'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.
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,
'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.
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.
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
What would you like to have happen?
Often we write the answer down, verbatim:
I need to change my life.
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
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.
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.
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:
I need to change my life.
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
"I need to change my life."
There's a poem by Emily Dickinson:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
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.
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"
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
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.
What's your experience of your need for a cup of tea, say? Right
now. Compare that to your need to 'phone Justin or Melissa. I'll
go out on a limb here and guess you had two quite different
experiences of 'need'. (If you know Justin and Melissa you
may well have had three.)
Thus your client's "need" in:
"I" "need" "to change"
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:
"I" "need" "to" "change" "my life."
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 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
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
For the sake of simplicity here we'll stick to one. Next:
Serious deconstructors, of course, will wish to draw
three (or more) frames:
g. Label the frame 'Present'
to represent the client's present
frame of mind. And only
have come this far in your
understanding of the
process may you intervene.
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
William Blake said 'To generalize is to be an idiot', but don't
quote this to your client unless you've trained in Provocative
Therapy. We all over-generalize.
- How specifically do you need to change your life?
- What specifically do you need to change?
- And more specifically?
WHAT KIND OFs
- What kind of change?
- What kind of need?
'What kind of..?' is a beautiful question, classically
'clean'. It helps the client return to their deep-structure
representations with minimal interference. You can use the
question time and again for any part of the statement, but as this
is a conversational model you risk straining your credibility if
you ask too many.
- What sort of change?
- What do you mean by change?
are alternatives. 'What sort of..?' and 'What do you mean
by..?' can be used for any part of the statement. Or
- How change?
- In what way change?
'How..?' and 'In what way...?' are not generally suited
to nouns (nominalisations are a special case), but can help
mobilise most other parts of speech, particularly verbs.
Usually only a part of the situation is a problem, though
applying 'part' to the Perceiver may be taken as an invitation to
construct a metaphorical part of themselves, which may not be
appropriate. Faulkner uses 'aspect' - general enough for many, if
not for the highly visual. 'Element', 'component', 'particular'
(used as a noun) may be OK depending on the context.
- What part of your life needs to change?
- What aspect of you needs to change in order for your
life to change the way you want?
- What is the smallest change you could make that would
improve your life?
Prudent use of synonyms may help the client open up present
content into immediate Context (frame no. 2). The least reflective
category of the lot, but it's not the same as paraphrasing the
client, or loosely substituting a word of your own for one of
theirs. (All too common, even among therapists.) Your tone of
voice is crucial - hint only at your ignorance and desire for
clarification as you prompt a search around a selected word in the
- You want to change your life...?
- You seek to change your life...?
- You need to vary your life...?
- To alter your life?
Offering a couple of variations with an open-ended
inflection or gesture will help the client continue to scan their
own data base for the pertinent word and prompt a concomitant
deep-structure search for the experience the word symbolizes. Thus
the quest might extend into frame no. 2.
h. Draw a Context Frame
around the Present Frame.
Representing immediate context. Question the statement using
HOW DO YOU KNOWs
Could be a Present frame question too. The frames are not meant to
be mutually exclusive.
- How do you know you need to change your life?
- How would you know if you didn't?
The client may see the answer, a voice may tell them,
they may have a feeling ... As you track their visual /
auditory / kinesthetic experience of knowing you'll find more
The system always knows more than it first lets on.
- What else is there about changing your life?
- Is there anything else?
- What's another aspect of this?
There are always connections to other things in the client's
life and to the greater scheme of things.
- What's related to your need to change your life?
- How would you experience changing your life in relation
to your family / work / community etc.?
- What connections are there between (any / all
And a gentle prompt which allows the possibility of a
connection between elements without presupposing one:
- What kind of change (i.e. new or present element)
when you've already won the Lottery and had the
operation (i.e. other known elements)?
i. Add a 'Past' Frame.
- What could have prompted your need to change your life?
Rather than 'caused'. Some people use the word 'cause' to
mean a negative- (or positive-) impact external event for which
they have no responsibility and over which they have no control. A
belief in cause-and-effect relationships supposes some kind of
hierarchical logic to the universe, in which orders get passed
down the line in a causal chain of command. I prefer the word
'prompt', in the sense of a neutral, even benign, instigation from
within the system of which the client is a part, for which the
client has as much responsibility as anyone else, and in which the
client's thoughts and behaviour have influence. As in
"Whispering Angels prompt her golden dreams." (Alexander
The present problem is almost certainly part of a pattern - a
repeated sequence of similar events with a recognisable past and a
predictable future. The moment a client recognizes a pattern
they're half-way to changing it.
- What happened just before you needed to change your
- And what happened just before that?