Article Categories
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
Clean Language
Article Selections
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
 »  Home  »  Blog  »  The Tree of Wisdom (video)
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 Tree of Wisdom (video)
By James Lawley | Published  06 01 2014

Introduction to video
Watch video of the full session
Annotated transcript
Analysis of questions
Client's post-session feedback


Symbolic Modelling and the Clean Language of David Grove is used in many different areas such as business, education, sports, academia, etc. And it is especially suited for working with personal development topics – particularly those that are tricky, hard to grasp,  intractable or paradoxical (pick your metaphor!).

So when a client comes for coaching or therapy with a topic that is a conundrum, what do you?

One client started by clearly stating her desired outcome: she wanted to be “decisive and assertive” about a decision. But there is a “but”; she was “not getting a clear picture” of the outcome. Instead she says it is like switching on a movie but nothing comes up". And that was because of a “fog in front of me”.

Naturally, the client wanted the fog “lifted up” so she could see the clear picture, but would that solve the problem? No. When the fog was lifted, the “picture becomes distant ... it’s too far out”.  And as a result the client was left “struggling”.

Not only was this a conundrum for the client. It was a conundrum for Penny Tompkins and I as facilitators. In Symbolic Modelling we aim to start by developing the client’s desired outcome. But that wasn't possible because the fog prevented her seeing it. And enacting her proposed remedy of lifting the fog didn’t help, instead it only revealed another problem. Hmmm. How to approach this?

One of the principles of a clean way of working is that we only work with the information presented. We do not introduce any content, no matter how cleverly it is hidden inside our language, or how helpful we think it would be. Sticking to that principle, Penny’s modelling let her know that even though the client could not see her desired outcome, she had said she had "a sense" that she had one. The beauty of Symbolic Modelling is that from one easily missed word, a whole inner landscape can emerge. With a few clean questions the sense was “liberating” which became a metaphor of “flying”.

This was a key moment. There were a few more twists and turns left to navigate but the client's new metaphor enabled her to identify a new desired outcome: To “speak my truth” in a “clear voice, directed, unwavering”. It was only seven minutes in to the session but now she was really flying ...

Watch Video

To see the a 24 minute video of what happened next, watch:

Clean Coaching Live using Symbolic Modelling Lite-Feb 2013 from James Lawley on Vimeo.

Annotated Transcript

And you can study the whole transcript with our line-by-line comments by downloading:

2014-01-06_Tree_of_Wisdom-Annotated_Transcript.pdf (Size: 115 KB, 7 pages)

Analysis of Questions

48 questions were asked in total in The Tree of Wisdom session.

Of these:

4 questions formed the Set-up and Set-down of Symbolic Modelling Lite (Phases 1 and 6).

44 questions were asked in Phases 2 to 5.

Of these: 

42 were ‘basic’ clean questions

2 were ‘specialised’ questions:

1 - What just happened?
1 - Size or shape?

The 42 basic clean questions can be categorised by the ‘four fundamental modelling processes’:


3 - Like to have happen?

Developing Form

10 - What kind of?
8   - Anything else?
8   - Where/Whereabouts?

Relating over Time

 7  -  Then what happens?

Relating across Space

6  -  What happens to (about)?

To summarise:
  • 88% of all questions involved just six of the basic Clean Language set.
  • On average, two questions were asked per minute.
  • During the core Phases 2-5, 95% were basic questions and of those 60% were the three basic developing questions.
  • The ‘Like What’ question was not asked since there were no shortage of metaphors.

These figures are representative of the majority of Symbolic Modelling lite sessions. This session is yet another example of how much can be achieved with just six questions. And to reiterate, it's not the questions, its what happens in the client's mind-body in response to the flow of the questions – that's what matters. 

Client's post-session feedback

Two weeks later

As I was watching the video again, it occured to me to check the meaning of "capillary", as I used the word capillary tube. Here's what I got and I was dumbfounded: "Capillary attraction, or capillarity, is the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of, and in opposition to external forces like gravity"
Gives me goosebumps especially about the concept of flow and in opposition to external forces like gravity... Both concepts, flow and gravity, have been central themes for me in the past couple of years. I've been exploring (or trying to discover) my gravity and at the same time be in flow... I think there's so much more to this than I consciously realised..."

