First published in the Fenman Ltd publication
Coach the Coach 2004
Metaphor & Symbolic Modelling For Coaches
- Use of metaphor in coaching, therapy and healing
- Development of Symbolic Modelling and Clean Language
- How and why Symbolic Modelling works
- Unique elements of Symbolic Modelling
- The structure of a session
- Case history
What is a metaphor?
Metaphors are an inherent part of our daily life, both in our
waking and sleeping states. We use them consciously to convey a
feeling, description or situation. Unconsciously, during sleep, our
dreams string together metaphors and symbols, some of which are
easily attributable and others so obscure that they remain a mystery.
Metaphors we often use include:
A millstone round my neck
Flat as a pancake
Throw some light on
Less obvious metaphors are:
What's your view?
I'm under pressure
I can't get through to you
Use of metaphor as an aid in therapy and healing
Metaphor has played a significant part in therapy and self
development for many years, contributing to Jungian therapy, NLP,
Transpersonal Psychology, Psycho synthesis, and, for thousands of
years, healing rituals and techniques.
Development of Symbolic Modelling and Clean Language
In recent years a new technique has been developed by therapists
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley of The Developing Company, based on
ground-breaking work initiated by trauma therapist, David Grove, two
decades ago. Known as Symbolic Modelling, the process focuses on
honouring and exploring a client's own metaphor using language which
will have the least possible influence on the client's content.
Use of metaphor in coaching
The technique fits smoothly into a coaching session and is
particularly effective where a client seems stuck, or trapped in
repeating behaviour patterns. By the use of metaphor, issues are
tackled at a far deeper level than the conscious mind can reach, and
changes in behaviour start immediately. Benefits can include
increased confidence, reduced stress or depression and more clarity
on the client's direction in life. The process is safe, easy to learn
and a joy to experience. Being 100% client led, it is non-invasive
and can be performed safely by relatively inexperienced
A common description of coaching is "holding up a mirror", where
the coach enables the client to see themselves and their lives in a
new perspective. This is often achieved by use of open questioning,
clarifying and mirroring techniques. In a Symbolic Modelling session,
the client will describe their issue as a metaphor. The practitioner
then repeats the metaphor back, using the client's exact words, and
asks a question of the metaphor, thus enabling the client to move
forward as the metaphor evolves. This is the basis of Symbolic
Modelling using Clean Language.
Historical use of metaphor in therapy
Carl Jung's work made extensive use of metaphors and symbols, both
through conscious visualisation and dreams. A symbol might then be
taken from a client's dream and consciously developed during a
session. Jung believed that the subconscious did not have words and
communicated with the conscious mind through symbols. A symbol might
be an object, a word, a living being or a scene.
It is not uncommon to dream of someone we know, but find that in
the dream they are behaving uncharacteristically, or portraying a
relationship with us which is different to the relationship we have
with that person in real life. This is the subconscious mind using
the person as a symbol, in order to portray something that might be
For instance, a client had recurring dreams about the actor Alan
Alder. She related it back to her emotional state during a
relationship with a man called Alan Holder. Yet Alan Holder did not
appear at all in the dream and the Alan Alder of the dream did not
display any of his namesake's characteristics.
At the end of her course of therapy, another patient dreamed of a
new hairpiece being fitted onto her own hair. She interpreted it as
the new self-knowledge she had gained through therapy being
integrated to her old self.
James Hillman worked through metaphor in what he termed the
"imaginal world". The client might be asked to imagine a meadow or a
house. Each client's meadow would be specific to them, and by
exploring the meadow the client could develop at a deeper level than
they could reach by real life exploration.
Dreams and metaphors have been used for thousands of years to aid
healing processes. Jung himself was an expert in diagnosing illnesses
from the metaphors appearing in patients' dreams. More recently, many
therapists are exploring techniques of healing through metaphor.
The researchers Meredith Sabini and Valerie Hone Maffly have
followed the dreams of cancer patients and observed how closely their
dreams followed the course of their illness.
