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First published in Rapport magazine, Issue 42, Winter 1998

Photo of Philip Harland


A Guide to Reflective Questioning


Philip Harland

"Only reason can convince us of those three fundamental truths  without a recognition of which there can be no effective liberty: that which we believe is not necessarily true; that which we like is not necessarily good; and that all questions are open." Clive Bell, 'Civilization'


'CONVERSATIONAL CHANGE' is a seminar subject dear to the heart of many who wish to affect or direct others. What do we mean by 'conversational'? What kind of 'change'? Is it possible for anyone to use the same kind of transformational language as a therapist or counsellor and get away with it? Which of these questions are open and which are not? (ref. 1) 

Most NLP trainings teach the 'Meta-model' of language as a tool for the direct elicitation of specific, high quality information, and the unspecific 'Milton-model' to communicate indirectly with a person's unconscious resources. These are sophisticated language patterns for use in structured, largely therapeutic, settings. 

Some trainings also teach a conversational reframing model called 'Sleight-of-Mouth'. Robert Dilts developed his dialectical patterns of guided conversation in 1987 by applying Bandler and Grinder's Meta-model to the dialogues of Plato and Socrates. Many students find Sleight-of-Mouth hugely complex. They promise themselves they'll get round to it again after their training, and never quite do. 

Meanwhile the world is changing. The ancient Greeks may have expected their moral philosophers to have the right answers, but modern teachers are increasingly required to come up with the right questions. I believe the time has come to up-date our dialectical approach to conversational change and to work from a less directive, more reflective, model. 

'Reflective questioning' is a use of language that respects one of our fundamental freedoms - the right to make our own mistakes. It neither interprets nor seeks to replace a person's meaning or belief, but rather aims to highlight it. David Grove's 'clean language', as used in metaphor therapy, is an excellent example (ref. 2). But what we might call the 'Metaphor-model' of language, with its nine basic questions delivered in a particular rhythm and with a certain syntax, is a highly structured therapeutic technique. Conversational it isn't. 

My aim here is to present a colloquial variant on the metaphor model which organises the principles behind several counselling models into a simple framework which can be used by anyone anywhere. If NLP is a philosophy of experiential constructivism, the 'Mirror-model' deconstructs experience and reflects it in such a way that it returns ready-reconstructed. Change is inevitable. Read on. All shall be revealed. 

First words

A woman introduces herself at a party. "Hello, I'm Winona." You talk about the weather, you slag off the host ... and you're just about to take the exchange onto a deeper, more meaningful level when you realize you've forgotten her name. It was only one word. It was only a few seconds ago. Winifred? Ramona? OK, you weren't listening, you were watching her instead, something about the way she tucked her hair behind her ears ... but one word? And while you're worrying about that you realize you've missed more information. What did she say about getting in touch? What exactly? Dammit, it was only a sentence.

Opening statements

In metaphor therapy we pay close attention to the very first thing a client says. Even before they think they've started. After all the client is demonstrating their pattern to you as they walk through the door - they can't help it. And we pay particularly close attention to their answer to the first question - typically

Often we write the answer down, verbatim:

This first reply will have immense structural significance. Whether it's short, apparently simple and about the way they process, or whether it's long, rambling and all about what happened at the supermarket. The statement will itself be a metaphor for the client's underlying pattern. And if it's recorded precisely it will be available as a reference at any time. Half-way through the session you might want to check the progress of your work against what the client actually said at the start, rather than trying to remember what they said, or guessing what you believe they may have said. And particularly when you're totally convinced you know what they said. All that stuff about connections, relationships ... what was it? I need to chain my wife?


Whatever the context (consulting room, office, bus stop) and whatever the other person's first words ('I can't go on like this', 'The photocopiers giving me a hard time', 'What lousy weather'), if they seem to have a problem and you want to be helpful, the chances are that your first interventions will be at a conversational level. Where do you start? You have infinite choice.

