First published in Rapport, journal of The Association for NLP (UK), Issue 49, Autumn
Resolving Problem Patterns
with clean language and autogenic metaphor
Part I of a two-part paper
"How can client patterns be discerned,
decoded and the information within them be
released?" (David Grove) 1
Psychotherapy has a history of imposing external patterns (the
therapist's) on internal experience (the client's). Is it any wonder
that people in psychoanalysis take so long to learn not to need
analysis, that analysts call clients 'patient', or that individuals
relapse? One of the considerable benefits to the client of working
with clean language and autogenic (self-generated) metaphor is that
complex patterns can be codified into relatively simple
configurations which can be explored by the client with minimal
interference by the therapist. A problem pattern can be more
efficiently discerned, more easily decoded, and more effectively
"Compare 'I'm so depressed I don't know what to
do' with its metaphorical equivalent 'It's like I'm on a
roller-coaster'. A roller-coaster can stop and the passengers can
get off, or the track can level out and become a railway going
somewhere. There are a multitude of options available in the metaphor
that are unavailable in the conceptual word 'depressed'."
(Penny Tompkins and James Lawley) 2
My purpose in this two-part paper is to help you identify and
experience patterns and to consider ways of facilitating clients to
discern, decode and resolve them through clean language and autogenic
metaphor. Clean language is a minimalist intervention
methodology which allows the client to self-model (make sense of)
their internal metaphor landscape. Autogenic metaphor is
client-generated information untainted by any hint of therapist
suggestion or interpretation. 3
Part I asks:
1. What is a pattern?
2. How can patterns be discerned?
Part II will ask:
3. How can patterns be decoded?
4. What happens when the information within a pattern is
In Part II, I shall propose that our traditional ways of
attempting to resolve problem patterns -- from outside or alongside
the pattern -- are redundant, and in their place offer a more
complete method of exploring and resolving them: from within the
Note This paper has a bias towards psychotherapy,
but the art of clean language and symbolic modelling applies
to any area of human facilitation - education,
communication, training, consultancy - so you might allow
the therapist-client paradigm to act as a metaphor for
consultant-client or teacher-pupil or whatever you wish.
1. WHAT IS A PATTERN?
When people get stuck they get stuck in a repetitive pattern of
behaviour, beliefs or mind-games over which they feel they have
little or no control.
Colin is a neat, quiet, 40-something manager. He sits
carefully, hands folded, smiles. Well, I'm interpreting his tight
little, minimal, almost painful stretching of the lips as a smile,
but I could be wrong. "I've been going round in circles for
years," he says.
This is a pattern in space, time and form.
have been [time]
going round [space and form]
in circles [form]
for years [time].
Figure 1 A metaphor in space, time and
Of course Colin may not care very much about whether his pattern
is in space, time, form or Camembert cheese. All he knows is that
he's confused and needs help. As a therapist the more I know about
patterns the better I'll be able to help people like Colin understand
themselves and become more the people they want to be.
Space, time and form
Have been around since they were created in the 'big bang' about
15 billion years ago, so it's time we got to know them better. They
are the media in which all patterns manifest. A pattern may appear in
space, time or form or in a combination of all three. A pattern of
catching the 41 bus every morning at 8.30am from the stop at the end
of the road would have the form of a 41 bus, the spatial location of
the end of the road and a time element of every morning at 8.30. If
that happened to be a client's self-generated metaphor for a problem
pattern, there's likely to be vital information in every part of it:
the numerals, the colour of the bus, the distance to the end of the
road, what happened just before 8.30am, etc. The components of the
metaphor would not have been randomly chosen by the client. Each item
is likely to carry symbolic significance to the client's
psychopathology, and to hold the clues for resolving it.
Not all patterns will be as clearly defined as Colin's. What
patterns are you aware of as you read this? The regularity of the
margins on the page (a spatial pattern)? The consistent use of Times
New Roman as the printing font (a pattern of form)? Or if your
sensory acuity is particularly sharp today have you noticed a pattern
of three, soon to be four, sentences ending in question-marks (a
pattern over time)?
What distinguishes a pattern from non-pattern, or randomness, or
just something else?
