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James Lawley

James LawleyJames Lawley is a UKCP registered psychotherapist, coach in business, and certified NLP trainer, and professional modeller. He is a co-developer of Symbolic Modelling and co-author (with Penny Tompkins) of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. For a more detailed  biography see about us and his blog.

Anchoring symbols in space
By James Lawley | Published  13 02 2012
Download a print-friendly version: 2012-02-14 Anchoring symbols in space.pdf

Here's another of my posts from the no-longer available archives (date unknown, but sometime between 2003 and 2005):

A participant observed that the second part of the full syntax of Clean Language "anchors them to a specific point in their space/time continuum." I thought that was an interesting statement and below I investigate the 'anchor' metaphor in relation to a client's metaphor landscape.

The 'standard', 'full' three-part syntax is (there are many variations):

1. And [client's words].
2. And as/when [client's words that reference a part of their experience],
3. [Clean question about that experience]?

Prototypically, an anchor fixes a ship to a particular area relative to a point on the seabed. So there are at least three things to consider:

What is being anchored (the ship)?
Where is it being anchored to (the point on the seabed)?
And how is that relationship being maintained (the chain between anchor and ship)?

I think the participant is saying that what gets anchored is the client's attention. It gets anchored to the location of the symbol referred to, within their metaphor landscape.  And I guess that is because the landscape is of their own creation and relates to their purpose for therapy or coaching, and it is their interest that keeps their attention from wandering off.

Another way to think of this is via the Perceiver-Perceived-Relationship model. In this analogy, the ship is the symbol, the anchor is the point of perception of the perceiver, and the chain is the relationship between – the client's attention or interest.

Now let us use the metaphor to ask: What anchors a symbol to its location in a metaphor landscape?

I suggest that the symbols and their spatial relations are usually held constant in relation to: (i) The location of client's body; and/or (ii) the surrounding environment.

(i) enables the client's attention, but not their body, to move. This means it is possible for a client to examine their Landscape from different 'points of perception'. Either one perceiver can move around the Landscape, or the client can take the perspective of any number of perceivers located at different points in the Landscape. And there are several clean questions which can be used to invite them to do one or the other, e.g.:

And what would  [name of perceiver] like to have happen?
And where could [name of perceiver] be [perceiving word] that from?

In (ii) the Landscape is not anchored to the body but to the physical environment. David talked of "nailing the client's history to the floor". This enables the client to physically move around their virtual Landscape, gaining different perspectives as they go.

(A combination of these two is possible, and I think we have enough to contend with as it is!)

But, I hear you wonder, what is the equivalent of the ship, anchor and chain in these two cases?

My first thought is that in (i) the client is so familiar with certain symbols being in certain places – in relation to their body and in relation to each other – that it would look, feel and sound wrong if they were in a different place. Thus the whole landscape gets anchored to the client's body position. And, having committed to the metaphor of perceptual space sufficiently, it logically follows that if the landscape doesn't move, then 'they' in the form of their attention, can.

For example, many people have a habit of gesturing and looking to their left or right when they access the past or future. Or maybe they gesture in front and behind. The point is that they have a strong sense of where these concepts are in relation to their body. Once this is established it is a small step for them to follow Tad James' Timeline Therapy command to "Float up above your timeline and float back over your past."

In situation (ii), once their landscape is established as having a certain spatial relationship with the surrounding physical environment, it is easy to see how the client can effectively 'leave the landscape where it is' and physically move to another location.

Or they can use David Grove's Clean Space process to build up a network of physical spaces first and then notice how their body reacts and the thoughts that arise in those different places. Clean Space is a more generic form of Robert Dilts' spatial sorting techniques such as laying out a timeline on the floor, walking along it, and stepping off the line to a meta position.  Or the Gestalt therapy technique of moving to another chair and playing the other person in the relationship.

In the first case, the body's natural sense of where things should be maintains the configuration of symbols relative to it; and in the second case, once a symbol has a physical location it has a certain independence from its creator. 

In both cases I think the anchoring helps to create a psychoactive effect – the client and their body spontaneously reacts to what's happening in their metaphor landscape as if it were real.

Another way to look at what is happening is to use Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner's idea of 'conceptual blending' (see The Way We Think). This model suggests that our mind is able to blend the perception of physical space and imaginative space into one seamless experience enabling us to move between the two worlds and utilise characteristics of each.
Further reading (articles by Penny Tompkins and myself):

And Spatial Sorting by Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier in their Encyclopedia of NLP.


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