Limitations of Sleight-of-Mouth

My approach to teaching conversational change on Organisational Healing's Community NLP trainings had originally been based on the Sleight-of-Mouth model, Dilts' systematic way of challenging a person's limiting reality in order to facilitate change or to loosen a neuro-linguistic stuckness. I'd never been entirely comfortable with 'Sleight-of-Mouth'. My own trainers taught the model reluctantly (it seemed to me), and pleaded for it to be used with a light touch. The name is, of course, a play on 'sleight-of-hand', a phrase I'd always felt said more about manipulation than manual dexterity. Yet 'sleight-of-hand' derived from the French legerdemain, literally 'light of hand'. For a while I tried thinking of conversational change as '(S)l(e)ight of Mouth', but this gave only temporary relief.

Dilts' model is based on the Socratic method of leading the listener in a predetermined direction - one determined by the questioner, whose outcome is to change the listener's perception. The methodology can be very effective for the comprehensive demolition of Cause and Effect beliefs or Complex Equivalence statements, but I'm not sure if demolition experts are the right people to be designing and installing new structures.

There was another inhibition. Dilts' 1987 model has 18 categories of challenge with a clever, convoluted diagram of ladders and arrows and boxes and triangles to show how they all fit together. Not easy to follow. Sid Jacobson's 1993 version has an admirable list of 14 'patterns', or "challenges with attitude" as he used to call them, but I could never memorise lists. Hall and Bodenhamer (1997) offer 20 'directionalizations' or 'Mind-Lines', nicely thought out with Out-frames, Re-frames, Pre-frames, Post-frames, De-frames, Counter-frames and Analagous-frames (are you still with me?). It all seemed rather complex. My students are smart enough, but they're a varied lot - academics, therapists, hairdressers, rugby players - and what they need is a simple, practical, non-directive guide to conversational change which they can adapt to everyday use.


Hall and Bodenhamer's figurative notion of 'framing' appealed to me, so I made the metaphor literal and organised my thinking into 6 visual frames (see below), within which there are various sub-categories. Each of the frames contains a series of Open Questions. If you want to condense the model further you can forget the sub-categories. But hold on to the colloquial tone of the questioning, which is simpler than Hall and Bodenhamer's multi-level procedures and kinder (I like to think) than the Socratic method.

Seeking Socrates

Socrates may have tried to influence others for good, but if you've read Plato's account of the old man's methods you'll know that he did it by leading his pupils up the garden path to the only conclusions possible, his own. Not so much dialogue as dialectic.

Nowadays we say the pupil, not the teacher, knows best. Real change happens at an emotional and deep-structural, not a rational and intellectual, level - its a uniquely personal, internal experience. If you agree with Charles Faulkner that NLP at its best is an 'experiential philosophy' (ref. 3), then your role as Neuro-Linguistic Philosopher-facilitator is to keep pace with your pupil-clients as they track their own experience of already knowing what is good. Good in the sense of useful and valuable uniquely for them.

The aim of open questioning is to reflect, expand and shift a person's internal process
without interpretation or suggestion from the questioner.

Exercise steps

What follows is a sequential exercise for learning the SIX OPEN QUESTION FRAMES - not an end in itself, let me hasten to remind you, but a way of familiarising yourself with the idea of reflective questioning so that you can adapt the methodology to your own needs.

The disposition and content of the frames has been influenced by my work in Grovian metaphor, which itself provides a marvellous model from which to facilitate a client without interpretation or suggestion from the therapist. However the Grovian process has a deliberately ritualistic structure designed to help client and therapist communicate with the unconscious at a symbolic level, and that's hardly the stuff of conversation. Indeed metaphor therapy works best when it's not conversational.

Yet 'clean language' adapts exquisitely to any human endeavour, and some of the open questions in the frames come directly from the Grovian model. Others come from a variety of sources (ref. 4). You may have favourites of your own. If you don't find them here, please let me know.

I use the word 'client' throughout to represent anyone that you - therapist, manager or colleague - may have cause to support or reflect on their voyage of re-discovery.

a. Listen carefully to the clients statement of their problem or limiting belief.

b. Repeat it back to them.

