First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue 54, Winter 2001
The 'Mirror-model' was developed in 1998 as a means of introducing a self-reflective, non-interpretative model of conversational change into Organisational Healing's NLP Practitioner and Master Practitioner trainings.
As a psychotherapist and trainer I had never been entirely happy using or teaching the NLP Meta, Milton and Sleight-of-Mouth language models, a brilliant but highly directive, potentially manipulative and assumption-ridden mix. Then Tompkins & Lawley introduced me to David Grove's Clean Language, and I had access to a client-led process which freed me to neither interpret nor presume, and facilitated my clients to generate change with minimal interference.1
However Clean Language makes no claim to work particularly well with highly conceptual or literal-minded clients, and as a therapeutic modality it can be a bit much for everyday situations. Jack Stewart of Organisational Healing and I wanted a simple, colloquial, robust and flexible model of clean questioning that his Community NLP trainees - managers, teachers, hairdressers, rugby players - could adapt to pretty much any counselling or facilitatory situation in which they found themselves. Change for their clients would not be the primary aim. Change would result if that is what their clients wanted. Change, moreover, that would be inner-directed rather than some shift or improvement the facilitator thought they should have.
In teaching the Mirror-model I developed two diagrams, one with an arrangement of frames and another with a set of questions; from these came an article for Rapport; 2 and this was followed by an invitation to present the material to the London NLP Group. People in the Group wanted a practical graphic they could use as a crib, and I have finally got around to designing the one you see below. It combines the 6 FRAMES of the model (Present, Context, Past, Future, Higher and Metaphor) with 20 OPEN QUESTIONS (the original 18 with two new - and I believe profound - ones) in one simple crib.
Part 1 of this article is a summary of that development, and has a few thoughts about adapting a rigorous therapeutic modality to the wider world of conversational change. Part 2 will offer a detailed example of how you can use the frames and the questions with a client.
I happily acknowledge David Grove as the inspiration, and the source of about half the questions; Charles Faulkner, James Lawley, David Gordon and Graham Dawes for other questions; our London Clean Language Practise Group for being there every other Wednesday; and Penny Tompkins & James Lawley for their unfailingly creative suggestions and support.
What exactly is your client's present awareness?
What is the wider context for them of this state?
What in the immediate or distant past may have prompted it?
How will it carry over into the future?
Are there higher considerations that might help them deal with it?
Are there metaphor correspondences that will allow them a different perspective / standpoint / flavour?
I start from the belief that it is possible - if occasionally more difficult - to converse as 'cleanly' in the pub and the kitchen as it is in the consulting room.
The methodology is similar however simple (apparently) or complex (apparently) or problematic (apparently) your client/colleague's first statement. And it demands concentration and discipline, because your outcome is not to try and understand the other person, but to facilitate them; it is not to suppose what they mean by what they say, but to help them know themselves; and it is not to suggest solutions, but to help them generate solutions for themselves - if that is what they wish to do.
Do not be surprised if you are tempted, through impatience or hubris, to stray from this narrow path. If, however, you are prepared to track your client's every move and pay exquisite attention to their every word, you may be surprised at how quickly they get what they want. And with a greater sense of combined purpose than in traditional counselling territory, where most of your energy as a counsellor will be going, consciously or not, into disputing your client's map and redrawing it until it looks more familiar - more like yours, in fact.
Most psychotherapy and counselling clients respond well to therapeutic Clean Language questioning, but some therapists (and inevitably their clients), have difficulty with some of the Clean Language constructions.3 A conversational approach may be an easier way in for both therapist and client. And if you want to facilitate a colleague, or a student, or grandma, you probably won't want to sound as if you're trying to do therapy.
