Article from

First published in Rapport, journal of The Association for NLP (UK), Issue 49, Autumn 2000
Resolving Problem Patterns
with clean language and autogenic metaphor

Part I of a two-part paper

Philip Harland

"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 transformed.

"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 released?

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 pattern itself.

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.


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.

I [form]
have been [time]
going round [space and form]
in circles [form]
for years [time].

A metaphor in space, time and form

Figure 1 A metaphor in space, time and form

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)?

Distinguishing pattern

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.

Defining pattern

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 seen:

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 coherent structure'.

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 coherence'.

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
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 themselves.


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 distinguishable activities.
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 hear.

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 headless chicken")
  • 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.

Conspicuous patterns

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.

Inferred patterns

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 for it:

Meta = change + phora = carry; thus metaphor = transfer, or container, or carry across.

Figure 4: Metaphor: the Greeks had a word for it.


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 discerned.


I'm hopelessly confused.


And you're hopelessly confused. And when you're hopelessly confused, that's hopelessly confused like what?


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.

Perceiving pattern

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 exists?

. . .

What if on closer inspection the spot becomes a pattern in itself?

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 present.

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 events).

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 earlier).

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 from?

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 in knots.


[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 happens.

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 foreground]?


I'm not sure. It's to do with whoever is winding the knots.


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.

Indirect indicators

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 do now?

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 meaning
  • nonverbal indicators -- gestures, sounds etc.
  • Inconsequentials

    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 question?


      And a flash of a roundabout. And when a flash of a roundabout, what kind of flash could that flash be?


      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.

  • Incongruities

    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 more oval.
      [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 out! [Oh]

      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 tuned.

  • 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 death!

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 information?]

(twirls finger) [non-verbal indicator -- what does this gesture represent?]

oh, I ... no ... [homophone of 'know' - what might he know here?]

it's nothing [dismissive inconsequential - you can bet it's something].

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.

Talking dirty

There is, of course, another way of trying to discern pattern.


These circles remind me of trying to use a compass as a child.


[Thinks aha, lost child trying to find its way in the world]
Yes, becoming independent of mother can be very difficult.

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 actually presents.

Working cleanly

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. -- Ed.)

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 ---- > [informs] 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 Mind.


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 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 cleanlanguage website.

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 programming.

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 & Nicolson 1998.

© 2000 Philip Harland

First published in Rapport, journal of The Association for NLP (UK), Issue 50, Winter 2000

with clean language and autogenic metaphor
Part II of a two-part paper

Philip Harland

"How can client patterns be discerned, decoded and the information within them be released?"
David Grove1

"People do not seek help because they have a problem.
They go to a therapist because they realise that without intervention the repetitive nature of certain thoughts, feelings and behaviours will continue into the future. They notice there is a pattern in their life which they do not like and do not know how to change."
James Lawley and Penny Tompkins 2

There is a tremendous need in most of us for continuity and consistency. Even when our patterns are unproductive we'll go to a great deal of trouble, literally and metaphorically, to hang on to them. My purpose in the second part of this paper is to help you reflect on ways of facilitating clients to decode and release problem patterns. You will notice an emphasis on the use of clean language and autogenic metaphor.

Metaphor is a container for complex information from the unconscious.

Autogenic metaphor is metaphor generated spontaneously by the client and untainted by therapist suggestion or interpretation.

Clean language is a minimalist intervention methodology which allows the client to self-model their unconscious process at the threshold of consciousness, the place where conscious awareness connects to original source, the place where change can be facilitated, known and matured. 3

Philip Harland trained in analytic and humanistic psychotherapy, is a Master Practitioner of NLP, and over the last five years has studied extensively with David Grove, originator of Clean Language, and with Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, co-developers of Grove's work and of their own innovative approach, Symbolic Modelling. He is one of the original members of the London Clean Language Practise Group and co-ordinates a Metaphor and Clean Language Research Group.

In Part I of this paper (Rapport 49 Autumn 2000) we considered two questions:

1 What is a pattern?

A repeated behaviour, feeling, thought or belief was described in terms of a configuration in the client's internal landscape with coherence and continuity which could be identified in space, time or form, or any combination of these (see figure 1). A problem pattern is simply a pattern that gives the client problems.

2 How can patterns be discerned?

Two kinds of discernment were identified: associative discernment based on guesswork, where the therapist fills in 'missing' bits of client information with internal patterns of the therapist's own; and direct discernment based on clean language questioning, where the true client pattern cannot help but emerge. 4

Part II asks:

3 How can patterns be decoded?
(And compares the approach of different models of therapy)

4 How can the information within a pattern be released?
(And explores what happens next, and examines how clean language works)

Figure 1: defining pattern

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.