Don't paraphrase it. And you kind of feel the need to change some things about your life. Use their exact words. If it's too long, repeat a part (usually the last part, because that's usually the most significant). This is not to give you time to think, though it does. It is to acknowledge the client without elaboration. Quite a rare event, for any of us. We're more used to responses like I know just what you mean, when the speaker has no idea what we mean, and might equally have said You just reminded me of something about myself.

The chances are that both you and the client will find simple repetition a positive experience. Often a client won't realise what they have said until they hear you say it. You might not realise what they have said until you repeat it. It's not only an affirming thing to do, it's an essential precursor to working effectively together.

c. Help the client clarify the statement. Write it down:

Recording the statement helps in three ways. 1. It's captured for all seasons - no guesses, disputes or post-suppositions later. 2. The words exist not only in time but in space - a visual aid for your study of their structure. 3. The speaker is more likely to regard the statement dispassionately, as something 'outside' them - even more so if you allow them to see the statement - therefore challenge is more likely to be experienced as a co-operative venture.

Before we go any further let's put aside this idea of challenge. A relic from our combative past. I shall henceforth trust you to work 'cleanly' with your client, shunning bias, opinion and suggestion, however nobly intended, your higher purpose being to help unfold what the client already knows as you both connect to the greater good. Reminding yourself that the client is the expert in their own perceptions. The only expert.

d. Add inverted commas

There's a poem by Emily Dickinson:

While training in metaphor process I found myself using inverted commas to help a client's words stand out more in my notes. This simple act made a surprising difference. The words took on a life of their own. My client had not made a random selection of words from an infinite set of trivial possibilities, but conscious and unconscious choices which had deep structural, symbolic and systemic significance - of course. I already knew this at some level, but had thought no more about it. Inverted commas became my assistants, discreetly reminding me of something I had neglected. I began to take opening statements more seriously.

If you happen to have an emotional attachment to the speaker you'll find that concentrating on their exact words, separating these from their tone of voice and treating the words as a quotation (i.e. this is just what one person said), will help unhook you from unhelpful emotional responses - feeling blamed, for example, or fearful. Not an ideal place from which to ask, or hear the answers to, open questions.

e. Deconstruct

An optional entertainment for those who like the full Monty. The rest can skip along to 'Draw a frame around the statement'.

One of the fundamental tenets of Neuro-Linguistic Programming is that our utterances represent the partial, socially derived, heavily filtered, generalised, deleted, distorted, symbolic, verbal expression ('surface structure') of a complete sensory representation of our experience ('deep structure') (ref. 5).

When David Grove taught me to deconstruct a client's often quite complex surface-structure statements (they're not all as succinct as 'I need to change my life', you may not be surprised to hear), I started playing with three sets of inverted commas - one for my deconstruction of the Perceiver, another for my perception of the Perceived and another for the bit In-Between (ref. 6). 


"need to change"

"my life." 




 Crudely put, the perceiver is normally The One Who Wants or Doesn't Want, the perceived is What They Want or Don't Want, and in-between is the Way To Get It or What's Stopping Them.

Write out your deconstructions. With practice you can do it mentally, but it's a good discipline for complex statements and a useful check on over-confidence. Even apparently straight forward statements such as "I need to change my life" are ripe with distinctions.

Deconstructing the 'Perceiver' ("I") is an indicator that "I" can be questioned and developed quite separately from the 'Perceived' ("my life") and the In-Between ("need to change"). The three elements of this statement are distinct surface-structure codings for different, complex, deep-structure representations of your client's experience.

You can further deconstruct the In-Between. "Need to change" is a common phrase and in the flow of ordinary conversation or reading you could be forgiven for assuming it's one idea. But stop the flow for a moment.

Check 'need' within yourself.

Thus your client's "need" in:

may look and sound familiar, but you can bet it has a meaning unique to your client and at this stage you would be foolish to make any assumptions whatsoever about it.

