By Michael Laffey


In this chapter I want to create a greater appreciation of the metaphoric space we use. My understanding of how insightful metaphors can be comes from three linked strands of psychotherapeutic work originated by David Gove and continued by Penny Tomlinson & James Lawley following his death.

These three strands are:

  • Clean Language
  • Symbolic Modelling
  • Rich Pictures

These tools allow us to define connections in our thinking which may previously have been unappreciated. By working within a metaphoric landscape thoughts rise from the depths of the subconscious mind to the present conscious mind. Once in the conscious mind we can take greater control of our choices and actions.

Working with a client for the first time, I often liken the experience of working with metaphors to “playing in the sandpit”.  It’s a safe place in which to explore and not get hurt. Somehow metaphors exist in a neutral space between the client and the coach. Whatever the client describes as happening in their metaphoric space often appears to sit outside their personal space. This safe space between the client and the coach allows observation and commentary without the personal sense of attached emotions.

A life coach is not there to direct the client. All sessions are client led. The role of the coach is to facilitate clarity of thought and purpose

Metaphors can be highly informative, allowing us to think complex thoughts and experience conceptual meanings more easily.

Every metaphor we conjure has a special place in the mind’s eye where its role is to hold an inner wisdom and deeper understanding collected by the unconscious mind which is not yet fully recognised by the conscious.

What is Clean Language?

Clean Language is a specific questioning technique. Its particular quality is about removing any inference or assumed interpretation by a coach as part of the dialogue between coach and client. All references are held within the client’s own space, paying particular attention to the words they use and playing those back.

Clean Language has taught me that most inter-personal feedback carries with it some inference or interpretation by the listening party, whether that is in the words, structure or intonation.

To mitigate this influence Clean Language proposes a rigid set of questions utilising specific phrases. There is no set sequence to the questions themselves. That is left to the coach’s judgement. The key thing is that when the appropriate question is asked it is asked in the proper way so that the client stays within their own untainted space. Hence Clean. Hence Language.

I have found that Clean Language works well with people who are visually creative. The questioning often uses the word “like” to elicit a comparison or a more detailed explanation of what the client says – for example, “and ‘to feel free’ is like what?”. The ability to establish a metaphor happens more readily in this way, and it is important for the coach to recognise when metaphors materialise and then explore using Clean Language if the client is in agreement.

Clean Language either focuses on a particular aspect of a metaphor or expands attention to other parts of it.

When Focusing

These questions are designed to elicit detailed information about the metaphor:

  • “What kind of (to feel free) is that (to feel free)” – to gain detail
  • “Is there anything else about (to feel free)” – to develop awareness
  • “That (to feel free) is like what” – we’re starting to encourage a metaphor
  • “And does (feel free) have a shape or size?” – scaling the outcome or issue
  • “Whereabouts is (to feel free)” – to locate a space either within or outside of the client

When Expanding Attention

These questions are tailored toward the client becoming aware of what’s adjacent to their current thoughts. Becoming aware of what is around a thought, a situation or an outcome can be influential in extracting more detail about the central issue as well as its overall context.

  • “What happens just before (xxx)”
  • “Then what happens?”
  • “And is there a relationship between (client’s word xxx) and (client’s word yyyy)”
  • “And when (client’s word xxx) what happens to (client’s word yyyy)”

Mapping Scale

Using the metaphor to map scale fuels the senses and defines the metaphoric space, enabling the client to appreciate a sense of scale. Scale is immensely relevant within the Clean Language metaphoric landscape. Scale can define the duration of time or the sense of distance to a goal. Scale tracks our progress. It can re-define the size or magnitude of previously perceived hurdles – are they bigger or smaller than we thought they were?  Through scaling there is an ability to maintain a strong motivating link with the desired outcome.

Symbolic Modelling:  Exploring Parts to Find the Whole

“No man steps into the same river twice for it is not the same river and he is not the same man” ~ Heraclitus

The purpose of a model is to gain a simplified yet detailed enough appreciation of how something works. As we work our way around that model a greater understanding of its synergistic parts emerges.

Within the worlds of Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling this is referred to as Emergent Knowledge because we gain greater insight from constantly re-assessing what we “know now”. We take stock of our situation with every increase in information and knowledge. Hence the quote from Heraclitus.

Symbolic Modelling allows us to review and question the connections between the different metaphors held within the model of their entire situation. A different metaphor may exist for each emotion, action and situation.