How does conversational clean language compare to therapeutic Clean Language? The Mirror-model is for the most part semantic: client information is sourced in what is said - appropriately enough for a conversational model. The Grovian model, on the other hand, is geared to eliciting embodied perceptions, which are sourced not only semantically (in the client's language), but also somatically (in the client's body), spatially (in the client's metaphor landscape), and temporally (in the client's coding of biographical, ancestral and cosmological time). David Grove's all-encompassing model stems from his innovative work with survivors of abuse, treating negative symptoms as coded solutions from the unconscious that contain positive resources for healing. This can be deep stuff, and is not a casual procedure, though experience shows that even a casual conversation, if it is clean enough, will reach parts that other conversations cannot reach.
The Mirror-model, then, is a simpler variant. And there are two important differences of category between its 20 questions and the 30-plus Clean Language questions. The Mirror model has no direct means of identifying and locating embodied symptoms or resources, a core feature of Therapeutic Metaphor and Symbolic Modelling. It has instead a set of 'importance/purpose/meaning/enabling' questions, which are at a higher level of abstraction and require the client to dissociate from embodied process into cognitive processing. More on this in Part 2.
The first thing to remember is that open questioning of any kind can expose vast oceans of the psyche for self-discovery. It would be wise not to attempt this kind of facilitation unless your level of rapport with the other person is high, and you are confident you can navigate with them, if need be, through choppy seas and uncharted waters.
The next is to keep your questions open and your comments minimal. Genuinely open questioning invariably elicits new information for the client, and in this client-led process you are required to follow client information rather than attempting to interpret it, or find 'meaning' in it, or alluding to your own world view in response. If you are the kind of expert who likes to re-model your client's material into a shape you can recognize, or needs to know what is good for your client before they know for themselves, I suggest you give your brain a rest and suspend your need to understand. Reflective questioning facilitates the client to self-model. It intensifies the ability of the self to learn about the self, and this encourages the system to self-adjust.4
As Charles Faulkner says,
"Each person's experience is a dynamic self-organizing system constantly recreating itself...what is required is not a conscious overhaul, but only a perturbation of the system such that it can reorganize itself along other lines." 5
In other words, trust the wisdom of the unconscious. Who knows it better than itself?
So with any client statement in any frame [X in the diagram], your questioning will reflect as nearly as possible the client's own words. These are, after all, not randomly chosen. They are the end result of a massive amount of deep-structure processing on the part of the individual unconscious, and deserve the deepest respect.6
I say "as nearly as possible" the client's words. You will soon sound contrived if you echo the other person exactly. There is method here, and it needs practice. It's important not to slip back into familiar presumptive (belief-based) language, or assumptive (suppositional) patterns. Your speech should be clean, but not obsessively so. The trick is to construct your part in the dialogue from a combination of your client's words and 'neutral' words - those that activate the emotions as little as possible. Avoid introducing your own assumptions into the conversation, or words that power up the visual and kinesthetic senses - 'You seem very agitated', 'I'm sorry to hear that', 'What I feel you're doing is...', 'I get a picture of...'. This is entirely your stuff. These are metaphors for your own experience, and they can distract or dissociate, or at worst disconnect, the client from theirs.
The 'frames' in the diagram are of, course, my metaphor, a way of organizing the questions conceptually. They are not for the distraction of the client! As a facilitator you could look upon them simply as a visual aid. Or imagine yourself looking from them as perceptual positions. Or view them, in Penny Tompkins' words, as "Mirrors that reflect the client's past, present and future at the same time, each frame a part of the whole that is happening now, so that the client cannot help but know themselves better."
In the Part 2 I shall take you on a walk through a parallel world - clean, uncontaminated, and free from assumption. We shall bring the questions in the frames to life with a client who will be prompted to know themselves better - and change if they choose - without our needing to interpret a word they say. And if encouraging this client to take charge of their own mind has the ripple effect of 'influencing deeper organizing metaphors and neuro-chemical processes' within them, so be it. We'll be doing our job as facilitators of change.