The same goes for "to change". A couple of almost inseparable syllables. Pull 'em apart:

The word "to" can now be seen as evidence of a certain need in your client in their relationship to "change" that is almost certainly different from the need that would be expressed in a statement such as "I need change in my life".

Why deconstruct the 'Perceiver', by the way? Isn't the Perceiver always 'I'? Well, yes and no. There's no 'I' in the statement "Things have to change", for example. And yet there is - it's just that it's been deleted by the speaker and you may have to rummage around a bit to retrieve it. Your client might actually be saying "I can't change things".

When you find the 'I' don't assume it's the only one.

For example, I (surface-structure symbol for a deep-structure representation of my complete experience of a present me writing this) remember about a year ago (a past me has been deleted here) working with a client of mine (a relational me, situation-specific), when I (a part of me) discovered that my client could identify at least four 'I's in her metaphor - one behind watching her have the experience, one seeing through her eyes, one in a cloud hovering overhead and another stuck in a tunnel below. Which of those 'I's (eyes) did she mean when she said "I see myself..."?

Etcetera. You can go on. Whether you're in conversation or process you'll have to make choices about where to concentrate your attention. To help you make them, next:

f. Draw a frame around the statement.

"I need to change my life."
I began drawing frames when I wanted to locate client statements more easily in my notes. The frame gave me another perspective. There was additional information there, symbolised by the space surrounding the statement.

David Grove used to draw 3-dimensional boxes around his deconstructions. I give mine a shadow effect. Do whatever helps. I think of a client's statement as the label on a container. The label is a summary of the contents. The container contains 'inside information'.

And as you and the client are about to embark on conversational 'reframing', you will have the first frame as a literal and figurative frame-of-reference against which to check subsequent reframes.

Serious deconstructors, of course, will wish to draw three (or more) frames:


"need to change"

"my life"





For the sake of simplicity here we'll stick to one. Next:

g. Label the frame 'Present'.

To represent the client's present frame of mind. And only now you have come this far in your understanding of the client's process may you intervene.

"I need to change my life." 



With a sense of the neuro-linguistic structure of human communication, you will appreciate that any verbal intervention at the level of surface-structure may have powerful echoes throughout the system. It may result in a change to the clients deep-structure representation of a problem, which in turn may prompt the client to feel better or worse about their situation. At the very least it will enable more information to rise to the surface.


As new information feeds back into the system, the system moves on. It cannot stay the same. Jack Stewart, discussing how we determine who we are, observes that "Constant updating and effective tracking are prerequisites for the highest levels of our functioning as creative human beings."(ref. 7)

In relation to metaphor process Tompkins and Lawley say, "Through a heightened awareness of our own patterns new levels of complexity emerge. In other words, the system starts to self-correct." (ref. 8)

Of purposeful dialogue Faulkner has said, "If you can reflect a clients problem undistorted, the client is relieved of the responsibility of holding it alone. The problem shifts and the system will spontaneously re-organize." (ref. 9)

There's a common thread of quality here: effective tracking ... heightened awareness ... undistorted reflection. The value to your client of having their process reflected without distortion, enabling them to track their patterns with heightened awareness, will depend on your skill and sensitivity. Your leger-de-main, or lightness of touch. If you're clumsy the client's experience may be less valuable.


There is an infinite number of ways of questioning what someone says. As you explore a particular statement with open questions within limited frames not every question or frame will seem equally appropriate. The point of the exercise is to familiarize yourself with a discipline that usefully limits your choices and stays respectful of the client's unique process. Rapport is important. Your voice tone in particular. Curiosity without disquiet.

First examine the statement from within the Present frame using the categories below. The sample questions apply to "I need to change my life" and are meant to be illustrative, not definitive.


h. Draw a Context Frame around the Present Frame.


"I need to change my life." 


Representing immediate context. Question the statement using these categories:


i. Add a 'Past' Frame.



"I need to change my life" 



j. Add a 'Future' Frame.



