Article from

First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK) Issue 41, Autumn 1998
A contextual metaphor for
NLP language models

Philip Harland

"Metaphor mediates the interface between the conscious and unconscious mind." David Grove

"Is there a handout?" It's a question I've asked in the past. Usually when I've been too lazy to take down some simple instruction the trainer has written up on the flipchart. Now the tables were turned and someone was asking me. Did I have a handout for this perfectly straightforward visual aid I'd developed over a weekend of teaching? Three columns, four colours, five sub-divisions, six or seven ...

Jack Stewart of Organisational Healing had asked me to teach 'Language for Influence and Change' on his Community NLP Practitioner training, and I was trying to place three NLP language models - Meta, Milton and Sleight-of-Mouth - in the context of an NLP-derived fourth model - Metaphor - which I happen to believe is the most fundamental and far-reaching of all. Penny Tompkins and James Lawley would be teaching metaphoric language as part of 'Symbolic Modelling' on Jack's first Master Practitioner training, and I'd be following that up with an Advanced Language weekend. My Practitioner group wanted an aide-memoire of how all this language stuff fitted together.

In 1997 I'd participated in a workshop at which Penny and James had developed a grid relating NLP patterns to Logical Levels. I returned to their seminal article in Rapport on Symbolic Modelling to remind myself how the diagram had evolved. Could I adapt it by adding a bit, expanding a bit and relating the whole lot to human need and experience? Out of this exercise grew figure 1.

table of nlp langauge models in relation to modified robert dilts logical levels

The first thing to note about the model in figure 1 is that's all it is. A model. It ain't reality. It's a convenient metaphor.

The second thing about this Language Model guide is that it goes beyond language. Or rather, beyond 'language', as it derives from the Latin lingua , tongue, 'that is spoken' . In NLP terms language is an external surface structure mode of expression far removed from our internal deep structure sensory processing and even further removed from our internal emotional responses to reality. But if we resurrect a 17th century alternative meaning of language as 'a means of expression otherwise than by words' and add this to the original we can usefully deepen the meaning. Language then becomes 'a means of expression and communication'.

In this simpler, deeper meaning there are models operating beyond the frontiers of surface structure: the bodymind processes which aim to integrate beyond 'language'; and David Grove's 'Clean Language', a model designed to reach what the Meta-model can only reach for - the deep structure of our internal neurological representations.

Indeed if you study Clean Language and metaphor therapy with David, or with Penny and James and our research group (cost £8 including a cup of tea and a biscuit), you quickly realize that language is a description you can apply to pretty much any means of expression and communication - word, gesture, drawing, sound, sigh, click, twitch or line of sight. We even pace ticks and giggles.

Clean Language, verbal and non-verbal, is used to (1) access, (2) define and (3) develop a person's symbolic representation of their unconscious pattern or process. An obvious use, though by no means the only one, is in psychotherapy. As the client discovers information about a troublesome pattern underlying their present state, the information feeds back into the system and self-correcting change occurs. The pattern will not perpetuate. I have witnessed profound change in a variety of clients, from artists to the long-term mentally disturbed (I make a distinction). Sometimes the metaphor transforms completely, and the problem state with it. And this transformation occurs at a deep structure level beyond words.

And as Clean Language is not just about 'language', I place the 'Metaphor Model' right up there next to 'bodymind process' on the grid. I picture Metaphor Model with one foot in the verbal camp and another in the non-verbal. A kind of Colossus bridging the two. To use a metaphor. My metaphor. You find your own. (Sorry, you get used to that kind of thing in our research group.)

And because the Metaphor Model can be used to pace a client's fundamental patterns and processes, I'm not shy about relating it to the higher levels of human need and experience - Spirituality, Mission or Purpose and Identity. Just as in music a fundamental tone is produced by the vibration of the whole of an instrument, so Clean Language can resonate with the whole of a person's sense of themselves. Conscious and unconscious. Physical, conceptual and spiritual together.

The 'levels of human experience' panel is directly inspired by Robert Dilts' Logical Levels. 'Environment' expands to include both our external and internal space, in the same way that we use 'kinesthetic' to mean either external or internal movement - motion and emotion - and 'vision' to mean sight or insight.

I categorize 'Mission or Purpose' at a separate level rather than lumping it in, as many do, with 'Spirituality'. Spirituality to me is a sense of connectedness that subsumes all our separate and individual senses of purpose, identity, beliefs and values. So I show Spirituality at each end and linking all levels. There may be a purpose to our spiritual connectedness, just as there may be a sense of spirituality to our mission in life, but for the sake of this model I indicate them as distinct. Remember it's only a model. And a model is only a metaphor.

The 'roller towel' effect for the panel indicates one way you might use it. As the graphic is a 2-dimensional representation of a 4-dimensional metaphor (3-D + time), it just happens to have stopped here - relating the particular language models on the left to the particular levels of experience on the right - at this point in time, as a convenience. Of course I have chosen this particular convenience for this particular towel, but when you've done what you have to do you can pull it either way before drying your hands. Pull Beliefs down to Meta level and gather information about how you nominalize 'believing', for example. Or pull Behaviour up to Metaphor level and ask 'That's a pull like what?'

Which brings us back to the handout. One of the Practitioner group asked why I had printed (S)L(E)IGHT OF MOUTH that way. Some years ago I saw a biographical note about the composer Zelenka which elegantly identified him as (K)ein Kleiner Meister des Barocks , a construction inviting you to think of Zelenka as either 'A Minor Master of the Baroque' or 'No Minor Master of the Baroque' - and thus perhaps even a Major Master. So I bracket (s)l(e)ight to indicate subtler meanings. Dilts' name for the model derives from 'sleight-of-hand', which for some people has undertones of manipulation, whereas the phrase actually comes from the French legerdemain, literally 'light of hand' . I encourage people to use it as Jo Cooper and Peter Seal of Centre NLP taught me - with a light touch. A kind of leger-de-langue.

The connective phrases at the right of the diagram - 'which affects', 'which defines ' etc: well, you can make up your own. Penny Tompkins came up with the thought that 'Environment (internal & external)' embodies 'Spirituality' - a nicer distinction than my original conceives. And James Lawley reminded me that 'Behaviour' changes 'Environment' as well as being conditioned by it. Indeed you could run the whole sequence backwards and test if the connectives work in reverse. Do 'Capabilities' support or deny 'Beliefs & Values'? Does 'Environment' condition and change 'Behaviour'? How could you develop the model?

All metaphors have a hidden element not amenable to description. You could allow this one to mediate the interface between your conscious and unconscious mind, as David Grove puts it, and ask it Clean Language questions! Adopt it. Adapt it. Use it if it's useful, and give me a credit. And don't forget to thank Penny and James, and Robert and Rapport, and all your family and friends.

© 1998 Philip Harland

Reference: Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, 'Symbolic Modelling' Rapport 38 (1997) 3-13.


Photo of Philip Harland Philip Harland is a neurolinguistic psychotherapist with a private practice in London, England. He has written many articles on Clean Language for professional journals and the internet. In 2009 Philip published the first book related to David Grove's last innovations, Emergent Knowledge, 'THE POWER OF SIX: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge'. You can order a copy from or


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