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Jubilee Clip

The following extract from a 4,000 word transcript illustrates how Symbolic Modelling works in practice. The client's is a senior manager in a multi-national company. His outcome is, "Confidence in my own abilities." His presenting problem is, "I got to senior level by accident and I now feel vulnerable." We pick up the conversations half-way through the first session:


(C = client, T = therapist)


C: ... An adult feeling of vulnerability.


The client's conceptual description of the problem.

T: And an adult feeling of vulnerability. And is there anything else about that feeling of vulnerability?


Therapist repeats client's words exactly to honour the experience. And asks for attributes of vulnerability.

C: Rapid, shallow breathing, and a tightness.


Client gives a sensory description.

T: And when rapid, shallow breathing, and a tightness, where could that tightness be?


Therapist asks for location (relative address) of the symptoms.

C: In the chest. In the upper chest.


T: And in the chest, in the upper chest. And when tightness in the upper chest, that's tightness like what?


Therapist asks for a metaphorical description.

C: [Client grasps left forefinger with right hand] ... It's like a finger is grabbed and pressure is applied. ... I have a picture ... It's of a jubilee clip tightening around a hose.


Now we have 2 symbols - a clip and a hose - and a relationship between them - tightening.

T: And a jubilee clip tightening around a hose. And where does that tightening around hose come from?


Asks for source of tightening.

C: A screwdriver.


Symbol number 3.

T: And a screwdriver. And what kind of screwdriver is that screwdriver which is tightening jubilee clip?


Asks for attributes of the symbol.

C: Flat-bladed with a yellow plastic handle.


Note the detail, a clue to the importance of this symbol.

T: And flat-bladed with a yellow plastic handle screwdriver. And what would screwdriver like to do?


Asks for desired outcome of the symbol.

C: Undo it. ...


T: And undo it. And can screwdriver undo jubilee clip?


Testing power of symbol to achieve its outcome.

C: No. There's a conflict.


The first description of a 'relational bind' which hold the unwanted pattern in place.

T: And there's a conflict. And what kind of conflict could that conflict be when screwdriver wants to undo jubilee clip?


Asking for attributes of the relationship.

C: There's a fear about undoing the clip ... There's an unknown risk.


The limiting (homeostatic) pattern begins to emerge. This is not just any risk, this is an 'unknown risk' which is producing a fear which is preventing the clip from being undone.

This small sample of the transcript demonstrates the value of Clean Language and how much quality information emerges in just a few questions. As a result the client was able to describe something that has limited him for over 30 years. What's more, this piece of his jigsaw has dramatically come to life. The conclusion of this session is discussed below.

Pattern of Organisation

Once the patterns between and across symbols have emerged, the overall pattern of organisation of the relationships can be discovered and then described symbolically. This is necessary because, according to Fritjof Capra:

    Patterns cannot be measured or weighed; they must be mapped. To understand a pattern, we must first map a configuration of relationships. (ref. 18, page 81)

In other words, there must be a context within which the pattern of organisation can emerge: a Metaphoric Landscape. For many of us, our patterns of organisation are so core and so familiar that they seem to be who we are!

Examples of unproductive (maladaptive) patterns of organisation we have modelled include:

  • Paradox
  • Dilemmas
  • Balancing Conflicts
  • Permanent Incongruities
  • Double Binds
  • Circularities
  • Irrevocable Decisions
  • Predestined Consequences

You will notice that these are all conceptual descriptions which are, by definition, unsolvable. However, once 'problematic' patterns are represented symbolically they become amenable to resolution and evolution.

In summary, Symbolic Modelling uses Clean Language to identify three levels: Components, Relationships and Organisation. These are depicted in Figure 2 below and are defined as:

    Components are the symbolic elements within the Metaphoric Landscape. They are the embodiment of the pattern of organisation resulting from the structural, process and functional relationships.

    Relationships (among the symbols of the Metaphoric Landscape) determine the system's Structure (form), Process (activity over time) and Function (attributes) that sustain and evolve the system.

    Pattern of Organisation is the overall configuration of relationships (among the symbols of the Metaphoric Landscape) that determines the system's essential characteristics - the pattern of the patterns.






    Relative Location



    Repeating Sequences



    Recurring Motifs


Figure 2

(Modified from 'The Web of Life' by Fritjof Capra)

Let's take an example of the various levels of symbol for the client in the transcript above. The Symbolic components which originally comprised the client's Metaphoric Landscape were: a boy, the look from his mother, an exam, a jubilee clip, a hose pipe and a screwdriver.

The key relationships for the client are: (a) the influence of the mother's look on the boy when she found out he had failed his 11 plus exam; (b) the tightening of a jubilee clip around a hose by a screwdriver and (c) running round a track trying to overtake his ideal self - twice. Conceptually these patterns were described as 'vulnerability,' 'helplessness' and 'no-win,' respectively.

The symbol that emerges to represent the overall pattern of organisation is climbing a mountain that gets higher the more it is climbed. This metaphor operates at a meta-level and encapsulates the other three patterns. In addition to these (apparently) unproductive patterns the client's Metaphoric Landscape also contained resource symbols; such as the Master from the TV programme Kung Fu and his red, mature heart.

When the pattern of organisation emerged the resource symbols in the Metaphoric Landscape could play their role. The end result was that this client realised: "For the last few years I've been asking myself, 'Am I doing what I want to do or is it time to look for something new?' But I kept getting blanks. Now I know what my mission is. ... Helping others to undo their jubilee clips!"