"I need to change my life" 




 Questions with intrinsic value, and in the context of those in Present and Past frames may help the client recognise a pattern-over-time to the problem.

k. Add a 'Higher' Frame.

 Viewing the problem from a Higher, or Meta-, frame may reduce or nullify the importance of the problem or indicate where a solution may be found. The arrows indicate an escape from the Present while the question is considered, then a return to implement the shift. Remember the further questions - What Else? Anything Else? We always have an awareness of more than we can express in a given moment.


|                       |


 |                       | 

"I need to change my life" 




l. Finally add a 'Metaphor' Frame. 

Be creative. Relate a story or an analogy that opens up the frame. Constructing a genuinely therapeutic metaphor, however, requires great skill and practice. It must relate to your client in every particular (ref. 11). If you need to construct an outcome for your client (to which the metaphor leads), the outcome cannot be truly reflective. Even if the client has articulated an outcome for themselves you cannot be certain that your metaphor will lead them there if the elements in the metaphor are not client-generated.



"I need to change my life" 





For example, in response to 'I need to change my life' you might come up with "A Mesopotamian philosopher said 'You cannot step twice into the same river '- our lives by their nature are in constant flux" and think that sounded general enough for anyone to relate to, but if your client happened to have an unfortunate personal association with rivers, water and stepping the intervention might not be helpful. Or you can be really creative and help the client find their own metaphor. You can do this in three ways:

The 'Mirror-model' in relation to existing NLP language models

How does 'reflective questioning' fit with what we already know? The prime use of the Meta model is to clarify meaning and gather high-quality information; that of the Milton model to communicate with a clients unconscious resources; Sleight-of-Mouth to reframe limiting beliefs; and the Metaphor model to transform at a symbolic level.

The open questions of the 'Mirror' model would place it somewhere between the measured interventions of Sleight-of- Mouth and the wholly client-generated Metaphor.

The aim of open questioning is to reflect, expand and shift a person's internal process
without interpretation or suggestion from the questioner.

If the Meta-model relates largely to Environmental and Behavioural levels of human experience, the Milton model to Skills and Abilities, and Sleight-of-Mouth to Beliefs and Values, this model - which is about reflecting others as they know themselves - would overlap with Metaphor at Identity level and with Sleight-of-Mouth at Beliefs level. These are notional simplifications. (See figure 1, which develops my diagram in Rapport 41) (ref. 13):


figure 1: A contextual Metaphor for NLP Language Models

Diagram of NLP Language Models


figure 2: In summary: 6 Conversational Reframes.

X = the clients exact words.


    • What X (part of statement) specifically?
    • What specifically about X? And more specifically?
    • What kind of X (part or whole of statement)?
    • What do you mean by X?
    • How / In what way X (verb in statement)?
  • PARTs
    • What part/aspect/element of X (is relevant)?
    • What's the smallest change you could make that would improve the whole situation? 
    • Prompt a search around a selected word


    • How do you know that X (whole or part of statement) is true?
    • What is your V-A-K experience of knowing?
    • How would you know if X were not true? 
    • What else is there about X? Is there anything else?
    • What's another aspect of X? 
    • What is related to X?
    • How do you experience X in relation to family / work / community / etc.?
    • What connections are there between (some or all answers)?
    • What kind of X (new element), when Y and Z (existing elements)?


    • What could have prompted X?
    • What happened just before X?
    • And just before that?


    • What would be the effect of X?
    • When X, then what happens?
    • And what happens next?


    • What is important for you about X?
    • What is more important for you than that?
    • What would be your purpose in X?
    • What else? 
    • What is the meaning of X for you?
    • What else could 'X' mean? 
    • What needs to happen for X?
    • What enables / makes possible X?
    • What determines when you X?


  • Relate a story or analogy that opens up the frame.
  • Alternatively use the clients own metaphor or help them find one:
    • What metaphor for you symbolises X?
    • That's an X like what?
  • Then ask the metaphor:
    • What kind of (part or whole) is that?
    • Is there anything else about (part or whole)?


