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First published in Rapport, journal of The Association for NLP (UK), Issue 49, Autumn 2000
Resolving Problem Patterns
with clean language and autogenic metaphor

Part I of a two-part paper

Philip Harland

"How can client patterns be discerned, decoded and the information within them be released?" (David Grove) 1

Psychotherapy has a history of imposing external patterns (the therapist's) on internal experience (the client's). Is it any wonder that people in psychoanalysis take so long to learn not to need analysis, that analysts call clients 'patient', or that individuals relapse? One of the considerable benefits to the client of working with clean language and autogenic (self-generated) metaphor is that complex patterns can be codified into relatively simple configurations which can be explored by the client with minimal interference by the therapist. A problem pattern can be more efficiently discerned, more easily decoded, and more effectively transformed.

"Compare 'I'm so depressed I don't know what to do' with its metaphorical equivalent 'It's like I'm on a roller-coaster'. A roller-coaster can stop and the passengers can get off, or the track can level out and become a railway going somewhere. There are a multitude of options available in the metaphor that are unavailable in the conceptual word 'depressed'." (Penny Tompkins and James Lawley) 2

My purpose in this two-part paper is to help you identify and experience patterns and to consider ways of facilitating clients to discern, decode and resolve them through clean language and autogenic metaphor. Clean language is a minimalist intervention methodology which allows the client to self-model (make sense of) their internal metaphor landscape. Autogenic metaphor is client-generated information untainted by any hint of therapist suggestion or interpretation. 3

Part I asks:

1. What is a pattern?

2. How can patterns be discerned?

Part II will ask:

3. How can patterns be decoded?

4. What happens when the information within a pattern is released?

In Part II, I shall propose that our traditional ways of attempting to resolve problem patterns -- from outside or alongside the pattern -- are redundant, and in their place offer a more complete method of exploring and resolving them: from within the pattern itself.

Note This paper has a bias towards psychotherapy, but the art of clean language and symbolic modelling applies to any area of human facilitation - education, communication, training, consultancy - so you might allow the therapist-client paradigm to act as a metaphor for consultant-client or teacher-pupil or whatever you wish.


When people get stuck they get stuck in a repetitive pattern of behaviour, beliefs or mind-games over which they feel they have little or no control.

Colin is a neat, quiet, 40-something manager. He sits carefully, hands folded, smiles. Well, I'm interpreting his tight little, minimal, almost painful stretching of the lips as a smile, but I could be wrong. "I've been going round in circles for years," he says.

This is a pattern in space, time and form.

I [form]
have been [time]
going round [space and form]
in circles [form]
for years [time].

A metaphor in space, time and form

Figure 1 A metaphor in space, time and form

Of course Colin may not care very much about whether his pattern is in space, time, form or Camembert cheese. All he knows is that he's confused and needs help. As a therapist the more I know about patterns the better I'll be able to help people like Colin understand themselves and become more the people they want to be.

Space, time and form

Have been around since they were created in the 'big bang' about 15 billion years ago, so it's time we got to know them better. They are the media in which all patterns manifest. A pattern may appear in space, time or form or in a combination of all three. A pattern of catching the 41 bus every morning at 8.30am from the stop at the end of the road would have the form of a 41 bus, the spatial location of the end of the road and a time element of every morning at 8.30. If that happened to be a client's self-generated metaphor for a problem pattern, there's likely to be vital information in every part of it: the numerals, the colour of the bus, the distance to the end of the road, what happened just before 8.30am, etc. The components of the metaphor would not have been randomly chosen by the client. Each item is likely to carry symbolic significance to the client's psychopathology, and to hold the clues for resolving it.

Not all patterns will be as clearly defined as Colin's. What patterns are you aware of as you read this? The regularity of the margins on the page (a spatial pattern)? The consistent use of Times New Roman as the printing font (a pattern of form)? Or if your sensory acuity is particularly sharp today have you noticed a pattern of three, soon to be four, sentences ending in question-marks (a pattern over time)?

Distinguishing pattern

What distinguishes a pattern from non-pattern, or randomness, or just something else?