Is the figure '|' (vertical line) a pattern? It depends on
the context. In a client's metaphor landscape, | could
symbolise I/me -- or one, a nose, a post, a longitude, the cosmic
axis, something that joins above and below, a division between left
and right. A single symbol can represent a multitude of possible
configurations of space, time and form. Thus one thing can stand
for something else.
Can ' ___ ' (horizontal line) be a pattern? It may
symbolise the ground in a client's metaphor, or a mouth, horizon, the
equator, a negative, the concept of separation, subtraction, etc. A
symbol can stand for many things.
Could + (a combination of | and ___ ) be a pattern?
It may symbolise addition, resource, a crossroads, harmony, coming
together, quadrants, etc. (See the three quadrants in figure 2.)
The direction quadrant represents a way of orienting
ourselves in relation to anywhere on earth. The information quadrant represents every source of information about a client. 4 The mind function quadrant
represents all our conscious and unconscious awareness. Thus one
thing can stand for the whole of experience.
What distinguishes pattern from non-pattern is organisational
coherence and continuity. Is it any wonder that even when people are
desperate for change they keep on repeating the same old patterns for
years? Coherence and continuity are powerful anchors.
One traditional definition of pattern is 'A configuration or
grouping of parts or elements with a coherent structure' 5.
The word 'configuration' means both 'outline' and
'arrangement'. An outline is an economic representation of the
fullness of what it configures. An arrangement refers to two or more
things in relationship. A pattern may be either or both. Fritjof
Capra called pattern 'A configuration of ordered
relationships', but I reckon a configuration is an ordered
relationship. Nice word, configuration. We'll keep it.
The words 'parts' and 'elements', however, we can do
without. One part or element may represent many more, as we have
1 + 1 = 2 or more
Thus a single symbol in a client's metaphor may be a
component in a pattern, or a pattern in itself. The concept
of 'parts or elements' is subsumed in 'configuration'. So we
can simplify our definition to 'A configuration with a
However just as a building is made up of many components,
a 'structure' is by definition constructed of more than one
part. 'Configuration with structure' is tautological. Lose
'structure'. That leaves us with 'A configuration with
You could argue that the word 'coherence' ('a
natural or reasonable connection') is pretty meaningless in
the context of what we already know about a configuration,
but what the heck, let's keep it for emphasis. 'A
configuration with coherence'.
Is something missing? As something more than a one-off
event, a pattern requires a configuration to repeat, as we
shall see later. Repetition takes place in space (as in a
wallpaper pattern) or through time. Time, whether over
milliseconds or millennia, supposes some kind of continuity.
So we end up with 'A configuration with coherence and
continuity' (figure 3).
Figure 3: Defining pattern
And because continuity supposes some kind of predictability, the
word 'pattern' becomes a metaphor for a more or less predictably
repeating relationship of two or more things representing more than
2. HOW CAN PATTERNS BE DISCERNED?
Whatever your philosophical stance on the existence of things, in
a pragmatic sense we cannot do much about problem patterns until we
notice they exist. How can we train clients to recognise patterns to
their unwanted behaviours and beliefs without the need to keep
repeating them? How can we train ourselves to facilitate that process
without falling into the interpretation trap?
One kind of discernment
What do you see here? Two profiles? A pair of
worms? The outline of a vase or balustrade? Actually they're
squiggles. You've never seen these particular squiggles
before but you interpret them the way you do because the
shapes they make, or something like them, are already in the
brain. Which is why you recognize them. Literally
re-cognize. Know them again. You are re-mind-ed.
Were you able to see two people kissing a vase perfectly
formed to their faces? Or two people head-butting a balloon? Less
easily, I'll warrant, because it's unlikely you had those images
already in the brain. Until now. The chances are that in future
you'll recognize two people head-butting a balloon with ease.
Seeing ... and discerning ... are entirely
Our minds discern a great deal more than our
eyes see because of
the common associations our brains make.
