Article from

First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue 36, August 1996.

Meta, Milton and Metaphor:
Models of Subjective Experience
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

In the beginning was the Meta Model. Richard Bandler and John Grinder's brilliant linguistic methodology for exploring and influencing a client's model of the world - in the direction of sensory experience.

Then came the Milton Model. The linguistic art of utilising non-specific and conceptual experience for therapeutic ends.

The marriage of these two models produced an offspring: Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

The Meta and Milton Models seemed to cover the entire spectrum of experience: from small chunk to big chunk, from concrete to abstract. Almost all of what is currently known as NLP works with these two types of experience.

But what if there was another type of experience that was never coded by Bandler and Grinder?

The Magic of David Grove

It is our opinion that if Bandler and Grinder were still practising their wizardry together -- modelling people who do things excellently -- they would be trekking to Eldon, Missouri, the home of David Grove. There they would find a man who is an exceptional therapist. They would discover David achieving stunning results using neither the Meta nor Milton Models. They would discover him making use of another domain of reality - metaphor and symbol.

David Grove studied with Richard and John in the early days of NLP before he migrated to Ericksonian Hypnosis. From there he developed his own methods for resolving traumatic memories. He specialised in working with people who had experienced abusive childhood's or were Vietnam vets suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The processes he has developed over the last 12 years use metaphor in a unique way.

While many people have understood the importance and influence of stories and metaphoric tales, David Grove has pioneered a method of working directly with people's metaphoric and symbolic experience. He discovered that working at this level requires a new linguistic model which he calls "Clean Language". You will find an introduction to the basic methodology and questions of Clean Language in Rapport 35.

For the last two years we have studied David Grove's distinctive approach to therapy. We call his whole conceptual and linguistic methodology The Metaphor Model. We believe it represents a new domain of the study of subjective experience.

We might be considered bold, but we believe The Metaphor Model, which we introduce here for the first time, expands NLP to encompass metaphoric and symbolic constructs!

Grovian Metaphors are Different!

Since people realised Milton Erickson's enchanting stories were of therapeutic value, metaphor in NLP circles has come to mean 'Stories That Change People'. These are devised by the storyteller with the aim of influencing the listener to move towards their stated outcome. They are principally a linguistic device.

Grovian metaphors are something else:

  • First, they are generated entirely from within the client's experience.
  • Second, they are represented as an internal construct within Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (VAK) modalities and submodalities.
  • Third, they are coded with symbolic attributes which are containers of meaning and significance for the client.

For example, if a client says "I keep running up against a brick wall", then the attributes of that wall (how high, how long, how many bricks, what the bricks are made out of etc.) will be highly significant and correlate with the characteristics of the presenting problem. In addition, the location of the wall in relation to the speaker, the direction of their run, and the sequence of events within the metaphor will also be part of the inherent structure that keeps the behaviour repeating. Or, as David calls it, the replicating mechanism.

Unlike Jungian archetypal symbols which have universal applicability, Grovian metaphors are idiosyncratic and very personal to the client. And, the Metaphor Model, requires no interpretation by either the therapist or the client. After experiencing Metaphor Therapy, some clients comment on the significance of what has happened; others have little cognitive understanding, they just "know something has shifted."

Memories are Made of This...

'Real' memories and imagined memories are treated the same within the Metaphor Model. It's the symbolic meaning of their representations that is important, not whether they really happened. We have found that people cannot produce images, sounds and feelings which have no symbolic meaning - even if they try! Often the more a client is surprised by their own metaphors, the more valuable the information embedded in the symbols.

A young man with colitis described his illness as "a yellow omelette on a round white plate with red ketchup". We later discovered circular symbols and the colour yellow were common motifs for him. These symbolic attributes proved to be highly relevant in the reduction of his symptoms.

For this process to be successful, we did not need to have any idea whatsoever of the meaning of these symbols, only that they were deeply significant for the client. The Metaphor Model can work without the client describing real events. You may notice how valuable this can be for people who have suffered 'unspeakable' trauma.

What is Metaphor For?

Most psychological and linguistic schools of thought consider metaphors to be merely 'turns of phrase'. A growing number of scholars, however, have come to the conclusion that metaphor may be the underlying process by which we make sense of the world! David Leary for instance goes as far as to say:

    "All knowledge is ultimately rooted in metaphorical (or analogical) modes of perception and thought."

While Lakoff and Johnson's ear-opening book 'Metaphors We Live By' clearly demonstrates how metaphors are essential for understanding:

    "Metaphors are not mere poetical or rhetorical embellishments ... [they] affect the ways in which we perceive, think and act. Reality itself is defined by metaphor."

