Systemic Modelling learning curves

14 September 2023 by Jennifer

What I’ve been learning about recently – and some info about short free online events for anyone else who’s interested.

Way way back in 1997, I went to a taster event for Clean Language: how to ask questions which, as far as possible, don’t push your own baggage onto the other person, either accidentally or on purpose.

From that very first day, I thought the whole idea of it was really cool!

Over the years, I dipped into a few more courses to learn more, about how & when to deploy this stuff & what it’s useful for. But it’s one of those things that typically only gets taught in a few geographical locations in the UK – none of which was Nottingham :-) I didn’t do a lot of it, compared to what was available if I’d been willing to travel more often.

It was only at the start of 2022 that I discovered how much in that world was now happening online, including courses and practice sessions taking place on Zoom. I got interested again, and hopped back onto the learning curve.

What is Clean Language?

The other day, I was talking with a friend, and we were agreeing that “clean” is rather a loaded word! There’s “clean” as opposed to using illegal drugs, “clean eating” as opposed to “junk food” – and even the original meaning of “clean language” meant “not using rude words”. Potentially kind of a judgemental ambiance!

In this context, though, it means something more like: intentionally choosing language which isn’t carrying your own agenda or your own presuppositions. You might’ve already noticed: some phrases are more “open-ended” than others :-)

The two most classic and multi-purpose Clean Questions are:

  • Is there anything else about ______?

  • What kind of ______?

(The “blank” part in those sentences would always be something that the other person already said, so that you’re not “putting words in their mouth”.)

Even then, you’re still choosing which question to ask, and when exactly to ask it. Your agenda could still leak through via those choices if you’re not careful. But starting with carefully-chosen words can make an enormous difference.

Interestingly, one thing I’ve done a lot of over the years is Thinking Sessions, as developed by Nancy Kline. And the key question in a Thinking Session is also a “clean question”: “Is there anything more you think, or feel, or want to say about that?

So without really thinking about it in those terms, I had been practising a form of “Clean Language” at those times.

Where did it come from?

David Grove (1950-2008) was the originator of Clean Language, and then other people have learnt from him, built on his ideas, and adapted them for different contexts.

He became interested in traumatic memories and phobias and while working with Vietnam War veterans he realised that some of them couldn’t remember particularly traumatic events, but they would still have feelings about them. While observing very carefully what was happening, he noticed that, “If I didn’t force people when they were talking they would naturally start using metaphor to describe their experience.”

Even when the person couldn’t talk directly about what had happened to them, they could talk about the metaphor. Then when he and that person spoke in terms of the metaphor, it would often change in some way. And the changes in the metaphor could transfer across back to the real-life trauma, and have healing effects on it.

David also became interested in the use of questions in therapy. He analysed the questions major therapists like Virginia Satir and Carl Rogers used and noticed they would often amplify or redefine what their clients said. David thought that this ‘robbed’ the client of some of their experience and so began to look for questions that would be free of any presuppositions. He found that questions which ‘interfered’ with the client’s experience the least were in fact the most effective in bringing about change. Clean Language was created as a means of questioning clients’ metaphors in a way that neither contaminated nor distorted them.

Some of the questions which historically had been asked in therapeutic contexts, he was rejecting for, in a sense, carrying too much of “the therapist’s agenda”. Instead, he tried to develop and fine-tune questions which would be as respectful as possible of the unfolding of that person’s metaphors.

That was the beginnings of Clean Language, and the metaphor-landscape aspect of it is what we’d nowadays call Symbolic Modelling.

Into varied contexts

Since then, these skills haven’t stayed only in therapy-world. There are loads of contexts where it’s useful to be able to ask questions without accidentally injecting your own presuppositions into the conversation! For example,

  • If you’re enquiring into an accident or a crime, or doing research, you don’t want to “lead the witness” and warp your results.

  • If a friend is trying to think through a problem, it’s often more helpful to encourage their own ideas than to try to solve the problem for them.

  • If you’re at odds with someone, sometimes the apparent disagreement can be resolved by getting a better understanding of what they mean by a word they’ve used.

