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These notes were first presented at The Developing Group 4 April 2009

Accepting Acceptance and its Paradoxical Nature

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley 

The Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept that things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.


Recently we have been noticing what happens when people say they accept, and when they actually do accept the ‘current reality’ of their lives. We have noticed what happens at the moment of acceptance and tracked what happens over time. Having got interested, we put on our constructivist, systemic modelling filters to investigate what acceptance is, how we do it, and how we do not. We also wondered what difference it makes to the potential for change and transformation when people truly accept their current reality from an authentic, deep and cellular state of being.


Originally the word ‘accept’ came from the Latin: ‘to take (something to one’s self)’. More recently ‘accept’ or ‘acceptance’ (according to the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus) refers to the act of:

  • the acceptance of an award — receipt, receiving, taking, obtaining
  • the acceptance of responsibility — undertaking,assumption
  • acceptances of an invitation — yes, affirmative reply, confirmation
  • her acceptance into the group — favorable reception, adoption
  • his acceptance of Bill's promise — belief in, trust in, faith in, confidence in, credence in, give credence to
  • the acceptance of pain — toleration, endurance, forbearance, sufferance
  • their acceptance of the ruling — compliance with, acquiescence in, agreement with, consent to, concurrence with, assent to, acknowledgment of, adherence to, deference to, surrender to, submission to, respect for, adoption of, buy-in to.

While there is some overlap with the dictionary definitions of acceptance, at The Developing Group we will be investigating the state of acceptance. While the state of acceptance is often seen as digital — on/off or in/out — we will explore its analogue nature (variable along a scale). We will model acceptance from the client’s and the facilitator’s perspectives. And we will highlight the apparent paradoxes in the notion of ‘complete acceptance’.

States of Acceptance

‘Acceptance’ usually refers to a person experiencing a situation or condition as painful or uncomfortable without protesting, leaving or attempting to change it (e.g. accept the status quo). Equally it could be accepting something as joyful or liberating. The situation or condition may be an external event in the world; or it may be an internal thought, feeling or memory. Similarly a group may collectively accept a situation or condition.

Acceptance as a ‘solution’ is often suggested when a situation is both disliked and unchangeable, or when change may be possible only at great cost or risk. A psychotherapist might foster a depressed or anxious client to accept whatever personal circumstances give rise to those feelings, or to accept the feelings themselves. Conversely, a psychotherapist might foster lessening an individual's acceptance of various situations when passivity is their issue.

A person who comes to accept a reality contrary to the norms of a group may be shunned or excluded. That person may be seen (unconsciously) as a threat because their very presence may challenge the beliefs, ideals and aims of the group. For example, we facilitated a long-standing victim-support group in Belfast each of whom had lost a loved one in ‘the troubles’. The group discovered that one member had never disclosed that she had “moved on” from the trauma of losing her son. She had not previously voiced her acceptance of the tragedy because she knew she would be going against the ‘victim support’ ethos which sustained the group. She said she didn’t want to lose her friends and social life by declaring she no longer felt a victim.

Spiritual and Meditative Traditions

Notions of acceptance are prominent in many faiths and meditation practices. For example, Buddhism's first noble truth, "All life is suffering” invites people to accept suffering as a natural part of life:

Buddhism teaches us is to learn to accept everything, both the very hot and the very cold. It is pointing us to a very simple solution for suffering, but one which can be very hard to do when we are burning. We need to be still with an open and all-accepting heart and mind. By pushing nothing away, no matter how frightening or unpleasant, we learn that there is nothing that we need to fear, that our True heart will not be damaged by the fires of suffering. We also do not need to grasp after anything, no matter how desirable or joyful, for all those pleasures are fleeting and do not provide a true refuge from the storms of our suffering.

There is a place within us that no suffering can touch, that fulfills our heart's deepest needs no matter what external trials life takes us through. It is a deep act of faith to sit still in the midst of suffering and not run away, and it is that faith that unlocks our hearts and allows us to open ourselves to the Unborn. We all need to be willing to accept the "hot" and the "cold" and have faith that nothing in our lives, or in the entire world, is outside the Buddha.