As usual, Gregory Bateson was on to this when he said to Fritzjof Capra:

    "Metaphor, that's how the whole fabric of mental interconnections holds together. Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive."

The word metaphor has the same root as 'amphora' an ancient Greek vessel for carrying and storing precious liquids. Thus David Grove says the purpose of metaphor is to carry information. This information is hidden within the metaphor in symbolic form.

In the Metaphor Model, symbols are discrete elements embedded in the metaphor. They have significance for the client because they embody out-of-awareness information. David calls the entire mindbody-space which contains the symbols, the client's Metaphoric Landscape.

Metaphors are Everywhere

Metaphors express abstract ideas, concepts and processes in terms of more physical and concrete aspects of our experience. However, metaphors are much more common than is normally realised. We can all recognise overt metaphors such as 'It's like a knot in my stomach', 'I'm wandering around in a fog' or ' I have a broken heart'.

Implied metaphors, though, are a little more subtle. It is not obvious at first that 'chunking up and down', 'logical levels' and 'go into trance' for instance, make use of the metaphors of space, structure and container respectively. To give you an idea just how pervasive metaphors are, there is a different spatial metaphor in each of the following phrases, can you identify them?

    That was too close for comfort
    Let's put our minds together
    This has gone too far
    Reach out and I'll be there
    You're running away from the truth
    Let's go forward on this one
    We're heading in different directions
    I need my space
    I need some distance on the problem
    You're pushing me away
    Look me up when you're in town
    I'm down in the dumps
    Let's get back to basics
    I'm head over heels in love
    She gets under my skin
    Let's not get in too deep
    He's rather shallow
    Don't get on my nerves
    How do I get out of this mess?

These examples, and there are thousands more, are metaphorical because they use the concept of space to describe an experience which is not spatial in nature. Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life and not just in language. Lakoff and Johnson sum it up:

    "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature."

While these authors acknowledge that we give meaning to our experience by 'metaphorising' -- the process of producing metaphors -- David Grove is the only person we know to have taken the next logical step.

Symbolic VAK

Through his use of Clean Language, David Grove discovered there are VAKOG representations of metaphoric and symbolic experience. They have a form and a consistent structure which when transformed alter a person's map of the world. This in turn results in new perceptions and behaviour.

Does this sound familiar? It should do because in this respect, metaphoric representations are like sensory and conceptual perceptions. However, there are a number of significant differences as discussed below.

David assumes that behind the metaphorical description lies a constructed symbolic representation. These have locations, consistent inherent structure and processes, and have special significance for the client who constructs them.

So when someone says: "It's like a knot in my stomach" David Grove assumes these words describe an internal experience that is 'real' for the client. Their perception has knot-like qualities, ie the content of symbolic representations is a way of coding information, just as submodalities code information.

If you Meta Model the client's language, you will encourage them to focus on their sensory experience. But in doing so they are likely to lose touch with the qualities of their experience that were knot-like. With Clean Language you preserve the metaphoric qualities of the client's experience. This not only paces them, it also offers them the opportunity to discover vital information 'hidden' in their symptoms -- Information that can lead to the transformation of their 'problem'.

Levels of Experience

One of the most useful ways to make distinctions between sensory, conceptual and symbolic experience is via Robert Dilts' model of Logical Levels (see diagram).







Metaphoric - Symbolic





Conceptual - Perceptual





Sensory - Physical


We know about the Environment and our Behaviour through sensory experience.

Capabilities, Beliefs and Values are constructs of the human mind. They only exist in a world of concepts. We have all seen particular trees but no one has ever touched the concept 'tree'. Concepts are a different order of reality from the physical world of rocks and people kicking rocks.

While our sense of self and our connection to things greater than ourself are constructs, when we access these states we know they have additional significance for us. How do we know? People usually answer that question non-verbally or they use metaphorical language. Our research indicates Identity and Spiritual experiences are most often represented symbolically.

Just as we use our sensory experience of the physical world as the 'raw material' for our conceptual world, so we use that same experience of the physical world as the raw material for our symbolic world. Thus the symbolic is always hidden or embedded within the conceptual and the physical.

Another Reality

Because Identity and Spiritual experiences are of a different order of reality they require different modes of communication. Symbolic representations do not take kindly to Meta Model questions.

If a client says "I'm going through the dark night of the soul," then asking "What soul specifically?" is hardly likely to encourage the metaphor to reveal it's inner most structure! More compatible would be the Clean Language question "And what kind of dark is the dark of that dark night?" And, if this question does not make sense you are probably thinking about it from your sensory or conceptual framework. Within the world of symbol it makes perfect sense.