Is the figure '|' (vertical line) a pattern? It depends on the context. In a client's metaphor landscape, | could symbolise I/me -- or one, a nose, a post, a longitude, the cosmic axis, something that joins above and below, a division between left and right. A single symbol can represent a multitude of possible configurations of space, time and form. Thus one thing can stand for something else.


Can ' ___ ' (horizontal line) be a pattern? It may symbolise the ground in a client's metaphor, or a mouth, horizon, the equator, a negative, the concept of separation, subtraction, etc. A symbol can stand for many things.


Could + (a combination of | and ___ ) be a pattern? It may symbolise addition, resource, a crossroads, harmony, coming together, quadrants, etc. (See the three quadrants in figure 2.)

The direction quadrant represents a way of orienting ourselves in relation to anywhere on earth. The information quadrant represents every source of information about a client. 4 The mind function quadrant represents all our conscious and unconscious awareness. Thus one thing can stand for the whole of experience.

What distinguishes pattern from non-pattern is organisational coherence and continuity. Is it any wonder that even when people are desperate for change they keep on repeating the same old patterns for years? Coherence and continuity are powerful anchors.

Defining pattern

One traditional definition of pattern is 'A configuration or grouping of parts or elements with a coherent structure' 5.

The word 'configuration' means both 'outline' and 'arrangement'. An outline is an economic representation of the fullness of what it configures. An arrangement refers to two or more things in relationship. A pattern may be either or both. Fritjof Capra called pattern 'A configuration of ordered relationships', but I reckon a configuration is an ordered relationship. Nice word, configuration. We'll keep it.

The words 'parts' and 'elements', however, we can do without. One part or element may represent many more, as we have seen:

1 + 1 = 2 or more

Thus a single symbol in a client's metaphor may be a component in a pattern, or a pattern in itself. The concept of 'parts or elements' is subsumed in 'configuration'. So we can simplify our definition to 'A configuration with a coherent structure'.

However just as a building is made up of many components, a 'structure' is by definition constructed of more than one part. 'Configuration with structure' is tautological. Lose 'structure'. That leaves us with 'A configuration with coherence'.

You could argue that the word 'coherence' ('a natural or reasonable connection') is pretty meaningless in the context of what we already know about a configuration, but what the heck, let's keep it for emphasis. 'A configuration with coherence'.

Is something missing? As something more than a one-off event, a pattern requires a configuration to repeat, as we shall see later. Repetition takes place in space (as in a wallpaper pattern) or through time. Time, whether over milliseconds or millennia, supposes some kind of continuity.

So we end up with 'A configuration with coherence and continuity' (figure 3).

Figure 3: Defining
Figure 3: Defining pattern

And because continuity supposes some kind of predictability, the word 'pattern' becomes a metaphor for a more or less predictably repeating relationship of two or more things representing more than themselves.


Whatever your philosophical stance on the existence of things, in a pragmatic sense we cannot do much about problem patterns until we notice they exist. How can we train clients to recognise patterns to their unwanted behaviours and beliefs without the need to keep repeating them? How can we train ourselves to facilitate that process without falling into the interpretation trap?

One kind of discernment"

What do you see here? Two profiles? A pair of worms? The outline of a vase or balustrade? Actually they're squiggles. You've never seen these particular squiggles before but you interpret them the way you do because the shapes they make, or something like them, are already in the brain. Which is why you recognize them. Literally re-cognize. Know them again. You are re-mind-ed.

Were you able to see two people kissing a vase perfectly formed to their faces? Or two people head-butting a balloon? Less easily, I'll warrant, because it's unlikely you had those images already in the brain. Until now. The chances are that in future you'll recognize two people head-butting a balloon with ease.

Seeing ... and discerning ... are entirely distinguishable activities.
Our minds discern a great deal more than our eyes see because of
the common associations our brains make.

Associative patterning is a dangerous game for the therapist. As the brain connects two ideas it reinforces the neural pathways between them, which increases our chances of detecting the 'same' -- actually no more than a similar -- pattern in the future. There are sound evolutionary reasons for this. Sabre-toothed tiger (idea #1) + tiger jumps on friend (idea #2) = dead friend (bad pattern). Lesson for survival: avoid sabre-toothed tigers.

