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A Clean Framework for Change

(2010 version. Published 1 Jan 2012)

James Lawley and Penny Tompkins



"I need scaffolding"
Stand-alone coaching process


Terminology and format of diagrams
What is a change?

Stage 1 - Identify a desired outcome

Purpose of Stage 1
What is a desired outcome?
Desired outcomes are not WFOs, SMART or BHAGs
Timeframes: the 3-Box Model
What happens to problems?
What is a remedy?
The PRO model

Stage 2 - Develop a desired outcome landscape

Stage 3 - Explore effects

Stage 4 - Identify necessary conditions

Stage 5 - Mature changes


When nothing changes
Developing resources
When ACFC is not enough
Achieving what you want
Concluding remarks



I need scaffolding

“But I need something,” a desperate student pleaded. “I need something, some, some, ... scaffolding to help me build my model.” “OK”, James replied “And then what happens?”. “Once my building is in place I can take down the scaffolding and use my own model to do this stuff.”

This was the moment that we decided to devise an intermediate step for students wanting to learn how to use the 5-Stage Symbolic Modelling Process described in Metaphors in Mind. Symbolic Modelling is a generalised, bottom-up approach used to cleanly facilitate clients to self-model – from their in-the-moment experience to the patterns of their life. And as they do, organic changes occur which fit with the whole of their system.

Up to this point we had resisted producing a more procedural model because of the incongruence of teaching students to model bottom-up by giving them a top-down process! However we now had enough feedback that for some students the lack of structure was triggering responses which were inhibiting their ability to learn. The plea for scaffolding was the final straw. But what form should that intermediate step take?

We were aware of the downside of designing scaffolding. Once it is in place the path of least resistance is to leave it there. So we aimed to provide just enough structure for students to become effective at Symbolic Modelling while still giving them plenty of opportunity to acquire an expertise in bottom-up modelling.

Although we set out to provide ‘scaffolding’ we ended up with a process that acts like a ‘frame’ – or rather a series of interconnected frames. Rather than having to remove the scaffolding so carefully erected, we preferred the metaphor of a framework to which a variety of veneers and embellishments could be added. Hence A Framework for Change. That was in 2002. In the intervening years we have learned a lot about how people use the model with some surprisingly valuable side effects. We continued to tinker with the model until 2010 when it was renamed, A Clean Framework for Change (ACFC) – and that is the version described below.

Note: Since 2011 we have taught a simplified form of the 5-Stage Process in Metaphors in Mind, called Symbolic Modelling Lite – published as Symbolic Modelling: Emergent Change though Metaphor and Clean Language.

Stand-alone coaching process

We originally designed ACFC as a way for students to acquire the abilities required to be an effective symbolic modeller. It was not until we started using ACFC that we realised it was a fully-formed stand-alone coaching process. We reviewed several well-known coaching models and it was clear that while ACFC had overlaps and was compatible with many of them, it offered something different. The key distinguishing features are:
  • The Clean Language of David Grove
  • A modelling-based methodology
  • Attending to metaphors generated by the client (an optional and highly recommended add-on).
We called the process A Clean Framework because the facilitator needs to commit to staying 'clean'. This means using Clean Language at every stage. With Clean Language the precise wording of each question is given – the facilitator only need fill in the appropriate client words to complete the question. Furthermore, we have identified which Clean Language questions asked at each stage will likley achieve the maximum effect with the minimum of effort.

Although ACFC is primarily used for coaching, the facilitator is not a ‘change agent’ since they are not attempting to change the client nor their inner landscape. This is because ACFC is a modelling methodology in which change is a by-product. You will notice there is not a stage where change happens. Instead we recognise the client’s desire for something to be different as the starting point, the motivation and the contract for the session. Their desire for change does not need bolstering by our desire for them to change. In fact, the imposition of our desire into their process is often counter-productive.

Despite the specificity of the questions and the lack of an intention to change there is plenty of room for the facilitator to play a significant but different role to that of a traditional coach. Instead of putting effort into problem solving or thinking of ‘powerful’ questions or helping to motivate the client, the ACFC facilitator works with and within the client’s model of the world. If you are an experienced coach or therapist you will probably be saying to yourself ‘I do that already’. And you may, but not to the extent required by ACFC. Over the last 15 years we have trained coaches, therapists, counsellors and facilitators from just about every school on the planet and what we have observed is that it is not until you use Symbolic Modelling, and more important, are facilitated by an experienced symbolic modeller, that you will realise the difference – and that difference makes a profound difference. We are not saying ACFC is always more effective or more efficient than other models, but we do say it can often get to patterns of internal behaviour that are rarely accessed by other means.

