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These notes were first presented at The Developing Group, 6 December 2004

When and How to Use 'when' and 'as'
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

We often deal with big chunk topics at The Developing Group (e.g. Emergence, Constructivism, Self-Decption, etc.) so this time we’ve decided to focus on a particular part of the Symbolic Modelling process: the use of ‘when/as'.  ‘When’ and ’as’ one of the primary ways to cleanly invite clients to attend to an aspect of their perception of their Metaphor Landscape.
On the day we will be investigating how ‘when’/’as’ can be used:
  • To enhance the effectiveness of your questions by more precisely directing the client’s attention
  • To specify or frame the context in which the question is ansked
  • In a variety of ways
  • At different times in the process.
In addition, we’ll look at other words that can be used in place of ‘when’ and ’as’ and the effect of using these variations to the standard Clean Language syntax.

In preparation for the day, please consider when and how you already use ‘when/as’, and what you seek to achieve when you use these words.

Uses of when:

 1. At what time?  When is he due?
 2. Over what period?
 An age when men were men.
 3. At a time at which; just as; after  I found it easy when I tried
 4. Although  He drives when he might walk
 5. Considering the fact that  How did you pass when you hadn’t studied?

Uses of as:
While or when
(Often preceded by ‘just’)
 He caught me as I was leaving.

In the way that 
Dancing as only she can.
That which; what I did as I was told.
(Of) Which fact, event, etc To become wise, as we all know, is not easy.
Since; seeing that
In the same way that He died of cancer, as his father had done.
7. For instance Capital cities, as London...
8. Indicates identify of extent, amount She is as heavy as her sister.
9. In the role of; being As his friend, I am probably biased.

Below are some extracts from Metaphors in Mind which relate to this topic.

pp. 60-61

Using ‘when’ invites the client to focus on either a particular moment when they experience what they are describing, or a class of experiences similar to that being described. Think of the former as viewing a single snapshot or video clip, and the latter as a number of snapshots or clips of similar events. In other words, ‘when’ asks the client to perceptually ‘stop time’ so that new information and insights have a chance to enter awareness. You can see how this operates in the following example:

C2: It’s like I’m behind a castle door.
T2: And it’s like you’re behind a castle door. And when behind a castle door, what kind of castle door is that castle door?
C3: A huge castle door that’s very thick, very old, with studs, very heavy.

Here ‘when’ invites the client to attend to her perception of the particular time and place called “behind a castle door”—in preparation for the question that follows.


Like ‘when’, ‘as’ encourages perceptual time to pause so that the client can focus their attention on a single event. In addition, ‘as’ acknowledges and orientates to the ongoing and dynamic nature of the client’s perception. This can be indicated in a number of ways: by a metaphor (e.g. C5: “It takes a lot of energy”); by nonverbals (say, a repeated circular motion of the hand); and by verbs ending in ‘-ing’ which presuppose a continuing process (e.g. trying, struggling, banging). The following illustrates the difference between using ‘when’ and ‘as’:

C3: A huge castle door that’s very thick, very old, with studs, very heavy.
T3: And a huge castle door that’s very thick, very old, with studs, very heavy. And when huge castle door is very thick, very old, with studs, very heavy, is there anything else about that huge castle door?
C4: I can’t open it and I get very very tired trying to open it.
T4: And you can’t open it and you get very very tired trying to open it. And as you get very very tired trying to open it, what kind of very very tired trying is that?
C5: Like I’m struggling on my own and not getting anywhere. It takes a lot of energy. I feel like I’m banging my head on a wall.

If you compare C3 with C4 you will notice the difference between a static perception of “A huge castle door” and a dynamic perception of “trying to open it.” Referencing “castle door” with ‘when’, and “trying” with ‘as’, honours the nature of each description.

To summarise, the formulaic nature of the full syntax of Clean Language is designed to keep your vocabulary and metaphors out of the client’s perceptions. The words ‘and’, ‘when’ and ‘as’ are used for continuity and to encourage clients to attend to a single symbolic event. This enables them to more fully explore whatever they are perceiving at the time, and because they hear mostly their own words, their attention is not distracted from what they are perceiving. Equally, because you do not need to manufacture words of your own, more of your attention is available to watch what they do and listen to exactly what they say.

p. 67
In the full syntax of Clean Language, ‘when’ orientates attention to the particular context (time and place) while ‘about’ and ‘that’ direct attention to the particular content (form and location) to be attended to. These words act cumulatively to orientate attention to one perceptual aspect at a time (be that a symbol, a relationship between symbols, a metaphor, a pattern of perceptions or the entire Metaphor Landscape). For many clients, ‘that’ also encourages symbols to acquire an independence, an identity, and to be perceived as separate from the perceiver.

p. 130
The questions in these examples make extensive use of ‘when’ and ‘that’. Generally, ‘when’ invites the client to consider a single event, and ‘that’ directs their attention to a particular component. Compare:

And you have a fear. And what kind of fear?
And you have a fear. And when you have a fear, what kind of fear is that fear?

Using ‘when’ and ‘that’ invites the client to attend to a time when they are experiencing that specific fear and to search for the distinguishing characteristics which make it that fear, and no other.

p. 214
Directing the client’s attention to a change has two purposes: it ensures the client acknowledges the change is happening or has happened, and it prepares the way for the change to evolve, develop or spread. This is an essential part of maturing because, surprising as it may seem, just because a change takes place does not guarantee the client is fully aware of it. You facilitate the acknowledgement and preparation by starting your questions with either:

And as [description of ongoing change] …
And when [description of change that has happened] …

When a client’s language presupposes that change is still happening, begin with ‘as’. This recognises its ongoing nature and encourages it to continue (see T60 and T61 below). If the change has already happened, begin with ‘when’ (see T62 and T63):

T60: And as he feels life again, then what happens?
C61: The race becomes enjoyable.
And as the race becomes enjoyable and he feels life again, then what happens?
C62: Confidence returns.
 T62: And confidence returns. And when red, mature heart that’s had lots of experience and deep understanding goes to that young boy and he feels life again and the race becomes enjoyable and confidence returns, what happens to a mother who’s just read a letter twice?
 C63: She expresses it’s a learning process, not a failure. She’s comfortable with him.
T63: And she’s comfortable with him. And it’s a learning process. And when mother is comfortable with him, what happens next?
C64: The boy has a different view. A sense of security. Looking forward to life.

End quotes.

‘When’ can be used to:
  • Select a part of the client’s description as the context for the question that follows, e.g:

    C: It's the Yoda with his hand in the air jumping up and down. It's chicken and egg. I have to listen to my gut instinct in order to give it free rein, but I can't give it free rein knowing the trouble its caused me. If I rely on mother as an external part, I will always be relying on her. She has to teach me.
    T: And when it's chicken and egg, then what happens?

  • Zoom in, concentrate, focus attention on one part of the client’s Landscape, e.g.
Client:    A, B, C, D, E
Fac:        And when C, ....?

C: As above.
T: And when you listen to your gut instinct, what kind of instinct is that?

  • Ask a question within a given condition/context , e.g.
Fac:    And [question], when [condition/context]?
And what would you like to have happen when 'he is never going to change'?

  • Bring several aspects of a Landscape in to the client’s awareness, act as checklist, e.g.
Fac:    And when X, and Y, and Z, ...

A number of exercises follow next. Practicing them which will extend your understanding and flexible use of when/as.

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
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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