10 guidelines for conversational clean language:
2. Conversational tonality
4. Concentration and discipline
5. Respect and reflect client's own words
6. Avoid obvious metaphors in your words
7. No assumptions, judgments or interpretations
8. No suggestions, reframes or linguistic challenges
9. Follow client information
10. Clean questions
1 For more on David Grove's pioneering work in Clean Language and Therapeutic Metaphor, and Tompkins & Lawley's creative account of it in Symbolic Modelling, read James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, The Developing Company Press 2000.
2 Philip Harland, 'The Mirror-model, a Guide to Reflective Questioning', Rapport 42, Winter 1998, and www.cleanlanguage.co.uk.
4 For a fuller analysis of Self-Modelling see Chapter 2 ('Models We Create By') of Lawley & Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind. For an explanatory diagram ('How Clean Language Works') see Philip Harland, Resolving Problem Patterns Part 2, Rapport 50, Winter 2000, and www.cleanlanguage.co.uk
6 More on Unconscious Information Processing and its relationship to Metaphor in Philip Harland, A Moment in Metaphor, Rapport 51, Spring 2001, and www.cleanlanguage.co.uk.
© 2001 Philip Harland
First published on this site 27 December 2001. Updated 19.2.02 +
the client is relieved of the responsibility for holding it alone.
The problem shifts and the system will spontaneously re-organize."
In the previous issue of Rapport (Winter 2001), I summarised the 'Mirror-model' as a self-reflective model of questioning that could be used to facilitate pretty much anyone anywhere. (See Part 1.) And I drew distinctions between conversational clean language and Clean Language as a therapeutic modality.
Conversational clean language is for the most part semantic, as you would expect: the information it gleans for the client is sourced in what is said, and in the main engages the client's ego-state. Grovian Clean Language, on the other hand, is geared to identifying and developing embodied perceptions, which are sourced not only semantically (in the client's language), but also somatically (in the client's body), spatially (in the client's metaphor landscape), and temporally (in the client's coding of biographical, ancestral and cosmological time). David Grove's therapeutic model stems from his clinical work with survivors of abuse, treating negative symptoms as coded solutions from the unconscious containing positive resources for healing. Hardly a casual procedure. Yet even a casual conversation which honours the underlying principles of Clean Language can have a far-reaching systemic effect.
Applied to conversational facilitation these principles are:
I don't propose to elaborate here on the philosophy of clean, as opposed to 'contaminated'or assumptive language, or about the virtues of inner-directed, rather than facilitator-directed, change. If you want to catch up, or have yet to be convinced, you can find more on the subject elsewhere. 1
This second and last part of the article is a practical guide to using the questions and frames of the Mirror-model. The outcome, if I may remind you, is not to try and understand the other person, but to facilitate them; it is not to suppose what they mean by what they say, but to help them know themselves; and it is not to suggest solutions, but to help them generate solutions for themselves - if that is what they wish to do. Honouring self-expertise.
Take the statement,
'It's all too much, I don't know which way to turn'.
Your colleague or client has said this kind of thing before about their work / lover / drinking / life, and again you're tempted to commiserate, or to suggest which way they should turn / how to deal with the the other guy / why they should come off the booze / what they must do to pull themselves together. Has this made any difference in the past? Not much. Today before you attempt to empathize, or make intelligent suggestions, or offer linguistic challenge, or put them into hypnotic trance, or launch into an NLP process, you take the opportunity to honour the expertise they have in themselves. You reach for your Mirror-model crib, kept handy in your purse or wallet ...
What exactly is your client's Present state? What is the wider Context for them of this? What in the immediate or distant Past may have prompted it? How will it carry over into the Future? Are there Higher considerations that might help them deal with it? Or Metaphor correspondences that will allow them a different perspective/standpoint/flavour?
If you take the original statement as a starting point you can question it from any frame and move to any frame. The itinerary is normally dictated by the logic of the information. In this instance it will take us from Present --> to Context --> to Past --> to Future --> to Higher --> to Metaphor.
An immediate awareness, or foreground, frame. It's where the client's attention is right now.
Client: It's all too much, I don't know which way to turn.
This client is being very general. We can ask clean specifying and clarifying and questions:
You: What specifically is too much?