3 How can patterns be decoded?
deciphered/unscrambled/figured out? 5


I'll be going along quite happily and suddenly, wham, I'm doing the same old thing again, my head is spinning, I'm on a rollercoaster and there's like a big black vortex that sweeps me up off the ground and I have no control. I'm terrified, I'm very confused. You know only yesterday I ... (client goes on)

Going along ... wham ... same old thing ... head spinning ... rollercoaster ... vortex ... what is this client's unconscious communicating? These are all metaphors that are isomorphic (correspond in form) with internal patterns. But the language is cryptic. The information is in code. Would it be easier to translate if the client were more succint?


(half an hour later) I've been going round in circles for years.

Still seems pretty hopeless. Well, never take a metaphor for granted. The client has progressed from several descriptions of the problem to a simple description of the pattern. It's at a higher logical level.

Clean language

And you've been going round in circles for years. And when you've been going round in circles for years, what kind of circles are those circles?


It's like I'm on a roundabout.

Now what? The client has simply translated one disabling pattern into another, and still has no control. Or has he? Never interpret. Never presume.


And it's like you're on a roundabout. And when it's like you're on a roundabout, is there anything else about that roundabout?


It's a magic roundabout.

In two clean language questions Colin's metaphor has moved from implacably binding problem to potential resolution with infinite [magic] possibility.

Most clients will express themselves even more circuitously. Below is a symbolic representation of a certain client pattern. Imagine the client is saying something you cannot make head or tail of -- it might as well be in code.


Encoded pattern problem - part 1

Remember the client is already manifesting in some way the pattern that brings them to therapy. This first part represents the whole. The pattern is isomorphically present. But what kind of pattern is this? In Part I we considered how all patterns manifest in space, time and/or form. There are obvious spatial components here: A seems to be above B in some way, and B is further on a bit. Is that enough to decode it? We could hazard a guess -- repressive parent, subordinate child desperate for autonomy etc. Perhaps as the client goes on the pattern will become more apparent:


Encoded pattern problem - part 2

We can now suppose that this pattern is continuing not just in space but over time. If you had made an intervention based solely on its spatial components you may well have been wide of the mark. This client is manifesting another pattern altogether, though with no insight of their own into it they might well have gone along with yours. For a while. Before relapsing.

In fact the series has a very simple code. This is a pattern not just in space and time, but also form.6

If you take this puzzle as a metaphor for any client presentation there might be information for you as a therapist in the way you approached it.

(i) Chances are that you postulated one or two theories quite early on and attempted to fit the pattern to them, discarding parts of the theory that didn't fit and holding on to parts that might, until the theory so completely fitted the pattern that it couldn't possibly be anything else. In other words you took an objective view of the evidence and confronted what you detected directly. The scientific method.

(ii) Or perhaps you decided not to be enticed by the form in which the puzzle appeared and approached it obliquely. You detached yourself in some way, took an intuitive path of your own and either through belief or fancy imagined that the solution would follow. You worked in an indirect way on the pattern from outside it.

(iii) Or you may have supposed some kind of affinity with the pattern. You sat with it as it unfolded in the way that Einstein is said to have imagined himself riding a beam of light in order to understand relativity. You worked directly or indirectly on the pattern from as close as you could possibly get to it.

(iv) And maybe there is another way. What led you to try to 'solve' it at all? No one asked you to. I guess like me you made an assumption that that's what you ought to do. And now that you have, how can you be sure you're 'right'? What if this arrangement of the Roman alphabet is only one component of a far more sophisticated conundrum that dates back to Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian pictographs, and further back still to a time before writing?

If you simply allowed yourself to be with this client's puzzle, made no assumptions and applied no propositions, assisting it only to know itself, you would be identifying with the pattern from within the pattern, privy to its inherent logic, respectful of its unique purpose, and the owner would eventually have all the information they needed to decode it for themselves -- if that is what they wanted to do.

To summarise: we can predicate four ways of decoding patterns (figure 2):

(i) working directly on the pattern from outside the pattern

(ii) working indirectly on the pattern from outside the pattern

(iii) working in/directly on the pattern from alongside the pattern

(iv) working directly with the pattern from within the pattern.

