Article from

First presented to The Developing Group, 19 Nov 2014

Embodying Others' Metaphors and Acquiring their Tacit Knowledge

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

We were recently invited to facilitate a team of academics in the Czech Republic researching how the implicit knowledge of experienced teachers is acquired by student teachers.1 Explaining the transfer of skills from expert to novice is a challenge because so much of what an expert does is tacit – they have little awareness of how they do what they do. Not only that, a good proportion of how we learn is also tacit.

And it is not just experts who possess tacit knowledge. We all have a vast treasure store of knowledge held and acquired tacitly. How do you recognise a face you may only have seen once? How do you construct sentences with perfect syntax when you have only learned the rudiments of grammar? Anything that you can do without much thought or conscious effort and yet would have difficulty explaining precisely how you do it suggests a large degree of tacit knowledge. Much of what is called ‘embodied’ knowledge is tacit too.

The term tacit knowledge or tacit knowing originated with Michael Polyani.2 Appropriately, even the term is difficult to define, with one reseacher identifying "Eight different uses of the term, six concerning individual level and two collective level notions".3

Metaphors contain tacit knowledge. You can explain what they mean to some degree and yet the subtle, implicit meaning that native speakers take for granted is hard to capture, even by professional linguists.4

It has been suggested that metaphor is a prime vehicle for the acquisition of knowledge, tacit or otherwise. This raises a question: How do we ‘acquire’ or ‘take on’ or ‘incorporate’ etc. metaphors that are not our own? Children seem to manage it effortlessly. But for adults who already have cognitive and emotional commitments to their (subconscious) metaphors, it’s a different story. Acquiring a new metaphor – especially one that is at variance with our current models of the world – requires change; and processes like cognitive dissonance, inhibition and homeostasis act to keep things the same.

Acquisition of tacit skills is at the core of the various approaches to NLP modelling (see diagram) and we have described some common methods in Stage 5 of How to do a Modelling Project: Acquiring the Model.

Schematic of the NLP acquiring process

Professional modellers acquire other’s models and metaphors in a variety of ways, and we've  documented six methods:5
Unconscious uptake
Deep trance identification
Take on
Step in and try on
Teach me to be you
Facilitate self-modelling
Other metaphors for 'acquiring' include:
Becomes mine
Fit in
Pick up
Try out
Getting a feel for
Act ‘as if’
Activity 1

At the Developing Group, Penny described her simple metaphoric model of how she had mainatined her sense of self in challenging circumstances. The 20 participants were invited to acquire Penny’s metaphor in what ever way they liked. During the second description, Penny elaborated and enacted her metaphor in response to James' Clean Language questions.

Afterwards, in small groups, the particpants facilitated each other to find out: "As you were acquiring the model, where did you construct it, and from who's persepctive?"

Their answers included various forms of:
Within my body (my movements mirrored Penny's)
Within and around me seeing/hearing/feeling what Penny described
I imagined I was Penny
Around Penny
I saw myself taking it on
I drew it on paper
Not one person said they took on Penny's model ‘as is’, everyone modified it in some way. The modification was usually preceded by a reaction to Penny’s metaphors. The kinds of reactions were:
It was not for me.
Bits didn’t work for me.
I didn't think it would work for me in context ....
I couldn’t see the use (application).
I already have my own way of doing it.
It didn’t fit with me.
It didn't makel sense logically.
Bits were missing.
I couldn’t imagine how to do some of it.
My body reacted ("It felt suffocating", "I felt lonely").
I didn't like the metaphor.
I don't have any need for it.
Parts were against my values.
This is just like … (something I already do).
I'd have to take it on all or nothing, and it wasn't going to be 'all'
I wasn’t in a state to acquire it.
David Gordon and Graham Dawes said there are five common ways people do not acquire a new model (assuming they want to) and most of the comments above would fit into one of these categories:
I can't get out of my present model

I can't get into the new model

I can't make sense of the model

I am concerned about the consequences of taking on the model

The model does not fit with who I am
Interestingly, the reactions people had to Penny's metaphors were often about the entailments or inferences people made about the metaphors and not to the metaphors themselves. For example, one of Penny’s metaphors included a “cheese dome”. One participant said she had to “back away from the smell of the cheese”. Cheese was not part of the metaphor (only the dome) and smell did not occur in Penny's description at all.

This supports the idea that inferences are unavoidable when interpreting a metaphor (in English or any other language).6

By definition, the acquisition of a new model/metaphor must include aspects which are not present in the current configuration and the greater the difference (content, process and structure), the more the current system is likely to react to the new metaphor. The questions to consider are:
  • What needs to happen to be ready to acquire a new metaphor?
  • When you have a response to a new metaphor, what would you like to have happen with that response?
  • How do you know if the response is a sign of the unacceptable or a reaction to the unfamiliar?
It seemed people’s first instinct was to change the metaphor rather than handle their response! For examples particpants:
Changed attributes, function, location and/or scale of Penny's metaphors
Found a different metaphor with equivalent attributes or a similar function
Compared it with other known models
Extended it (e.g. by added sound)
Thought, who else this might be useful for
Tried to understand the principles
Modelled out the structure

Activity 2

In a similar activity we invited particpants to acquire a more complicated model. Some years previously we had produced a 'prototype model' of how peace-worker Martin Snoddon approached "repairing damaged relationships", especially when the values of the people involved could be very different to his own. (Our model is outlined below.) The activity was in four parts:

Part a
: In pairs (for 15 mins each way) particpants used Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling to facilitate other to identify, access and embody a state needed to acquire, as close as possible, .

Part b:  We led the whole group through a guided process for acquiring Martin’s model and metaphors (process only, without context).