Associative patterning is a dangerous game for the therapist. As
the brain connects two ideas it reinforces the neural pathways
between them, which increases our chances of detecting the 'same' --
actually no more than a similar -- pattern in the future. There are
sound evolutionary reasons for this. Sabre-toothed tiger (idea #1) +
tiger jumps on friend (idea #2) = dead friend (bad pattern). Lesson
for survival: avoid sabre-toothed tigers.
The more insecure we feel about not knowing what is happening to
our clients, the more likely we are to interpret what we see or hear.
Nescient anxiety syndrome, or fear of 'not knowing', can result in
the familiar pattern of a therapist jumping well ahead of client
reality: making inferences ... peddling (undue) influence ... and
affecting outcome. As James Lawley says, "There's a fine line
between logical inference and self-fulfilling prophecy."
Filling in from what? From other patterns. What other
patterns? Your pre-existing patterns as a perceiver. 'Perception'
comes from the Latin percipere,
'to receive'. Each of the 100
million receptor cells of the retina receives a patch of dark or
light, a colour or a certain configuration of line. Transmits these
undifferentiated along the optic nerve to the brain. The brain
receives this astonishing multiplicity. Selects. Forms patterns.
Compares them to patterns already present in the brain. And makes
personal meaning. The brain can't help it -- that's what it has
evolved to do. However 'objective' we try to be. A similar thing
happens in the way we listen to language: multiplicity of auditory
inputs filtered through mental processes of generalisation, deletion
and distortion. We hear what we have been subjectively programmed to
Another kind of discernment
Clean language saves us from ourselves. It objectifies client
information by separating therapists from internal patterns,
prejudices, archetypes and stereotypes developed over years of
accumulated wisdom and foolishness.
Colin has brought his circles to therapy because he
feels confused. He knows little or nothing about the configuration of
his confusion, so he's in a vulnerable place. He may want to hear
what I think about his problems, and it would be easy to tell him
they're the effect of this and that and send him away happy -- for a
while at least, until the next stressful event -- death in the
family, falls off his bicycle -- when the same old pattern recurs.
What Colin really wants is for the pattern to change. And this
is the kind of resolution that can only come from within.
Autogenic (self-generated) metaphor therapy optimises the
potential for ingenerate (internally-generated) change by identifying
with the pattern and working within it rather than from outside or
alongside it (more on this in Part II).
In early sessions of the autogenic process new
information begins to surface as a result of clean language
questioning and self-modelling, and Colin starts to become aware of:
- coherence ("This is the perfect circle, isn't it?")
- continuity ("I guess this is another of those circles")
- connection ("This is related to my running round like a
- consequence ("Once I'm on one of these I can't seem to stop")
- difference ("I've never seen these circles this way before")
and a dozen other associations and relationships. 6
During this process the client may find themselves exploring a
landscape that has been inaccessible to consciousness until this very
moment. They may have no words to express the essence of new
information, or words that are 'not-quite-right'. There is a danger
of therapist and client dismissing implicit patterns -- those that
cannot be described cognitively or conveniently. Therapist stay
alert. You are on permanent watch.
Meanwhile what do the patterns around you -- the flower motif on
your net curtains, the number of cups of coffee you consume in a
week, that song on the radio that is more than a sequence of notes --
have in common that make them conspicuous? Repetition. How many
events do there have to be before you are aware of repetition?
I've been going round and round in circles for years.
Most people would agree that a pattern would be indicated if an
event had occurred or been reported three times (round, round,
circles). Note that the form of the pattern (round ..
circles .. carousel .. reel .. wheel .. spiral, etc) may not be
exactly the same with each repetition. Both conscious and unconscious
are signalling the pattern, and they'll do it any way they wish.
A pattern may become apparent at the third event. But what about
two events -- the original plus one -- inferring a third? If I notice
someone walking by, and I see them just long enough to register they
have taken two paces before I look away, I can readily imagine the
third step. If I hear two notes on the piano I can hypothesize a
third that would produce a certain melody.
I've been going round and round ...
How many events are necessary for repetition? Actually only two.
The original plus one. In music, 'repetition' is a passage performed
a second time. Which leads us to the intriguing question, can
patterns come in ones?
I've been going round and ...