Figure 2i
Figure 2ii
Figure 2iii
Figure 2iv
from outside
from outside
from alongside
from within

Figure 2: four ways of decoding client pattern

(i) working directly on the pattern from outside the pattern


As I was saying, A / B C D / E ...


[who is probably not even thinking of the notion of 'pattern'] Hm. I notice you have placed A and E above the line and B C D below, now I wonder what you make of that?

Most of the standard talking therapies -- cognitive, client-centred, psychoanalytic, humanistic -- might start in this way: aspiring to objectivity by remaining 'outside' the pattern. Yet if you analyse this therapist's intervention carefully you will notice they have already introduced three patterns of their own into the client's system. 'Placed', 'above the line' and 'below' are therapist-generated metaphors.

A gestalt therapist might go on to suggest confronting the pattern -- placing A E F on one chair, B C D on another, and polarising the obvious division between the two in the expectation of some sort of ideographical integration. A transpersonal therapist might want to stress the spiritual dimension:

Would you agree, B, that you are more than your shape?

A transactional analyst might see the differences rooted in critical parent above the line and adaptive child below. An existential therapist might focus on the 'givens' of human existence for poor old B -- death, alienation and suffering: ok, so now what? A Freudian might check this information from the client against a generalised model of transference and sexual development in order to help the client come to terms (after a couple of years or so) with its underlying pathological structures:

I suggest to you that B really wishes to sleep with A but first must kill C ...

Even a client-centred (Rogerian) counsellor, wary of interpretation, attempting to reflect the client back to themselves, would be predisposed -- in common with these other therapies -- to paraphrase the client's words and to install non-client material unwittingly.

In most talking therapies the therapist is in control of the process and interventions come from within the therapist's own patterns, whether inbuilt or acquired. Here is an excerpt from a recent television documentary of a (male) psychotherapist of unspecified alignment talking to a (female) patient who suffers from so-called body dysmorphia. Diane is a pseudonym. She has been seeing the therapist for several months. Opposite are my comments.


Good to see you again, Diane. How many hours a day would you say is spent thinking about your appearance now?

Therapist setting client agenda and characterizing the pattern.


Probably about six.

Client answers in therapist's terms.


Six hours a day. So it's still ...

Note that apparently inconsequential 'still' -- anchoring the client to the problem pattern she was in when she first came months ago.


Yeh ...


Very significant.

Well, he thinks it is.


Yeh. It's a lot less. It used to be seventeen, maybe more. But within those six hours a lot of that will be positive. I'll still be preoccupied, but I'll be thinking good things, just sort of how I'd like to have my hair next and that sort of thing.

Client attempts to re-set the agenda and rearrange the pattern.




And also thinking about how I'm happy with my hair or how I'm happy with something I've got on.

Seems ready to find encouragement in anything -- even that noncommital 'uhuh'.


OK. I haven't seen that so often, where you're saying, you're saying it's not negative things, it's things where you're comfortable with.

Maybe because what she is saying is 'thinking how I'm happy with my hair', but he doesn't acknowledge that. Is he committed to a pattern of his own?



Uncertain of her discernment of her own pattern, she's ready to endorse whatever his might be.


As if you're trying to reassure yourself.

Reassured by that 'yeh', he comes clean.


(Pauses for several seconds) Yeh. Maybe. Yeh. Mm. Now you say that I don't know if that's such a good thing, but I was under the impression that that was all good. (Uncertain laugh) Even though I was still preoccupied it was ...


Well it does suggest you're still quite vulnerable.

If she wasn't she will be now.


Yeh. (Nods) Yeh. I suppose you're right.

No comment.

In the space of two minutes the therapist has made three direct suggestions ("it's very significant", "you're trying to reassure yourself", "you're still quite vulnerable"), used one word ("six") that was Diane's alone -- out of 131 possible -- and placed her gently back in the unresourceful pattern that will probably keep her in therapy for years. 7

I'm not saying this therapist was mistaken in his interpretations of Diane's pattern, and clearly we don't know the full history of the therapy, but I do suggest that the underlying methodology allows at least as high a possibility of being unhelpful to the client as the guesswork of the average clairvoyant (and I judge clairvoyants to be averagely helpful people). Of course not all talking therapies operate in this way. In cognitive work the suggestions will be more blatant; in humanistic interventions they may be more subtle. I have practised in both and I am not knocking either. I am making comparisons.

(ii) working indirectly on the pattern from outside the pattern

A way of working shared by the behavioural, physical, postural, sensory, expressive and 'healing' therapies. I include homeopathy and traditional medicine, or drug therapy, among the physical therapies. I have worked in behavioural and expressive therapies. My knowledge of the other models comes from study and personal experience.