The more insecure we feel about not knowing what is happening to our clients, the more likely we are to interpret what we see or hear. Nescient anxiety syndrome, or fear of 'not knowing', can result in the familiar pattern of a therapist jumping well ahead of client reality: making inferences ... peddling (undue) influence ... and affecting outcome. As James Lawley says, "There's a fine line between logical inference and self-fulfilling prophecy."

Filling in from what? From other patterns. What other patterns? Your pre-existing patterns as a perceiver. 'Perception' comes from the Latin percipere,'to receive'. Each of the 100 million receptor cells of the retina receives a patch of dark or light, a colour or a certain configuration of line. Transmits these undifferentiated along the optic nerve to the brain. The brain receives this astonishing multiplicity. Selects. Forms patterns. Compares them to patterns already present in the brain. And makes personal meaning. The brain can't help it -- that's what it has evolved to do. However 'objective' we try to be. A similar thing happens in the way we listen to language: multiplicity of auditory inputs filtered through mental processes of generalisation, deletion and distortion. We hear what we have been subjectively programmed to hear.

Another kind of discernment

Clean language saves us from ourselves. It objectifies client information by separating therapists from internal patterns, prejudices, archetypes and stereotypes developed over years of accumulated wisdom and foolishness.

Colin has brought his circles to therapy because he feels confused. He knows little or nothing about the configuration of his confusion, so he's in a vulnerable place. He may want to hear what I think about his problems, and it would be easy to tell him they're the effect of this and that and send him away happy -- for a while at least, until the next stressful event -- death in the family, falls off his bicycle -- when the same old pattern recurs. What Colin really wants is for the pattern to change. And this is the kind of resolution that can only come from within.

Autogenic (self-generated) metaphor therapy optimises the potential for ingenerate (internally-generated) change by identifying with the pattern and working within it rather than from outside or alongside it (more on this in Part II).

In early sessions of the autogenic process new information begins to surface as a result of clean language questioning and self-modelling, and Colin starts to become aware of:

  • coherence ("This is the perfect circle, isn't it?")
  • continuity ("I guess this is another of those circles")
  • connection ("This is related to my running round like a headless chicken")
  • consequence ("Once I'm on one of these I can't seem to stop")
  • difference ("I've never seen these circles this way before")

and a dozen other associations and relationships. 6

During this process the client may find themselves exploring a landscape that has been inaccessible to consciousness until this very moment. They may have no words to express the essence of new information, or words that are 'not-quite-right'. There is a danger of therapist and client dismissing implicit patterns -- those that cannot be described cognitively or conveniently. Therapist stay alert. You are on permanent watch.

Conspicuous patterns

Meanwhile what do the patterns around you -- the flower motif on your net curtains, the number of cups of coffee you consume in a week, that song on the radio that is more than a sequence of notes -- have in common that make them conspicuous? Repetition. How many events do there have to be before you are aware of repetition?

I've been going round and round in circles for years.

Most people would agree that a pattern would be indicated if an event had occurred or been reported three times (round, round, circles). Note that the form of the pattern (round .. circles .. carousel .. reel .. wheel .. spiral, etc) may not be exactly the same with each repetition. Both conscious and unconscious are signalling the pattern, and they'll do it any way they wish.

Inferred patterns

A pattern may become apparent at the third event. But what about two events -- the original plus one -- inferring a third? If I notice someone walking by, and I see them just long enough to register they have taken two paces before I look away, I can readily imagine the third step. If I hear two notes on the piano I can hypothesize a third that would produce a certain melody.

I've been going round and round ...

How many events are necessary for repetition? Actually only two. The original plus one. In music, 'repetition' is a passage performed a second time. Which leads us to the intriguing question, can patterns come in ones?

I've been going round and ...

We have already seen how even the simplest of symbol-patterns may contain a great deal indeed. A single configuration may carry the whole history of a client's psychopathology. The Greeks had a word for it:

Meta = change + phora = carry; thus metaphor = transfer, or container, or carry across.

