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First presented at The Developing Group 9 May 2015

 Getting to ’It’: First Words – First Questions

James Lawleyand Penny Tompkins

We spent many an hour with David Grove modelling how he “mused” on the first words out of his clients' mouths (and even what happened before these words – but that’s another topic). Later, while training people new to Symbolic Modelling, we noticed that the value of the session can depend on the direction set by the facilitator’s first few questions.

We all use the same clean questions, but experienced symbolic modellers can facilitate a client to get somewhere significant more frequently than novices. How do they do that?

One way is by ‘decoding’ the embedded information in a client’s first words, and then being guided by the information these words reveal. Experienced symbolic modellers notice ‘how’ the client is responding as well as ‘what’ they are responding to – and employ a ‘trial and feedback’ heuristic as the session unfolds.

The May 9th Developing Group will explore how to develop skills in modelling a client's first words so that our first few questions can be of maximum benefit to them. This ability goes by various metaphors, e.g. ‘getting to it’; ‘sorting the signal from the noise’; and ‘having a high hit rate’.

The context for the day will be coaching/therapy, but these skills can be applied by managers, consultants, parents, etc. etc.

We'll start by looking at a selection of clients' first words and the beginning of sessions brought by members of the group.

We have touched on this topic in a number of previous Developing Group days but this time we will approach it within a different frame. As preparation, any or all of the following articles will prove useful. If you only have time to read one we would recommend the first one about musing.

A generalised model for modelling metaphors with an extended example:

Background reading about the construct "start":

General review of "it".

The Problem - Remedy - Outcome model:

An article containing a worked example:

A description of the PPRC model and how it can be used for modelling:

Technical article about modelling embodied schema:
Next we provide three sample transcripts from the beginning of actual Symbolic Modelling sessions each with a different kind of commentary.

Example 1

Note: The facilitator’s repeating back of the client’s words have been left out of the transcript.

1 And what would you like to have happen?
I want to layout the problems and pick one. Maybe it’s wishful thinking that they are all connected.
2 And how many problems do you want to layout?
About four
And when you layout about four problems, where do you lay them out?
In front of me, there [sweeping gesture].
And where is the first problem?
[Points to left.]
And where’s the second problem?
And the third problem?
And the fourth?
Are there anymore?
Draw those problems as you have laid them out.
[Takes big sheet of paper and draws four shapes in different colours.]
Where are you drawn to?
That one [points to the first shape]
And now you have laid out those four problems, there, and picked that one, what would you like to have happen?
It doesn’t let me grow and I want to remake it into something safe that I can put on or take off as I need to.
12 And then what happens? Then I have energy.
And what kind of energy?
It will be warm and light.
And that’s warm, light energy, like what?   
Burning coal.

Commentary on the facilitator's questions

Line 1: A standard Symbolic Modelling opening with a classic Clean Language question.

Lines 2-10: Taking the client at face-value and facilitating them to establish a metaphor landscape for their two-part desired Outcome.

Lines 11: Given the client has now "laid out those four problems, and picked that one" (i.e. they have achieved their original desired Outcome) they are invited to identify another desired Outcome.

Line 12: The client's statement at Line 11 is a mixed Remedy-Ouctome, and in this case we invite them to identify what happens when they have what they want.

Lines 13-14: Developing the desired Outcome into an embodied metaphor.

This transcript illustrates how to work with the structure of what the client asks for without getting drawn into the content.
If, at line 2, we had asked "And what kind of problems" the session would likley have gone in a very different direction.

Similarly, at line 11, many coaching and therapeutic approaches would have started working with the picked problem (probably thinking their role is to help the client solve that problem). In Symbolic Modelling we are acutely aware of what the client has asked for and what they haven't. In this case, up to line 10, the client has not said they want to do anything about the any of their problems – other than lay them out and pick one. Therefore we hand over that decision to the client. We want them to set the direction for the rest of the session (or maybe they have gained enough and the session is over!).

Even so, we could have been tempted to start developing any of the (four) metaphors in the client's line 11 statement. And that would have been a fine thing to do. However, before doing that, we decide it would be useful for the client to consider whether the process they have described is a means to an ends. And if it is, and they develop a metaphor landscape for the ends, will other ways of achieving their desired Ouctome become available to them? Maybe they can just have the Ouctome without needing to go through the process of "remake it [the problem] into something safe" and "put on and take off".

Maybe, maybe not. But we thought it was worth a few questions for the client to find out since we could always return to the metaphors in Line 11.

The thinking behind our decision at line 12 is based on noticing over 25 years how often clients entangle the 'what' of a desired outcome with the 'how' they think it can happen. For example, a sizeable number of people seem to think that if they cannot think of a way to achieve their desire, it somehow invalidates their desire.

Whereas, logically, 'what' a person would like to have happen, does not need to be influenced by 'how' it might happen. A desire is just that, a desire. It needs no justification, explanation or plan. (These may be useful but they are separate aspects. And, of course there are many other-than-logical reasons why people link the 'how' and the 'what' but these are outside the scope of this commentray.)
This example demonstrates how in just 10 minutes the client has undertaken some impressive self-modelling (and likely discovering much) and is well placed to attend to whatever is significant for them – if that's what they want!

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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