Drug therapy supposes the body to be somehow in a state of conflict with our sense of self and our emotional and spiritual experience. Drugs work on the brain in the hope of indirectly modifying patterns in the mind.


Oh dear, A seems to go above the line, B below, I'm not sure where to put ...


Sounds like you're depressed. I think we'll put you on a course of amitryptiline.


I don't know, doctor, what do you recommend?


You can have an injection or take the pills.


What kind of pills are they?


Pink. Unless you prefer the blue.

I have worked with many clients who were concurrently on drug therapy, and my sense of the best drugs did for them was to dull the problem without touching the pattern that produced it. Dulling a problem is an understandable way of coping with the stress of reality, but hardly a way of developing the potential in a client's life.

Body and postural therapies -- acupuncture, massage, reflexology, Feldenkrais etc -- all work to one degree or another from outside. They aim to relieve the symptoms of negative patterns -- pain, tension and stress -- through movement or manipulation, and to influence internal events indirectly through mind-body or 'energy' connections.

Behavioural approaches such as 'familiarisation', 'aversion' or 'flooding', where the client is gradually introduced to more and more of the phobic trigger, work in the belief that changing behaviour changes thinking changes feeling, an essentially indirect approach.

'Healers' believe their power comes from God or from universal psychic energies. The healer is the indirect conduit and the patient the passive receiver. Energy is believed to be transmitted in some indeterminate way from one to the other. My experience of Reiki healing was that the sheer concentration of the therapist obliged me to focus on internal balance in a way I would never -- or perhaps could never -- do alone. Again, an indirect effect.

Expressive therapies, including art, music, dance, primal therapy and anger release, work at one stage or several stages removed from the pattern. They explore the expression of feeling rather than its construction, and seek liberation -- of something, usually a symptom rather than a cause. You could call it the hopeful domino theory of therapy: free one component and trust the rest will follow.

Although most of the non-drug based indirect therapies describe themselves as 'holistic' and talk of the patient as a body-mind-spirit whole, they are in fact partial and work on the mind in a secondary way via posture, muscle tension or 'energy lines'.

(iii) working in/directly on the pattern from alongside the pattern

I count hypnotherapy and NLP in this category, and I have practised in both. The hypnotherapist or the NLP therapist guides the client through a process, and from the client's point of view the process may be entirely internal.


There's this A and this B and ...


And as you see A and B, and hear the sound of my voice, and your breathing gets deeper, I want you to ...


[Shifts from A B C to] Z - Z - Z ...

In hypnotherapy all that is required of the client is to respond passively and positively to the direction of the therapist. Once in the trance state, what happens next depends on the suggestivity of the client and the resourcefulness of the therapist. The effectiveness of the work is based on the therapist-led re-creation of generalised client resources which are brought to bear on the problem pattern obliquely.

NLP works with the subjective experience of the client as represented externally by the client. The neurolinguistic model says that all our subjective experience is coded in sub-modality distinctions in the sensory cortex of the brain. Problem patterns therefore have a coherent structure. Once the client gains access to that structure it can be described, and if it can be described it can be decoded. And if it is decoded in the context of a well-formed outcome for change, change will happen.


So there's this A and this B and ...

NLP therapist

Hang on a minute, what's your outcome here? What do you want?


I want to get rid of A of course.


And what will that get for you?


I'll feel better about B.


Ok, and what will that get for you?


What do you mean?


[Tries another technique] When you say 'A' do you get a picture, a sound or a feeling? Is that in black and white or colour? Moving or still? (etc etc)

Information about client patterns comes from sensory representations elicited conversationally by the therapist and reported cognitively by the client. That is arguably direct information, but cannot help but be modified by its dependence on the therapist's own (nlp and subjective) patterns and on the client's translation of their internal experience into a language the therapist can 'understand'. Thus the work remains generalised and takes place in the vicinity of the pattern at best.

Excellent indirect or partial modelling of client patterns is possible with NLP techniques such as sensory calibration, sub-modality analysis, meta-programme elicitation, strategy sequencing, logical level differentiation and meta-model questioning, all of which require exquisite attention on the part of the therapist to client process. However, these procedures are of necessity therapist-led and will not all (or always) apply to the client sitting in front of you.