Figure 4: Metaphor: the Greeks had a word for it.


Metaphor work takes place at the boundary between the conscious and unconscious minds. Client metaphors originate in the unconscious and become manifest -- verbally or nonverbally characterised -- in consciousness. This enables therapist and client to work directly at the place where conscious awareness connects to original source. The same place where the process of unconscious change and transformation will become recognised, specified, felt and reinforced.

Whether the pattern is obvious or inferred, conspicuous or deeply disguised, common or complex, client-generated metaphor transfers information about pattern from the unconsious to the threshold of conscious awareness, where its characteristics can be more easily discerned.


I'm hopelessly confused.


And you're hopelessly confused. And when you're hopelessly confused, that's hopelessly confused like what?


Like I'm going round in circles.


And like you're going round in circles. And when going round in circles, how many circles?


Eh? Well, about three. One like a massive traffic jam on the M25, a smaller one that's a dirty-looking pond and the third is a helicopter in ever-decreasing circles running out of fuel.

In two clean language questions the client has gone from hopelessly confused to a situation which on the face of it still looks pretty hopeless but has latent resources for resolving the confusion: a traffic jam can clear and the traffic run smoothly; a pond may have hidden depths; a helicopter can be refuelled and flown up to provide an overview. Almost all problematic patterns contain the nucleus of their own resolution. It all depends on how the pattern is perceived.

Perceiving pattern

A great deal of what is interesting about patterns revolves round our perception of patterns. All pattern requires a perceiver, and all perception involves patterning. Even in the case of the simplest possible visual stimulus, a single point of light (represented opposite as a spot on the page), there is a pattern in that the perceiver distinguishes the point of light from the lack-of-light or less-light surrounding it.


Place your attention on the spot. You may see it as having form or structure and appearing to be in front of the ground. The ground can be seen as relatively homogenous and extending behind the spot. But what precisely is the 'pattern' this creates? Does it have to repeat before it exists?

. . .

What if on closer inspection the spot becomes a pattern in itself?

Or if it repeats oddly?

You might say to your client,"I notice that the second black spot is slightly higher than the other two which are almost on the same level," and congratulate yourself on your objectivity. Well, think again. If I were your client I might respond, 'Actually for me one of those spots represents the world in space, another a village on a map, and the third the concept that every apparently single entity is made up of many parts, and I'm seeing each of these from three distinct perceptual positions, not from one as you seem to be, but now that you have drawn my attention to your perception, I find myself thinking you could be right, I'm not the expert, I must have got my perception wrong in some way and now I'm even more confused'.

And let's say you made no observation at all, but simply drew my attention to this spot .. .

And is there anything else about .. [that or gesture to the page] ..?

Yes. It contains several more circles.

... would I be any wiser about my pattern? I might. I might not. A pattern will be present in my 'here and now' narrative, but won't necessarily be self-evident, however much you as therapist focus on what I say.

Pattern may be discerned in three inter-related ways:

by focusing on the foreground,

bringing up the background, or

following indirect indicators.


As therapists we are constantly making choices about where to direct the client's attention. We have no shortage of possibility. Every client presents an abundance, a profusion, a wealth of foreground, background and indirect information.

In the foreground is 'here and now' information (see the narrative quarter of the information quadrant earlier): the client's first words on the phone, their body language on meeting, their way of entering the room, choice of where to sit, how they arrange themselves, their first words in the session, the gestures they use as they speak. In some way the client is already manifesting the problem that brings them to therapy. They cannot not. The pattern is present.

Clean language makes the most of this obvious -- and often unrecognised -- fact by requiring the therapist to address a substantive verbal or nonverbal item presented by the client rather than one arising from the therapist's own speculation, assumption or colouring of the item ("I notice you seem agitated" etc).


I'm going round in circles.


[Has no idea what the client is talking about]
And you're going round in circles. And when you're going round in circles, [decides to go for the obvious] what kind of circles are those circles?


I keep on making the same mistakes.

