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This article was written in June 2006 and first published on this site 6 May 2009

Modelling: Top-down and Bottom-up

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley


Systemically speaking, a system functions the way it does because of the way it is organised.  But you can’t observe ‘organisation’ directly because how a complex system is organised is in the background.  When you join a company it takes a while to figure out who relates to whom and how because you cannot ‘see’ the pattern of relationships at first. That’s why a company structure diagram — a kind of model — is useful. (Of course we all know every company has an informal organisation which looks nothing like the official structure and it can take quite a while to figure out - model - how it works.)

Modelling as a facilitator, coach or therapist involves bringing the background organisation into the foreground of awareness so that, in the moment, it informs how we respond to a client. (See our article Symbolic Modelling and the Emergence of Background Knowledge.)

Equally, we want to model so that we can be more aware of the client’s model, and bring their model into their awareness so that they have more choice about what is useful or what they would like to change. (See our article What is Therapeutic Modelling?).

Two of the most common ways to model is to either build up patterns or break wholes into parts.  If you start with a concept, then you can figure out what that means or how it fits together by breaking it down (called top-down modelling).  If you start with behaviour or events, you can notice patterns and build up to a model or metaphor (called bottom-up modelling).  Note, ‘up’ and ‘down’ are the key metaphors to attend to, since 'top' and 'bottom' are relative terms that change depending on your persepective..

From a developmental perspective, things, people, ideas and the whole universe evolved bottom-up: from the simple to the more complex. But once the higher level exists it exerts a downward influence. You could say that the whole universe exists the way it does out of habit.

As a 'clean' modeller you will model from behaviour to pattern (bottom-up) while facilitating the client to go from story to components and relationships (top-down). At that point the client, with a little help, may well move adjacent before re-constructing a new meaning and model of the world:

Top-down modelling

In top-down modelling the modeller starts with a model and the data is organised within that model.  The modeller knows at the start what the structure of the model will be, even though he/she doesn’t know the precise content of the individual client.

Once a model exists it can be used as a shortcut to save having to bottom-up model all the time: models make life easier. That is their blessing and their curse. If you only top-down model, you risk missing an idiosyncratic part of the client’s experience. 

How close a model is to the ‘top’ or to the ‘bottom’ is relative. Our 'Framework for Change' method of coaching is a top-down model, but it is closer to people’s experience than, say, most psychometric models of personality. For example, ‘Problem’, ‘Remedy’ and ‘desired Outcome’ (the PRO model) are categories that are closer to people’s everyday conceptions and descriptions than ‘introvert’, ‘extrovert’, or a Myers-Briggs ‘INTJ type'. Even young children know they experience problems and desires but they have wait a lot longer to understand what it means to be introverted or extroverted.

The client starts a session not in ‘the here and now’ but [working] from an already constructed top-down model such as ‘I am depressed’. Although this may be a very familiar  story to them, they are likely to know very little about how they do depressed. Often you can ask a client who has been “anxious all my life”, ‘And when you are anxious, where are you anxious?” and they will look at you as if you just asked them to explain quantum physics. Their knowledge of their experience is David Grove calls “an undifferentiated information mass”.

Clean Space is a method which helps a client to deconstruct their model by spatial locating and physicalising the components  of their model.  David Grove calls this “nailing their history to the floor”.

Bottom-up modelling

When bottom-up modelling you start from what the client actually says and does. The overall or underlying logic of the client’s information is where you are heading. You should start with as few preconceptions as possible. But you have to presuppose something. In Symbolic Modelling, if a client is functioning in the world, then we assume they have a way to organise space, time, perspective and hierarchy. But we do not presuppose what they way is.

The facilitator-modeller is in effective always asking ‘How does that happen?’ or ‘How does that work?’ or ‘How is this all put together?’. In Symbolic Modelling we rarely ask these questions out right, partly because they assume so much, partly because the client rarely knows, and partly because they are too complex. Better to use David Grove's Clean Language to slow the process down and let the detail and idiosyncrasies reveal themselves bit by bit. This helps the client to take their model apart to get at the components. Whereas most facilitator’s will deconstruct the problem, we prefer to start by facilitating the client to deconstruct their desired outcome.

As facilitator, you are paying attention to what the client is paying attention to, and taking your lead from the client’s information. The model emerges from the patterns in the data. As a bottom-up modeller you have no idea at the start about how the model will look at the end.

The facilitator keeps taking in the in-the-moment descriptions, holds off long enough for patterns to emerge, and builds their model of the client's model from what the client is actually saying and doing right there in the room.

As facilitators, we keep returning to the bottom to put new pieces of information into the model (see diagram above). When a new symbol arrives, the facilitator starts again at the bottom, and wonders, ‘How does it fit in, how can my model accommodate it or does my model need to change?’ Each time there is new information presented the facilitator amends their model of the components and the relationships to see if that changes the overall patterns.

We aim to build up a map of the spatial, temporal, functional and hierarchical relationships. All this is generally in the background, and isn’t what the client is paying attention to. By modelling the background, you get to the organisation that holds the experience together — and your model should have a similar (isomorphic) structure to their experience, i.e. your model will be a metaphor of their background knowledge.

Through the process the client constructs a new model-of-self from the bottom up. As this happens they see new patterns and relationships. One indication that a client is self-modelling is when they catch themselves doing their pattern in-the-moment.

Principles for applying bottom-up modelling approach

(21 March 2004)

Identify and write/draw a Desired Outcome for what you are about to do.
    Put where everyone can see it.


Identify components/elements/pieces.
    Write them on separate pieces of paper
If planning an event, include the Desired Outcome for the event as one of the components, and keep it centrally placed.

Notice relationships, categories, groupings, sequences, synchronicities.
    In particular the relationship of each component to the Desired Outcome.

Until ...


 ... patterns, direction and a natural flow emerge.

Keep looking for the essence, the uniqueness, the inherent nature of this event and use this to inform the modelling process.

When a moment of emergence occurs, capture its essence so that ...


... it can be used as a guide to organising other components and relationships.

Once the flow starts, keep it going and incorporate more and more of the components — document/write down what emerges.

Stop the process when the flow is exhausted.

General organising principles

Keep applying the process to the process.

When you don’t know what to do, or get stuck, drop down a level and return to the:

  • desired outcome
  • basic components
  • unique aspects of the event.

Listen to the unusual voice, the suggestion that does not obviously fit, the annoying intrusion. They often contain the gem, the spark, the perturbation the system needs.

Look for signs of ‘its happening now’ (both externally and internally within the participants). Is what’s happening now isomorphic with, or a reflection of the event?  If so, utilise what’s happening now.

You can’t force the process. When the going gets tough stay true to the process — often crises happen just before emergence.

Take a break when the creative energy subsides — creativity often happens in the breaks.

Remember:  when you don’t know, the system knows.


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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