Client: I told you - everything.
You: What kind of everything?
Client: Oh, my marriage, and my new boss, and my own stupidity, I suppose.
The problem areas are defining themselves. They may now be considered one at a time.
You: What kind of marriage is that?
You: What aspect of your new boss?
You: Is there anything else about your own stupidity?
'Is there anything else about [anything the client has said]?' is a generative question that can be asked in any frame, because there always is. Even if the answer is, 'No, there isn't'. This will mean either that the client knows enough for now - when without your question they may not have known they knew, so it was still worth asking - or that the question has evoked something the client prefers not to consider there and then, so the question will have encouraged them to make a choice. Information either way: for them, not you. You have no need to know.
A wider present, or background awareness, frame. No present behaviour, thought or feeling takes place in a vacuum. In the diagram the Context frame surrounds the Present frame, suggesting a state that includes and transcends immediacy. A shift in the client's attention from partial to fuller awareness may itself be enough to unstick a stuckness.
In fact this client has already answered a 'What kind of?' question in the Present frame with further information, and now knows that their 'all too much' has marriage, work and self contexts.
Another clean Contextual question:
You: How do you know it's all too much?
has the potential for opening things up by inviting the client to check for sensory evidence, which may offer a new kind of information.
Client: How do I know? I have butterflies in the stomach.
You: And what might butterflies in the stomach be related to?
Client: Hm, it reminds me of the feeling I used to get before exams.
You might equally have asked 'What kind of 'all too much' [statement #1] could that be when you 'don't know which way to turn' [statement #2]?' As a facilitator you can speculate about two statements like these until the cows come home, but only the client can decide if they relate in any particular way. A clean 'related to' or 'what kind of X when [other] X?' question enables the client to consider a connection between any two states or statements however far apart.
You: Is there anything else about that feeling?
Client: No. It wasn't very nice.
Let's go back a moment. The client discovered a clue ['the feeling I used to get before exams'] that you might want to examine in the Past frame. First, however, you can ask the ultimate Contextual question. I omitted 'What do you want?' from the original model. The Grovian equivalent of this key NLP question is 'What would you like to have happen?', and I suppose I was saving that select starter for the special occasion, the full five-course therapeutic process. In the meantime all my experience as a psychotherapist, trainer and citizen has convinced me that the outcome question is indispensable for any kind of facilitation, and may be particularly relevant in those everyday situations where we are more used to hearing what the boss, or the partner, or the average traffic warden thinks is the purpose of the conversation, and haven't normally had the privilege of being asked for ourselves.
Although most of us will revert to our own motivation whatever others may want for us, I believe it helps to answer outcome questions consciously, and if possible out loud. I was a film-maker before I became a psychotherapist, and the best tip I learnt for working with actors came from watching theatre director Mike Alfreds at work. He would always say to his actors: "When you come on stage, when you enter this scene - whatever the situation, whatever your lines - what does your character want?"
You: And when you have these feelings of all too much and butterflies in the stomach, what do you want?
Client: [Pause] To understand them and be able to deal with them.
Your questions can now be directed to the outcome or to the original state. I don't think it matters much. All your questions will be clean, and it is the client who makes the real decisions. Their response prompts the next question, so the process is always client information-led. The important thing is that the client now has a self-defined template - in this case 'understanding' and 'being able to deal with' (though you might like to help them define these more precisely) - against which to measure all new information.
As you ask questions that help relate the problem to what may have prompted it, your client will begin to get a sense of sequence. This can be a powerful means of escape from the confines of a present state. Especially for a client who wants 'to understand'.
You: When you want to understand these feelings of 'all too much' and butterflies in the stomach and you want be able to deal with them, what could have prompted the feeling you used to get before exams?
Client: I guess the idea that I am being tested.
You: And what happens just before the idea of being tested?
Client: Just before? It's the thought that I have to solve someone else's problems.
You: And before that?
Client: My partner or my boss is telling me about their problems.
