues until the client comes to some kind of resolution. The therapist never makes a statement, and only responds from the lists of questions. This is called “clean language” because the therapist does not introduce new content, but simply asks open-ended questions about what the client has already said. Asking the client to change scope is a content-free intervention, and asking them to recategorize their experience is also content-free, since the recategorization emerges from the client's experience.

However, this protection from content introduced by someone else is a double-edged sword, because it also protects the client from a content intervention that might be very useful, and which could save a lot of time. If the client has to come up with a new categorization of the problem in which they are stuck, they will often be unable to think of a useful one that might be very obvious to the therapist or someone else. “When you’re inside a box, it’s hard to think outside the box." Input from outside the box can sometimes speed up the process of reaching resolution immensely.

For instance, in dealing with objections to reaching forgiveness (10), many people say angrily that the other person doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. If this objection is not resolved, it will prevent the person from reaching forgiveness and resolution. I know from experience that this objection can be resolved very quickly and easily by a simple change of scope.

“You may be absolutely right that they don’t deserve forgiveness. However, forgiveness isn’t for them, it’s for you – so that you can be free of resentment, obsessive thoughts about revenge, etc. As Nelson Mandela said after spending 27 years in prison, ‘Resentment is like drinking poison, and waiting for your enemies to die.’ ” It could take most clients months or years to find this essential understanding on their own. While this is certainly an example of the therapist offering content to the client, it is one that can help the client become open to a very useful resolution.

When someone is grieving over a loss, they often make the mistake of recalling the ending of the relationship, rather than the treasured experiences that are no longer available to them. The first step in resolving grief (6) is to replace this image of the ending with an image of the relationship at its best. Without this change of content, it is impossible to resolve grief.

Of course, introducing content in this way is also a double-edged sword. While an appropriate content intervention can speed up a process, an inappropriate content intervention can divert the client's attention from the problem to be solved, and even make the problem worse. “Clean Language” is an evaluative term that categorizes not introducing content as “clean,” and by implication, any content intervention as “dirty.” Either can be useful, depending on the goal and the results, so I think it is inappropriate to use an evaluative term for one or the other except as it is applied in a particular context. Perhaps “content-free” response would be a more descriptive term than “clean" language.

Despite the specificity of this approach, and the emphasis on Clean Language, there are two elements that are uncontrolled, and can still allow the bias of the therapist’s beliefs and orientation to influence the client. The first is the choice of which words of the client to repeat back to them. “A single word, a phrase, or everything the client has just said, depending on where you want to direct their attention,” allows a lot of opportunity for bias.

For instance, a therapist with traditional psychiatric or psychodynamic training would be likely to choose words or phrases hinting at disease, pathology or problems. Their nonverbal responses will also have the same bias, leading the client to explore past events and causes. Someone with Solution-Focused training would likely choose words that indicate competence, future possibility, and solutions, with accompanying nonverbal signaling. This bias is much more likely to result in exploring future solutions.

    A second source of potential bias is in the choice of which questions to ask. Again, someone with psychodynamic training would be more likely to ask questions about the past, despite the fact that more of the questions are directed toward future possibility (“could,” “would,”) while someone with Solution-Focused training would tend to ask even more questions about future possibility.


6. Andreas, Steve. "Resolving Grief" Anchor Point Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 2, Feb, 2002.

Andreas, Steve. "Forgiveness." Anchor Point Magazine, Vol. 13, No. 5, 1999.

40. Lawley, James; and Tompkins, Penny. Metaphors in Mind; Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. London, Developing Company Press, 2000.

53. Tompkins, Penny; and Lawley, James. "A Strange and Strong Sensation." (DVD) London, The Developing Company Press, 2003.

Steve Andreas, with his wife and partner Connirae, has been learning, teaching, and developing patterns in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) since 1977. Steve and Connirae are the co-editors and/or authors of many NLP books (both classics from the early days of the field, and new innovations) and over fifty NLP articles. They have also produced over fifty videotaped and audiotaped demonstrations of NLP patterns for personal change.  For information about their work go to:

Steve Andreas & James Lawley
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