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James Lawley

James LawleyJames Lawley offers psychotherapiy to individuals and couples, and coaching, research and consultancy to organisations. He is a co-developer of Symbolic Modelling and co-author (with Penny Tompkins) of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, (with Marian Way) Insights in Space: How to use Clean Space to solve problems, generate ideas and spark creativity and an Online training in Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling. For a more detailed biography see about us and his blog.

The Point of Pointing
By James Lawley | Published  24 02 2012
Download a print-friendly version: 2012-02-24 The Point of Pointing.pdf

After more than a decade of searching for a satisfying analogy that describes the perspective I take when I am symbolic modelling I’ve finally found one right under my nose. It is the simple and everyday act of pointing.

It wasn’t until I read Michelangelo’s Finger: An exploration of everyday transcendence by Raymond Tallis (Atlantic Books, 2010) [1] that I realised just how much mental activity is involved in pointing. And the moment I understood what the recipient of pointing has to do with their attention I got excited.  I thought: ‘That’s what I do. That’s how I model symbolically’.

In this and other blogs I will explore the world of pointing and what it can reveal about the process of symbolic modelling. Today I’m going to use pointing to answer the final question from my previous blog (16 Feb 2012): What perspective (perceptual position) do I typically take during a symbolic modelling session?

But before I do, let’s examine how pointing works and what both parties have to do with their attention during pointing.
What is pointing?
Raymond Tallis explains the four elements involved in pointing:

There is the producer (the person doing the pointing); the pointer used by the producer (usually the outstretched hand and index finger); the pointee (that which is pointed out); and, finally, the consumer (the person for whose benefit the pointing is carried out). The producer uses a part of his or her own body to establish an axis that joins the producer with the item being pointed out – with the pointee. The consumer is invited to follow the virtual line with her visual attention until it reaches the pointee. (p. 7)

The index finger is the canonical referential gesture that makes clear what is present in other, less versatile, modes of bodily pointing, using the thumb, the arm as a whole, the elbow, the shoulder, the head, the torso, the eyes and even the foot. (p. 11)

What does the producer do?
She has to be able consciously to use her body as a signal. This implies a special relationship to said body, one that is not found in animals. In addition, she has to have the capacity to be aware of another's (different) viewpoint. This is a necessary condition of her being aware that she is cognitively advantaged compared with the other person, at least with respect to knowledge of the object being pointed at. In addition, she has to understand that the other’s comparative disadvantage can be set right. (pp. 10-11)

The pointer pointing something out to another is to amend a perceived deficit in their knowledge, or experience, or awareness. The usual, and fundamental, occasion for pointing is to correct a lack: to draw attention to something important or at least interesting the other has not noticed or cannot see. (p. 11)

What does the consumer do?
When you point something out to me, I do not consciously adopt the viewpoint of your body. I simply look ‘over there’ to where you are pointing. But I can take this short cut only after I have already acquired the skill that enables me, as it were, to triangulate between you, the object and me. (p. 145)

The consumer has to cast herself in her imagination out of her own body and mentally look along the line drawn in space by the arm and index finger extending from the producer’s body. The consumer, that is to say, has to put herself in the producer’s place.  (p. 9)

This is a rather remarkable thing to do. As a consumer, I momentarily adopt the pointer’s perspective, follow the direction of their pointing, identify what is being pointed at, and bring that awareness back to my own point of perception. I do not become the pointer. I do not ‘put myself in their body’ as in an NLP second position since I do not give up my own perspective. Instead, I notice how the world looks from their vantage point, and use that to extend my sense of their world.

By sharing their perspective my attention is drawn to the object of their attention. Aptly, the word ‘attention’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘stretching towards’. Once I have stretched myself to what the pointer is pointing at, we can converse about it.