The client has responded conceptually. The obvious clean foreground question now would be What kind of mistakes? but this might provoke an outpouring of content, a recital of all the mistakes he ever made, rather than holding him in process. Another clean question would be Is there anything else about that 'keep on making the same mistakes'? However in this case:


Keep on making the same mistakes like what?
[Inviting the metaphor to return]


Like sowing seeds in the same barren ground.
[Client accepts the invitation]

Foreground choices are now between the symbolic 'sowing', 'seeds' and 'barren ground' -- which have more fruitful possibilities.

Perhaps the most revealing of all foreground figures are a client's first words, in the sense that every word -- every inflexion -- every space between words -- is a metaphor in itself, a container for much more than any word or space can express on first appearance. How can you help your client discern the underlying pattern that gives coherence and continuity to this assortment of mini-metaphors? How can you help your client discover more depth to these two-dimensional figures? 7


By continuing to focus on the foreground until more components of the pattern emerge, or by bringing up the background. There are two meanings to 'background' we shall work with here -- one spatial and structural (as in the background setting to foreground components of the metaphor landscape), and the other temporal or sequential (as in the background history of the client or a background continuity to events).

And when sowing seeds in the same barren ground, where could that barren ground come from?

From vicious circles of deprivation.

Background information becomes available to the client from biographical and genealogical sources -- memories of life events; family, cultural and environmental history; feelings stored in the body; beliefs, values and such (see the information quadrant earlier).

Colin now has a sequence that connects his original 'going round in circles' (foreground) via 'sowing seeds in barren ground' (foreground shading into background) to 'vicious circles of deprivation' (background). Is there more to this sequence?

And where could those vicious circles of deprivation come from?

Depending on your preferred model of therapy you might believe they came from lines of negative energy or from being kidnapped by aliens in a flying saucer. In fact:


They come from my stomach. From a reel of cotton wound in knots.


[Has no idea what this may 'mean']
And from your stomach, from a reel of cotton wound in knots. And when reel of cotton wound in knots [decides to invite the client to move time further back still] what happened just before wound in knots?


Everything was going smoothly.

The implication is that something happened that ended in reel being wound in knots rather than everything going smoothly. Questioning the background provenance of the circles happened to bring up the knots, a classic container for client trauma, and established a sequence to the pattern. 8


And everything was going smoothly. [Draws client's attention to the sequence so far] And when going smoothly, and then reel of cotton wound in knots [decides to invite client to move time forward, drawing attention to the further development of the sequence], then what happened?


I felt confused.

This may seem like hauling the client back to where he began -- going round in circles confused -- but is wholly congruent with the pattern. Colin's strategy for producing confusion is now more available to him, and he has new information about how confusion happens.

Notice that we have no sense yet of the client decoding the pattern (see Part II), only of beginning to discern it from a sense of the relationship between its various components.

Relationship between foreground and background


And when going smoothly, and then reel of cotton wound in knots, and then confused .. [Lots of therapist choice here, decides to go for a connection question] .. what is the relationship between going smoothly [background stuff] and going round in circles [original foreground]?


I'm not sure. It's to do with whoever is winding the knots.


Place your attention on the space around the spot -- the background to the foreground figure. Notice how the boundary between spot and background that formerly belonged to the spot now belongs to spot and background in relationship. The figure-ground gives form and shape to the figure, and vice versa.

Is this a piece of the jigsaw or a gap waiting to be filled? If you're searching for a missing piece to the puzzle, the gap in the puzzle will have a pattern that corresponds to the missing piece. The gap creates a relationship to the piece, just as the piece creates a relationship to the gap. What is there relates to what is not there, and vice versa.

All pattern is an arrangement of relationships between relationships. It's like darning a sock," says my colleague Frances Prestidge."You have the edge of the hole, you bring threads across the hole, and they relate to each other to complete the w/hole." The pattern of the darn exists by dint of an arrangement between foreground threads, background sock and the hole that connects them.

Indirect indicators

Ok, so you've focussed on the visible-audible foreground, brought up the barely-observable faintly-heard background, and explored the relationship between them, but the configuration of the pattern is not yet discernable and the client is still confused. What might you do now?