This was a sacred moment. As so often happens, through the process of overcoming his own habitual responses he had found a way to serve others.

Other Applications

As well as applying Symbolic Modelling in a therapeutic context, we know of several people who are using it elsewhere. For example, it is being used in education by Caitlin Walker to help children identify their unproductive and productive learning strategies so they can transfer from one to the other.

Ana Robles uses student-generated metaphors in the teaching of English as a second language in five ways:

    As a powerful tool to facilitate change; to link second language words with their inner representations; to glimpse into my student's attitudes without their feeling threatened; to have fun; and to practise the four basic skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening). (ref. 20)

Rapport Issue 37 includes an article by Simon Stanton explaining how he has tailored Symbolic Modelling to help people learn new computer skills (ref. 21).

Also in business, we use this approach extensively with our Executive Coaching clients. They are quick to make connections between their developing symbols and how they are responding to situations at work. One client who was on a final warning for his poor sales performance said "it is like I am operating with the hand brake on." Once he had safely released the brake and developed his Metaphoric Landscape, within 6 months he became the second highest performing salesperson in the company.

We taught the rudiments of Symbolic Modelling to a group of nurses who specialise in treating patients with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). They found it difficult to relate to patients who used "weird ways of describing their symptoms." For example, one nurse said, "What do you do when a patient says their MS feels like 'cheese wire wrapped around my legs' or 'it's like ants running all over my body'?" Using the Clean Language of David Grove they were able to build rapport, better relate to their patient's symptoms and in so doing reassure the patients they were not going mad.

We also know of a medical practitioner who, when she has a spare 10 or 15 minutes with a patient, uses this approach to get a clearer description of their symptoms and explore how the patient perceives the process of healing.

Generative Modelling

We have had the privilege of working with clients who do not want to 'solve problems'; instead they want to 'find a purpose in my life' or 'have a clearer sense of my direction' or 'feel more connected with my higher self.' These clients are not requesting remedial therapy, rather personal and spiritual development. In other words, they require a generative approach. Supporting clients to tap into their symbolic world is ideal for exploring and bringing into consciousness these ephemeral and yet vital parts of their experience. There they can uncover symbolic answers, questions, pointers, or whatever they need to discover. As James Hillman says in his latest book, The Soul's Code:

    What is lost in so many lives, and what must be recovered: [is] a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive. (ref. 22, page 4)


In this article we have briefly described the NLP modelling process and shown how modelling client-generated metaphors enriches the methods traditionally used to encode excellence.

It is our belief that some human processes are either so complex or so core that everyday behaviour, words and concepts are insufficient descriptors. Thus the human mindbody has evolved the ability to process information in metaphor and symbol. This is not just another way of representing our experience, it is a fundamentally different way of making sense of the world.

Our perception of this sense-making is coded in symbolic representations which are a way of embodying abstract meaning. They give life to something that does not exist at the physical level of reality but only in the mindbody of their creator. In other words, they allow us to give emergent properties form.

Certain aspects of our subjective experience seem best suited to metaphoric and symbolic expression. To bring this type of experience to consciousness requires a method which is compatible with the nature of metaphor. This article was written as a step towards establishing such a methodology.


1 - "An Interview with Dr. John Grinder" in NLP World (Vol. 4 No 1, March 1997)

2 - Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, "Less is More: The Art of Clean Language" in Rapport (Issue 35, Autumn 1996)

3 - Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, "Meta, Milton and Metaphor: Models of Subject Experience" in Rapport (Issue 36, Summer 1997)

4 - Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic Volume I (1975)

5 - Richard Bandler and John Grinder, Patterns of Milton H. Erickson Volume 1 (1975)

6 - John Grinder and Richard Bandler, The Structure of Magic Volume II (1976)

7 - Virginia Satir, John Grinder and Richard Bandler Changing With Families (1976)

8 - John Grinder, Judith DeLozier and Richard Bandler, Patterns of Milton H. Erickson Volume 2 (1977)

9 - Richard Bandler, John Grinder, Robert Dilts & Judith DeLozier, NLP Volume 1 (1980)

10 - Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour, Introducing NLP (1990)

11 - Robert Dilts, Strategies of Genius Volumes I, II and III (1994/1995)

12 - Judith DeLozier, "Mastery, New Coding and Systemic NLP" in NLP World (Vol. 2 No 1, March 1995)

13 - Judith DeLozier and John Grinder, Turtles All The Way Down (1987)

14 - Robert Dilts, "Darwin's Thinking Path" in Anchor Point (Vol. 10 No. 11, Nov. 1996)

15 - Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols (1964)

16 - "And What Kind of a Man is David Grove?" in Rapport (Issue 33 Autumn 1996)

17 - Karl Pribram, "From Metaphors to Models" in Metaphors in the History of Psychology, edited by David Leary (1990)

18 - Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (1996)

19 - Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams Reflections (1983)

20 - Ana Robles, "Metaphors in the Traditional Classroom" in SEAL Journal, Winter 1997/98

21 - Simon Stanton, "Using Metaphors in IT Training" in Rapport (Issue 37 Autumn 1997)

22 - James Hillman, The Soul's Code (1996)

© 1997, Penny Tompkins & James Lawley

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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