When It is Hot, Be Completely Hot. When It is Cold, Be Completely Cold”, Rev. Kinrei Bassis,

SantaBarbara Buddhist Priory Newsletter, July-August 1997

A transformative type of acceptance can happen in a conversion experience or in a single moment of grace. And it can be slowly developed through years of meditation. The aim of many contemplative practices is to make this state permanent and pervasive.

Models involving acceptance

Acceptance is integral to a number of models. Below we review a few:

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Acceptance is inherent in the first two steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step Program:

Step 1: I am powerless over alcohol – my life has become unmanageable.

Step 2: I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.

The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions explain the importance of acceptance as a prelude to recovery from alcoholism:

Who cares to admit defeat? Practically no one, of course. Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of personal powerlessness. It is truly awful to admit that, glass in hand, we have warped our minds to such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of Providence can remove it from us.

No other kind of bankruptcy is like this one. Alcohol, now become the rapacious creditor, bleeds us of all self-sufficiency and all will to resist its demands. Once this stark fact is accepted, our bankruptcy as going human concerns is complete.

But upon entering AA we soon take quite another view of this absolute humiliation. We perceive that only through utter defeat are we able to take our first steps towards liberation and strength. Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock on which happy and purposeful lives may be built. [p. 21]

In Steps to An Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson comments:

Implicit in the combination of these two steps is an extraordinary — and I believe correct — idea: the experience of defeat not only serves to convince the alcoholic that change is necessary; it is the first step in that change. To be defeated by the bottle and to know it is the first ‘spiritual experience.’ The myth of self-power is therefore broken by the demonstration of a greater power.

Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender; it is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology. [p.313]

Cybernetics would go somewhat further [than AA’s second step] and recognize that the “self” as ordinarily understood is only a small part of a much larger trial-and-error system which does the thinking, acting and deciding. This system includes all the informational pathways which are relevant at any given moment to the given decision. The “self” is a false reification of an improperly delimited part of this much larger field of interlocking processes. [p. 331]

We wonder if Bateson’s conscious “self” with the illusion of self-power that accepts at a surface level. On the other hand, when we resonate with the larger system that includes more of the complexity, unpredictability and incomprehensibility of life, does that make possible a deeper, more inclusive and encompassing state of acceptance?

Stages of Grieving

Acceptance is the fifth stage in the Kübler-Ross "Stages of Grieving", outlined in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The model was later expanded into a Seven-Stage Grief Cycle (where ‘grief’ can be a reaction to any kind of loss, not just bereavement). In both the five and the seven stage versions, acceptance is the last stage:

1 (Shock), 2 Denial, 3 Anger, 4 Bargaining, 5 Depression, 6 (Testing), 7 Acceptance

This contrasts with the 12 Step Program where acceptance is the first step. We don’t think there is necessarily any conflict between the two models. Someone may well need to go through the Grief Cycle before they are ready to accept that they need to embark on the first step of the 12 Step Program.

Current Reality

One of the most valuable models of acceptance we have encountered is Robert Fritz’s idea of current reality. He uses this term in relation to the creative process:

Once you know what end result you want, or your vision, what is the next step? Most people think the answer is to find out how to get there. This is not the best next step. The best next step is to describe what you currently have in relationship to the result you want. This is a step that is conspicuously absent in many systems designed specifically to help you attain what you want.

Current reality, as a stage, begins after the vision has been formed. It is also an ongoing stage in the creative process in the sense that you should always be aware of the current state of the creation while it develops. In the beginning of the creative process there will be a discrepancy between what you want and what you have. This discrepancy forms a tension. Tension seeks resolution. The tension is a wonderful force because, as it moves toward resolution, it generates energy that is useful in creating. [Path of Least Resistance, pp. 26-27]

We have adopted Fritz’s term, 'current reality' and have widened its meaning to: a person’s current experience as they are aware of it, moment by moment.