We have already seen how even the simplest of symbol-patterns may
contain a great deal indeed. A single configuration may carry the
whole history of a client's psychopathology. The Greeks had a word
Figure 4: Metaphor: the Greeks had a word for it.
Meta = change + phora = carry; thus metaphor = transfer, or container, or carry across.
Metaphor work takes place at the boundary between the conscious
and unconscious minds. Client metaphors originate in the unconscious
and become manifest -- verbally or nonverbally characterised -- in
consciousness. This enables therapist and client to work directly at
the place where conscious awareness connects to original source. The
same place where the process of unconscious change and transformation
will become recognised, specified, felt and reinforced.
Whether the pattern is obvious or inferred, conspicuous or deeply
disguised, common or complex, client-generated metaphor transfers
information about pattern from the unconsious to the threshold of
conscious awareness, where its characteristics can be more easily
I'm hopelessly confused.
And you're hopelessly confused. And when you're
hopelessly confused, that's hopelessly confused like
Like I'm going round in circles.
And like you're going round in circles. And when going
round in circles, how many circles?
Eh? Well, about three. One like a massive traffic jam
on the M25, a smaller one that's a dirty-looking pond and
the third is a helicopter in ever-decreasing circles running
out of fuel.
In two clean language questions the client has gone from
hopelessly confused to a situation which on the face of it still
looks pretty hopeless but has latent resources for resolving the
confusion: a traffic jam can clear and the traffic run smoothly; a
pond may have hidden depths; a helicopter can be refuelled and flown
up to provide an overview. Almost all problematic patterns contain
the nucleus of their own resolution. It all depends on how the
pattern is perceived.
A great deal of what is interesting about patterns
revolves round our perception of patterns. All pattern
requires a perceiver, and all perception involves
patterning. Even in the case of the simplest possible visual
stimulus, a single point of light (represented opposite as a
spot on the page), there is a pattern in that the perceiver
distinguishes the point of light from the lack-of-light or
less-light surrounding it.
Place your attention on the spot. You may see it as
having form or structure and appearing to be in front of the
ground. The ground can be seen as relatively homogenous and
extending behind the spot. But what precisely is the
'pattern' this creates? Does it have to repeat before it
. . .
What if on closer inspection the spot becomes a pattern
Or if it repeats oddly?
You might say to your client,"I notice that the second black
spot is slightly higher than the other two which are almost on the
same level," and congratulate yourself on your objectivity. Well,
think again. If I were your client I might respond, 'Actually for me
one of those spots represents the world in space, another a village
on a map, and the third the concept that every apparently single
entity is made up of many parts, and I'm seeing each of these from
three distinct perceptual positions, not from one as you seem to be,
but now that you have drawn my attention to your perception, I find
myself thinking you could be right, I'm not the expert, I must have
got my perception wrong in some way and now I'm even more confused'.
And let's say you made no observation at all, but simply drew my
attention to this spot .. .
And is there anything else about .. [that or gesture to the page] ..?
Yes. It contains several more circles.
... would I be any wiser about my pattern? I might. I might not. A
pattern will be present in my 'here and now' narrative, but won't
necessarily be self-evident, however much you as therapist focus on
what I say.
Pattern may be discerned in three inter-related ways:
by focusing on the foreground,
bringing up the background, or
following indirect indicators.
As therapists we are constantly making choices about where to
direct the client's attention. We have no shortage of possibility.
Every client presents an abundance, a profusion, a wealth of
foreground, background and indirect information.
In the foreground is 'here and now' information (see the narrative
quarter of the information quadrant earlier): the client's first
words on the phone, their body language on meeting, their way of
entering the room, choice of where to sit, how they arrange
themselves, their first words in the session, the gestures they use
as they speak. In some way the client is already manifesting the
problem that brings them to therapy. They cannot not. The pattern is
Clean language makes the most of this obvious -- and often
unrecognised -- fact by requiring the therapist to address a
substantive verbal or nonverbal item presented by the client rather
than one arising from the therapist's own speculation, assumption or
colouring of the item ("I notice you seem agitated" etc).
I'm going round in circles.
[Has no idea what the client is talking about]
And you're going round in circles. And when you're
going round in circles, [decides to go for the obvious] what kind of circles are those circles?