David Grove teaches the concept of 'tacit knowledge' -- knowledge we don't know we know until we know it. When the information 'pops up' into consciousness. How can we recognise these pointers to unconscious patterns? They are often obscure, but the signs can be learnt. Here are four kinds to look for:

  • inconsequentials -- items of easy-to-miss information
  • incongruities -- mismatches between information components
  • phonetic ambiguities -- words or sounds with more than one meaning
  • nonverbal indicators -- gestures, sounds etc.
  • Inconsequentials

    Items of easy-to-miss information. It may take a client some time to trust the therapist, the therapy or their own unconscious process. Client and therapist may be inclined to dismiss a fragment that appears during questioning if it's unfamiliar, doesn't make sense or seems to come from nowhere. This is especially likely if the client doesn't have the words, or the words are not quite right, to describe the information.


      Oh, it's nothing ... some sort of ... I dunno ... a kind of circle.


      [Persists] And it's nothing, some sort of, you dunno, a kind of circle. And when a kind of circle, is there anything else about that kind of circle?


      That's funny, I got a flash of a roundabout. Where did that come from?
      (Pause)Well, anyway ... what was the question?


      And a flash of a roundabout. And when a flash of a roundabout, what kind of flash could that flash be?


      This is silly. I had a flash of a children's roundabout when I was about three. What's that got to do with anything? (Pause) I was scared.

  • Incongruities

    Mismatches between information components. In 1905 Percival Lowell studied the movement of Uranus and Neptune round the sun and detected a slight inconsistency in their orbits which he predicted was due to the presence of another planet that the telescopes of the day couldn't see. In 1930 his prediction came true when Pluto was discovered.


      It's a roundabout that goes all over the place and I can't get off.

    Is there something here that's inconsistent, incongruous or illogical? Well, roundabouts normally stay in one place. And if you wait long enough they generally stop, which would enable you to get off -- unless something was preventing you.

    We know that the unconscious can detect patterns before the conscious mind is aware of them. 9

    You might sense something unusual in a client's linguistic construction that you can't quite put your finger on but feel moved to explore further.


      And when it's a roundabout that goes 'all over the place' ...


      It's one that flies, of course!

    Well, of course. A reminder that the metaphor landscape is not subject to everyday rules of realism. Metaphors, like dreams, have a logic of their own:


      I'm going round (finger sketches in the air) in circles.


      And you're going round (reproduces gesture) in circles. And when you're going round (gesture) in circles, what kind of (gesture) circles are those circles?


      Oh. Warning signs of a main road ahead.
      [Client has been sketching something more like a triangle than a circle without realizing]

    Gently drawing attention to an incongruity is at least a way of clearing up ambiguity. At best it may lead to new information.

  • Phonetic ambiguities

    Ambiguous inflexions; and homophones, homonyms, homographs.

      Homophones are words having the same sound but different meanings or spellings.
      The adjective "new" and the past tense "knew" are homophones of each other.

      Homonyms are words having the same sound and spelling but different meanings.
      The noun "a bear" and the verb "to bear" are homonyms of each other.

      Homographs are words having the same spelling, but different meanings or pronunciations.
      The noun "a record" and the verb "to record" are homographs of each other.

    These can all be nice little signals, and your antennae need to be well-tuned to detect them. If your client utters the word "right" you might readily assume they mean 'correct' or 'privilege' rather than 'OK', 'not left', 'write' etc. If you detect ambiguity, you have a choice: assume one meaning and hope to be lucky (at the risk of guessing wrongly and distorting the exchange); or design a clean language question that paradoxically retains the ambiguity while freeing the client to make explicit meaning if they wish.


      And right. And when rite, what kind of write could that wright be?

    Of course the client may be using a pun, a double meaning or a homophone because they can't stop themselves meaning two conflicting things at once. And there may be a pattern in that!


      (Mumbling) It's a round, er, circle ... [Is client saying 'a rounder circle', 'around a circle' or hesitating in the middle of 'a round circle'?]


      And it's a-round-er circle. [Therapist slurs the words to leave the possibilities open] And when it's a-round-er circle, is there anything else about that a-round-er circle?


      It's rounder than the other circle, which is more oval.
      [Ah, now we know -- it's 'a rounder circle']


      And it's rounder than the other ...