Fritz points out that just having ‘a want’ produces a tension because of the gap between the desired outcome and current reality. Many people’s initial reaction to this tension is a desire to remove the tension (a Remedy in the P.R.O. model). This produces another gap with current reality (that they are experiencing a tension) and hence a further tension occurs. It is easy to see how this can become an infinite regress. Instead of accepting that tension is a natural part of creating anything; is essential to long-term motivation; and can’t be gotten rid of, the common tendency is to attempt to change the goal or distort current reality.

Confront the Brutal Facts

Jim Collins exhorts managers who want to turn their companies from Good to Great to “confront the brutal facts of reality.” This is because the good-to-great companies he studied displayed a consistent pattern of behaviour — they infused the entire management process with the brutal facts of reality:

There is nothing wrong with pursuing a vision for greatness. After all, the good-to-great companies also set out to create greatness. But, unlike the comparison companies, the good-to-great companies continually refined the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality. [p. 71]

Despite the potential for violence in the "brutal" metaphor, his message is the same as the other approaches described: reality is your friend, so accept it as it is.

Self-Binding Patterns

In Metaphors in Mind we focussed on the value of the client (and facilitator) accepting the current reality of the unresolvable nature of a binding pattern, as the client experiences it:

As a client learns about the organisation of their Metaphor Landscape, usually they either accept their existing organisation as is, or a translatory change satisfies them. Changes of this nature account for most of what people wish to achieve through psychotherapy. In some cases however, neither the status quo nor a translatory change is acceptable. Then the system needs to find a new way of being. [p.38]

Resolving a single bind is relatively easy. The client simply reformulates (reframes) the problem and moves on, or they accept its unsolvable nature and stop fighting, or they randomly decide between alternatives, or they choose a different route altogether, or they ignore the paradox, or a thousand other solutions. [p. 183]

What if, for some reason or other, resolving the bind is unachievable or unacceptable? What if the potential for transformation is itself bound? Then another pattern—a double bind—must be operating to preserve a larger organisation. [p. 184]

For many clients, truly acknowledging ‘this is the way it is’ and accepting ‘current reality’ is the first step on the road to transformation. ... Accepting current reality sounds simple, yet clients rarely face the unresolvability of their double bind without a struggle. Instead they experience frustration, angst, grief, anger or depression as they come to terms with and accept the fact that even their most tried and tested technique, their most successful method, their cleverest trick, their most beloved reframe, will never resolve this particular conundrum. In fact they often come to realise that these techniques, methods, tricks and reframes are part of the bind. [p. 185]

Depth of acceptance

By now it should be clear that acceptance takes several forms, and these are part of a continuum that runs from a surface or more superficial knowing to a deeper and more encompassing state. We borrow the ‘deep’ metaphor from recent usage such as ‘deep ecology’ [Arne Naess cited in Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life] and ‘deep democracy’ [Arnie Mindell] which distinguish more ‘surface’ and everyday experiences from their more cellular, spiritual and out-of-the-ordinary versions.

The Catherine Tate school of acceptance — “Wot-ev-ah” — epitomises the most superficial degree of acceptance.

At a behavioural level someone may decide to take no action and yet be far from fully accepting of their circumstance. This may be an inability to accept one’s needs or desires, or it may be the safest course of action when living under a repressive regime.

At a deeper level, it is possible to accept a situation intellectually and still remain emotionally attached. The result is often an internal conflict with incongruent behaviour when the emotion ‘leaks out’. We have noticed this often happens when people say they have accepted that they can’t have what they want. In Transactional Analysis (TA) terms the Adult might accept, but the Child certainly doesn’t. In such cases we test a person’s acceptance by asking them:

“And when you can’t have what you want, what happens to your want?”

Usually they find their want is merely pausing to plan its next strategy.

We asked this question of a couple who were forever bickering, this time over the colour to paint their wardrobes. The woman turned bright red, then a big smile filled her face and she said, “Actually, it never happens”. “What never happens?”, we enquired. “I always get my own way ... eventually.”

At a deeper level still, acceptance is a behavioural, cognitive and emotional state of acknowledging current reality — you accept it is the way it is. While you may not like a situation, this type of acceptance is marked by a minimal emotional response to the situation. As an example, a Catholic marries a Protestant, accepts that they will not convert, and stops hoping they will.

