NLP, Clean Language, and into the unknown
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Published in ANLP’s Conference Special 4 April 2004
For the first 3 sessions of the day Penny Tompkins and James Lawley presented a ‘clean language’ approach to outcome oriented therapy / coaching. I had seen them for their ‘clean space’ taster at the autumn conference and was keen to learn more about the ‘clean’ approach.
When thinking of outcomes many NLP practitioners may be inclined to guide a client through a list of questions to ascertain a goal’s ‘well formedness’. While doing this we may also be holding in our minds the question ‘How is it that this person is not achieving this already? ‘in order to identify limiting beliefs, conflicts, etc to ‘zap’ with an NLP technique.
There is no doubt that this approach can yield great insights and results but isn’t always the smoothest of processes: ‘What do you mean “is it initiated and maintained by me?”‘ Perhaps these types of ‘lists’ are best kept in a therapist’s unconscious mind while they put their full conscious attention on the issue as the client is experiencing it.
Penny and James advocate a different approach – one that is not client centred (therapist is flexible with their approach to work with the client’s ego or sense of self) or solution centred (client fits in around the therapist’s chosen approach / metaphor for change) – but rather information centred.
Asking questions of the issue as it is perceived by the client it is genuinely honouring their model of the world.
The ‘clean language’ element is about the therapist using the simplest questions possible to draw out the client’s model without guiding them with presuppositions (which all come from the therapist’s model of the world). By continuing to ask questions of the outcome which is desired it is assumed that the client will gain sufficient understanding such that the boundary of the ‘problem’ will collapse – often without the need for a specific intervention. Entirely consistent with the principles of focusing on what you want and everyone having the resources within them to achieve the outcome they desire.
The session started with some distinctions. In response to the question ‘And what would you like to have happen’ the client will reply with an answer which may be classified as either a ‘Problem’, a ‘Proposed solution’ or a ‘Desired outcome’.
A problem is something which exists now and which the client does not like – e.g. ‘I’m annoyed I have a deck with only 51 cards’. A solution references the problem and what they think needs to
happen in the future – it also includes all ‘away froms’ – e.g. ‘I want to find the missing card’ or ‘I don’t want an incomplete pack of cards’. The desired outcome is what they want in the future instead – e.g. ‘I want to play a game of cards’.
When a client comes to see you with an issue their natural tendency is often to talk about ‘their’ problem. In traditional ‘therapy’ and counselling they may be encouraged to come back week after week to do this. This approach allows them to do this – once – and then gently guides them towards thinking about the solution (this is something that many clients may not have given much thought to before).
When the client talks about the problem the therapist asks ‘And when [repeat clients description of the problem], what would you like to have happen?’ If the client talks about a desired solution the therapist asks ‘And when [repeat client’s description of desired solution], then what happens?’
After one or 2 questions the client has shifted away from the problem and is thinking about what they want instead.
Once the client is thinking about their outcome it is ‘developed’ by asking questions like: ‘And is there anything else about …?’, ‘And what kind of …?’, ‘And whereabouts is …?’, ‘And that’s … like what?’
The therapist’s job is to ask the question which naturally flows from the client’s previous answer – opening up more understanding for them and making the outcome more and more alive in their neurology. The whole process is, as you can imagine, pretty free form at this point- sometimes looping back into a problem or solution.
The therapist keeps it on course and may reach a point when they can ask a question like ‘And when [outcome], what happens to [problem]?’
If the positive, resourceful state of the outcome is alive in the neurology this seems to me to act like a collapse anchors and, hey presto, the person experiences a change in their perception of the problem – right there and then.
If this all sounds complicated then the demo really brought it to life.
Our volunteer came to the stage with the outcome of wanting to sell some property. After a few questions it became clear that this was about much more than a house sale with some relationship issues coming up as a problem which prevented the outcome from happening. The emotion which went with these issues were clear in the client’s physiology – she was running the problem right there in the room.
In addition to the content it was interesting to note that certain directions of life, blocks, issues, etc had positions and directions in relation to the client as indicated by unconscious looks and gestures. These were noted and referred to by the therapist – further honouring of the client’s model of the world.
The session was short and interrupted by explanations (which allowed time for the client to come out of state) but it became clear how powerful the technique was to allow the underlying issues to surface and, therefore, facilitate change at a deep level.
Having a go ourselves we soon found that the identification of problem / solution / outcome was actually quite intuitive and that the questions started to flow quite easily. Though tempting to fall back on standard meta-model type questions like ‘what prevents you?’ sticking to the clean language provided surprisingly good results.
As James explained: he is constantly surprised by the answer to the next question. The trick, of course, is having an idea about the most effective question to ask next- something that James and Penny do very well and one which I think all NLPers in general should make a priority to develop.