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When nothing changes

If after journeying through ACFC the client has not experienced a shift, or enough of a shift for them to be ready to make a change in their life, two of the most valuable approaches are to:
a. Wait and see what effect the session actually has since surprisingly valuable changes can occur over the coming days and nights, even when the client was not expecting them.

b. Make use of the resources that have appeared in the client's landscape.
Developing resources

A resource can be anything that the client values or proves to be useful. They can spontaneously appear in stages 2, 3, 4 or 5. A desired outcome is itself a kind of resource – especially when it is embodied. Like desired outcomes, resources can be developed and their effects on the rest of the landscape explored.

If you look for 'resource' in the index of Metaphors in Mind you will see how to notice overt and latent resources, how to bring them into the foreground of the client's awareness, and examples of how resources can be utilised. In summary the process is:
1. Identify (potential) resource.[15]
2. Develop qualities of the resource (metaphor, location, attributes, function).
3. Explore effects of resource, by asking:
  • And when [resource], then what happens?
  • And when [resource], what happens to [desired outcome or problematic context]?
4. Mature changes as they occur.
Many people do not know how to access their own resources or do not do it often enough, and developing resources is therefore almost universally valuable. However, even when we facilitate a client to develop and explore the effects of a resource we are still not trying to change anything. If the client's system remains unaffected then something important is happening and that is what we would invite the client to attend to next time.

When ACFC is not enough

Although A Clean Framework for Change works for most people most of the time, it doesn’t work for everyone all the time. No process will do that. You might be thinking, why wouldn’t a person who wants to improve their life identify a desire, construct an experience of that desire happening and what effect it will have, and then figure out what needs to happen for their desired outcome to become a reality? One reason is because they just can’t. It is not that they are incapable, it is that one or more aspects of their system reacts against the very idea. Even considering the possibility provokes a counter response.

There are different indicators that the organisation of the client’s system is not responding to ACFC at each of the five stages:

If after considerable skill, patience and modelling by the facilitator —

Stage 1 The client cannot identify a desired outcome.
Stage 2
The client cannot develop a rich description of a desired outcome or keep their attention on their desired outcome.
Stage 3
The effects of the desired outcome happening are unacceptable to the client or to some part of their system (including their perception of others and the environment).
Stage 4
The client cannot identify the conditions under which the desired outcome can be realised. Or, a binding logic prevents the conditions necessary for change from being enacted.
Stage 5
The maturing of a change is interrupted by a problem, concern or doubt which cannot be resolved by continuing with A Clean Framework for Change.

The best way to find out if any of the above apply is to give the client multiple opportunities to: identify a desired outcome; develop it into a desired outcome (metaphor) landscape; explore the effects of that outcome happening; identify the conditions necessary for the desired outcome to become an actual outcome; and to mature any changes as they happen.

We have seen numerous facilitators say their client can't get a desired outcome when in fact the facilitator missed a desired outcome statement the client had given them. This is often because (a) the desire was embedded in the middle of a lot of other non-outcome information and the facilitator stopped determining whether every statement indicated a problem, a proposed remedy or desired outcome; or (b) once the session is underway, the facilitator missed opportunities to use the PRO Model.

When going through the stages, if the client encounters an obstacle, problem or a 'What if?,' this is not an indication that ACFC is not working – quite the opposite. It is working perfectly because the process is designed to uncover the specific problems that inhibit the client making the changes they say they want. These problems are usually of a quite different character from the kinds of problems that would be described if the client had been asked at the beginning 'What's the problem?'.

Sometimes, a client concludes that what they would like to have happen either isn’t going to happen, or it wouldn’t be a good idea if it did. Of course, that realisation is a change. Mature this change as usual and at an appropriate moment ask, 'And given [...], now what would you like to have happen?'.

When we say ACFC is 'not enough' we mean that after several iterations it becomes clear applying ACFC to problems that arise does not produce a desired change. This usually indicates that the client is in a bind — a unwanted repetitive self-preserving pattern.[16]

Even in the presence of a binding pattern, ACFC still has its uses. It will work with straightforward binds although you may need to iterate through the stages a few times before all the strands of the bind are untangled.

While a client is focusing on aspects of their bind, you are looking for opportunities to ask 'And when [recap binding pattern], what would [you/symbol] like to have happen?'. Asked at an appropriate moment this question brings the client face to face with the whole pattern and invites them to identify a desired outcome for how they would like to respond to experiencing a bind. They are unlikely to have ever been asked this question before and it may need to be repeated several times before the client grasps its significance.

On the rare occasions where this approach is ineffective, noticing how it doesn’t work turns ACFC into a sophisticated diagnostic. The process by which the client’s system rejects, counters, diverts or otherwise avoids going through the five stages can be taken as a signpost to what Ernest Rossi called The Symptom Path to Enlightenment. The stage that prompts the response and the means by which the response occurs is exactly where the client needs to focus their attention.

Achieving what you want

While we have described ACFC as a process for facilitating others to make changes in their life, it can also be considered as a general-purpose model for self-facilitated development. Once you embody the process of noticing what you want, elaborating that desire, considering the effects of getting it, working out what needs to happen for you to achieve that, and following through on the changes that occur, you are well on the way to being a success in our goal-orientated society. And the formula works just as well with less tangible desires, say discussing with your partner the kind of relationship you both would like.

Making ACFC work for yourself is not a one-time process. The key is to keep using ACFC to adjust what you do in response to what actually happens, your changing needs and wants, and the problems or opportunities that arise.