We use ‘deep acceptance’ to point to a phenomenon that operates at a cellular (more fundamental) or spiritual (more significant) levels. Deep acceptance is not a behaviour, it is not an intellectual understanding, it is not an emotion — it is a state of mind-body-spirit knowing.

At any moment deep acceptance can seem like you have it or you don’t. Sometimes it can arrive rapidly, without warning or request. Sometimes it comes as a shock, in an ‘Oh my God, now I see’ moment that often follows the lifting of the veil of self-deception, self-delusion or self-denial. There is a clarity when the blindingly obvious is recognised, and every cell in your body ‘just knows’. This is such an unusual and all-encompassing state that it is often accompanied by strong emotions. The euphoria, grief or anger that follows is not the acceptance. It is a reaction to the acceptance. The accompanying emotion passes, while the acceptance remains.

It is also possible to notice subtle differences over a period of time as each accessing of the state of acceptance deepens and enriches. Then people say ‘I thought I had accepted it, but now I really do’. This deepening process can be repeated many times.

Whether quick or slow, once a deep state of acceptance has been integrated ‘things can never be the same again’ and a defining moment has occurred.

Radical acceptance

Radical acceptance is a cornerstone of Dr. Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. DBT combines cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation with eastern practices for mindfulness, distress tolerance and acceptance. It draws from the Buddhist tradition that suffering is a meta-state, i.e. it is pain about pain. Linehan is particularly known for her success in the treatment of those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In her Dialectical Skills Training Manual, Linehan outlines the following:

Freedom from suffering requires ACCEPTANCE from deep within of what is.

Let yourself go completely with what is.

Let go of fighting reality.

ACCEPTANCE is the only way out of hell.

Pain creates suffering only when you refuse to ACCEPT the pain.

Deciding to tolerate the moment is ACCEPTANCE.

ACCEPTANCE is acknowledging what is.

To ACCEPT something is not the same as judging it good.

So what is Radical Acceptance? Linehan explains:

What do I mean by the word 'radical'? Radical means complete and total. It's when you accept something from the depths of your soul. When you accept it in your mind, in your heart, and even with your body. It's total and complete. When you've radically accepted something, you're not fighting it. It's when you stop fighting reality. That's what radical acceptance is.

There are three parts to radical acceptance:

The first part is accepting that reality is what it is.

The second part is accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a cause.

The third part is accepting life can be worth living even with painful events in it.

The problem is, telling you what it is and telling you how to do it are two different things. Radical acceptance can't really be completely explained. Why not? Because it's something that is interior - it's something that goes on inside yourself. But all of us have experienced radical acceptance so what I want you to do right now is to try to focus in on sometime in your life when you've actually accepted something, radically - completely and totally.

Radical or Deep?

Radical Acceptance is close to our notion of deep acceptance; and by exploring the differences we get to know more about our own perspective:

  1. Linehan says “acceptance is the only way out of hell”. We think, 'maybe, maybe not'. We are open to other exit strategies.

  1. The second part of Radical Acceptance is “accepting that the event or situation causing you pain has a cause”. In our opinion, this belief is not a necessary condition for deep acceptance. Here’s why:

Firstly this statement presupposes that events or situations can ‘cause’ pain. If we accept that an event causes pain, then as long as the event continues, so must the pain. And by that logic acceptance would not have any effect. While we know changing the pain is not the function of acceptance, time and again people report that when they deeply accept, something happens to their primary pain, and not just their suffering.

Secondly, what difference does it make that the event or situation has a cause? How does believing this make it easier to access the state of acceptance? To us this is similar to the “There must be a reason for it” thinking. There well may be, but so what?

Thirdly, the belief “the event causing you pain” is a conflation of logical levels, and undervalues the role of the mind and nervous system in the creation of pain. In The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge shows how pain is a systemic, emergent property of the relationships between mind, nervous system, culture and physical environment – there is no simple linear relationship.

Fourthly, and perhaps most tellingly, focussing on ‘a cause’ may shift attention from the current experience, and in that respect is not accepting the reality of the moment.