The everyday act of pointing can be mapped on to the analogous act of modelling symbolically:

Modelling Symbolically
Producer Client
Pointer (body part that points) Pointer (body part that points)
Pointee (item pointed to) Symbol in client’s inner landscape
Consumer Symbolic modeller

In a coaching/therapy context, clients are continually pointing to things in the inner world of their mind’s eye, ear and feeling. Through their gestures and their metaphors they point out where symbols are in their metaphor landscape and what form they take. As a coach/therapist I am the ‘consumer’ of the client’s pointing. The only difference with physical-world pointing is that I can never see, hear or feel what they are actually pointing at. Perhaps because of this, in traditional coaching/therapy the information provided by a client’s indicative gestures is almost completely ignored. I’m not talking about ‘body language’ and the interpretation thereof. I’m referring to what David Grove called the client’s ‘choreography’ – how the movement of a client’s body references the location and form of the metaphors in their symbolic world. Although I may not be able to see the symbols in a client’s private world, with careful modelling I can know where they are from the client’s perspective and attend to something like what they are attending to.

What makes the perceptual position of the consumer of pointing so unusual is that I can share the producer/client’s perspective while retaining my own perspective. By unconsciously working out the trigonometry involved I intuitively understand the relative arrangement of the three points, and how the world looks different from each. As a symbolic modeller I bring that intuition into my conscious awareness and make it central to my modelling of the client and their landscape.

Previously I had described my facilitator’s perspective as like being in the passenger seat of a car and being driven around an unfamiliar town by someone (the client) who is pointing out all the places they know, “Look, that’s where I went to school.” But in the car metaphor the consumer does not an independent location or volition. Whereas, the pointing analogy beautifully reflects the ‘split attention’ required by a symbolic modeller: I can simultaneously know the client’s perspective and muse [2] on it from another perspective inside, outside or beside the client’s world. The triangulation involved in pointing enables me to engage in what David Grove called a ‘trialogue’ between the client, their landscape and me.

I am so excited about the pointing analogy because people instinctively know what to do when someone points and therefore it should be easy to do much the same thing during a client session. The challenge for the symbolic modeller is to maintain the ‘consumer perspective’ continuously throughout the session. When you develop this skill it’s much easier to set aside your own landscape and instead commit to working within the logic of the client’s landscape.

I shall continue extracting value from pointing and Tallis’ book, but for the moment I’ll leave the last word to the Buddha who in the Shurangama Sutra says:

It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. [3]

1. Thanks to Judy Baker for pointing out the book to me.

2. James Lawley, The Neurobiology of Space.
4 Aug 2007.
James Lawley & Penny Tompkins,
'A Model of Musing: The message in a metaphor' Anchor Point, Vol. 16, No. 5, May 2002.


POSTSCRIPT 26 Mar 2012: Marian Way has written an excellent description of a practice group activity based on the ideas in this blog.

POSTSCRIPT 5 Apr 2012: I have written a followup blog, Pointing Attention.

: I have had an article published on the topic, Pointing to a New Modelling Perspective, Acuity Vol. 4, October 2013.


  • Comment #1 (Posted by Sharon Small

    Thank you James. This is brilliant and timely. For the past several days I have been thinking about how I might share, in a different way, what modeling is to my training participants that are needing something more from me. Your use of our already developed understanding of pointing is perfect.

    I like the idea of taking a short cut by triangulating as a way of expressing how one might look at or attend to a symbol around a clients body, as well as the way you address the "split attention" that is needed as a facilitator, simultaneously knowing and museing.

    The one piece that stood out for me on my first reading was the part about the clients indicative gestures and the distinction from being "body language" as being choreography. I had never heard it expressed that way before and I love that I can use that now.

  • Comment #2 (Posted by Annemiek van Helsdingen

    Hi James,
    Thanks for sharing this metaphor. It is a great metaphor as it is a universal experience that you tap into. What struck me was that on first glance, I'd thought that in this metaphor it meant that the facilitator is the one doing the pointing. That is not the part of the experience that you are referring to here.

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that part of the process as well, as the facilitator also points to(wards) symbols and experiences that the client has identified before, as their primary method of directing attention.

    [James replied: Annemiek, your wish has been fulfilled at

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