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First published in Rapport, the journal of The Association for NLP (UK), Issue 38, Winter 1997

Symbolic Modelling: An overview

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

"The inability to distinguish either behaviourally or cognitively the consequences and applications of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) from core NLP itself (modelling of excellence) is extremely commonplace."
John Grinder [ref. 1 page 41]

This article is about modelling: The process which gave birth to NLP back in the 1970's. In the first half of the article we describe some of the fundamentals of modelling including: the difference between three types of modelling (Sensory, Conceptual and Symbolic); and three methods of modelling (First, Second and Third Position modelling).

The second half focusses on the most recent addition to the modelling toolbox, Symbolic Modelling. We describe what it involves, how it is being used in a therapeutic setting and a range of other applications. The information presented is an extension of our articles on Grovian Metaphor in Rapport 35 and 36 (ref. 2-3).

Before NLP

The importance of modelling to NLP can be discerned from the books that were written by Richard Bandler and John Grinder before the label 'NLP' was invented to describe the processes they were discovering. The first five books they published were all the result of modelling world famous psychotherapists (ref. 4- 8).

Then, in 1980 came NLP Volume 1 written with the help of Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier (ref. 9). This was to be the first of a series of books on the modelling process itself. Volume 1 covered eliciting, designing, utilising and installing strategies. Unfortunately, Volume 2 never appeared. We find it intriguing that the last NLP book detailing the results from first-hand modelling of a single person was published in 1977 (ref. 8). Little wonder John Grinder has recently said:

    My hope at the time was that there would arise a group of committed men and women who would recognise the meta level tools which we had either discovered or created, and go out and identify and create new models of excellence to offer the world. This has not happened and is very disappointing to me. NLP is popularly represented and commonly practised at least one logical level below what it was clearly understood to be at the time by Bandler and me. (ref. 1 page 40)

What is Modelling?

So what is this thing called modelling? Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour define modelling as "The process of discerning the sequence of ideas and behaviour that enable someone to accomplish a task." (ref. 10, page 230) Robert Dilts has another definition, "The process of observing and mapping the successful behaviours of other people." (ref. 11 Vol. 1, page 312)

If we combine these two definitions we can conclude that modelling is a process, i.e.. it is something that happens over a period of time and, at the very least, involves:

    (a) Observing someone who is achieving something; and
    (b) Establishing a map or sequence (a model) of what they are doing.

While this might be the bare bones of modelling, there is a lot more to it. To start with, there is more than one type of modelling. Second, there are a number of stages to the modelling process and third, a variety of skills are required to perform each stage. Some of the essential aspects of modelling are described below, albeit briefly.

To make life interesting you may note the word 'model' can be used three ways. There is 'to model,' which is the process defined above and for which we shall use the word 'modelling.' There is 'a model' who is the person from whom the information is being elicited. And finally there is 'the model' which is the end result of the modelling process.

Sensory Modelling

John and Richard examined the micro-behavioural and linguistic patterns of Fritz Perls, Milton Erickson, Virginia Satir and others in the hope of being able to reproduce what these wizards could do. They elicited a range of patterns which were the basis for the amazing results obtained by these therapists. John and Richard tested their codification of their model's behaviour by using their newly acquired skills in real situations, and in so doing developed their ideas further. The results of these projects became known at the Meta Model, Representational Systems and the Milton Model.

Those modelled were later to remark that they were unaware of much of what John and Richard discovered they were doing! That is, they were unconsciously excellent. The next step for John and Richard was to develop these models so they could be passed on to others. Thus was devised the process for the ongoing dissemination of NLP.

The first five books were the result of studying people for observable behaviour patterns and the resulting models were descriptions of behaviour. For example, Richard and John suggested that people who learned to use the Meta Model would gain:

    1. A specific set of questioning techniques based on the client's verbal communications
    2. How the use of particular non-verbal techniques may be indicated by verbal cues.
    (ref. 4 page 4)

We categorise this form of modelling as Sensory Modelling as it seeks to reproduce behaviours and language patterns that are directly perceivable through seeing, hearing and feeling.

Conceptual Modelling

Compare John and Richard's approach to modelling with the one adopted by Robert Dilts to elicit the 'Strategies of Genius' of Aristotle, Sherlock Holmes, Walt Disney, Mozart, Einstein, Freud, da Vinci and Nikola Tesla. (ref. 11). What Robert identifies are mental strategies, in which:

    You are specifically looking for a mental map that was used by the individual whom you are modelling in order to orchestrate or organise his or her activities to accomplish an effective result. (ref. 11 Vol. 1, page xxiv).

This is patently different from Sensory Modelling and thus requires a different approach. His modelling project does not specify linguistic and non-verbal behaviours. Instead it is a set of 20 conceptual rules such as:

    1. Develop special states and strategies for access to unconscious processes
    2. Encourage the use of 'self-organising' processes
    3. Acquire familiarity with necessary information through self-managed learning.
    (ref. 11 Vol. 3, page 395 )

Robert's form of modelling can be called Conceptual Modelling because the written narratives he used as input are mostly conceptual descriptions and his output was almost entirely couched in conceptual terms. It is clear that Robert Dilts is operating at a different level to that of Bandler and Grinder's original work.

Another well-known conceptual model is that of the 'Presuppositions of NLP.' These are not a description of specific behaviours. They are principles and beliefs which guide behaviour. They were derived by implication rather than by direct observation. (ref 11)

Levels of Modelling

Dilts recognises that there are a number of different aspects or levels to modelling. He notes that:

    We can look at where and when the person operated, the environment. We can examine what the person did, their behaviour. We may also look at the intellectual and cognitive strategies of the individual, their capabilities. We could further explore the beliefs and values that motivated and shaped their thinking strategies. We could look more deeply to the individual's perception of the self or identity. We also might want to examine the way in which that identity manifested itself in relationship to the individual's personal, social and ultimately spiritual larger systems. (ref. 11 Vol. 1, page xxvi)

Thus Robert Dilts uses his 'Logical Levels of Experience' delineation to categorise various aspects of modelling. While we recognise and value the differences between the six levels, we believe it is instructive also to recognise the similarities of the pairings: Environment with Behaviour, Capabilities with Beliefs and Identity with Spiritual.

The first two levels form a pair because they are observable through the five human senses of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting; hence Sensory Modelling. The second two form a pair as they are mental processes which are perceivable only through inference and typically require conceptual descriptions; thus Conceptual Modelling. The final pair form a unity, as metaphor and symbol are the most common way of realising this experience; hence Symbolic Modelling.

Symbolic Modelling is a process for identifying how people represent their experience through metaphor and symbol. Before we explain more about this, let 's look at some of the fundamental skills required to enact the modelling process.

Figure 1 depicts the relationships between the Logical Levels, the types of modelling and some of the resultant models.

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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