And as most of the client changework that stems from NLP modelling depends on the therapist-led superimposition of good feelings over bad so that the bad have less significance, the resulting patterns (particularly in the case of therapist-generated metaphor and so-called 'sleight-of-mouth' reframes) are likely to derive more from the ingenuity of the therapist than the singularity of the client. The only NLP-inspired change models I know that are exclusively client-information-led rather than therapist-procedure-led are symbolic modelling, autogenic metaphor and a conversational variant on both I call the mirror-model. 8

(iv) working directly with the pattern from within the pattern

Imagine you are a therapist from another planet. You know all about electro-magnetic waves, but you have never experienced them as 'sunlight'. 'Sunlight' is an alien concept to you, but it has enormous significance for your earth-bound client. Now the extraordinary thing about clean language (assuming that as a therapist from another planet you came here for the training), is that you don't have to know a thing about 'sunlight' in order to help your client explore it and use it for transformative therapeutic purpose.

Autogenic metaphor is a glorious resource for any therapist. It contains information about client pattern that is purely client-generated. It comes from the unconscious direct. The therapist does not have to reconstruct, paraphrase or 'understand' the information, and this minimises generalisation, deletion and distortion.


There's this A....

Clean language therapist

And there's this A. And when there's this A, what kind of A is this A?


I don't know. It reminds me of the frame of an attic roof.


And is there anything else about the frame of an attic roof?


Oh no. I remember being in the attic ... I'm two or three and I'm terrified ...


And when you remember being in the attic, and you're two or three, and you're terrified, where is that terrified?


(Pointing to heart) Here.


(Replicates gesture) And here. And does terrified ... here ... have a size or a shape?


Yes. (Gestures) About this big.


And (replicates gesture) about this big. And when terrified is ... here ... and ... about this big, that's terrified like what?


Oh god, like a balloon about to burst.


And like a balloon about to burst. And when a balloon about to burst, what kind of balloon is that balloon, before it was about to burst?


Well, it's beautiful, red, light and firm, and I'm having fun with it.

Never-before-discerned patterns begin to emerge through clean language modelling as the therapist facilitates the client to identify component parts of their metaphorical perceptions, to develop those components in form, space and time, to elucidate key relationships between components, to discern patterns across their perceptions of those relationships, and to notice the relationship of those patterns to their lives. As the client explores their perceptual space in a state somewhere between trance and full awareness they are in essence modelling themselves. It is the client, not the therapist, who determines the significance of their perceptions. And as the system learns about its own organisation a context for self-generated change is created, and it is the client, not the therapist, who determines what needs to happen for the system to evolve.

In NLP therapy, client outcome is elicited and explored cognitively -- that is, in a state dissociated from the internal pattern which produced the client's need for the outcome. Outcome in clean language therapy can be elicited in a variety of states, but is normally explored, and always evolves, in a state directly related to the pattern's intrinsic need for self-resolution -- that is, from within the pattern itself.

Figure 3 summarises these various approaches to working on or with problem patterns. In my own practice I find autogenic metaphor therapy using clean language to be as respectful as client-centred counselling, as inner-resource-finding as hypnotherapy, and as mind-changing and modelling-efficient as NLP. It can be as spiritually-integrative as transpersonal therapy, as expressive as art therapy, as liberating as any humanistic intervention and as past-revelationary as psychoanalysis. It is without doubt the most holistic means of conducting therapy I know. And clients get to keep their clothes on.

comparison of problem patterns figure 3

Figure 3: working on or with problem patterns, a comparison

Continued in part IIb ...

Part 2 continued ...

4 How can the information within a pattern be released?

"Since all symbols have attributes, and all attributes have functions,
 and all functions serve a purpose,
all symbols are potentially useful
somewhere, somewhen or under some conditions."

Lawley and Tompkins, Chapter 7

Discernment of internal patterns is just that, discernment — nothing will change as a result until the client is able to decode (put meaning to) the information their unconscious has scrambled and compacted into the metaphor. As clients decode this information they realize what their symbols signify, and become aware of a different kind of internal processing. This can be a defining moment. And it is at this moment — when the system recognises its own organisation, when internal intention is revealed, when conscious and unconscious knowing come together — that the information in the pattern is released.

How can you as a therapist facilitate release? After all, if the unscrambling and release of information from what has hitherto been a conservative (self-preserving) pattern was a predictable and logical process, all a person would need would be a well-meaning friend to point out the obvious. Given that most of us require something more than a friend to bring about change, let alone deep structural change, is there a formula that will work for any clean language therapist with any client under any conditions?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. I shall reveal it when you have read the following oath:

I shall not attempt to change, resolve or reconfigure the client's problem pattern.