I keep on making the same mistakes.
The client has responded conceptually. The obvious clean
foreground question now would be What kind of mistakes? but
this might provoke an outpouring of content, a recital of all the
mistakes he ever made, rather than holding him in process. Another
clean question would be Is there anything else about that 'keep on
making the same mistakes'? However in this case:
Keep on making the same mistakes like what?
[Inviting the metaphor to return]
Like sowing seeds in the same barren ground.
[Client accepts the invitation]
Foreground choices are now between the symbolic 'sowing', 'seeds'
and 'barren ground' -- which have more fruitful possibilities.
Perhaps the most revealing of all foreground figures are a
client's first words, in the sense that every word -- every inflexion
-- every space between words -- is a metaphor in itself, a container
for much more than any word or space can express on first appearance.
How can you help your client discern the underlying pattern that
gives coherence and continuity to this assortment of mini-metaphors?
How can you help your client discover more depth to these
two-dimensional figures? 7
By continuing to focus on the foreground until more components of
the pattern emerge, or by bringing up the background. There are two
meanings to 'background' we shall work with here -- one spatial and
structural (as in the background setting to foreground components of
the metaphor landscape), and the other temporal or sequential (as in
the background history of the client or a background continuity to
And when sowing seeds in the same barren ground,
where could that barren ground come from?
From vicious circles of deprivation.
Background information becomes available to the client from
biographical and genealogical sources -- memories of life events;
family, cultural and environmental history; feelings stored in the
body; beliefs, values and such (see the information quadrant
Colin now has a sequence that connects his original
'going round in circles' (foreground) via 'sowing seeds in barren
ground' (foreground shading into background) to 'vicious circles of
deprivation' (background). Is there more to this sequence?
And where could those vicious circles of deprivation come
Depending on your preferred model of therapy you might believe
they came from lines of negative energy or from being kidnapped by
aliens in a flying saucer. In fact:
They come from my stomach. From a reel of cotton wound
[Has no idea what this may 'mean']
And from your stomach, from a reel of cotton wound
in knots. And when reel of cotton wound in knots [decides to invite the client to move time further back
still] what happened just before wound in knots?
Everything was going smoothly.
The implication is that something happened that ended in reel
being wound in knots rather than everything going smoothly.
Questioning the background provenance of the circles happened to
bring up the knots, a classic container for client trauma, and
established a sequence to the pattern. 8
And everything was going smoothly. [Draws client's
attention to the sequence so far] And when going
smoothly, and then reel of cotton wound in knots [decides to invite client to move time forward, drawing
attention to the further development of the sequence], then what happened?
I felt confused.
This may seem like hauling the client back to where he began --
going round in circles confused -- but is wholly congruent with the
pattern. Colin's strategy for producing confusion is now more
available to him, and he has new information about how confusion
Notice that we have no sense yet of the client decoding the
pattern (see Part II), only of beginning to discern it from a sense
of the relationship between its various components.
Relationship between foreground and background
And when going smoothly, and then reel of cotton wound
in knots, and then confused .. [Lots of therapist choice
here, decides to go for a connection question] .. what is
the relationship between going smoothly [background
stuff] and going round in circles [original
I'm not sure. It's to do with whoever is winding the
Place your attention on the space around the spot -- the
background to the foreground figure. Notice how the boundary between
spot and background that formerly belonged to the spot now belongs to
spot and background in relationship. The figure-ground gives form and
shape to the figure, and vice versa.
Is this a piece of the jigsaw or a gap waiting to be
filled? If you're searching for a missing piece to the
puzzle, the gap in the puzzle will have a pattern that
corresponds to the missing piece. The gap creates a
relationship to the piece, just as the piece creates a
relationship to the gap. What is there relates to what is
not there, and vice versa.
All pattern is an arrangement of relationships between
relationships. It's like darning a sock," says my colleague
Frances Prestidge."You have the edge of the hole, you bring
threads across the hole, and they relate to each other to complete
the w/hole." The pattern of the darn exists by dint of an
arrangement between foreground threads, background sock and the hole
that connects them.