You: I wonder is there anything else about problems like that you think you have to solve?
Client: Yes. I feel incompetent if I can't.
The client has indicated a consequence ('I feel incompetent') of a present belief ('I have to solve something'), and this can be explored in a Future frame.
You: And when you feel incompetent, what happens?
Client: I get defensive.
You: And when you get defensive then what happens?
Client: Ha, I get angry.
You: And then what happens?
Client: I sulk.
You: And then?
Client: My partner and my boss get pissed off at me.
More links in the chain. The client now has a sequence. Given a sequence, a familiar pattern may be recognized - or a little-known pattern may be revealed - or past and present, memory and immediacy, may seem less disconnected and become more like changes in the seasons: temporary transitions in a continuously unfolding.
You: Is there anything else about feeling incompetent?
Client [Pauses]: Well, I don't feel loved. And then it all becomes too much.
In pursuit of a consequence the client has arrived back at a 'cause' ('I don't feel loved'). In the context of their relationship with the boss this may be new and surprising information. The sequence now goes something like:
all too much --> other people's problems --> have to solve -->
feel tested --> can't solve --> feel incompetent --> get defensive -->
angry --> sulk --> [??] --> don't feel loved --> all too much ...
This may well be a repeating pattern.2 There seem to be many ways of getting into such a pattern, and maybe as many ways of getting out. What else is there here? A modal operator of necessity ('have to') that could be examined. A possible gap in the sequence (between 'sulk' and 'don't feel loved'?) to be filled. And a likely bind (things all too much <--> don't feel loved <--> things all too much) for unravelling. Interesting, speculative, and none of it need concern us directly. We are simply facilitators of conversational change here, and the client will work through these and other matters as they choose.
The client now has information from Present, Context, Past and Future frames. What next? We could reflect and reiterate the recursive sequence 'I don't feel loved and then it all becomes too much.' by returning to the Past--Present--Future axis until the client really gets to know it. Or take time out and invite the client into a 'higher' frame.
Invitations to consider higher purpose or meaning are not always welcomed with open arms, so do check your level of rapport and don't expect to start off in this frame.
Questions here relate to the 'higher' logical levels of NLP - beliefs & values, identity, spirituality. They can help a client return to the Present having evolved beyond their original state, or at the very least having a broader view of it. In the diagram the Higher frame includes both Present and Context, representing a state that both embraces and transcends them.
You: What might be the importance of not feeling loved for you?
Client: The importance? Well, when I don't feel loved I can blame someone else for my feelings.
You: Is any purpose served for you by blaming someone else?
Client: Yes, I can escape responsibility.
You: What could be the meaning for you of escaping responsibility?
Client: I guess it means I don't grow - mentally or spiritually.
You What may enable [helps/supports] you not to grow?
Client: Oh, not taking time to sort out the confusion, thinking there's only one way to turn and that someone else knows what it is, not me.
You: Is there anything else about all this?
Client: [Pause] Yes, I think I understand more about the feelings now.
These importance/purpose/meaning/enabling questions are clean in that they hold no assumptions, other than perhaps that there is an importance, a purpose, a meaning and an enabling. They do not appear in the strict Clean Language modalities, Grovian Metaphor and Symbolic Modelling. For three inter-related reasons, I believe. One, they are at a higher level of abstraction than other questions, and this makes it difficult for a therapist to put them directly to the form, location and temporal coding of a client's embodied perceptions. Two, they require cognitive processing, which means the client has to come out of inner-directed trance into everyday narrative. And three, they contain metaphors that arguably presuppose a therapist world view. 'Importance' has associations with external authority - it derives from the Latin importare, 'to introduce from abroad' - and in that strict extrinsic sense may not be considered self-generatedly 'Clean'.
A colloquial model, however, can cast its net wider. 'Importance' also has a sense of 'personal significance' nowadays, so it gets my vote as kind of clean. Not perfect, but serviceable, like my almost-white shorts. And there are notional modifiers for these 'importance' etc questions. 'What might be ..?', 'Is there any ...?' and '... for you?' can be employed as mild detergents.
