First published in Rapport magazine, Issue 39, Spring 1998

Symbolic Modelling and the Emergence of Background Knowledge

by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

We are please to report that our article in the last issue of Rapport, "Symbolic Modelling" has generated a lot of feedback. In particular, a number of readers asked for more explanation of the following paragraph:

In reply, this article will address the distinction between the two ways of Second Positioning. To do this, let's start with an out-of-the-ordinary example. We'd like you to go to Second Position with the person giving the following description of being an aeroplane, ie imagine you are experiencing what they are describing:

If you associated into this description you will probably have formed pictures in your mind's-eye, heard sounds in your mind's-ear and felt feelings in your body. Chances are, if we compared your Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic representations to the describer's, they would have had some similarities. If you had been able to match your body movements, eye accessing, breathing and voice qualities to those of the describer, your "sense impressions" would be even more like their VAK representations (although your 'meta responses' might well be different). This is the process of "going to Second Position with the person." Your aim is to be so like the describer that you have a similar internal experience.

Mirroring to Model

Going to Second Position with the person usually entails some form of "mirroring" their external behaviour. This practice is based on the belief that "what happens on the outside of a person is a reflection of what happens on the inside." Thus it is possible to gather information about their internal experience by matching their external behaviour -- and if you are any good at it, it works surprisingly well. What is not normally made clear is that the most important aspects to mirror are the changes in behaviour (eg. changes in location, rate and depth of breathing, changes in eye movements, gestures and other body movements, and changes in voice qualities) as these are likely to correspond to a change in internal state and/or processing.

In modelling you will probably want to mirror all the behaviours in real time and in context, if possible. This process is called "shadowing." And because full-blown shadowing can be intrusive there is a subtler form of mirroring using "micro-muscular movements." Here the modeller matches the behaviours of the subject with very small equivalent body movements which can hardly be observed. This is a very useful and convenient information-gathering process because you still get sufficient VAK sense impressions from which to build your model

Mirroring for Rapport

In NLP, mirroring is often taught as a way of building rapport. The difference with mirroring to build rapport and mirroring to model is that (a) The modeller is not directly involved in the process of the person being modelled (they are not having a conversation for example); and (b) Not all behaviours need to be mirrored when the aim is to respectfully build rapport. For example Michael Grinder says only 50% of body movements need to be matched. [ref. 2 page 65].

There can be unwanted side-effects of mirroring and matching. For example, a term gaining common parlance is "carer-fatigue." This refers to those in the helping professions who experience unpleasant symptoms after being with people in pain and suffering for too long. It is quite likely that the helpers have built enough rapport to have associated into their client's feelings (and patterns) and have "taken on" their emotional malaises.

As an antidote to this we have developed a motto: As long as one person in a therapeutic relationship has access to the unpleasant feelings and any information contained therein, that's good enough!

Second Positioning the Information

Going to Second Position with the information presented by a person is somewhat different to the above. There is no requirement to feel the feelings of the other person, hear their sounds or see their pictures. What is required instead is to code the patterns contained within the information. One marvellous way to do this is through metaphor.

When you go to Second Position with information, you do not expect to get the corresponding VAK representations you would if you went to Second Position with a person. What you create instead is a "perceptual map" of the patterns of the following relationships:

These aspects of a person's subjective experience are generally not in the Foreground of their awareness. You can't easily see, hear and feel patterns of relationships. Instead the information is in the Background : 'behind' the picture, 'between' the words and 'beneath' the feelings.

Going to Second Position with the information allows you to model the Background structure which "holds together" the Foreground experience. The model will have a structural correspondence to the person's experience but it will not be a model of their representations. This is because, by definition, we do not ordinarily form representations of our Background knowledge as we are only aware of the Foreground. So when you have constructed a model of a Background process, it will be your metaphoric description of their Background Knowledge. Thus can be modelled the structure of unproductive symptoms or behaviours of excellence. As Mark Johnson says:

Background Schemata

Background Knowledge is the very fabric of our reality. Mark Johnson maintains it has been woven from the "dynamic pattern of our perceptual interactions and motor programs that gives coherence and structure to our experience" [Page 2]. Johnson refers to one key form of Background Knowledge as "schemata." He acknowledges Immanuel Kant as the original source and defines these as:

We can use the idea of schemata to get a clearer understanding of the intrinsic Background Knowledge embedded within a person's experience. Let's examine how to go to Second Position with the information presented by a single sentence from a client:

"I can't approach women I find attractive"

In order to model the structure of his presenting problem we first need to identify the components of this experience. In this case, there are two or possibly three symbolic components evident:

In everyday conversation we would presume the two "I's" allude to the same reference point. Yet if we look at the sentence symbolically, this need not be the case, as the two "I's" might signify two different persona, parts, states, times, etc. If this were so, it is likely the client's non-verbal communication would 'mark out' the difference between the two "I's." While we cannot be sure until the client further describes his experience, we can already infer something about the relations between the symbols:

Given the metaphors, "approach" and "attract" used by the client, his
predicament can be characterised structurally, as two 'forces' pulling together two entities. These are kept some distance apart by a 'mechanism' of (at least) equal 'power' which prevents the entities from coming together. This sequence of relationships can be diagrammed as:

Scematic of Forces

The spatial relationships and sequence of events depicted in the figure are a figment of our imagination. And yet this model, premature as it is after only one sentence, is likely to correspond to the client's experience. If not, then we know the client has other meanings associated with the words "attract," "approach" etc. which we would want to further model.

Our purpose in diagramming this likely set of relationships is to demonstrate (a) the amount of structural information that can be embedded in a seven word sentence; and (b) the sort of structure that must exist in the Background of the client's experience for their sentence to make sense. It also informs the therapist (modeller) where to address questions in order to construct a model which is more accurate, complete and useful. For example, it would be pertinent to discover:

From a strategic therapeutic viewpoint, probably the most valuable information will come from finding what restrains (or obstructs, limits, prohibits etc.) him from overcoming that which prevents him from approaching women he finds attractive!

Given that we want to preserve the structure of the information in order to model it, we would ask Grovian Clean Language Questions [ref. 3 and 5], to provide a context for this information to emerge. A selection of possible questions follows:

And you can't approach women you find attractive. And when you can't approach women you find attractive ...


Second Positioning the person gives the modeller VAK sense impressions. These allow a model of the form and sequence of Foreground representations to be constructed. On the other hand, Second Positioning the information enables construction of a model of the Background structure which, by it's very nature, is metaphorical. And as Gregory Bateson noted:


1. Combs G & Freedman J, Symbol, Story & Ceremony (1990)
2. Grinder M, Righting The Educational Conveyor Belt (1991)
3. Grove D & Panzer B, Resolving Traumatic Memories (1989)
4. Johnson M, The Body in the Mind (1987)
5. Tompkins P and Lawley J, Articles in Rapport 33, 35, 36 and 38.

Rapport Magazine can be obtained from The Association for NLP (UK): 01384 443 935

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, authors of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, are both certified NLP trainers and UKCP registered psychotherapists. For information about their specialist area of development Symbolic Modelling and the work of David Grove, see the Site Index.

Related Articles by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley available on this site:

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