Article from

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, James and I 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 our 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 of course the skills from the day can be applied by managers, colleagues, 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: Having achieved their original desired outcome, the client is invited to identify another given they now have "laid out those four problems, there, and picked that one".

Line 12: The client's statement is a mixture of Remedy and desired 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). With Clean approaches, 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 (and we almost certainly will at some later stage).

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 the outcome.

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 (probably discovering much) and is well placed to attend to whatever is significant for them – if that's what they want!

Example 2

Details in the following transcript have been changed to anonymise it. Comments from James.

F1 And what would you like to have happen?

I find it amazingly hard to make a statement about what I would like. The minute I start talking about my relationship with my parents .… It’s like a swing. On one side there’s myself on the other my parents.  So the only way I can formulate an objective at this precise moment in time is to say, I’d like to know more about the my parents, myself and the swing.  Sorry I can’t do anything other than that right now.
I start out taking clients literally. The client stated that they found it extremely hard to make a statement of her objective. That puts me into a tricky and very interesting situation because I can’t use the usual PRO approach, since that would put the client into an “amazingly hard” problem.
And is there anything else?

On this subject it’s extremely hard to make an objective without my mismatching it and changing it. It feels like a major... If I could have an objective I would almost feel as though I wouldn’t have an issue. Because half of it depends – it’s a relationship – so half of it depends on me and half depends on them. So the swing was a kind of satisfying place to start exploring – again and again – this relationship.
“If I could have an objective I would almost feel as though I wouldn’t have an issue". In other words, the inability to make an outcome statement is itself problematic, and that (conveniently?) may be preventing her finding a resolution.
So the swing was a way of exploring the relationship, and it’s extremely hard to get a statement of what you would like to have happen, and if you had an objective you feel you wouldn’t have an issue. So when it is extremely hard and amazingly hard, is there anything else about that hard to make a statement of an objective?
The client in effect gives me permission to work with this problem (because she can’t state a desired outcome) and that’s why I pursued “hard to make a statement” rather than “parents, myself and the swing”
Yes, hard because I say one thing and it doesn’t feel authentic. It doesn’t ring true to me.  And so I change it and I can’t find the words that resonate and ring true for me. I want them to be something, I want them to be something else, like there’s a void between what I want and what resonates as being truly true for me. That’s hard.
This suggest the two relationship metaphors are structurally similar: (i) “swing” with two “sides”; and (ii) “a void between what I want and what resonates”.
That’s hard, that void between what you want and what resonates … [Yes]. And you can’t find the words that ring true … [No]. They don’t feel authentic … [No]. And so you change them … [Yeah].  And when there’s a void between what you want and what resonates, is there anything else about that void?
By recapping slowly I am keeping attention on a potential bind. By inviting the client to attend to and stay with their current relationship with their objective, I simultaneously:
 • acknowledge the newly appeared metaphor “void”,
 • and attend to the two sides of the void (by adjacency).
 • and I ‘a-void’ exploring the self-parents relationship which has previously been explored “again and again” resulting in a unproductive state: “the minute I start talking about my parents …”

Sometimes it feels big. Sometimes it’s hopelessly imbalanced – if you can have a void that’s imbalanced. [Laughs] … I suppose I could say this. My parents will not be on this earth forever, I guess I want a relationship before they die, that will somehow satisfy me.  Maybe that’s a true statement.
The beginnings of a desired outcome and “maybe” a knowing what is “a true statement”.

Example 3

And what would you like to have happen?
CLIENT: I’d like to develop a stronger sense of who I am, what is of value in me to give to myself and those around me and the world I live in; what I can do to be happier day to day and not to feel so confused, puzzled a lot of the time about myself and people. I would like to be healthy and thrive.  I have had enough of struggle and lack of energy. I would like to do something I enjoy and am at peace with without further fear of illness and needing to rest everyday.  A job that I like and manage without getting stressed out. If I choose not to work, I do not want to feel guilty any more – that would be a bonus!
Using the P.R.O model we can separate the client’s first statement into:
Desired Outcomes
  • to develop a stronger sense of who I am,
  • [to develop] what is of value in me to give to myself and those around me and the world I live in
  • [to develop] what I can do to be happier day to day
  • to be healthy and thrive.
  • to do something I enjoy and am at peace with
  • [to have] a job that I like and manage without getting stressed out.
Proposed Remedies for Problems
  • not feel so confused, puzzled a lot of the time about myself and people
  • had enough of struggle and lack of energy.
  • without fear of illness and needing to rest everyday
  • without getting stressed out,
  • not feel guilty [about choosing not to work]

Italicized words indicate the proposed remedy to the perceived problem. 

So, how to respond to such a complex opening statement? Clearly, all of these desired Outcomes, Remedies and Problems can't be addressed in this session. And one thing is for sure, we are not going to make a choice for the client, therefore we said:

And given all that, what would you like to have happen right now?



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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