Brandon Bays' "The Journey" reports extraordinary results in
healing patients by metaphorically tracking what is happening in
Traditionally, working with metaphor involves the practitioner
providing the symbols or helping to interpret the client's own
representations. The Symbolic Modelling technique developed by Penny
Tompkins and James Lawley enables clients to explore their own
metaphors without interpretation or influence from the coach.
History of Symbolic Modelling
A New Zealand therapist, David Grove, pioneered the technique
while working with trauma victims during the 1980s. He discovered
that the most effective way of freeing patients from the effects of
their trauma was by asking the patient to describe their feelings in
metaphor. Over a period of years, he identified questions that would
least influence the client in their metaphorical journey, hence the
term "Clean Language".
The technique was witnessed by therapists Penny Tompkins and James
Lawley, who devoted the next 3 years to modelling David's techniques
into a methodology that could be taught to and practised by others.
They organised David's original questions into a set of 12 which are
reproduced in Diagram 1. Penny and James now run a growing client
practice and training school and have generously reproduced a large
body of their work on their website.
9 + 3 Basic CLEAN LANGUAGE
QUESTIONS of DAVID GROVE
And is there anything else about
(that) [x] ?
And what kind of [x] (is that
And where/whereabouts is [x]
And that's [x] like what?
And is there a relationship
between [x] and [y] ?
And when [x], what happens to [y]
And what happens just before
[event x] ?
And then what happens ? / And
what happens next ?
And where could/does [x] come
And what would you/[x] like to
have happen ?
And what needs to happen for [x]
to [intention of x] ?
And can [x] [intention of x]
How Symbolic Modelling works
The practitioner facilitates the client in identifying the
client's own metaphors by using Clean Language to avoid contaminating
the metaphors with the practitioner's own vision.
For instance, a client might say
"My fear is like green bile: it's everywhere -- on the
walls, floors, ceiling."
An unclean question would be:
"Can you see a door you could go through to get out?"
Here, the therapist is offering something from their own
metaphoric landscape which may not correspond to the client's. There
is a parallel in coaching where the coach must always be in the
client's agenda, not the coach's own.
A clean question would be:
"Is there anything else about green bile?"
This allows the client to develop their own metaphorical landscape
and reach a new level of understanding about their fear. As the
session progresses, the client will usually come up with a device of
their own creation to get them out, and it may not be a door. It
could be a hand reaching in to help them, or a platform appearing.
Very often the green bile type of metaphorical substance will become
something more benign, for instance it might turn into molten gold,
or clear water through which they can swim to safety.
The technique works exceptionally well in removing blocks and
breaking down repeating behaviour patterns.
Unique elements of Symbolic Modelling
Previous forms of metaphor therapy, such as those developed by
Jung, sometimes stop short of resolving an issue because the client
is asked to interpret the metaphor. The trauma which is holding them
back may be too unsettling for the conscious mind can face. Symbolic
Modelling is effective in that the neither client nor practitioner
ever attempts to interpret the symbols. The practitioner assists the
client in watching the metaphor develop of its own accord to the
point where it is resolved.
The use of Clean Language honours and reinforces the client's own
The whole of the client's inner landscape is explored, including
the position of the symbols in relation to the client. Sounds,
signals and the body language of the client are taken into account.
As the client focuses on the metaphor, it evolves, bringing about
corresponding changes in the day to day life of the client.
The first metaphor to appear may relate to a block or repeating
behaviour pattern with which the client is struggling. As it is
explored, new metaphors appear and each is explored in turn. As in
coaching, a key starting question is "What would you like to have
happen?", shifting the focus towards a positive outcome.
Why it works
The subconscious mind does not have language: it communicates with
the conscious mind through visions and symbols, and during sleep in
dreams. Focusing on a metaphor enables the client to communicate
directly with their subconscious.
The repeating behaviour patterns that hold us back are often
formed very early on in life -- even during time in the womb or
during birth itself. Some behaviours are formed as a defence, and can
persist for many years after the original threat has evaporated.
During the process of Symbolic Modelling, the client does not have
to identify the trauma in order to see it and move on. Fear and
anxiety which have been carried for a life time can subside in one
session when they are studied as metaphors.