Ok, so you've focussed on the visible-audible foreground, brought
up the barely-observable faintly-heard background, and explored the
relationship between them, but the configuration of the pattern is
not yet discernable and the client is still confused. What might you
David Grove teaches the concept of 'tacit knowledge' -- knowledge
we don't know we know until we know it. When the information 'pops
up' into consciousness. How can we recognise these pointers to
unconscious patterns? They are often obscure, but the signs can be
learnt. Here are four kinds to look for:
- inconsequentials -- items of easy-to-miss information
- incongruities -- mismatches between information components
- phonetic ambiguities -- words or sounds with more than one
- nonverbal indicators -- gestures, sounds etc.
Items of easy-to-miss information. It may take a client some
time to trust the therapist, the therapy or their own unconscious
process. Client and therapist may be inclined to dismiss a
fragment that appears during questioning if it's unfamiliar,
doesn't make sense or seems to come from nowhere. This is
especially likely if the client doesn't have the words, or the
words are not quite right, to describe the information.
Oh, it's nothing ... some sort of ... I dunno
... a kind of circle.
[Persists] And it's nothing, some sort of, you
dunno, a kind of circle. And when a kind of circle, is
there anything else about that kind of circle?
That's funny, I got a flash of a roundabout.
Where did that come from?
(Pause)Well, anyway ... what was the
And a flash of a roundabout. And when a flash of
a roundabout, what kind of flash could that flash
This is silly. I had a flash of a children's
roundabout when I was about three. What's that got to
do with anything? (Pause) I was scared.
Mismatches between information components. In 1905 Percival
Lowell studied the movement of Uranus and Neptune round the sun
and detected a slight inconsistency in their orbits which he
predicted was due to the presence of another planet that the
telescopes of the day couldn't see. In 1930 his prediction came
true when Pluto was discovered.
It's a roundabout that goes all over the place
and I can't get off.
Is there something here that's inconsistent, incongruous or
illogical? Well, roundabouts normally stay in one place. And if
you wait long enough they generally stop, which would enable you
to get off -- unless something was preventing you.
We know that the unconscious can detect patterns before the
conscious mind is aware of them. 9
You might sense something unusual in a client's linguistic
construction that you can't quite put your finger on but feel
moved to explore further.
And when it's a roundabout that goes 'all over
the place' ...
It's one that flies, of course!
Well, of course. A reminder that the metaphor landscape is not
subject to everyday rules of realism. Metaphors, like dreams, have
a logic of their own:
I'm going round (finger sketches in the
air) in circles.
And you're going round (reproduces
gesture) in circles. And when you're going round (gesture) in circles, what kind of (gesture) circles are those circles?
Oh. Warning signs of a main road ahead.
[Client has been sketching something more like
a triangle than a circle without realizing]
Gently drawing attention to an incongruity is at least a way of
clearing up ambiguity. At best it may lead to new information.
- Phonetic ambiguities
Ambiguous inflexions; and homophones, homonyms, homographs.
Homophones are words having the same sound but different
meanings or spellings.
The adjective "new" and the past tense "knew" are homophones of each other.
Homonyms are words having the same sound and spelling
but different meanings.
The noun "a bear" and the verb "to bear" are homonyms of each other.
Homographs are words having the same spelling, but
different meanings or pronunciations.
The noun "a record" and the verb "to
record" are homographs of each other.
These can all be nice little signals, and your antennae need to
be well-tuned to detect them. If your client utters the word "right" you might readily assume they mean 'correct' or
'privilege' rather than 'OK', 'not left', 'write' etc. If you
detect ambiguity, you have a choice: assume one meaning and hope
to be lucky (at the risk of guessing wrongly and distorting the
exchange); or design a clean language question that paradoxically
retains the ambiguity while freeing the client to make explicit
meaning if they wish.
And right. And when rite, what kind of write
could that wright be?
Of course the client may be using a pun, a double meaning or a
homophone because they can't stop themselves meaning two
conflicting things at once. And there may be a pattern in that!
(Mumbling) It's a round, er, circle ... [Is
client saying 'a rounder circle', 'around a circle' or
hesitating in the middle of 'a round circle'?]
