First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue
54, Winter 2001
REFLECTIONS ON THE MIRROR-MODEL
by Philip Harland
Conversational clean language and inner-directed change
"Reflective questioning can effectively assist someone
to completely re-organize their cognitive/conceptual structure, with
the ripple effect influencing 'deeper' organizing metaphors, embodied
experience and neuro-chemical processes." James Lawley
The 'Mirror-model' was developed in 1998 as a means of introducing
a self-reflective, non-interpretative model of conversational change
into Organisational Healing's NLP Practitioner and Master
As a psychotherapist and trainer I had never been entirely happy
using or teaching the NLP Meta, Milton and Sleight-of-Mouth language
models, a brilliant but highly directive, potentially manipulative
and assumption-ridden mix. Then Tompkins & Lawley introduced me
to David Grove's Clean Language, and I had access to a client-led
process which freed me to neither interpret nor presume, and
facilitated my clients to generate change with minimal
However Clean Language makes no claim to work particularly well
with highly conceptual or literal-minded clients, and as a
therapeutic modality it can be a bit much for everyday situations.
Jack Stewart of Organisational Healing and I wanted a simple,
colloquial, robust and flexible model of clean questioning that his
Community NLP trainees - managers, teachers, hairdressers, rugby
players - could adapt to pretty much any counselling or facilitatory
situation in which they found themselves. Change for their clients
would not be the primary aim. Change would result if that is what
their clients wanted. Change, moreover, that would be
inner-directed rather than some shift or improvement the
facilitator thought they should have.
In teaching the Mirror-model I developed two diagrams, one with an
arrangement of frames and another with a set of questions; from these
came an article for Rapport; 2 and this was
followed by an invitation to present the material to the London NLP
Group. People in the Group wanted a practical graphic they could use
as a crib, and I have finally got around to designing the one you see
below. It combines the 6 FRAMES of the model (Present, Context, Past,
Future, Higher and Metaphor) with 20 OPEN QUESTIONS (the original 18
with two new - and I believe profound - ones) in one simple crib.
Part 1 of this article is a summary of that development, and has a
few thoughts about adapting a rigorous therapeutic modality to the
wider world of conversational change.
Part 2 will offer a detailed example
of how you can use the frames and the questions with a client.
I happily acknowledge David Grove as the inspiration, and the
source of about half the questions; Charles Faulkner, James Lawley,
David Gordon and Graham Dawes for other questions; our London Clean
Language Practise Group for being there every other Wednesday; and
Penny Tompkins & James Lawley for their unfailingly creative
suggestions and support.
X = client statement or part of statement
from any frame
© 2001 Philip Harland
* What happens/ed
just before X?
* Before that?
* Importance of
* Purpose of X?
* Meaning of X?
* Enables X?
do you know X?
* What X
* What kind of X?
* What part/aspect of
* Anything else about
When X, what do you
* When X,
what about (other) X?
* Then what
* What symbolises X for
Or That's an X like what?
* What kind of [part of metaphor]?
* Anything else about [part of
What exactly is your client's present awareness?
What is the wider context for them of this state?
What in the immediate or distant past may have prompted
How will it carry over into the future?
Are there higher considerations that might help them deal
Are there metaphor correspondences that will allow them a
different perspective / standpoint / flavour?
More than just a chat
I start from the belief that it is possible - if occasionally more
difficult - to converse as 'cleanly' in the pub and the kitchen as it
is in the consulting room.
The methodology is similar however simple (apparently) or complex
(apparently) or problematic (apparently) your client/colleague's
first statement. And it demands concentration and discipline, because
your outcome is not to try and understand the other person, but to
facilitate them; it is not to suppose what they mean by what they
say, but to help them know themselves; and it is not to
suggest solutions, but to help them generate solutions for
themselves - if that is what they wish to do.
Do not be surprised if you are tempted, through impatience or
hubris, to stray from this narrow path. If, however, you are prepared
to track your client's every move and pay exquisite attention to
their every word, you may be surprised at how quickly they get what
they want. And with a greater sense of combined purpose than in
traditional counselling territory, where most of your energy as a
counsellor will be going, consciously or not, into disputing your
client's map and redrawing it until it looks more familiar - more
like yours, in fact.
Most psychotherapy and counselling clients respond well to
therapeutic Clean Language questioning, but some therapists (and
inevitably their clients), have difficulty with some of the Clean
A conversational approach may be an easier way in for both
therapist and client. And if you want to facilitate a colleague, or a
student, or grandma, you probably won't want to sound as if you're
trying to do therapy.
How does conversational clean language compare to therapeutic
Clean Language? The Mirror-model is for the most part semantic:
client information is sourced in what is said - appropriately enough
for a conversational model. The Grovian model, on the other hand, is
geared to eliciting embodied perceptions, which are sourced not only
semantically (in the client's language), but also somatically (in the
client's body), spatially (in the client's metaphor landscape), and
temporally (in the client's coding of biographical, ancestral and
cosmological time). David Grove's all-encompassing model stems from
his innovative work with survivors of abuse, treating negative
symptoms as coded solutions from the unconscious that contain
positive resources for healing. This can be deep stuff, and is not a
casual procedure, though experience shows that even a casual
conversation, if it is clean enough, will reach parts that other
conversations cannot reach.
