Less Frequently Asked Questions

(answered by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley)

What is NLP and how does it relate to Symbolic Modelling?

What is the difference between standard NLP modelling and modelling in a therapeutic context?

What is NLP and how does it relate to Symbolic Modelling?

The United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) designates Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy (NLPt) as "Experiential Constructivist". This sums up how NLPt therapists work in a way that distinguishes them from other approaches. Of course there are lots of overlap, but differences define identity, so let's take those two words one at a time.


NLP facilitators consciously work with a client to change their "internal map" or "model of the world". As it is not possible to know anything about "the external territory" except through a map, and, as all maps are inaccurate representations of the world, it is the client's perception of the world, and not the world itself, that empowers or limits them. NLP is unique because it takes the map metaphor literally and because it assumes that people construct their map using five "internal senses" or "representational systems" (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory and Gustatory). This map consists of representations of the Present State, the Desired State and Resources that enable the client to achieve their Desired State.

Rather than diagnose and categorise people or their symptoms from the outside, NLP therapists construct a model of the client's map from the client's perspective, and then seek to facilitate the client to change their map towards their Desired Outcome.

Why do NLP therapists work this way? Because of Richard Bandler and John Grinder's insight in the 1970's that experience has a structure and that when that structure changes so does the experience. (Actually, what they noted was that our representation of our experience has a structure and when that changes so does our experience. Practically it amounts to much the same thing.)

Each time we talk to a non-NLP based therapist about how they work I am reminded that this fundamental notion of NLP is still a radical idea. Again, some other approaches use some aspects of this methodology, but to my knowledge, none of them make it central to all that they do.


Although we construct unique maps of the world, we cannot construct any old map. The kind of body and neurology we have has evolved because we live in the kind of world that we do, and that massively constrains the kinds of maps we can create. Thus our maps are experiential in that they emerge out of our experience of the sensory world. Furthermore, unless my map of common human experiences is somewhat similar to yours we are not going to be able to communicate.

It works the other way round too. Our psychology affects our physiology. As Robert Dilts puts it, "Mind and body are one systemic process". By now most health professionals have caught on to the idea that the mind affects the body, but few understand it in such a direct way as it is meant in NLP.

Also, while we may join the client in their construct of past and future events, changing perceptual position, etc. we realise the client doesn't actually change the past or predetermine the future or step into someone else's shoes -- rather it is LIKE they do, i.e. these are metaphors. NLP is experiential in that we recognise we are working with the client's experience in this precise moment, even if they (and we) call it something else.

The Early Days of NLP

In the 1970's Bandler and Grinder studied some renown therapists and coded some of what they did in a number of models: Meta Model, Representational Systems, Milton Model, etc. These models were further applied to "the study of the structure of subjective experience" leading to yet more models and therapeutic techniques. Although NLP was originally conceived as the process of studying, coding and replicating (ie. modelling) excellence, NLP also came to stand for set of techniques that resulted from the modelling process.

Bandler and Grinder did not use NLP to model Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson because the notion simply did not exist at that time. And they never set out to define a stand-alone process.

The Early Days of Symbolic Modelling

In the 1990's we (Penny Tompkins and James Lawley) modelled a renown therapist, David Grove. As a result of our study we constructed a number of models: Clean Language, the components and levels of Embodied Symbolic Perception, etc. We discovered that David's primary approach was to facilitate his clients to SELF-model their own symbolic representations (NOTE: this is our explanation/metaphor, not his). These models were further applied to the study of the symbolic structure of experience leading to yet more models and an integrated therapeutic process, called Symbolic Modelling (SyM).

We did not use SyM to model David Grove because the notion simply did not exist at that time. In fact we used many standard NLP modelling techniques and we devised a few extra ourselves. We did not set out to codify a new method of modelling, it came about as a by-product of modelling David. SyM is still primarily conceived by us as a modelling methodology which has applications in psychotherapy, education, health, organisations, etc.

The explanatory part of SyM borrows ideas from cognitive linguistics, self-organising systems theory, evolutionary dynamics and NLP. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have shown, we not only continually speak in metaphor, we think, reason, understand and act in ways that are consistent with our metaphors. And that most of our metaphors are derived from the way human bodies interact with their environment, i.e. they are experiential through and through. Mind is an embodied phenomenon, from the electro-chemical level all the way up to the highest psychological levels.