And it's a-round-er circle. [Therapist slurs
the words to leave the possibilities open] And when
it's a-round-er circle, is there anything else about
that a-round-er circle?
It's rounder than the other circle, which is
[Ah, now we know -- it's 'a rounder circle']
And it's rounder than the other ...
(Speaking clearly) No, I said it surrounds the other circle, so I can't get
Inflexions are articulations or enunciations which
serve the linguistic function of differentiating meaning.
Inflexions are full of traps for the unwary. A North American "can't" may sound indistinguishable from 'can'. An Irish "those" can be mistaken for 'doze'. A client's "lighthouse keeper" may become a 'light housekeeper' in
the mind of a therapist whose personal patterns incline more to
tidying than tending beacons. The therapist hears one version
of the client's verbal configuration and completely misses the
signal pointing to a client pattern in the other. So stay
- Nonverbal indicators
May be very indirect, and almost impossible to separate from
verbal indicators. A gesture, an eye-shift, the angle of an elbow
or foot, may all be pointers (literally) to unconscious patterns.
There may be a tell-tale 'um' or 'ah' in the moment accompanying a
word. A hesitation in the middle of a phrase. Or a faint smile,
the raising of an eyebrow, a shrug, a slight widening of the eyes.
If the unconscious information these indicate has been long
obscured, or is deeply stored, it's unlikely to make itself known
with a flourish of trumpets. A therapist listening only for the
tune may miss a key note.
Try reading the next example out loud. The first time take a
momentary pause before 'not', the second time after 'not':
He was not surprisingly killed by the bullet.
A hesitation can make all the difference between life and
It takes acute sensitivity backed by a certain bloody-mindedness
on the part of the therapist to pick up on indirect indicators to
unconscious patterns and go with them. Here's Colin again, with a
couple of inconsequentials, a non-verbal and a phonetic ambiguity in
the space of three and a half seconds:
Oh! A sort of, well ... (twirls
finger) oh, I ... no ... it's nothing. Ask me another.
At this point most clients would expect you to follow the normal
rules of rapport and move on, but in autogenic metaphor our alliance
is as much to do with the information as it is with each other. Let's
take a moment to deconstruct this:
Oh! [surprise inconsequential --
did something just 'pop up'?]
A sort of, well ... ['not-quite-the-words' - new
(twirls finger) [non-verbal indicator -- what does this gesture
oh, I ... no ... [homophone of 'know' - what might he know
it's nothing [dismissive inconsequential - you can bet it's
In discerning pattern we can conclude that whether you focus on
the foreground, bring up the background or follow any one of a number
of indirect indicators, you need simply to concentrate on what is
there. There is the pattern. Obvious or not, convoluted or
not, the client cannot help but express it. And as long as you
stay true to clean language, the pattern cannot help but emerge.
There is, of course, another way of trying to discern pattern.
These circles remind me of trying to use a compass as
[Thinks aha, lost child trying to find its way in the
Yes, becoming independent of mother can be very
We've been interpreting client information since long before
Freud. How readily we translate it into patterns that relate to our
own -- "You'll see them as if painted in purple!" says Penny
Tompkins. If you have an unresolved issue around 'mother', say, you
may quickly pick up a client pattern around 'mother', but clean
language only gives you license to use the word 'mother' if your
client uses the word 'mother' themselves. Your own patterns around
'mother' may affect your choice of which client words to ask clean
questions of, and which clean questions to ask, but as long as you
keep your 'mother' out of the way of the client that's a darn sight
cleaner than introducing her.
And circles remind you of trying to use a compass as a
child ... [Therapist thinks of dysfunctional sense of
direction with client wandering around in metaphorical
circles not knowing which is North. Sticks to clean
language, however.] And when trying to use a compass as a
child, what kind of compass was that compass?
The sort you draw circles with. I stabbed myself with
the point and had to go into hospital.
Clean language may only reference information that the client
Clean language minimises the impact on the client of a therapist's
natural tendency to guess. It also relieves us as therapists of
responsibility for making 'meaning' of what we hear. Too often we're
tempted to solve the mystery before we're half-way through the book.
