When you ‘spot’ a metaphor used by a client, what can you do to help them give some attention to it and understand its importance?

A very powerful method of questioning was developed by psychotherapist David Grove, called ‘Clean Language’.

The language you use is ‘clean’ because you say nothing to contaminate the client’s own perception. You merely direct their attention towards the metaphor, and the shapes and symbols that evolve from it.

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley took David Grove’s process and developed it into a model for coaching, and other therapeutic uses. They call it “Symbolic Modelling”. It is a modelling process because, through the use of specific questions, you are attempting to ‘replicate’ the client’s experience in your own mind. And in the process, we are encouraging the coachee to self-model: to consciously map out their own thinking and feeling patterns through the exploration of those metaphors they are unconsciously chosen to represent their inner world.

The basic principles are congruent with any good coaching practice:

  1. Ask questions to find out what the client wants.
  2. Ask questions to find out what needs to happen for them to get there.
  3. If problems, barriers or blocks are identified, ask questions to find out what needs to happen to overcome them.

Sounds simple enough, and indeed it is, although the questions themselves may sound a little unusual and unfamiliar to begin with.

The questions need to be phrased in a very specific manner. There are just 12 basic questions to use, and that may sound limiting, but believe me you can easily go to other worlds with them!

Example Client Conversation

With practice, the flow of questions can come very naturally. As an example, for the client who tells you that they see light at the end of the tunnel, you might ask:

“And when you see light at the end of the tunnel, what would you like to have happen?”

It might sound obvious to ask this, but we are all unique and some people may be afraid of the light, be happy to stay in the tunnel, or want to turn around and go the other way. Never assume you know what the client may want.

The client could answer with “I want to get out of the tunnel and be in the light”

OK, it’s a clear goal. Stay with it and find out more about the outcome. Let the client get a real sense of how it would be to achieve their outcome.

“And when you get out of the tunnel and be in the light, is there anything else about that light?”

They may tell you it’s warm, or bright… or whatever. They are developing their sense of what it would be like.

“And when you can be in the light, what kind of ‘you’ is that ‘you’?

The descriptions they give may highlight other metaphors or feelings, which you can continue to explore.

“I feel relieved, like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders”

“What kind of lifted is that lifted?” or “When you feel relieved, whereabouts do you feel relieved?” (all feelings have a location somewhere, within or for some, even just outside their bodies)


“What kind of shoulders are those shoulders?”

Once the outcome has been really explored, generally you will be able to see/sense/notice that the client is ‘connected’ to a different reality. Many clients will go into a light trance. It usually feels quite good to be ‘wallowing’ in one’s own outcomes.

You could then take it a step forward.

“And when you are relieved, and in the light, what happens next?”

If all is well, they may go to another level of goal setting. It may be that their perception has already shifted by simply exploring the outcome. For some, this could be where the problem (particularly if this is a ’habit’) re-surfaces. Another tunnel comes along, or something similar…

Then you might ask “What needs to happen for you to get out of the tunnel, and be in the light?” 

And “What else needs to happen?”

People tend to stick within the logic of their metaphors. They could walk or run out of the tunnel, but presumably something is stopping them, else they wouldn’t still be in it. It would be ‘unclean’ to ask what stops them, as you are assuming that there is a ‘what’ and a ‘stop’. Let them tell you:

“And can you get out of the tunnel?”

“No, because my feet are stuck to the ground.”

At this point you might choose to explore the barrier….

“What kind of ‘stuck’ is that ‘stuck’?”

 “Is there anything else about feet that are stuck?” “What kind of ground?”

“Is there anything else about the tunnel when your feet are stuck?”

 “When your feet are stuck to the ground, and you are in the tunnel, then what happens?”

 Like an explorer, you seek to learn all you can about the terrain. The solution, will, inevitably be within the problem somewhere. The Client is exploring the terrain with you and will gradually perceive more and more as you continue asking questions.

All the elements of the metaphor could potentially be resources, something to ‘unlock’ or ‘shift’ or ‘move’ the problem environment. Maybe the ground is wet and the feet can loosen. Maybe they are stuck with glue, and the glue is so cold that is has become brittle. Maybe there is something else in the tunnel that could change the situation. Often, the ‘scariest’ part of the metaphor can turn into something benign and useful.

Once a client ‘shifts’ their awareness, you can see the release in the way they suddenly relax, or laugh, or cry. After the session, the Client may understand perfectly what all the shapes and symbols and elements ‘meant’ in the real world, but many won’t have a clue on a conscious level. The great thing is, it really doesn’t matter if they don’t. The shift has happened subconsciously, the change has already happened. One remarkable, but sometimes frustrating thing is that the Client simply ‘forgets’ they ever had a problem once it’s gone – you might not get any recognition for helping!

(Extract from Angela’s article ‘Coaching with Metaphors’ – read in full here.) 

What to learn how to ask Clean Language questions? Join us for our online training programme on ‘Exploring Metaphors with Clean Language’ – starts on Weds 24th May, with 8 weeks of classes and reflection calls at various times. Click here for full details.