11 months later

I watched the video again... I still have new insights after watching it. In hindsight I realised it was a different model for decision-making, which I've applied in other contexts since.

As I was watching it, almost a year since, it almost felt prophetic. I realised, well maybe because if it changes something as fundamental as decision-making, then it would have that 'prophetic' effect... it creates a domino effect of decisions and, of course, pathways.


  • Comment #1 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse, 09 Jan 2014)

    Thank you James, very interesting and instructive.

    Watching it brings me also back to my ambivalence about writing notes. This woman used a lot of gestural 'language" which is difficult to mirror (if already we are able to perceive them while we are writing) and which IMO have only been minimally mirrored by Penny.

    My impression is that this is about a difficult choice as facilitator: do we prioritize the exact words the clients uses, at the cost of not being able to feed back the exact gestures, or do we prioritize the expressive gestures at the (at least potential) risk of not being able to feed back the exact words? Quite a conundrum, too!;)

    I was also struck about her talking about needing to be grounded and only the sides of her feet touching the floor. Assuming that it would be useful to explore how she positions her feet, what would be the cleanest way of directing the client's attention there?

    At around 17' (when she describes the rings of the tree...) she puts for a very short moment, the soles of her feet on the ground but quickly goes back to her former position. I would be temped to point that out to her and explore it (it might be that this chair is "just" a bit too high for her, but I wouldn't want to presume that without checking). One minute later her feet seem to be seeking good contact, but she seems to give up.

    My impression (to be tested) is that there is a relevant relationship between worrying and what she does with her feet and legs, and my hope would be that it would help her "grounding" by exploring this (presumed) relationship. But I guess we're not in "lite-land" anymore, then?
  • Comment #2 (Posted by Maarten Aalberse 18.01.2014)

    Upon rereading my post, I realized that one thing wasn't clearly put.
    When I saw you and Penny holding a clipboard on one leg (with legs crossed, which seems to be the best position to make notes, for me too), this very need to hold this thing limits the kind of repeating non-verbal language that we are able to do.

    My own choice for now has been to choose for the gestures and renounce on writing down the exact words. "One gestures is worth a thousand words" ;)

    I know that the price I pay is two-fold:
    I run the risk of using some of my own words rather than the exact client words
    And that it is confronting to the client, when he realizes that he exposes much more of himself (by his gestures) than he believed he did.

    The first time I mirror a client's spontaneous gesture, they often show a response that turns out to be embarrassment, feeling "caught in the act". Which, when acknowledged by me, followed by for instance: "and is there a relationship between 'caught in the act and..; the verbal metaphors the client used", this tends to be rather reassuring to the client (and next time I "pick up" a gesture, they are more at ease with it) and can lead to very fruitful further explorations.

    And of course I'm looking forward to your replies.

    All the best, Maarten
  • Comment #3 (Posted by James Lawley 18.01.2014 )

    Thank you Maarten for your fascinating observations, comments and questions. The question of facilitator choices enthrals me too. I will address your points in my next blog:
  • Comment #4 (Posted by Sioelan Tjoa 18.01.2014)

    It is very interesting to note how we would potentially take a client into a different direction based on our personal sensory preference, knowledge and experience and our observations at the time.

    When we ask our client what they would like to have happen at the beginning - are we not assuming that they are able to verbalise this to us and that they are consciously aware of their desired outcome? Has the fact that the client stated her desired outcome with what appears such logic and conviction put us on the wrong foot? And might it be more important with a client who had a strong kinesthetic preference to incorporate more of these gestures in our "questions"? (i.e. would the gestures carry more weight here?)

    The clients hands clearly indicated at the beginning that she wants a strong connection between what seemed her chest area and the clear picture in front of her (making a tube like gesture in front of her). I wonder what would have happened if you would have explored this (kinesthetic displayed) resource earlier and asked her about the accessibility of it and what draws her to it etc. and whether this might have expedited the process of emerging knowledge?

    Another thing that I noticed was that she had placed her drawing behind her. Would it have been interesting to explore whether it was merely the positioning of herself in relationship to her clear picture that was holding her back from accessing her insightful knowledge more quickly? I.e. would the picture have to move in a more resourceful space or would she have had to move in relationship to her picture?

