Symbolic modeling is a therapeutic and coaching process developed by psychotherapists Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, based on the work of counselling psychologist David Grove. Using Grove's clean language, a progressive questioning technique using clients' exact words, the facilitator works with a client's self-generating metaphors to clarify personal beliefs, goals, and conflicts, and to bring about meaningful change. Because of its reliance on emergence and self-organization it has been called a "post-modern oriented therapeutic approach".
The practice of symbolic modeling is built upon a foundation of two complementary theories: the metaphors by which we live, and the models by which we create. It regards the individual as a self-organizing system that encodes much of the meaning of feelings, thoughts, beliefs, experiences etc. in the embodied mind as metaphors. Symbolic modeling aims to heighten awareness of clients' personal "symbolic domain of experience", facilitating them to develop a unique "metaphor landscape" and to explore their internal metaphors, which in conceptual metaphor theory are seen to govern behavior.
The symbolic modeling process guides the client through an exploration of the client's own metaphors, their organization, interactions, and patterns. These embodied metaphors can restrict a client's ways of viewing the world and his or her coping strategies, due to the inner logic prescribed by the metaphors. Without shifting these metaphors, lasting change may be difficult, as the embodied mind may continue to work within the constraints of this old paradigm. Through the facilitation, the client can discover how these metaphors can change to meet their desired outcomes, transformative shifts can occur within a client's "metaphor landscape", bringing about meaningful change on cognitive, affective and behavioral levels.
Symbolic modeling proceeds through five defined stages, as follows:
- Stage 1: Entering the symbolic domain
- Stage 2: Developing symbolic perceptions
- Stage 3: Modeling symbolic patterns
- Stage 4: Encouraging transformation
- Stage 5: Maturing the evolved landscape
Clean language is used throughout, to avoid contaminating or distorting the developing metaphor landscape through the form, content or presentation of the therapist's questions.
A more structured subset of the above process called symbolic modeling lite is used in coaching:
- Phase 1: Set up
- Phase 2: Identify a desired outcome
- Phase 3: Develop a desired outcome landscape
- Phase 4: Explore effects of desired outcome landscape
- Phase 5: Mature changes as they occur
- Phase 6: Set down
While therapy and coaching are the primary application areas of symbolic modeling, researchers have started to apply the method to metaphor research, game design, problem solving, and as a qualitative research methodology.
- Nehyba & Lanc 2013
- Lakoff & Johnson, 1980
- Lawley & Tompkins, 2000
- Needham-Didsbury, 2012
- Martin, 2007
- Lawley & Tompkins, 2000
- Lawley & Tompkins, 2011
- Doyle & McDowall, 2015
- Rees & Manea, 2016
- Robinson, 2012/2013
- Akbari, 2013
- Rusch, 2017
- Groppel-Wegener, 2015
- van Helsdingen & Lawley, 2012
- Tosey et al., 2014
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- Lawley, J & Tompkins, P (2011). Chapter 4 of Innovations in NLP: Innovations for Challenging Times, L.Michael Hall & Shelle Rose Charvet (eds.) Crown House Publishing. ISBN 9781845907341
- Lawley, J & Tompkins, P (2000). Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling: London: The Developing Company Press ISBN 9780953875108
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- Needham-Didsbury, I (2012). The Use of Figurative Language in Psychotherapy, University College London, Working Papers in Linguistics 2012, pp. 75–93. /psychlangsci/research/linguistics/publications/wpl/12papers/needham
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- Rees, J. & Manea, A.I. (2016). The Use of Clean Language and Metaphor in Helping Clients Overcoming Procrastination. Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy 19(3): 30-36. jep.ro/images/pdf/cuprins_reviste/75_art_5.pdf
- Robinson, F. (2012/2013). How does exploring metaphorical representations of organisational change at its best affect levels of well-being in an ambiguous and rapidly changing public sector work environment? Paper presented to The Third International Neuro-Linguistic Programming Research Conference, Hertfordshire University, 6–7 July 2012. A precised version appeared in Acuity No. 4, 2013, available at: cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/332/
- Rusch, D. C. (2017). Making Deep Games – Designing Games with Meaning and Purpose. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group.ISBN 9781138812130
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- van Helsdingen, A. & Lawley, J. (2012). Modelling Shared Reality: avoiding unintended influence in qualitative research, Kwalon: Journal of the Netherlands Association for Qualitative Research. Vol 3, October. academia.edu/attachments/30371322/ translated from the original Dutch version https://www.tijdschriftkwalon.nl/inhoud/tijdschrift_artikel/KW-17-3-43/