I shall not guess what needs to happen for the pattern to change, resolve or reconfigure.

I shall only seek to encourage the conditions for change, resolution or reconfiguration.

Here is the formula: four things you can do to facilitate the release of information in the pattern and to encourage the conditions for change if the client so chooses.

(i) Ask potential resource symbols for their intention, and for what needs to happen for that intention to be fulfilled.


It's a magic roundabout.

Clean language

And it's a magic roundabout. And when it's a magic roundabout, is there anything the magic of that roundabout would like to do? [No supposition here that 'magic' is good or bad, or that it can change 'roundabout' — or anything else — for better or worse. The intervention acknowledges that magic exists as a symbol in the landscape, confirms that it has been constructed as a modifier, and draws attention in non-specific terms to its potential.]


It would like to change the circles the roundabout has been going round in for years to spirals that continue to develop without repeating themselves.


And can magic change the circles ...? [Client having articulated the intention of the symbol, therapist invites symbol — if appropriate — to fulfil it.]


With the right input of energy at the right moment, yes.

All symbols have resource potential. A resource symbol may at a given moment be overt and its potential obvious ('magic'), or latent ('roundabout') and require interaction with another symbol or another context before it is able, as David Grove puts it, 'to confess its strengths'. Resources may appear in the most unlikely places. One of my clients transformed a 30-year pattern of addiction after finding a redemptory resource in a metaphorical garbage can. Others have found them in bottomless pits, dense fog, tightly bound knots in the stomach. Identifying and activating potential resource symbols is one considerable way in which the information within a pattern may be released.

(ii) Focus the client's attention on the pattern. This may sometimes mean persisting with clean language beyond what seems the call of duty:


I've been going round in circles for years.


And you've been going round in circles for years. And you've been going round in circles for years. And you've been going round in circles for years. [Client now has unequivocal affirmation of the pattern, and during this has probably been associating back into it.] And when you've been going round in circles for years ... [What next? Almost any clean language question will do. There could be information locked in the sheer repetition.] ... what kind of going round is that going round?


Clockwise. [New information. Therapist may simply affirm it and return to 'circles' or 'years', or draw client's attention to the new metaphor with a space, time or form question, or note the phonetic ambiguity (see Part I about homonyms) of 'wise'. Any one of these interventions could be the key to unlocking the pattern and releasing the information.]

(iii) Draw the client's attention to the wider context in which the pattern manifests.


I've been going round in circles for years.


[Could ask 'How do you know you've been going round ...?' or 'How many years?' or 'How does going round in circles relate to X or Y (something else in the landscape or the client's life that client has identified)?' Decides to invite client to explore the space-time parameters within which the pattern appears] And what happens just before going round in circles?


I'm stuck.


And when you're stuck, then you're going round in circles, then what happens?


They stop.


And when they stop, then what happens?


I'm stuck and it starts all over again.

Client has identified a strategy which provides him with a wider context for change.

Client strategy

(iv) Give creative assignments that encourage the client to explore their pattern in other ways — by mapping, drawing, sculpting their personal metaphors, by acting them out or physicalising them, by researching key words or symbols, or by any creative means possible. It was not until Colin mapped out the context of his circles (above) that we discovered six other places to explore — before stuck / during stuck / between stuck and circles / between circles and stop / during stop / and between stop and stuck — any of which could contain a resource or an impetus for not repeating the start, or for moving on from the end, of the unproductive pattern.

I have been witness to a hundred ways in which clients have used mapping, etymological or symbol research, etc to release information. This morning a client saw the word ANGER in her metaphor landscape. She was concerned. I invited her to map it out. She wrote 'anger' on a piece of paper, stuck it to the wall, studied it for a moment and said, "Oh. I've used lower-case letters, and I've written it in black. I thought it would come out in capitals, and be red and dramatic, this is old anger, I know why it's there." Having defined the symbolic attributes of 'old anger', she was able to make a conscious connection to her current state and move on. I remind myself to cherish the unique creativity of every client. 9

And then what happens?

"When a symbol changes it not only alters itself,
it is likely to influence other symbols.

If enough changes occur, or a change of sufficient significance occurs,
the client's symbolic perceptions reorganise

and a transformed metaphor landscape emerges."
Lawley and Tompkins, Chapter 5

When the information in a pattern is released the result is likely to be:

  • reassignment
  • rearrangement
  • translation or
  • transformation.