    It would be interesting to find out how different positioning of the client would have influenced the speed in which she would have accessed her resource/insight and EK.
  • Comment #5 (Posted by Mark Le SUEUR 8.10.2014)

    Hi Folks,
    in relation to comments made above:
    Having just finished my first read of 'Metaphors of Mind', and the fine distinctions and directions of attention to Non Verbal behaviour, I was surprised that more of it was not utilised by the facilitators in the session.

    At 7 minutes and 13 seconds on the video (7:13), in response to "What kind of Truth", the client makes an exceptionally demonstrative expression as an answer which is not utilised. Instead the client 'Freezes' her non verbal behaviour to access the answer cognitively. And takes some time doing it which interrupted the 'Flow' of How she was building her Metaphor Landscape. Perhaps this is as someone above commented, an effect from leaning back with legs crossed attempting to write whilst balancing a note pad. I noticed this myself, and in this context find an A3 Artists Sketch Pad placed flat across the tops of uncrossed thighs, and using a 2B Pencil, allows for a fluent and fluid way to Map and Sketch Out the Metaphor Landscape as it Evolves. Akin to, a 'Mind Map'.

    I also noticed at 21:45 an Incongruent response to 'Feeling Grounded', after James asked about how the resource was related to speaking the truth. The client describes three effects, however the nonverbal congruency with which she does it indicated uncertainty.

    As James mentions above, he introduced the M4 of 'Capillary', however, in the metaphor of 'a Tree', and How things move around in 'a Tree', the client mentions 'Water' and 'Dew'. How it moves around and the effect it has. 'Water' is Essential to the 'Function' of 'a Tree'. The client had an issue with a 'Constriction' and 'Flow'. In 'a Tree', it is 'Water' that 'Flows', and is Fundamental to it's existence, a 'Resource'.(Through; "TRANSlocation","TRANSpiration", 'Capillary ACTION','ExCHANGE', 'Fertilisation', 'Pollination',AND the Processes which act on it; Sun, Rain, The Ecosystemic properties,etc :)

    With regard to the Resource utilised, 'Knowing'; that's 'Broad with no edge but concentrated' (18:12), and 'Like a catcher, that's just there' (18:39-43)..The nonverbals used to describe this are Isomorphic with those demonstrated at 6:06 when the 'Tree' M4 was first developed.

    At 13:24 the client says, "It takes on it's NATURAL Size" using the 'Knowing' gestures. And mentions that it "Keeps Growing". 'Natural Process' M4's, such as 'Growing', were specially mentioned in the book, however underutilised in this session.

    Also mentioned in the book was utilising the 'Symbols' the client uses outside the session. What 'Type' of 'Tree' was it? An Oak, A Bodhi Tree, a Maple? Are they present in the clients life somewhere? Could the Type of 'Tree' been utilised to reinforce the clients experience whenever they see it in the world?

    Thank You for making the Video available. I Learnt a great deal.
  • Comment #6 (Posted by James Lawley, 8 Oct 2014)

    Wow Mark, you have been studying the video and our book carefully. Good for you. it is heartwarming to see our work being used by such a dedicated self-learner.

    I agree that all of the points you mentioned could have become the focus of a question, or a series of question (what we call a 'vector'). Naturally, this would have meant that other things would not have been attended to.

    At any moment there are usually dozens, if not hundreds, of possible aspects of the client's landscape, words and nonverbals that could be asked about, and this can be done using one of a number of clean questions. So the facilitator is continually faced with enormous choice.

    I don't think there is ever just one way for an individual to change, rather there are many and it is difficult for a facilitator to decide whether one way is better than another. As a result I try to take my cues from the client's patterns, the nature of their metaphors and the general flow of their development - not easy things to explain.

    If useful things seem to be happening for the client, my aim to to keep what is happening going and wait to see what follows since it is rarely possible to predict in advance.

    I'm glad to hear you learned a great deal, and thank you for letting us know. In addition to the things you noticed that we didn't do, I'd be very interested to know what you learned from what we did do.
  • Submit Comment

InsideClean Series 1-3

Penny Tompkins
James Lawley
Marian Way

Each series has
Four recorded workshops
+ extra resources
+ bonus material

Buy singly or as
bonus bundles


view all featured events