The Mirror-model, then, is a simpler variant. And there are two
important differences of category between its 20 questions and the
30-plus Clean Language questions. The Mirror model has no direct
means of identifying and locating embodied symptoms or resources, a
core feature of Therapeutic Metaphor and Symbolic Modelling. It has
instead a set of 'importance/purpose/meaning/enabling' questions,
which are at a higher level of abstraction and require the client to
dissociate from embodied process into cognitive processing. More on
this in Part 2.
A few considerations
The first thing to remember is that open questioning of any kind
can expose vast oceans of the psyche for self-discovery. It would be
wise not to attempt this kind of facilitation unless your level of
rapport with the other person is high, and you are confident you can
navigate with them, if need be, through choppy seas and uncharted
The next is to keep your questions open and your comments minimal.
Genuinely open questioning invariably elicits new information for the
client, and in this client-led process you are required to follow
client information rather than attempting to interpret it, or find
'meaning' in it, or alluding to your own world view in response. If
you are the kind of expert who likes to re-model your client's
material into a shape you can recognize, or needs to know what is
good for your client before they know for themselves, I suggest you
give your brain a rest and suspend your need to understand.
Reflective questioning facilitates the client to self-model. It
intensifies the ability of the self to learn about the self, and this
encourages the system to self-adjust.4
As Charles Faulkner says,
"Each person's experience is a dynamic
self-organizing system constantly recreating itself...what is
required is not a conscious overhaul, but only a perturbation of the
system such that it can reorganize itself along other lines."
In other words, trust the wisdom of the unconscious. Who knows it
better than itself?
So with any client statement in any frame [X in the diagram], your
questioning will reflect as nearly as possible the client's own
words. These are, after all, not randomly chosen. They are the end
result of a massive amount of deep-structure processing on the part
of the individual unconscious, and deserve the deepest
I say "as nearly as possible" the client's words. You will soon
sound contrived if you echo the other person exactly. There is method
here, and it needs practice. It's important not to slip back into
familiar presumptive (belief-based) language, or assumptive
(suppositional) patterns. Your speech should be clean, but not
obsessively so. The trick is to construct your part in the dialogue
from a combination of your client's words and 'neutral' words - those
that activate the emotions as little as possible. Avoid introducing
your own assumptions into the conversation, or words that power up
the visual and kinesthetic senses - 'You seem very agitated', 'I'm
sorry to hear that', 'What I feel you're doing is...', 'I get a
picture of...'. This is entirely your stuff. These are metaphors
for your own experience, and they can distract or dissociate, or at
worst disconnect, the client from theirs.
The 'frames' in the diagram are of, course, my metaphor, a
way of organizing the questions conceptually. They are not for the
distraction of the client! As a facilitator you could look upon them
simply as a visual aid. Or imagine yourself looking from them
as perceptual positions. Or view them, in Penny Tompkins' words, as
"Mirrors that reflect the client's past, present and future at the
same time, each frame a part of the whole that is happening now, so
that the client cannot help but know themselves better."
The next issue
In the Part 2 I shall take you on
a walk through a parallel world - clean, uncontaminated, and free
from assumption. We shall bring the questions in the frames to life
with a client who will be prompted to know themselves better - and
change if they choose - without our needing to interpret a word they
say. And if encouraging this client to take charge of their own mind
has the ripple effect of 'influencing deeper organizing metaphors and
neuro-chemical processes' within them, so be it. We'll be doing our
job as facilitators of change.
10 guidelines for conversational clean
2. Conversational tonality
4. Concentration and discipline
5. Respect and reflect client's own words
6. Avoid obvious metaphors in your words
7. No assumptions, judgments or interpretations
8. No suggestions, reframes or linguistic challenges
9. Follow client information
10. Clean questions
1 For more on David Grove's pioneering work in Clean
Language and Therapeutic Metaphor, and Tompkins & Lawley's
creative account of it in Symbolic Modelling, read James Lawley and
Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation
through Symbolic Modelling,
The Developing Company Press 2000.
2 Philip Harland, 'The Mirror-model, a Guide to
Reflective Questioning', Rapport 42, Winter 1998, and www.cleanlanguage.co.uk.
3 Eliciting and developing the form and spatial coding of
symbols in the metaphor landscape, for example: not a very chatty
4 For a fuller analysis of Self-Modelling see Chapter 2
('Models We Create By') of Lawley & Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind. For an
explanatory diagram ('How Clean Language Works') see Philip Harland,
Problem Patterns Part 2, Rapport 50, Winter 2000, and www.cleanlanguage.co.uk
5 Charles Faulkner, What is NLP?
Taking Self-Organizing Systems Seriously, Rapport 52, Summer 2001.
6 More on Unconscious Information Processing and its
relationship to Metaphor in Philip Harland, A Moment in
Metaphor, Rapport 51, Spring 2001, and
© 2001 Philip Harland
First published on this site 27 December 2001.
Updated 19.2.02 +