Symbolic Modeling is the Clean Language methodology we teach at the Clean Language Institute.

Originally developed by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, and based on the work of David Grove, NLP and self-organizing systems theory, Symbolic Modeling is an extremely effective structure for using clean language questions in therapeutic work.

It is a highly versatile and powerful tool, compatible with most methods of psychotherapy and coaching.

Essentially, Symbolic Modeling combines three components, which we’ll explain in more detail below:

  1. The basic discipline of modeling.
  2. Clean Language, which is the specific tool used for modeling.
  3. Desired Outcomes, which give direction to the process.

In Symbolic Modeling, the facilitator uses “clean” questions to model a therapy or coaching client’s internal experience: our true workings, experiences, responses, and idiosyncratic metaphors.

Using the model of the client’s own internal experience enables the facilitator to help the client move towards the change they desire.

What is Modeling?

We use the term Modeling to describe a way of actively observing or describing something a person does, or a process they use, and using those observations to build a map or model of how they do what they do.

External Modeling might help us to understand a person’s activity, or a sequence of actions. However, Symbolic Modeling applies Internal Modeling, which is concerned with a client’s internal experience. You might understand it as attending to the context of what is happening, rather than the content.

We do that by creating a structure using the client’s own verbal and physical language, and particularly their own symbols and metaphors for how it is for them.

All human language and communication depend heavily on metaphor (describing one thing in terms of another) to convey meaning of complex ideas and experience. In fact, most people use as many as six metaphors per minute!

Symbolic Modeling is founded on the principle that the symbols a person happens to use provide the most effective mechanism to facilitating achieving that person’s desired outcomes.

The facilitator uses Clean questions to help the client to explore their own internal workings. In that way, two things happen…

  • The facilitator will build their own evolving model of the client’s workings, which they can relate back to the client’s own desired outcome.
  • The client will also develop the ability to model their own workings.

In this way, the client is gently guided toward a clear understanding of how they do what they do.

Whether in a therapeutic or coaching context, that understanding enables them to choose to make incredibly profound changes with ease.

What are Desired Outcomes?

Setting a desired outcome is an essential component of Symbolic Modeling. A facilitator will never suggest or impose a desired outcome on a client. It is essential that we use the client’s own outcomes, and acknowledge that they already possess the ability to reach the outcomes.