If a person believes that their pain has a cause, fine. That is their current reality. And we have seen many clients spend a lot of time, effort and angst looking for a ‘root cause’. Even when they find a satisfying cause they may have no idea how this knowledge will actually change anything. As they say at the Findhorn Spiritual Community, “Information is not transformation”. Or they never find a root cause and then worry what that means about them (“I’m not trying hard enough”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m stuck with the pain — poor me”). Either way the search for a cause can itself be an avoidance of the reality of their current situation. (This reality includes that they would like a ‘root cause’ which, once found, would solve everything — wouldn’t we all? — and the reality is, so far, despite all their searching, they haven’t found one. And, of course, they might.)

From a Symbolic Modelling viewpoint all we have to work with is what a person is experiencing right now. Therefore ‘causes’ (at least those that happened in the past) are considered to be either current memories or a current pattern that resembles the past. We are not saying there are no causes or that identifying a cause is not valuable. We are saying that in the realm of human experience: (i) most ‘causes’ are metaphorical and are better thought of as explanations rather than provable cause-effect relationships; (ii) finding a cause doesn’t necessarily change anything; and (iii) searching for a past cause can be a convenient diversion from accepting current reality.

  1. "DBT emphasizes learning to bear pain skillfully”. For us, acceptance is also learning to experience joy in the moment. Marianne Williamson wasn’t joking when she said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” For many people deeply accepting how joyful or how privileged they are is a tall order. Mary Pipher says:

If we are lucky, occasionally we experience a sparkling moment when we break out of our trance of self and we are fully present. Sometimes these lead to epiphanies, which present us with aha moments of new understanding. Or our thoughts simply may be “Isn’t this wonderful?” or even, “Doesn’t this look beautiful or taste delicious?” What makes these moments distinct is that we are celebrating what actually is. Psychologists Abraham Maslow called these moments “peak experiences” and argued that they were often transformative.

[‘Shopping for Joshua Bell’ Psychotherapy Networker Magazine, March/April 2009, p. 51]

Ways to not accept

By what means do we not accept current reality? How do we do that? Especially when it doesn’t seem to be in our own interest? The antonyms of ‘accept’ (i.e. metaphors of not accepting) give clues. Apparently we can: resist, doubt, refuse, reject, turn down, go against, and defy reality.

Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues noticed how attempting to apply a solution to a problem can often perpetuate or exacerbate that problem, or create a new one. “When The Remedy is the Problem” [see The Developing Group notes, Dec 2005] a person usually needs to accept the evidence that their striving to enact a solution is not working — even if it has ‘always worked in the past’, or seems to be the obvious or only thing to do.

Similarly, not accepting is always a fundamental characteristic in Self-Deception, Self-Delusion, Self-Denial. This type of bind demands a double dose of not accepting — a person will have discovered ways to (almost) convince themselves that ‘what they know to be true’ is not true; and that their ‘misleading representation’ is not misleading! When they come to deeply accept what they know to be true, they can no longer live out of their misleading representation — whatever the consequences.

Robert Fritz in The Path of Least Resistance explains how ‘reasons’ can be used to avoid accepting reality:

Not describing reality accurately often becomes self-propaganda. You may be late for an appointment and on your way over think up the most plausible excuse. By the time you arrive, not only are you ready to recite it, but you almost believe it yourself. Avoiding describing reality accurately is often a strategy to overcome the negative consequences of your actions. Our society puts a high premium on reasons and excuses. Most people learn that if they have a good reason for not succeeding, they can sometimes avoid negative consequences. Many people mis-represent reality through a smokescreen of plausible-sounding reasons that are designed to distract themselves and others from the truth.

Some people learn that others put less pressure on them when they are sick. So they often get sick to have a legitimate excuse to not live up to expectations. Some people use being in a state of emotional upheaval as an excuse: “If I’m upset, do not ask me to be responsible.” Being a “victim of circumstances” is a common reason some people use to explain their actions.

Sometimes knowing the reasons for failure can help you adjust the actions you take to shape your final creation. But this is quite different from using reasons to justify failure. Discovering the effect of the actions you take is designed to be a learning experience, rather than a justification for not succeeding.