When the Logical Levels and Bateson's principle (that a change at a higher level automatically reorganises the lower levels) are introduced on NLP trainings, participants often ask how change can be effected at the Identity and Spiritual levels. The Metaphor Model gives us a way of working directly with core issues, highly complex states, paradoxes, double-binds and the 'big questions of life'.

Additionally, we have used the process successfully to work with physical ailments, phobias, unproductive strategies as well as limiting Beliefs and conflicting Values.

Symbolic Content

Submodalities code experience. They are the characteristics from which we construct our internal images, sounds and feelings. However, there is more to experience than submodalities, otherwise running the Swish pattern would always produce desired results. It is our experience that when a limiting core belief or 'sense of self' are intertwined with unwanted behaviours, a different approach is usually required.

The Meta and Milton Models were designed to work with the structure of subjective experience, not the content of the narrative. Thus working 'content free' is often seen as the most elegant form of NLP change work. However, this means the symbolic nature of the content is ignored and is not utilised.

With submodalities we ask "is the picture in colour or black and white?". The particular colours or shades of grey are not considered important. However, this is exactly where symbolic information is stored.

To take an example, a client may represent their love as a "red, red rose". They are saying, there is something in the qualities of the flower and the colour which symbolises how they relate to a person. Identifying the submodalities of that red, red rose will produce lots of information about how the client represents the image. However, submodalities will not connect the client to the significance of the colour red. That requires an exploration of the symbolic attributes of the image and that requires Clean Language.

Similarly, shades of black, white or grey can be highly symbolic. One client discovered black and white elements within her 'metaphoric landscape' which greatly disturbed her. Suddenly she remembered as a child hearing her mother repeatedly saying "If I say black is white, it's white." This realisation connected her with a long-standing issue. She had great difficulty knowing who or what to believe, and this extended as far as her own internal representations! Through the exploration of the black and white symbols she was able to distinguish between her own knowing and that of others.

Another key feature of symbols is that their function can also act as an information carrier. Take the sentence "The tightness in my chest is like a rock." Symbolically it matters whether the rock is sharp and can cut or is hard and can't be broken or porous and can soak up liquid. Attributes and functions of symbolic representations are never random because they carry meaning.

Symbolic Space and Time

Symbolic attributes are only one aspect of the Metaphor Model. The two other components which are equally important are symbolic space and symbolic time.

Briefly, where that rock is located in relation to the observer and to other symbols has great significance. When using the Metaphor Model you will find the space surrounding a person is filled with meaning because it contains symbols in precise locations.

The third fundamental component of the Metaphor Model -- symbolic time, is derived from an exploration of repeating sequences within the metaphor. The order in which 'events' in the Metaphoric Landscape happen are highly important. Within this framework time needs to be thought of in a symbolic, not a conceptual manner.

In future articles we will explore how an understanding of symbolic space and time opens up amazing possibilities for ecological change at the very core of our being.


Sensory coding, conceptual coding and symbolic coding are three ways humans represent their experience. Each has a different function. They use different processes and they have their own syntax and logic. Therefore, each requires a different mode of communication: The Meta, Milton and Metaphor Models respectively.

The human mind encodes information in the content and relational aspect of our metaphoric representations. This is achieved primarily through symbolic attributional, spatial and temporal relationships which are at the heart of the Metaphor Model.

We appreciate we have condensed a lot of information in our attempt to present an overview of The Metaphor Model and how it opens up a new domain of NLP. We hope we have shown you how an understanding of the symbolic nature of your inner world can add a whole new dimension to your study of subjective experience.

And, just as the Meta and Milton Models started life as purely psychotherapeutic applications and quickly spread into other areas, we can already see how the Metaphor Model can be employed in business, education and in a generative way.

© 1996, Penny Tompkins & James Lawley


Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic Vols I and II, 1975 and 1976.
Richard Bandler and John Grinder, Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton Erickson Vols I and II, 1975 and 1977.
Gene Combs and Jill Freedman, Story, Symbol and Metaphor, 1990.
Robert Dilts, Changing Belief Systems with NLP, 1990.
Charles Faulkner, Metaphors of Identity, (Audio tape set), 1991
David Gordon, Stories That Change People, (Audio tape set), 1988
David Grove and B I Panzer, Resolving Traumatic Memories, 1989.
David Grove, "And ... What Kind of a Man is David Grove?" (Interview with Penny Tompkins and James Lawley) Rapport 33, 1996.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980.
David Leary (Ed.), Metaphors in the History of Psychology, 1990.
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, "Less is More ... The Art of Clean Language" Rapport 35, 1997



Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy since 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. They have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:

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