      (Speaking clearly) No, I said it surrounds the other circle, so I can't get out! [Oh]

      Inflexions are articulations or enunciations which serve the linguistic function of differentiating meaning. Inflexions are full of traps for the unwary. A North American "can't" may sound indistinguishable from 'can'. An Irish "those" can be mistaken for 'doze'. A client's "lighthouse keeper" may become a 'light housekeeper' in the mind of a therapist whose personal patterns incline more to tidying than tending beacons. The therapist hears one version of the client's verbal configuration and completely misses the signal pointing to a client pattern in the other. So stay tuned.

  • Nonverbal indicators

    May be very indirect, and almost impossible to separate from verbal indicators. A gesture, an eye-shift, the angle of an elbow or foot, may all be pointers (literally) to unconscious patterns. There may be a tell-tale 'um' or 'ah' in the moment accompanying a word. A hesitation in the middle of a phrase. Or a faint smile, the raising of an eyebrow, a shrug, a slight widening of the eyes. If the unconscious information these indicate has been long obscured, or is deeply stored, it's unlikely to make itself known with a flourish of trumpets. A therapist listening only for the tune may miss a key note.

    Try reading the next example out loud. The first time take a momentary pause before 'not', the second time after 'not':

      He was not surprisingly killed by the bullet.

    A hesitation can make all the difference between life and death!

It takes acute sensitivity backed by a certain bloody-mindedness on the part of the therapist to pick up on indirect indicators to unconscious patterns and go with them. Here's Colin again, with a couple of inconsequentials, a non-verbal and a phonetic ambiguity in the space of three and a half seconds:

Oh! A sort of, well ... (twirls finger) oh, I ... no ... it's nothing. Ask me another.

At this point most clients would expect you to follow the normal rules of rapport and move on, but in autogenic metaphor our alliance is as much to do with the information as it is with each other. Let's take a moment to deconstruct this:

Oh! [surprise inconsequential -- did something just 'pop up'?]

A sort of, well ... ['not-quite-the-words' - new information?]

(twirls finger) [non-verbal indicator -- what does this gesture represent?]

oh, I ... no ... [homophone of 'know' - what might he know here?]

it's nothing [dismissive inconsequential - you can bet it's something].

In discerning pattern we can conclude that whether you focus on the foreground, bring up the background or follow any one of a number of indirect indicators, you need simply to concentrate on what is there. There is the pattern. Obvious or not, convoluted or not, the client cannot help but express it. And as long as you stay true to clean language, the pattern cannot help but emerge.

Talking dirty

There is, of course, another way of trying to discern pattern.


These circles remind me of trying to use a compass as a child.


[Thinks aha, lost child trying to find its way in the world]
Yes, becoming independent of mother can be very difficult.

We've been interpreting client information since long before Freud. How readily we translate it into patterns that relate to our own -- "You'll see them as if painted in purple!" says Penny Tompkins. If you have an unresolved issue around 'mother', say, you may quickly pick up a client pattern around 'mother', but clean language only gives you license to use the word 'mother' if your client uses the word 'mother' themselves. Your own patterns around 'mother' may affect your choice of which client words to ask clean questions of, and which clean questions to ask, but as long as you keep your 'mother' out of the way of the client that's a darn sight cleaner than introducing her.


And circles remind you of trying to use a compass as a child ... [Therapist thinks of dysfunctional sense of direction with client wandering around in metaphorical circles not knowing which is North. Sticks to clean language, however.] And when trying to use a compass as a child, what kind of compass was that compass?


The sort you draw circles with. I stabbed myself with the point and had to go into hospital.

Clean language may only reference information that the client actually presents.

Working cleanly

Clean language minimises the impact on the client of a therapist's natural tendency to guess. It also relieves us as therapists of responsibility for making 'meaning' of what we hear. Too often we're tempted to solve the mystery before we're half-way through the book. Who did it? Was it with the rope or the dagger? Which are the genuine clues and which are the red herrings? (Enough metaphors already. -- Ed.)