With reassignment, one or more elements in the metaphor landscape reorganise(s) to modify form or function, but the underlying pattern stays the same. The system remains in self-preservation mode. It shifts its organisation sideways so as not to change. Colin may know a little more about his circles, but life goes on pretty much the same.

With rearrangement, elements in the metaphor landscape reorganise their relationship to each other, but the underlying pattern stays the same. Colin may feel a little differently in his circles, he may go round in a slightly different way, he may experience some insight into the effects of going round, but he is not yet ready to change the going roundness of his system.

Reassignment and rearrangement generally mean the client having to go round the loop again. My job as a therapist is to continue drawing Colin's attention to any part of his landscape that has the potential for change (which may be any part); to help move elements forward in time; and to consider how new relationships between elements might evolve.

With translation, the pattern changes but its underlying structure stays the same. Colin may have hoped that his conscious awareness of the pattern would have been enough to transform it, but what happens is that his circles reappear in another guise and he experiences no significant change in his essential sense of himself or in other people's awareness of him. Time spent re-experiencing the pattern in this way may seem fruitless, but can be very useful. Clients use it to test and confirm their patterns to themselves. Some use it to better recognise when they are — and when they are not — in the pattern. Some explore what have hitherto been unconscious patterns with more awareness. In Colin's case he begins to adjust his behaviours and feelings, he finds himself going round more slowly and less often, and gradually his circles widen and he is able to see more of the world.

With many clients that may be enough. Translation may be all a person wants or can handle for the time being.

Colin will decide if and when he wants to break out of the loop and make a structural change, and meanwhile I can direct his attention to the smaller changes he has already made, and invite him to extend their evolutionary potential.

"Translation itself is an absolutely necessary and crucial function for the greater part of our lives. Those who cannot translate adequately ... fall quickly into severe neurosis or even psychosis ... but at some time in our maturation process, translation itself, no matter how adequate or confident, simply ceases to console."
Ken Wilber 10

With transformation, the nature of the pattern changes completely. Rather than the pattern modifying, it metamorphoses. What results is a qualitatively new pattern of organisation. It may occur suddenly and spontaneously as a result of self-modelling, or it may happen gradually or cumulatively.

Figure 4: transformation

Figure 4: transformation

One of my clients used his transformation of what had been a phobic fear of the dark as the catalyst to resolving his relationship with his mother en route to a radical change in his sense of himself. A client with arachnophobia (and a whole raft of unwanted behaviours, feelings and beliefs associated with it) chose to tackle her patterns the other way round — by first resolving a childhood trauma that had no obvious connection to the phobia. Both clients experienced the effect as cumulative — increasing the energy for resolution through successive addition. (See figure 5)

fig 5

Figure 5: two clients in cumulative transformation

The complete resolution process is summarised in figure 6. Colin illustrates a part of the process in figure 7.

Figure 6: resolving problem patterns

Life events processed by the unconscious result in repetitive patterns of behaviour/feeling/thought/belief presented by the client in isomorphic code to the therapist who facilitates the client with clean language questioning to self-model information from the unconscious including autogenic metaphor creating a context for the client's conscious discernment and eventual decoding of their patterns, and as conscious and unconscious knowing come together the information in the pattern is released for reassignment or rearrangement (producing no significant change) and thence back into the questioning, discernment and decoding loop; or translation (producing modified behaviours/feelings/thoughts/beliefs); or transformation (resulting in new ways of being or becoming).

Figure 7: client example

And what happens next?

A member of our research group came to the seminar on pattern unprepared. Normally this colleague is very well prepared — a familiar, self-preserving, highly productive pattern. They decided to give a presentation on what it was like in the days leading up to the seminar to have changed this habit of a lifetime. They felt nervous and uncomfortable, unable to anticipate what would happen, and aware of an almost irresistible pull to revert to the familiar pattern of having something prepared — that is, to relapse.

Many clients report unfamiliar feelings when they make significant change. As therapists we need to remember that old patterns offer advantage, and changing them may not always bestow immediate benefit. One of my addictive clients said his dependency pattern was like going down a familiar road — it supposed a kind of mobility — whereas changing the pattern was like arriving at a junction where there were too many exits and not enough signposts, a paradoxical situation in which he could only progress by standing still. This client needed to find out a great deal more about the destination before he would commit to the route. Others realise they have changed a pattern only through feedback from others who knew the old patterns well. And some will change a pattern and forget they ever had a problem.

What all clients in clean language therapy have in common is a commitment to themselves that stems from the knowledge that the changes they make are theirs and theirs alone. They have not been imposed or suggested by the therapist. I believe this fosters a more natural, lasting and reliable resolution.

