First published in The Magic Lamp Issue 5, Spring 1998


by Penny Tompkins

Have you ever been speaking to someone and they say, "You know it's like..."? Inevitably you have, because we all use metaphors to describe our experience. And whatever they put in the "...", will be a metaphor, and it will have significant meaning for the speaker.

Some people disregard metaphors and consider them 'throw-away' comments. But people who have exquisite rapport skills listen very carefully to other people's metaphors and have learned to converse within the frame of the metaphor.

Special questions are needed to do this well -- questions designed to respect the exact words and nature of the speaker's experience. These questions are called Clean Language, and you can learn to use them in order to build even better rapport.

Executive Coaching Client

Recently I was working with an Executive Coaching client who was trying to describe his problem in making decisions. "And, making decisions is like what?" I enquired. He thought for a moment and replied, "You know, it's like going to the dentist. And I'm in the waiting room and I'm dreading going in."

To this very rich description of his experience I simply replied, "And, is there anything else when you're in the dentist's waiting room and dreading going in?" (being careful to use his exact words). I could tell he was deep inside his metaphor by the way he said "I really need courage." "And, what kind of courage is that courage?" was my next question.

I continued to ask questions of his metaphor and to facilitate him to develop his resource of courage. At the end of the session he said, "If you had told me when we started that a comment like "going to the dentist" could link so directly with my decision making, I wouldn't have believed it. In fact, you couldn't have told me, I had to experience it for myself."

Basic Clean Language Questions

Three of the basic 9 Clean Language Questions used above are:

Conversing within another person's metaphor is the symbolic equivalent of physical matching and mirroring -- except it goes deeper. Rather than honouring how they move in the world, you are honouring how they give meaning to their experience. Try it, and see for yourself!

Penny Tompkins is a Psychotherapists registered with the UKCP, a certified trainer of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and co-author of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. For information about Symbolic Modelling and the work of David Grove, please see the contact details below.

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