The structure of a session
As the client describes the metaphor, it changes: new metaphors
appear and are explored. Frequently, the client will describe
something restricting or unpleasant in the metaphor, and will be able
to see a different form or place they can move to which is far more
pleasant. They may move directly to this place and stay there, in
which case the deep seated problem is resolved, or they may find it
impossible to stay in the good metaphor, and be tugged back into the
bad. When the coach keeps the client focused on the metaphor, a
device will often appear to enable them to make the transition. For
example, the client may see themselves as seated on a horse on a
merry-go-round, but the structure is not able to start moving.
Eventually a key appears in the client's metaphorical landscape, then
a hand which is able to turn it. The merry-go-round starts to move
and the client can change.
The structure of a session is illustrated in Diagram 2.
Diagram 2 (provided by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley)
The benefits are immediate. The client will start to feel
different and to behave in new ways at once. The clarity attained is
extraordinary and changes take place at the deepest level.
Working with metaphor can bring about extraordinary change at soul
level. The techniques which Penny Tompkins and James Lawley have
developed, and continue to refine, have taken the practice to a new
level in terms of personal change, performance and physical health.
A Case history
A client had a fear of public speaking. He regularly had to speak
at events in the course of his business. He would always perform well
at the event, but his anxiety would affect his work and relationships
for a week beforehand.
Using only Clean Language questions, and repeating his own words
back to him, the coach helped him explore and develop the metaphor --
the equivalent of exploring the current reality in coaching. The
following transcript of the session is not reproduced in full.
Client: I get nervous for a week beforehand.
Coach: And when you get nervous for a week beforehand, that's like
Client: It's like the nauseous feeling before going on a
rollercoaster at a fair.
Coach: And when it's the nauseous feeling before going on a
rollercoaster at a fair, what kind of nauseous is that?
Client: It's being in one's shell, with the volume turned down.
Coach: And is there anything else about being in one's shell with
the volume turned down?
Client: Dark shadow surrounding. Underwater, under the sea,
The coach continued to explore the metaphor, using Clean Language
questions, then asked: And what happens next?
[This question has a parallel in coaching of moving the client's
Client: I am seeing light at the surface, and
The coach continued to explore, using various Clean Language
questions, and the metaphor moved through:
- Gravitational pull from above
- Like when you've been scuba diving
- There is pressure on your chest from the water
- I can hear people talking -- a dull quiet sound through the
- I need the gravitational pull
Then the coach introduced an intention question: And what needs to
happen for the gravitational pull?
[The coaching equivalent would be to ask the client what his
Client: The pressure needs to turn
Coach: And can the pressure turn?
[A parallel in coaching would be to ask the client what action
they can take.]
Client: There is a pressure wave, I can move it. It
can take me to the surface
Coach: And what happens next?
Client: The sun's coming out. Serene, relaxing and enjoyable. It
feels great. I am on the surface and the sun is reflecting on water.
All is quiet. The dull, quiet sound through the water has gone.
The result for the client was that his customary week long anxiety
did not trouble him again. In addition, he became less stressed in
his life overall and found it easier to focus on taking his business
forward. He continued to experience "butterflies" immediately prior
to speaking, but felt that this was an essential part of performing
well and did not require change.
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley's works available through their:
Book: Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling"
DVD: A Strange and Strong
David Grove/Bazil Panzer, Resolving Traumatic Memories: Metaphors
and Symbols in Psychotherapy (Irvington, New York 1989)
James Hillman, The Essential James Hillman (Routledge
Piero Ferrucci, What we may be: The visions and techniques of
psycho synthesis (Turnstone Press, Wellingborough 1982)
Harry A Wilmer, Practical Jung: Nuts and bolts of Jungian
psychotherapy (Chiron Publications, Wilmette 1987).
Brandon Bays: www.thejourney.com
Patricia Norris Ph.D
"Dynamics of Visualization and Imagery In Therapy"
Uses of visualisation in modern therapy: Freud, Jung, Leuner,
DeSoille, Assagioli, Wolpe, Lazarus, Jacobs, Schultz and Luthe, Green
© 2004, Carol Wilson and Fenman Ltd.