To be clear, staying clean and maintaining a modeller's mind require a lot of a facilitator. These are not common ways of thinking, especially if you have been previously trained in problem-solving approaches. Facilitators have to work with approaches that are congruent with who they are. For some, ACFC doesn’t fit but those who persevere discover, as one of our students remarked, "it is not just another tool for the tool box, it is a whole new toolbox".

Like all approaches, ACFC is not suitable for all clients in all circumstances. We acknowledge that there are occasions, rare in coaching, where an ACFC approach may not be appropriate. However, since we do not know in advance which are the few clients whose make-up is not compatible with this approach, we almost always start out with ACFC and make suitable adjustments based on the client's responses (see the section: Anything Else?). The more a facilitator can adapt to clients' unique ways of being in the world, the greater the range of clients they can work with using ACFC.


A Clean Framework for Change is a model with a series of stages. It is designed to support a facilitator to invite a client to attend to aspects of the self so that he or she self-model’s their desired outcome, the effects of that happening and the conditions under which the desired outcome would happen naturally. And when a change spontaneously occurs, the client is facilitated to self-model the effects of that change having happened.

A feature of a clean approach, and what distinguished it from other approaches, is that the facilitator can only refer to what the client describes – both within their metaphor landscape and outside in 'real life'. They cannot introduce any content that is not already present in the client's inner world.

ACFC's key features include:
  • Based on David Grove’s ‘clean’ approach
  • Client-information centred
  • Non-directive at the level of content
  • Outcome orientated
  • Process orientated
  • Accepting of ‘what is’
  • Utilises ‘what ever happens’
  • Trusts in the 'wisdom of the system’
  • Is a modelling process that facilitates the client to self-model
  • Does not have an intention to change the client.
  • Can be conducted ‘content-free’ (i.e. in metaphor so the facilitator has no idea of the ‘real life’ situation)
  • Can be used over time periods of a few minutes to a series of sessions
  • Equally effective when used with those who prefer to work ‘cognitively’ as well as with those who make more conscious use of their emotions and their body.

In the session there is only 'now'. All desired outcomes are constructs of a human mind. As are all expected effects. And while the relationship between the facilitator and client is an important part of the process, more important is the relationship between the client and their constructs. In ACFC we want the facilitator-client relationship to drop into the background and the client-and-their-construct relationship to come to the fore. When this happens we say the client is self-modelling.


Primarily designed for one-to-one facilitated change work and in particular as a model for coaching, ACFC is an efficient way to start most change processes including many psychotherapies that recognise the importance of goals or objectives. Using the Problem-Remedy-Outcome (PRO) model of Stage 1 and the developing questions of Stage 2 is a remarkably elegant way to directa  client to attend to the part of their experience that knows how they would like himself or herself and the world to be.

However ACFC has a much wider applicability. It has been used effectively in contexts that last anything from a few minutes to a few sessions. It has formed the basis of:

  • The Weight Watchers’ One-Minute Motivation Programme
  • Business planning processes
  • Conflict resolution
  • Gathering user requirements and customer specifications.


ACFC has not emerged out of thin air. Rather it is a product of a very fertile soil. That soil originated from a number of sources, including:

David Grove – primarily we constructed the process around Grove's Clean Language, and based it on his way of working with clients' internal experience, and in particular their metaphors. [See our Metaphors in Mind]

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic programming) – especially: the notion of modelling; the NLP presuppositions that “people aren’t broken so they don’t need fixing” and “people have all the resources they need”; and the ideas behind a number of models designed or articulated by Robert Dilts and Todd Epstein, e.g. Well-formed outcomes, TOTE, ecology, SCORE, Pathway to Health. [See: NLP Encyclopedia]

Robert Fritz – in particular his insights into the nature of desired outcomes and current reality. [See: The Path of Least Resistance; Creating]

Gregory Bateson for how to think systemically while working with and being part of a complex adaptive system. [See: Steps to and Ecology of Mind]

Steve de Shazier and Insoo Kim Berg and their Solution Focus Therapy for how to continually orientate questions to the client's resources, changes and exceptions. [See: Words were Once Magic]

Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing process, for providing evidence that what the client does is the key to effective change-work, and for the value of the client keeping their attention on a single experience thereby allowing its form to become apparent and named. [See: Focusing]

In addition, sitting in the background of ACFC is our knowledge of self-organising systems, evolutionary dynamics and cognitive linguistics. Full references to the sources of these ideas can be found in the extensive bibliography in Metaphors in Mind and more recently in an article written with Judy Rees, Theoretical Underpinnings of Symbolic Modelling [1].

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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