Knowing [the causes] has at least two functions. One is to correct the error in the future. Knowing what happened also helps to ease the pain sometimes evoked by reality. Those who learn to know reality, without holding on to the past, are in the best position to truly live their lives. This is anything but amnesia. This is not forgetting the past, but remembering that the past is over. The past is not the present. Whether the past has been filled with loss or failure or filled with success and victory, the past is not the present. And the present is not the past. [pp. 142-145]

In Creating, Robert Fritz describes how ideal-reality conflicts limit our ability to accept ourselves as we are:

People often have an ideal for themselves to which they hope to aspire. Personal ideals are extremely easy to form, given the abundance of notions in the world about how to be a perfect or proper human being. But when you compare your ideal with reality, a discrepancy arises. If you have an ideal that you should be pretty, and one day you look in the mirror and you do not deem yourself to be pretty, you have an ideal-reality conflict. Reality contradicts the ideal. What is to be done about it? You take actions to end the discrepancy to favor the ideal: a trip to the beauty parlor, a new mirror, a pep talk about inner beauty. Why do you have to be pretty?

These ideal-reality conflicts mostly arise from personal concerns; they are laden with concerns about identity. In most cases what is at issue is you, in that you have not lived up to an ideal you have set for yourself. In fact, the ideal you form actually may be in opposition to many of your real opinions of yourself. When you impose desirable qualities, admirable attributes, and high standards of accomplishment on yourself, and then attempt to force yourself into living up to these characteristics, you are implying through the act of forcing yourself that you are not fine just the way you are. The further implication is that there is something wrong with how you are. [pp. 93-95]

Provocatively Fritz asks you to consider:

Why do you have to be smart?

What is wrong with having an opinion that you are bad, or unworthy, or insignificant?

What is wrong with you the way you are?

He goes on to ask an interesting question:

If you don’t have to be any particular way, and you don’t have to behave any particular way, and you don’t have to justify your existence, and you don’t have to live up to preset standards, and you don’t have to accomplish anything in particular, how would you spend your time? [p. 232]

Acceptance and wisdom

Acceptance in its basic form has no moral compass. It does not make a distinction between good and bad, right and wrong. It is simply an acceptance of our own subjective reality. In this respect it is a form of faith because the reality of our own private interior world can never be proven nor unproven — it can only be compared to other people’s subjective reality.

We believe it is vital to acknowledge that when ‘completely accepting’ goes beyond faith to fundamentalism it can lead to terrible actions. The Jamestown mass suicide and ‘ethnic cleansing’ come to mind. Complete acceptance without feedback becomes a closed system — for good or ill.

From our observations, like the Serenity Prayer quoted at the start of these notes, deep acceptance requires a supervisory level that brings wisdom to the system.

3 levels of supervising acceptance

The supervisory level is required to ensure external views are incorporated and to provide a moral compass. In other words, the Supervisory Level operates out of the frame of: ‘Having accepted the reality of my experience and taken into account other perspectives and external views of my current reality, and considered the morality of my intended actions, I will ... .’

The acceptance paradox

Through this journey into acceptance we kept coming across apparent paradoxes; so much so that we realised they are inherent. Now we think about it, because acceptance is a multi-level phenomenon, paradox must be an ever-present possibility. Some of the apparent paradoxes we have identified are summarised below:

  1. If we “completely accept” then we would not lift a finger to help ourselves or others. If we completely accept everything ‘as is’, we would soon starve to death: “I am hungry ... I am starving ... I am dying ... I ...”.

  1. Accepting how things are without the desire to change them often opens us up, or prepares us for change. If you desire something to change you are not accepting it as it is. The paradox is: If you are going to accept, you can’t want to change that which you want to change.

  1. AA says that you can’t really change your life until you accept how bad it is. And if you haven’t accepted how bad it is, it will get get worse — until you hit (your) bottom. Then you will really accept your “life has become unmanageable”.

  1. Some of the worst atrocities in history have occurred when people have completely accepted their reality as the Truth. Acceptance without feedback becomes a potentially dangerous self-reinforcing system.

