What is Symbolic Modelling?

Elena Ray

What is Symbolic Modelling?

This article first appeared in the magazine “Therapy Network” in march 2009:

The first time I talked to a symbolic modeller we were just a few questions in to the session and I was struck by the strange realisation that I was talking to someone who could actually hear me. Possibly for the first time ever. This was strange because in all but the most one sided of conversations the person with whom you are talking can surely hear you? True, but this was something different. It was as if the images in my head and the feelings in my body, the ones that I chose to talk about, were visible to my facilitator, there in the room. There were no misunderstandings, only a steady growing understanding and deepening awareness. As we talked my internal reality overflowed out into the room with bright colourful dreamscape of symbols taking their places and my understanding of the issue that I was working with growing still. I found that I could work easily with aspects that were difficult to talk about in any other way, with a dark and brooding castle representing one uncomfortable aspect of the issue and a swirling sparkling stream of energy representing another aspect that had always been too complex to express in ordinary words.

And then, when the time was right and the situation ready, everything changed. The symbols transformed and my reality with it. The swirling streams of energy flowed through the castle gates and the castle came to life, bright and shining with stars and sparkles shooting to the sky from the tallest towers. When I left the session my world was changed for the better and I, as a NLP master practitioner and hypnotherapist, knew I had found the way that I had been searching for to facilitate growth for clients without imposing a solution. Why? Because in all of this my facilitator had not given me a single instruction, a single suggestion, judgment, piece of advice or imperative. The power of the technique had been that he had simply been curious about me. This meant that every aspect of the session and every aspect of the resolution had been generated by me and fit with absolute precision. This was such a rewarding, satisfying feeling that I was moved deeply to share it with my clients.

So what was behind all of this, why is symbolic modelling so powerful and significant? In a word, metaphor. There is a growing academic awareness of the role of metaphor in human experience. Thinkers such as Steven Pinker are starting to point out what many people know intuitively, that our metaphors are not a simple add-on to our language but rather a rich and significant representation of our experience. Metaphor is quite literally the stuff of thought. By being curious and attentive to our metaphors the symbolic modeller brings them to life in the room and is able to join in the developing awareness of how a complete system surrounding any issue works. Of course, it is not a simple as simply asking about metaphors. As David Grove, the late psychotherapist and founder of this way of working soon discovered, metaphors tend to be fleeting ephemeral things, and ordinary English language is so replete with them that even the most ordinary questions can be enough to nudge any emerging metaphor back out of awareness. In order to work successfully with a client’s metaphors David realised that the facilitator must tread with the lightest of step through the client’s landscape, remaining both fully present and essentially invisible at the same time. To make this possible, David developed a set of questions which he called clean questions. These are the relatively few questions of the English language which are free from any presupposition or metaphor beyond that there are things, there is time and space, and some things in time and space relate to other things. These clean questions became the poetic language tools of the symbolic modeller, sparking the magic that enables the client’s words to naturally and comfortably unfold the issue.

So why did the landscape change in the symbolic modelling session? What happened to make things different? Now, this is something that will not surprise many holistic therapists. Our system is designed to work ceaselessly towards health and growth. It does the best that it possibly can with any situation at hand. When a situation in which we are limited or stuck is given the nurturing light of awareness options open and reorganization becomes free to happen. As change happens the metaphor symbols change, and as the metaphor symbols change, real world changes happen exactly in step.

So, in summary, symbolic modelling is a powerful, elegant and profoundly respectful method for personal growth which can be used whenever we feel stuck or are facing problems. By working with the client’s own metaphors it creates profound change without being all about change and is suitable for any area where you may want clarity or movement. This makes symbolic modelling an elegant fit for anxiety, depression, relationship problems and dealing with a life changing situation such as divorce, retirement or redundancy. It is also powerful in a coaching setting for business development, achieving dreams and developing new skills. Symbolic modelling also works extremely well with long standing physical conditions to facilitate the changes that the condition requires for a return to health.

If you haven’t yet, I recommend that you try it. I think you’ll be surprised just where it takes you.

Everyone needs to tell their story,

and when you do everything changes.