Systemic Modelling

Systemic Modelling, SysMod for short, is one of the offshoot things which built upon David Grove’s work. The most obvious differences from the original stuff are that it’s for groups, and that it’s for “ordinary” (non-therapy) situations, anywhere a group of people want to share ideas or collaborate more effectively.

As you can read in her book From Contempt to Curiosity, Caitlin Walker started thinking about how David’s ideas could be useful to the young people she was then working with: kids around 11 to 14 who were having difficult times and getting “into trouble”.

I wanted to find a way to hold the young people in the same space of acceptance, respect and curiosity, and to find a way that they could hold themselves and one another in that space too. [That is, the same kind of accepting space as David Grove would generate for working with one person.]

This wasn’t a therapy context: it was an educational one. And it wasn’t likely that most of the young people would want to sit quietly by while one of them went in-depth! So for the Clean Questions to be useful in that situation, there obviously had to be some practical differences from the one-to-one version.

Instead of following the trail of one person’s metaphor, Caitlin would ask similar questions to each person in the group, taking turns. This meant that, as well as understanding themselves better, the young people were also getting ideas from each other – a theme which remains central to Systemic Modelling to this day.

Stories from the book

One of the first things that first group did – because several of the young people had wanted this topic – was to model how each of them typically lost their temper.

For one, the metaphor was “I just switch”; for another, it was “I go red”, and for another, “everything just goes quiet”.

As the young people took it in turns to describe their experience, pretty soon they weren’t only noticing how they lost their temper: they were having ideas about what could help each of them to stay calm.

Once [the first child] had a strategy for managing his temper then they all wanted one. We set about finding the difference between one for someone who snaps and one for someone when things go quiet. These metaphor models acted as an amazing form of group learning. Each of the kids … started getting curious about how their anger worked.

… once we’d got the anger stuff sorted and the kids in both groups were a calmer unit, we could move on to the other themes they’d wanted to cover. … Just as with their models for anger, each kid developed and drew a metaphor map for when they were learning really well and again these went on the wall.

I realised how important it was that I’d started from a position of not knowing. If I’d started the sessions by asking Moses to control his temper or James to learn to read, then I would have given them the message that they weren’t good enough as they were.

[As the sessions went on:] They wanted to know how things worked and what could be done about them. They started using the tools outside of the sessions.

One boy explained to his teachers that he couldn’t manage crowds in the corridor and they agreed he could arrive at the class early and leave early so he could keep his state calmer.

One girl said that her teacher had said that her form group would never amount to anything and she’d asked “what’s your evidence for that miss?”


I could go on quoting more and more bits from Caitlin’s book, because it’s full of good stories. But for now I’ll just include one more, which is possibly my favourite:

There was a lovely point in my work with the girls’ group when I was rattling off instructions to the class and Mary Lou interrupted me.

Mary Lou: You’ve got to slow down, Miss. You’re talking too fast.

Caitlin: What do you mean Mary Lou? You talk faster than me.

Mary Lou: It’s not for me, it’s for Naomi. When she’s learning at her best she likes to get one idea like a pebble in a pond and then the ripples to settle, so she knows she’s got it. When you talk fast it’s like you’re throwing pebbles at her and she’s all over the place.

… The kids had moved from learners to facilitators and were now starting to advocate for one another’s needs.

I love that!

Anyway, that work was years ago now, and as well as continuing to support young people, Caitlin has been bringing Systemic Modelling skills to teams and organisations all over the place.

It’s evolved, but what’s stayed a constant theme is that people come together in a group of about 5 or 10 participants, share ideas about something, hear from others, and – if it’s an ongoing team – discover how to work better together.

Back to my own learning journey

Soon after I found out about the nowadays-online stuff, I had the chance to sample & enjoy a few SysMod sessions as a participant. Then I got interested in learning how to run the process myself.

Caitlin had plans for more books, and not enough time to write them all, so after various bits of conversation, we came up with a trade: my writing & co-writing skills, for the opportunity to be on some of her courses.1

Catching covid last autumn put a big dent in my activities for a while, mainly due to dysautonomia which limited my ability to stand up or sit up. But with a bit of ingenuity, the SysMod process-learning & practising turned out to be something I could do while horizontal! It took some experimentation to arrange the laptop, my notes and me :-)

Putting together the ingredients

As I started trying out the process, it turned out I did already have some of the ingredient-skills.