Imagine the 6 frames in figure 2 interconnected:

figure 3: A framework for reflective questioning


Figure 3 represents a framework for conversational change to honour the individual's natural inclination towards individuation. The frames contain a set of open questions which aim to reflect, expand and shift a person's internal process without interpretation or suggestion from the questioner.

Reflective questioning has much in common with the clean language of metaphor process. As a conversational procedure it is unlikely to be directly transformative in the same way that the symbolic Metaphor or the hypnotic Milton models of language are designed to be, but in James Lawley's words, could

Help someone be more themselves, in fact. If the journey of the soul has an archetypal route each individual has their own itinerary. You might reflect on that.

© 1998 Philip Harland

With acknowledgements to: Robert Dilts (Sleight-of-Mouth and Logical Levels), Jo Cooper & Peter Seal (Centre NLP), Sid Jacobson (South Central Institute of NLP), L Michael Hall & Bobby G Bodenhamer (Mind-Lines), David Grove (Clean Language and Metaphor Process), Penny Tompkins and James Lawley (Symbolic Modelling), Jack Stewart (Organisational Healing), Charles Faulkner (Reaching The Edge of The Map).

Thanks to James Lawley for his creative comments on the manuscript.


  1. The first 2 questions are open, the last 2 are not.
  2. Metaphor therapy as originated by David Grove and further developed by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley. The therapist works with client-generated metaphor using a precise model of clean language questioning to help the client (a) define (b) evolve and (c) transform their problem state.
  3. Charles Faulkner, originator of Perceptual Cybernetics and Living Myths & Metaphors, in conversation (July 1998).
  4. Sources for some of the questions include David Grove, Charles Faulkner, David Gordon and Graham Dawes, James Lawley.
  5. See Richard Bandler and John Grinder The Structure of Magic Volume 1 (1975). I have added symbolic to their analysis of surface structure as a further reminder that words represent so much more than themselves. On deep structure, there's some debate about whether we hold within ourselves a complete representation of our experience. Hall and Bodenhamer reckon that while much of what we experience is represented in deep structure, not everything is (Which Unconscious Mind? Rapport, 41, Autumn 1998). So you may wish to interpret 'complete' to mean 'full as encoded'.
  6. David Grove used to teach Observer and Observed. Tompkins and Lawley use Perceiver and Perceived, which I prefer. Perceiver presupposes the client is involved with, rather than detached from, their metaphor. Which is normally (if not inevitably) the case.
  7. Jack Stewart, Modelling Special Talent, Community NLP seminar, Warrington (October 1998).
  8. Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, Symbolic Modelling Rapport, 38 (Winter 1997).
  9. Reaching the Edge of the Map, ANLP Conference seminar, London (July 1998). Charles Faulkner discussed some of the limiting assumptions of NLP and compared them to more open assumptions, in particular the premise that truth is context dependent. There is no answer, only better questions.
  10. Core Transformation Process developed by Connirae Andreas, NLP Comprehensive (1995). Repetition of the key question "What is more important for you than that?" eventually brings the client to a sense of a core state of their being, which they then learn to access at will.
  11. For a practical - and poetic - guide to constructing analogies read David Gordon, Therapeutic Metaphors, Meta Publications (1978).
  12. Check with The Developing Company (see below).
  13. Philip Harland, A contextual metaphor for NLP language models, Rapport, 41 (Autumn 1998).
  14. Personal communication (August 1998).

For information on Organisational Healing's Community NLP trainings visit www.organisationalhealing.org

Philip Harland is a psychotherapist, writer and trainer.
Philip has an active private practice and limited time, but tries to respond to all feedback on his articles and to genuine requests for information, and if unable to help personally will refer you to colleagues or other agencies.

To contact Philip either write to 40 Palace Road London N8 8QP England or fax (UK) 020 8340 2534 or email philipharland@blueyonder.co.uk

Other articles on this site by Philip Harland:

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First published on this site 4 June 1999. Last modified 14.12.01 +