  1. A person experiencing surface acceptance is unlikely to act, whereas a person in a state of deep acceptance is very likely to act. For example, the Dali Lama seems to deeply accept the reality of the invasion of Tibet, and he has campaigned tirelessly for decades to change the situation — but always within his principle of loving kindness. This is an important point. Deep acceptance seems to ‘bring out the best’ in a person. They ‘rise to the occasion’ even if they have fears or doubts.

  1. As facilitators we can deeply accept a client’s description as true for them at that moment, and remember that as, Viktor Frankel has written, the self does not yield to total self-reflection.

The facilitator's perspective

Clean facilitators are faced with several dilemmas when it comes to acceptance of what a client says. On the one hand, as we say in Metaphors in Mind:

Although some linguists dismiss metaphors as ‘merely figurative’, we accept them as a highly accurate description of experience (p.11)

Analysis and interpretation of the meaning of symbols by the facilitator is counterproductive because it distracts the client’s attention from their own perceptions. Instead you can accept clients’ metaphoric expressions as perfect examples of their patterns manifesting in the moment. (p. 47)

The combination of matching clients’ voice qualities, asking clean questions with a tonality of implicit acceptance, curiosity and wonder, while using a slow delivery and a poetic rhythm, is a potent mixture. (p.80)

On the other hand, clients are consciously aware of their internal world to varying degrees and no matter how aware they are, any description of an experience can only describe a fraction of their whole system. While we accept all verbal and nonverbal expressions explicitly, we cannot privilege any one of them. This is particularly the case when:

  1. A client is stating an initial desired outcome.

  2. A client’s not-accepting-their-current-reality contributes to them not achieving what they want.

  3. The client’s proposed remedy is a problem.

  4. The client is holding back vital information (maybe due to embarrassment or shame).

  5. The client is deliberately attempting to mislead the facilitator (e.g. offenders who need to be seen to change in order to get parole).

  6. Self Delusion, self-deception, self-denial is involved.

  7. ‘Actual’ delusion is involved.

We worked unsuccessfully for a long time with a client who wanted to lose weight. We were presenting him with evidence of his own ineffective behaviour and strategies when he turned red and said angrily, “Look, I just want to be thin. I don’t want to have to lose weight.” And there it was; despite him stating dozens of times that he wanted to lose weight, not only did he not want to change his eating habits — he wasn’t going to. Once he accepted this he stopped therapy.

To Cleanly Doubt

As a clean facilitator we need to be aware of the above possibilities – and more. We have to both accept the client’s description, and at the same time not fully accept what they say. Penny calls this “having one foot in (the client’s world), and keeping one foot out”. One way to do this is to hold in mind that we do not, and cannot, have access to the full picture. We are always working in the dark. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb says in The Black Swan, all the “silent evidence” that we cannot know, will continually dwarf everything we do know.

This lack of knowledge also applies to the client, so if a facilitator completely accepts a client’s description they may undervalue patterns that are out of the client’s awareness.

Facilitators need to be able to calibrate a client’s state of accepting. An experienced facilitator will recognise the difference between the state of acceptance, the process of accepting, and any accompanying emotion. They will not be seduced by the drama of the outward display of emotion. They will honour the emotion and then direct attention to the original state of acceptance.

Facilitators also need to notice that if a client says “Yes I accept the situation, now what do I do?” they may have touched a state of acceptance for less than a second. That is hardly long enough for the client to get to know that state, let alone deepen it into an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Our approach would be to direct their attention to the knowing (e.g. the acceptance that what they are doing isn’t working) and hold them there. Why? Because, staying with acceptance will, if nothing else, teach them about themselves, and if they are lucky it will be a prelude to a creative emergence.

[There follows a short example of working with acceptance, followed by an annotated transcript of a full client session.]

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:
  • Comment #1 (Posted by Svetlana Shapovaliants, 9 Aug 2016)

    Very helpful! Need to study this closely! Thank you.
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Clean Space


Marian Way

James Lawley

July 13-14 2017
London, UK

An exquisitely simple
and innovative
facilitation process.
Discover how to
use space as
your co-facilitator.

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