Who did it? Was it with the rope or the dagger? Which are the genuine
clues and which are the red herrings? (Enough metaphors already.
Clean questions are directed at client information, not directly
at the client. Our preferences as therapist -- a particular interest
in genealogy, say, or an eagerness to identify a client's resources
-- may influence the direction of our attention in favour of a
particular aspect of the client's metaphor landscape, but as long as
our language remains clean it will facilitate the client to discover
more about that aspect and its relation to the whole.
Who then is leading this pattern detection interaction -- client
or therapist? The client initiates the process with their first words (I'm going round in circles), and the therapist's first
response-question (And what would you like to have happen? or What kind of circles? or Is there anything else about going
round in circles?) reflects the initiative back to the client. A
synergetic sequence unfolds:
client initial information ----
therapist response-question ---- > [prompts]
client response-information ----> [informs] therapist
response-question ----> [prompts] ....
The question of who is leading whom does not arise. It is the
information manifested by the client which leads.
In Part I we have considered (1) what patterns are, and
have seen (2) how patterns can be discerned. We have discussed ways
in which working with clean language and autogenic metaphor minimises
therapist interference in the processing of client information and
facilitates the early stages of exploration of problem patterns.
In Part II we shall consider (3) how problem patterns once
detected can be DECODED. And (4) what happens when the information
contained in the pattern is RELEASED and RESOLVED.
© 2000 Philip Harland
Much of the inspiration for this paper can be credited to the
Metaphor and Clean Language Research Group. For the seminar on
'Pattern' this comprised Clive Bach, Philip Harland, James Lawley,
Frances Prestidge, Wendy Sullivan and Penny Tompkins.
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley continue to be a brilliant source
of innovative thought, support and reflection. You'll find their work
summarised in the definitive book on Grovian metaphor, symbolic
modelling and clean language, Metaphors in
For support and suggestions: Carol Thompson.
Notes to Part I
1 David Grove, Clean Language Practise Group November 1999.
2 Chapter 3, Metaphors in Mind (see Resources above).
3 You'll hopefully understand more about clean language and
autogenic metaphor after reading this paper, but if you'd like to
make a detailed study of its application to psychotherapy and other
kinds of modelling check out the www.cleanlanguage.co.uk website, read the book, or see articles by James Lawley, Penny
Tompkins, Philip Harland in recent back numbers of Rapport.
4 Information quadrant based on David Grove's work. Present
information about the client will generally be available in the
narrative and spatial quarters of the quadrant; past information in
biographical and genealogical quarters. We can exclude the
therapist's intuition or intellectualisation as reliable sources of
information about the client -- they may well be persuasive
indicators, but if they intrude into client patterns that's invalid
clean language practice. By the way, David imagines a gear lever at
the intersection of this quadrant, allowing the therapist to shift
into any one of four gears (information sources) with the possibility
of a return into neutral and thence into another gear. More on the
5 Definition of 'pattern' from Penguin Dictionary of
Psychology 1985/1995. A good source of general information,
though badly needs to update its entry on neurolinguistic
6 For a fuller analysis of pattern detecting and pattern
types (linear, circular, threshold, dialectical) see Chapter 7 of
Metaphors in Mind.
7 More on deconstructing a client's first words in Tompkins
and Lawley, Symbolic Modelling and the
Emergence of Background Knowledge, Rapport, Spring 1998,
and Philip Harland, The 'Mirror model' - A
Guide to Reflective Questioning. Rapport, Autum 1998. Both
articles on the cleanlanguage website.
8 Circles, sowing ... sewing circles? See Phonetic
Ambiguities in the Indirect Indicators section of this paper for how
to check out the potential significance of homophones (same sound,
different meanings) cleanly with a client. Notice also that the word
'wound' in 'wound in knots' is a homograph (same spelling, different
meanings), another potential indicator to unconscious pattern.
9 How the unconscious recognises and acts on certain
signals before the conscious mind becomes aware of them, if it ever
does: Joseph Ledoux, The Emotional Brain, Weidenfeld &
© 2000 Philip Harland