To conclude: a few more questions

Is a common characteristic of all problem patterns the fact that they are illusory? The self reflecting the self in some way? How are we so adept at doing this? Why would anyone believe a likeness was real?

The conditions for change may require a moment when we perceive, consciously or not, that the problem is actually a simulation, a construct, a tale we tell ourselves, a bind of our own making. Such a moment may require hours of perseverance on the part of the therapist who recognises that a client's persistence in seeing their patterns as eternal, the circles as endless, is just part of the pattern.

The reason clean language works is that as a reflective methodology it pays immaculate attention to the self-referential nature of problem patterns. Systems theory describes the output of the system re-entering the system as the next input to influence the next output. What clean language does is enhance/concentrate/deepen the quality of the input. Applying the theory to autogenic metaphor or symbolic modelling we can see how clean language works (figure 8):


client information [original coded output]
affirmed by therapist clean language reflection

re-enters and informs client system [enhanced input]
focused by therapist clean language question

re-enters and prompts client system [further-enhanced input]
prompts client response-information [deep structural output]
affirmed by therapist clean language reflection

re-enters and prompts client system [still-further-enhanced input]
focused by therapist clean language question

re-enters and informs client system [still-further-enhanced input]
prompts client response-information [deeper-structural ouput]
affirmed (etc)

Figure 8: how clean language works

In Part I we raised the question of who is influencing whom in the clean language process, client or therapist? In fact it is the information manifested by the client and affirmed, focused and enhanced by clean language that self-activates the system and keeps it updated. And as the unproductive pattern in the system is detected and decoded, as the information is released and the pattern transforms, the system is no longer subject to self-delusion and new more flexible patterns form.

And Colin's circles? At first they reorganised into bigger, more interesting circles as he was able to see more of what was going on around him. Then they translated into creative spirals as his energy took on a life of its own. Finally they transformed by becoming so wholly absorbed into the wheel of life that he's forgotten he was ever going round in circles at all. And today you might say he has come full circle — he's a psychotherapist using clean language to facilitate others.

© 2000 Philip Harland

Sources and special thanks

The Metaphor and Clean Language Research Group: for the seminar on 'Pattern' this comprised Clive Bach, Philip Harland, James Lawley, Frances Prestidge, Wendy Sullivan, Penny Tompkins.

James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, co-authors of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, the definitive book on clean language, symbolic modelling and Grovian metaphor.

Notes to Part II

1 Psychotherapist David Grove, originator of Clean Language, at the London Clean Language Practise Group, November 99.

2 Quotation on pattern from Chapter 7, Metaphors in Mind (see Sources above).

3 More information on autogenic/Grovian metaphor, symbolic modelling and clean language (and their relationship to NLP) from the website. And see articles by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, Philip Harland and others in back numbers of Rapport.

4 Discerning different kinds of pattern — spatial, sequential, formal: see Chapter 7 of Metaphors in Mind.

5 A code is a system of words or signals used for other words or signals to secure brevity or secrecy, and decoding is David Grove's metaphor for deciphering/unscrambling/figuring out the pattern that the client's system of words, gestures, drawings etc represent. If decoding suits/pleases/resonates with you as a metaphor, ok, otherwise do substitute your own.

6 Credit to Wendy Sullivan for introducing this A/BC pattern to our research group and getting us to decode it when we thought we'd finished for the day. The letters above the line have only straight lines, the letters below have curved lines.

7 Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic counselling, with their emphasis on conscious insight by the client, may be the comparatively prolonged processes they are because neural connections from the cortex (the 'seat of reason') to the amygdala (the 'emotional processor') have been found to be weaker than connections from the amygdala to the cortex. This may explain why it's easier for emotion to govern reason than the other way round. (Joseph Ledoux, The Emotional Brain, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1998)

8 Philip Harland, The 'Mirror model' - A Guide to Reflective Questioning, Rapport, Autumn 98 and An NLP- and Grovian-inspired counselling model using mostly clean language.

9 Lots more about mapping and other assignments in Chapter 9 of Metaphors in Mind.

10 Ken Wilber, The Essential Ken Wilber, Shambhala 1998.


Photo of Philip Harland Philip Harland is a neurolinguistic psychotherapist with a private practice in London, England. He has written many articles on Clean Language for professional journals and the internet. In 2009 Philip published the first book related to David Grove's last innovations, Emergent Knowledge, 'THE POWER OF SIX: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge'. You can order a copy from or


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