SyM has made explicit several additional ways to model. SyM facilitates the client to SELF-model. To do this the facilitator/therapist also models the client's symbolic map (or Metaphor Landscape as David Grove calls it) using the client's exact metaphors as the raw material for the modelling process. When used in a therapeutic context, the result is that clients often experience profound change.

Over the last 6 years, we have found that SyM is especially suited to working with 'higher levels' of experience -- core beliefs, identity, sense of purpose, the spiritual -- as well as complex and seemingly intractable issues, binds and double binds that are not amenable to traditional techniques.

In Conclusion

If what defines NLP is an experiential constructivist world view, the application of the study of the structure of subjective experience, the process of modelling and applying the results of modelling, then, in our opinion, Symbolic Modelling qualifies under every one of these criteria.

June 2001 (with slight revisions Jan 2004)

What is the difference between standard NLP modelling and modelling in a therapeutic context?

I think there is huge confusion about the difference between modelling in traditional NLP and modelling in Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy (NLPt) and Symbolic Modelling (SyM). Let me see if I can shine some light on this subject.

Classically in NLP, modelling is the process of a Modeller identifying an Exemplar (a person, or people who are exemplary of some behaviour of skill), constructing a model of how they do what they do, and facilitating other Acquirers to learn to take on the constructed Model (see Introducing Modelling to Organisations for more on the five-stages of a modelling project). John McWhirter calls this "Product Modelling" because the output is a physical product (representation) that if followed should produce a specific result. For example, the first five books of NLP were the product of John and Richard's modelling (NLP didn't even exist as a concept back then). Some, but by no means all, NLP Master Practitioner programmes still include a little on Product modelling in the form of "modelling project".

This is patiently not what happens in NLPt, so why is modelling the foundation of NLPt? Because NLPt and SyM use a different kind of modelling.

(The NLPtCA Accreditation Procedures for an individual wanting to be registered with The United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) say that applicants have to demonstrate knowledge and experience of "behavioural modelling" but no where is this defined.)

Modelling in a therapeutic or any faciltatory context for that matter, uses what Penny Tompkins and I call 'modelling in-the-moment' (or what Phil Swallow called "Modelling for the moment"). In this kind of modelling there is no 'product'. The therapist does not construct a formal model. Sure they may make notes but these do not constitute a consistent, coherent and complete model. The reason? The therapist does not have time to do this. Psychotherapy is a dynamic process. The client is always producing new information and the therapist has to constantly update his/her model of the client's model. Furthermore, the whole point of NLPt is that the client changes their model and very often that happens right then and there, in the session. As soon as this happens any formal model the therapist had constructed would be out of date.

The 'output' of modelling in-the-moment is the behaviour of the therapist. The therapist has to gather information, update their incomplete model, and respond using their model of the client model -- all within a few seconds! In NLPt and SyM, modelling does not produce a 'product' it results in a 'process' and more explicitly, a series of interactions which aim to enable the client to achieve (or at least move in the direction of) their desired outcome.

In Product Modelling there is an Exemplar and an Acquirer. Who plays those role in NLPt and SyM? I suggest that the client is playing both roles simultaneously -- and that's an ever-present conundrum of psychotherapy.

Every client is the Exemplar of getting the (unwanted) outcomes they so consistently get. Equally they want to Acquire their own desired outcome. And as an Acquirer they are faced with the situation that their current model works fine and seemingly doesn't have the room for a new and improved version. Furthermore, their existing structures have been honed, often over decades, to maintain themselves even when presented with repeated 'logical' solutions from family, friends, therapists, them self and other well-meaning helpers. Somehow the client's system has to figure out how to re-organise itself so that new possibilities become available when their system's natural tendency is to change only to stay the same.

Penny and I go even further, we think the client is also the Modeller in that they are self-modelling their own perceptions. (This, I hasten to add, is not a wide-spread view in NLP circles.)

A few other distinctions between NLP and NLPt modelling are:

Finally, modelling is not the province of NLPt alone. Many of the founders of the major schools were brilliant modellers. In addition to Satir, Erickson and Perls (who were the original exemplars for NLP), I'm thinking of Freud, Jung, Berne, Lang, etc. The two key differences with NLPt is that:

(a) the followers of those great minds were expected to apply or improve the models created by the founders. They were not explicitly tasked with continuing to model (although all of the best therapists I have observed have developed their own semi-conscious ways to model); and

(b) John Grinder and Richard Bandler gave the world a way to conceptualise working directly with the organisation of the client's map, i.e. the structure of their subjective experience.

23 October 2005

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