If after diligently applying ACFC to an important desire in your life without getting the result you want, you might consider whether you are deceiving yourself. If so, you might need to learn how to act from what you know to be true before you can make the changes you want – but that’s another story.[17]

Concluding thoughts

You will not get the most from ACFC if you use it like a linear technique that you take a client through step-by-step. The key is to use ACFC as a modelling methodology and as a high-level aid to navigating the client's unfolding journey. To do both of these well you will need to keep adjusting what you do in response to what actually happens – every step of the way.

Since 2011 we have used Symbolic Modelling Lite as our model of the essential change process. Interestingly, it is somewhat closer to the original 5-Stage Process described in Metaphors in Mind.
See 'Symbolic Modelling Emergent Change though Metaphor and Clean Language', Chapter 4 of Innovations in NLP: Innovations for Challenging Times (Eds. L.Michael Hall & Shelle Rose Charvet, Crown House Publishing, November 2011).  Download from


4. James Lawley & Penny Tompkins, A Model of Musing: The Message in a Metaphor, Anchor Point Vol. 16, No. 5, May 2002.

5. Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, Coaching for P.R.O's, Coach the Coach, Feb. 2006.

6. Charles Faulkner, The World Within a Word (Audio tape set), Genesis II, Lyons CO, 1999.

7. More formally, a desired outcome is a state of being that has four aspects (PPRC):
  • A perceiver of the desired outcome that knows the desire exists. This can be a person, an aspect of a person, a group of people or any sentient being. And in the land of metaphor any symbol with agency can have a desired outcome.
  • A perceived – how the world will be when the desired outcome happens – the outcome part of the desire.
  • A relationship between perceiver and perceived. At it's most basic this will be some form of want, wish, yearn for, craving, fancy, impulse – anything that expresses the desire. On top of that any number of layers of complexity can reside!
  • A context within which the desired outcome has significance for the perceiver.
See Penny Tompkins & James Lawley (Feb 2006) Paying attention to what they're paying attention to: The PPRC Model.

8. While the distinction between a desired outcome and a remedy often coincides with the NLP metaprogram distinction of 'towards goals' and 'away from problems' and the NLP well-formedness distinction of 'stated in the positive' and 'stated in the negative' it is not identical to either. For example "I want to find my lost self" would be regarded as towards a goal and stated in the positive, while in the PRO model it is classified as a remedy to a problem. A closer fit is with the Solution Focus ideas of Preferred Future and Negative Outcome, see: Solution Focus Through a Clean Lens.

9. A key feature of the PRO model, particularly useful when it is being used outside of a coaching session (e.g. by managers, teachers, parents, etc.) is the understanding that problem statements do not contain a desire for anything to be different. They are simply a statement of the person's experience, they do not require any response, except perhaps to acknowledge the person has a problem. If parents, teachers, and managers etc. train themselves to not image people want to change a problem when they have not specifically said so, it can transform their most important relationships. For example, a teenager says to their parent "I am fed up you bossing me about". For sure, this is a problem for the teenager, but they have not said they would like it to be different. If the parent feels it is their job to solve problems they may well respond to this by proposing some kind of solution (probably exacerbating the adolescent's problem!). Whereas, a 'clean conversational' response would be "Ok, so you're fed up with me bossing you about. And given you are fed up like that, what would you like to happen?"

10. Identifying a desired outcome and developing it in Stage 2 can have a similar effect to the Solution Focus "miracle question": "Suppose that one night, while you are asleep, there is a miracle and the problem that brought you here is solved. However, because you are asleep you don't know that the miracle has already happened. When you wake up in the morning, what will be different that will tell you that the miracle has taken place?" The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE. Paul Z Jackson and Mark McKergow (2006). However, a key difference is that with A Clean Framework the client does not have to "suppose" that all his or her problems have disappeared.

11. To check the relevance of a newly surfaced problem to the original desired outcome you can ask ‘And is there a relationship between [new problem] and [desired outcome]?’.

12. Diagram modified from Marian Way, Clean Approaches for Coaches, p. 156.

13. Penny Tompkins & James Lawley (Feb 2009) Attending to Salience.

14. The processes of developing, evolving and spreading a change might seem familiar since they are exactly the same as the processes used in Stages 1 to 3 but used for a different purpose:

Stages 1 - 3
Stage 5
Identify desired outcome Notice change has happened
2. Develop desired outcome Develop what has changed
3. Explore effects over time and space
Evolve change over time and discover whether change spreads to other areas

There is only one difference. Stages 1 to 3 happen before a change has occurred and Stage 5 happens after. In terms of process, the questions you ask are identical. In terms of the client's perception the difference seems like night and day.

15. An optional extra is to identify the source of a resource by iteratively asking 'And where could [resource] come from?' several times if necessary, and then utilise the source of the resource which is usually even more resourceful than the original resource.

16.How we work with binds and double binds is described in James Lawley, Modelling the Structure of Binds and Double Binds Rapport 47, Spring 2000, and in Chapter 8 of Metaphors in Mind. Also watch the video: When science and spirituality have a beer.

17. James Lawley and Penny Tompkins (Feb 2004) Part 1- Self-Deception, Self-Delusion and Self-Denial, and Penny Tompkins & James Lawley (Apr 2004) Part 2 - Learning to Act from What You Know to be True.

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy since 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. They have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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