One ingredient is knowing a handful of Clean Questions, which I’d already practised on & off over the years.

(Behold a tatty piece of paper which I’d kept for many years. I think this was maybe actually from that first taster day in 1997! It shows a small set of Clean Questions which are recommended as good ones to learn early on.)

(alt text would be here)

Another ingredient-skill which I already had is keeping track of fair shares of time & attention in the group. I’d got in the habit of noticing that when running other group things, like discussions or social meetups or this other thing I invented called Unstick Your Creativity.

Among the things I didn’t already know were some new useful phrases (like the SysMod classic “Who’s got something different?“), and the overall structure of a Systemic Modelling session.

Another skill is sensing when’s a good time to invite the group to start asking questions of each other. This transition is important, because the idea in SysMod isn’t that the facilitator stays at the centre of the conversation: you want to be catalysing communication in a network all across the group.

To my great satisfaction, in June I got to Foundation level.

alt text

That means I have all the skills to run a basic SysMod session. Yay!

At Professional level, which I’m studying now, you learn a lot of other useful skills as well. For example, you might be using “evidence, inference and impact” to unpack any disagreements which come up in the group. You’d also be encouraging the participants to notice and learn the skills themselves, so they become more and more able to do the process without you.

Resources & opportunities

For anyone interested in the general area of “Clean”, there are quite a few good resources nowadays.

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, the first people to study and build on what David Grove was doing, have an abundantly rich web site with essays to read for free, as well as some paid-for courses and videos, and a book, Metaphors in Mind.

Several other people have written books: for example, Wendy Sullivan & Judy Rees’s Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds, Julie McCracken’s Clean Language in the Classroom, or Marian Way’s Clean Approaches for Coaches.

Marian and Caitlin host a friendly online space called the Clean Campus, where anyone can make an account, take part in conversations and find out what’s coming up. In fact, you can read quite a lot of that site without making an account.

There are often also free events to dip into online, and I’m going to tell you about a few of them now :-)

Three free taster events

What nudged me to get around to writing about all this is that several different online taster events are coming up next week, and I’m being Caitlin’s organisational assistant on one of them!

All three of these particular tasters are the same day, Monday 18 September 2023.

All three of them are one-hour sessions which are free to come to, and suitable for people who’ve never done any of this stuff before.

The one I’m assisting on is the one about masking – meaning how humans often learn to act as if we’re a bit different from how we really are, in order to fit in.

Even though it links with the theme of neurodiversity, you don’t have to be “officially neurodivergent” to come along. If you’ve been alive long enough to ever have needed to fit in with other humans somewhere, there’ll probably be some relatable stuff :-)

And you don’t need particular skills to be a participant in a SysMod group – just your own thoughts and experiences.

Each of the three topics is a taster for a related longer course, as well as for SysMod in general. At the same time, they’re each intended to be worthwhile as a stand-alone event.

These particular courses (and their tasters) aren’t optimised for learning how to do Systemic Modelling. They’re using a SysMod framework to explore the topics in the titles, so, for example, on the neurodiversity-themed one you’d be mapping out aspects of “how you work” and hearing a small group of other people do the same. If you want to learn how to run the sessions, then in the long run you’d want a different course. (But the tasters wouldn’t be a bad place to start, i.e. sampling it as a participant.)

Don’t worry if you don’t reckon you’d ever come to one of the paid courses, or if that could only happen if you got a lucky windfall. I know a lot of skint people, and I still want you to be able to try out these ideas if you want to!

To book onto one or more of the tasters, you’d have to RSVP on the event page. If you didn’t already have an account on the Clean Campus site, the RSVP button would prompt you to make one. Sorry about the bother of having yet another login and password!

Hope to see some of you there :-)

1. Co-writing: So at some point there might be a book with both our names on, as well! But that’s another story.

Appreciation, criticism & new ideas all welcome...

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