Asking these questions of ostensibly negative states ('not feeling loved', 'escaping responsibility', 'not growing'), by the way, does not imply that the client should want to feel loved, or to accept responsibility, or to grow. This may be an awkward concept for a facilitator to grasp. Of course the client wants to feel loved, to grow, to know which way to turn! Well you could be right, but ask yourself if having someone else identify with their not feeling loved ('That must be awful for you...') is really helpful, especially if it's in a metaphor ('awful') that may be far removed from their own.
If you can embrace this fundamental premise of Clean Language - MAKE NO ASSUMPTIONS! - it could change the way you do therapy, counselling and facilitation forever. 3
I have introduced a 'Learnings' question to this Higher frame. Again, omitted from the original model. Although at the time I was cottoning on to the importance of monitoring learning in trainings, I wasn't doing it much during therapy. 'What have you learnt?' is a truly enabling question. The client is unlikely to move on until they know something new, and may not move on until they know they know. Articulating knowledge brings the unnamed into awareness, and is a way of combining the strengths of both unconscious and conscious learning.
Timing the question should allow time for significant learning. I've placed it apart from the other questions in the frame as a reminder that it can be left for a while.
You: Now what have you learnt about all this?
Client: [Thinks] Well, I've learnt that I can deal with the feelings as long as I acknowledge them rather than try and deny them. And I still want to know which way to turn!
Not knowing 'which way to turn' is of course a metaphor that has been around from the start of the session. You may also recall the client having 'butterflies in the stomach' in the Context frame, or their experience of partner and boss getting 'pissed off at me' in the Future frame.
You have a choice here. You can mosey along at the momentum of the other frames or move up the gears into full Metaphor process using Clean Language proper. 4
Even without Clean Language training you can utilise client-generated metaphor - which may appear at any time, in any frame - or you can elicit one specifically:
You: What for you symbolises wanting to know which way to turn?
When you want to know which way to turn that's like what?
Client: It's like I'm at a crossroads.
There are upwards of 30 Clean Language questions, but to explore this metaphor we need only two, and you are familiar with these already. 'What kind of ...?' and 'Is there anything else about ...?' are key clean questions that can unlock a phrase in any frame and open up a treasure chest of new information for the client. Once you identify and engage client metaphor, you are accessing a container for very precious, deeply coded information that comes directly from the unconscious.
You: And what kind of crossroads?
Client: Well, the kind where there's a main road that's obvious but goes nowhere and a narrow side road that looks interesting but may be a long way round.
You: And is there anything else about a side road like that?
Client: It could be more interesting and useful and certain than I first thought.
It is my belief that inner-directed change will always be more interesting, useful and certain than change that comes about as a result of external direction, suggestion or challenge. And will also last longer.
This self-reflective model asks questions which do not presuppose answers, which prompt for self-knowledge and encourage people to take charge of their own minds. And if that, in James Lawley's words, has "the ripple effect of influencing deeper organizing metaphors and neuro-chemical processes", so be it. We're doing our job as facilitators of change.
1 The website: www.cleanlanguage.co.uk and the book: James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, The Developing Company Press 2000. Part 1 of this article: Rapport 54, Winter 2001.
2 More on Patterns in Chapter 7 of Lawley and Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind; and in Philip Harland, Resolving Problem Patterns, Part 1 and Part 2, Rapport 49 & 50, Autumn & Winter 2000, and www.cleanlanguage.co.uk.
4 The French version of Clean Language is Langage Propre, in which the word propre nicely combines the sense of 'uncontaminated' (the language of the therapist) with the sense of 'one's own' (the language of the client). If you're interested in the therapeutic possibilities of client-generated metaphor and symbol in any language I strongly recommend you train in the process. See below.
Acknowledgments to David Grove, Penny Tompkins & James Lawley, and the London Clean Language Practise Group.
© 2001 Philip Harland
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