Symbolic Modeling is a language-based, mind/body process that invites your clients to gain clarity about themselves and to work through issues that pose a problem or dilemma. The technique may be used with everyday material consciously-accessed, or it may be applied at a symbolic or metaphoric level to subconsciously-accessed material.
Symbolic Modeling is based on the work of psychotherapist David Grove (1950-2008), whose background in NLP (neurolinguistic programming) and Eriksonian hypnosis, coupled with his own unique genius and the challenge of working with trauma survivors, led him to develop Clean Language. A progressive questioning technique, Clean Language uses clients’ exact words and internalized metaphors to clarify personal beliefs, goals, and conflicts, and to foster meaningful change.
Psychotherapists Penny Tompkins and James Lawley systematized Grove’s process, adding strategies and refinements of their own, as they drew from cognitive linguistics, systems thinking, and their own research. They call their process Symbolic Modeling.
While their original application was for a therapeutic population and their focus was on metaphor, today these questioning strategies are used not only by counselors and therapists, but by many life and business coaches, body therapists, sales and marketing professionals, educators, journalists, and more.
The techniques are highly flexible; it’s all about where you as the facilitator direct attention. This workbook focuses on applying the skills for counselors/therapists and coaches, and primarily addresses work with metaphors, though the questions and strategies are exactly the same for ‘everyday’ material.
Regarding the individual as a system whose feelings, thoughts, beliefs, experiences, etc. are all recorded in metaphor, the five stage Symbolic Modeling process guides the client through an exploration of these metaphors, their organization, interactions, and patterns. Using the client’s internal metaphors means you are working in the language of the client’s subconscious, bypassing cognitive awareness and its limitations. These metaphors may be limiting a client’s ways of viewing the world and his coping strategies, due to the metaphors’ prescribed inner logic. No longer inaccessible, you can now work with the symbols to address patterns, beliefs, emotions, etc.
Conscious insight into the sources and meanings of these metaphors is not necessary for helping or healing. By accessing the subconscious meanings an individual connects to specific words and images, which are unique to that individual alone, you tap into the full mind/body wisdom that knows all the client needs to know about what he deeply needs: emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. Once his metaphors are engaged, the wisdom of the client’s system can learn from itself what is working and what is not, what needs to change, and how that change needs to happen. It is this process of discovery and change that you help the client navigate using Clean Language questions and Symbolic Modeling strategies.
Recent research confirms that the brain’s capacity for change, its neuroplasticity, is best activated by experiential approaches. By actively engaging clients in determining how their metaphors can change to meet their desired outcomes, transformative shifts can occur within clients’ “metaphor landscapes” or collection of internal metaphors. Meaningful changes to thoughts, feelings, and actions occur, as new neural pathways are established and strengthened, and old ones fade from disuse.
The three basic components of Symbolic Modeling
Metaphors: Metaphors are the content or material you work with. These metaphors aren’t created the way you might pick one when writing a poem; instead, the client experiences them as they already exist in his mind and body, and he is now merely discovering them. We work with the metaphors as if they are real (for they are, after all, descriptions of what is real!) and refer to them as embodied metaphors. The images which make up these metaphors relate to one another, and it is in these relationships that the patterns of your client’s behavior, feelings and thoughts are encoded.
Clean Language: Clean Language is the tool you use to work with the content. It consists of select words and a special syntax the facilitator couples with the client’s exact words, to ask questions about the symbols/images he describes in order to guide his attention to their details and their relationships with one another. You’ll notice the speech does not sound like ordinary conversation; it is grammatically awkward and very sparse. This encourages the client not to engage cognitively or conversationally with the facilitator, who is there to guide the client’s exploration of his metaphors, not to interpret their meanings or add observations.
Modeling: Modeling is the strategy you employ to determine what questions to ask, where to guide the client’s attention. You, as facilitator, and your client are working on developing a full picture or model of his inner reality. Through a series of questions, and possibly over a number of sessions, you two will collect details about his metaphors by and through which he has stored his experiences and responses to those experiences.
Think of building a model town for a train set. It is full of objects, laid out to relate to each other in different ways, and which serve a variety of purposes. You might have a train, running on a track, with several curves; it may split in places. The tracks will go by a number of houses, maybe a bank, a school house, and homes. There may be switch controls and lights which regulate the train’s going and coming. About each of these, there will be added details and purposes. You could build a miniature model of these which would show these details and interrelationships. Just so, you are creating a model of the client’s internal metaphors—and his world view. Which is why we refer to the sum total of a client’s images as his metaphor landscape and to a picture of it as a metaphor map—for all of the images are in relation to one another like locations on a map.