Clean questions are directed at client information, not directly at the client. Our preferences as therapist -- a particular interest in genealogy, say, or an eagerness to identify a client's resources -- may influence the direction of our attention in favour of a particular aspect of the client's metaphor landscape, but as long as our language remains clean it will facilitate the client to discover more about that aspect and its relation to the whole.

Who then is leading this pattern detection interaction -- client or therapist? The client initiates the process with their first words (I'm going round in circles), and the therapist's first response-question (And what would you like to have happen? or What kind of circles? or Is there anything else about going round in circles?) reflects the initiative back to the client. A synergetic sequence unfolds:

client initial information ---- > [informs] therapist response-question ---- > [prompts]
client response-information ----> [informs] therapist response-question ----> [prompts] ....

The question of who is leading whom does not arise. It is the information manifested by the client which leads.

In Part I we have considered (1) what patterns are, and have seen (2) how patterns can be discerned. We have discussed ways in which working with clean language and autogenic metaphor minimises therapist interference in the processing of client information and facilitates the early stages of exploration of problem patterns.

In Part II we shall consider (3) how problem patterns once detected can be DECODED. And (4) what happens when the information contained in the pattern is RELEASED and RESOLVED.

© 2000 Philip Harland


Much of the inspiration for this paper can be credited to the Metaphor and Clean Language Research Group. For the seminar on 'Pattern' this comprised Clive Bach, Philip Harland, James Lawley, Frances Prestidge, Wendy Sullivan and Penny Tompkins.

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley continue to be a brilliant source of innovative thought, support and reflection. You'll find their work summarised in the definitive book on Grovian metaphor, symbolic modelling and clean language, Metaphors in Mind.


For support and suggestions: Carol Thompson.

Notes to Part I

1 David Grove, Clean Language Practise Group November 1999.

2 Chapter 3, Metaphors in Mind (see Resources above).

3 You'll hopefully understand more about clean language and autogenic metaphor after reading this paper, but if you'd like to make a detailed study of its application to psychotherapy and other kinds of modelling check out the website, read the book, or see articles by James Lawley, Penny Tompkins, Philip Harland in recent back numbers of Rapport.

4 Information quadrant based on David Grove's work. Present information about the client will generally be available in the narrative and spatial quarters of the quadrant; past information in biographical and genealogical quarters. We can exclude the therapist's intuition or intellectualisation as reliable sources of information about the client -- they may well be persuasive indicators, but if they intrude into client patterns that's invalid clean language practice. By the way, David imagines a gear lever at the intersection of this quadrant, allowing the therapist to shift into any one of four gears (information sources) with the possibility of a return into neutral and thence into another gear. More on the cleanlanguage website.

5 Definition of 'pattern' from Penguin Dictionary of Psychology 1985/1995. A good source of general information, though badly needs to update its entry on neurolinguistic programming.

6 For a fuller analysis of pattern detecting and pattern types (linear, circular, threshold, dialectical) see Chapter 7 of Metaphors in Mind.

7 More on deconstructing a client's first words in Tompkins and Lawley, Symbolic Modelling and the Emergence of Background Knowledge, Rapport, Spring 1998, and Philip Harland, The 'Mirror model' - A Guide to Reflective Questioning. Rapport, Autum 1998. Both articles on the cleanlanguage website.

8 Circles, sowing ... sewing circles? See Phonetic Ambiguities in the Indirect Indicators section of this paper for how to check out the potential significance of homophones (same sound, different meanings) cleanly with a client. Notice also that the word 'wound' in 'wound in knots' is a homograph (same spelling, different meanings), another potential indicator to unconscious pattern.

9 How the unconscious recognises and acts on certain signals before the conscious mind becomes aware of them, if it ever does: Joseph Ledoux, The Emotional Brain, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1998.

© 2000 Philip Harland

Philip Harland
Photo of Philip Harland Philip Harland is a neurolinguistic psychotherapist with a private practice in London, England. He has written many articles on Clean Language for professional journals and the internet. In 2009 Philip published the first book related to David Grove's last innovations, Emergent Knowledge, 'THE POWER OF SIX: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge'. You can order a copy from or

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