Part c: We repeated part 2 with each person using a specific personal relationship as the context

Part d: In small groups, particpants:
  • Debriefed the experience
  • Described what they did to take on the model
  • Evlauated how much of the model they were able to acquire
  • Identified what would have facilitaed them to acquire more of the model
  • How they could apply what they have acquired.


1. A report of that research, including how they used Clean Interviewing, has been published in eBook form: Švec, V., Nehyba, J. & Svojanovský, P. (Eds.). (2017). Becoming a teacher: The dance between tacit and explicit knowledge. Brno: Masaryk University. Download free from: (click Britsh flag icon).

2. Some background reading about tacit knowledge can be downloaded from

3. Stephen Gourlay (2004) ‘Tacit knowledge’: the variety of meanings in empirical research
4. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2003) The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities, Basic Books,

5. The six modellers were: John Grinder, Steve Gilligan, Robert Dilts, David Gordon & Graham Dawes, Richard Bandler, Lawley & Tompkins see

6. Zoltan Kövecses (2002) Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Our model of Martin Snoddon's way of Repairing Damaged Relationships

We modelled Martin Snoddon in 2006 at a three-day peer-led workshop on Conflict and Survival (organised by Jennifer de Gandt). Rather than concentrate on the mechanics of Martin's approach to what he called "repairing damaged relationships", we decided to focus on how he was able establish relationships with people whose values were so different from his own.

While Martin is adept in working in the most challenging of situations, we believe the essence of his approach can be applied to any relationship that has been damaged.

Martin Snoddon

Martin was director of the Conflict Trauma Resource Centre in Belfast for many years before founding Northern Spring in 2006. Based in Northern Ireland, Martin consults widely. He has spent over 25 years working tirelessly to resolve conflict and heal the legacy of violent conflict. He works with all communities and religious denominations, with ex-paramilitaries, members of the security forces, non-governmental organisations and groups, and with individual victims of conflict. He had consistently demonstrated an ablity to work with groups who have violently opposed each other, facilitating them to engage in peaceful negotiations and reconciliation. He has worked in conflict zones throughout the world, including the Balkans, Central America, Haiti, Palestine and South Africa.

See how Martin has used Clean Language in peace and reconciliation work.

Overview of model

Our model has six aspects which build on each other over time. Aspects 2, 3 and 4 happen in order, while the other three occur simultaneously and continuously.


Meet at
first level
Meet at
second level
Meet at
third level

What is needed to do this?
At the same time


1. Purpose

Conflict damages relationships. The purpose is to repair those relationships.

Consider the long term [e.g. 10 years]
A relationship can becomes a great resource in terms of building other relationships and building peace.

    Purposely work towards building a relationship.

    It’s meeting them at one level, then another, then another.

2. Meet at first level

a. Have an attitude of:
• There is value in the relationship itself.
• Let’s see what emanates from repairing damaged relationships
• You want to find some connection – a connecting point.

b. Ask questions to find out their interests, their suffering and what they’re looking for.

c. Consciously watch them - their eyes, mouth, chin - but mainly their eyes. Look for:
A hook to connect with
• A sense of goodness to identify with, something tangible
• An understanding of who they are, in terms of their story.

d. Get a sense of the connection:  
• It’s a gut feeling – nice and warm and moving.
• Like an unborn child bringing new life into the world, giving birth to a better relationship.
• The conscious understanding of the message comes later.

e. Connect that feeling with what your hearing

f. Put love out and see if there is a matching response

3. Meet at second level

From that connecting point, that sense –
nurture the relationship. 

Support it and give to it.
This can go on for quite a while.

Building an appreciation of my story and the relationship, and an openness, honesty, transparency.
What’s been said is congruent with what I’m feeling. 
Mostly it’s when my sense of that feeling deepens.

4. Meet at third level

A deep meeting.
Now I can explore what we can do together that’s beneficial (for others, for peace)
– the means and resources we have.

5. What is needed to do this?

In conflict the heart gets “pulled within”
           [hardened, defended, cold, frightened]   

Connect with your vulnerability.
Be seen to be soft.

Make both a  conscious and an emotional decision.
Ask yourself: 
        • How much do I want to do this with this person? 
        • How necessary is it? 

There is a desire for love to be out there.

Open your heart. Let love out.

There is nothing to fear from love or expressing love. 

I know my love will not generate violence – Absolutely.

It’s like controlling a kind of tap that can release a valve more or less.


6. At the same time ...

Assess risks – amount of possible pain.
Limit possible damage.
Take into account my [and other’s] safety.

I wouldn’t put love out there even if there’s a desire to, but the head is saying 'hold back the heart'.

I haven’t always been right.

Appreciate where emotions have taken you before.
Have a healthy respect that emotions can lead to conflict.

If you don’t find anything to connect with or don’t get that good feeling at the first level
    • Don’t dismiss the relationship
    • Ask more questions to find out their interests 
    • Find what they’re looking for.
    • Find something to connect with in the stories about them others tell

    • Find something to like about them.
    • Then re-connect and explore again. 
It’s a question of time.

If a relationship becomes damaged:
   • Feel very disappointed and sad. 
   • But never to a point of anger. 
   • Explore why that happened. 
   • What can I do to get that relationship back on a sound footing
   • Work towards that. 
Then I feel better.
      I get peace of mind out of that.


James LawleyJames Lawley offers psychotherapiy to individuals and couples, and coaching, research and consultancy to organisations. He is a co-developer of Symbolic Modelling and co-author (with Penny Tompkins) of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, (with Marian Way) Insights in Space: How to use Clean Space to solve problems, generate ideas and spark creativity and an Online training in Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling. For a more detailed biography see about us and his blog.


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