Our habits emerge through the way we think and act on a regular basis, becoming a complex network and system which we live by on a daily basis.

Sometimes these thoughts and habits can hold us back from the very change we seek. These negative thinking patterns are referred to within Clean Language as “binds”.

When working within a metaphorical landscape issues which bind someone may resolve themselves through a further metaphor which eventually unlocks the negative thinking pattern. This is referred to as the redemptive metaphor, for example:

  • Bind: “I’m so tied up in knots”
  • Redemptive Metaphor: “I can unleash my talent and feel free”

This redemptive metaphor is a key component of change. It enables additional insight into the client’s situation, helping them to change and achieve their aim.

Rich Picture

A Rich Picture takes the systemic model of our metaphoric landscape from a mentally stored visual into a tangible drawing. It provides a blueprint of the system we view as our situation incorporating all of its supporting connections.

Here is an example of a Rich Picture that emanated from a coaching session about my health & eating habits.

Healthy Habits

Overall Context of My Rich Picture:

  • A review of my exercise & healthy eating regimes
  • I figured this amounted to an 80/20 situation which I represented with an 80/20 Pyramid
  • The question to myself was, “How do I make it 100%? That last 20% feels steep

Explanation of My Rich Picture:

  • The 80/20 split represents things I do:
  • 80% – increased activities, gym, swim, Pilates, eating healthier (the happy plate), having positive likeminded people around me.
  • 20% – eating badly (unhappy plate), stress, frustration, destabilisers

The waves symbolise:

  • Buoyancy underpinned by good habits and positive people
  • The tidal behaviour of habits, exercise & emotion. They each rise & fall
  • The left hand side of the triangle represents Emotion. The things that create a sense of wellbeing for me: music, good eating, learning. When I connect with them I maintain my positivity. Not associating with them creates sluggish & negative behaviour.
  • On the right hand side is a Sea of Action: the things I participate in and the people I surround myself with. Good feelings, positive outcomes, strength, health, flexibility, trust, support & growing knowledge

The arrows represent:

  • The rise and fall of the 80/20 tidal line
  • The two-way traffic of positivity & negativity and the self-perpetuation of whichever I allow to take hold


I went into the exercise thinking, “Why aren’t I doing more? How do I make it 100%?”. I came out of the exercise with a substantially different perspective:

  • Appreciating how much I had altered my habits and connections over the last 6 years
  • Greatly appreciating the pillars that support what I want in my life, who I want and the benefits I and others get from that
  • Drawing the images and connections in this way helped me realise there is far more positive than negative in the situation. A large step away from what my emotions were making me feel
  • The 20% which I took to be a struggle or the steepest part of the mountain to climb wasn’t so at all. It turns out to be the part where the skills and habits I’ve honed over the last few years come into play all the more. The application is technical rather than physical
  • Mapping out the Rich Picture allowed me to recognise that I know what works & when
  • When to deploy skills. How to maintain and connect to good habits. To be more intelligent about what I know and do. Simply doing isn’t enough. Understanding and recognising is key
  • Knowledge of my personal tides allows me to appreciate when they rise and fall. Knowing what helps to dam negativity. Embracing those aspects that boost productivity
  • I came away from this exercise calm and I had removed the frustration. I learnt how much is good and reversed the emphasis of what felt bad. I wasn’t lacking, I simply wasn’t applying in ways that benefitted me
  • I now keep this Rich Picture as an anchor and for quick referral when similar thoughts arise

Parting Words

Metaphors matter.

The connections of spaces, places, people, thoughts and learning constantly evolve. If we’re to encourage insight, then looking at evolutionary models within a client’s mindscape should be part of a non-directive approach with them. A constant process of observation, understanding and development, creating a more resourceful and robust pathway to where we want to be.

When I had created my own Rich Picture I felt I had not only constructed a blueprint of my situation, I was also able to connect with it instantly when I referred to it at other times. It made regaining the composite parts of a positive mindset much easier. It was like pressing a reset button.

As pure as I would like to be I have found that people can experience the Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling space as somewhat ethereal.  Clients who struggle with visual or sensory outputs can struggle. That’s why I also like Rich Pictures as they create and provide a tangible anchor point when needed.

Coaches have to trust the language and refrain from imposing their interpretation of the client’s internal world. That’s a hard skill to foster. It’s worth the effort. Allow the client space to hear their own thoughts.

References and Further Reading

Biographical Note

Michael is qualified life coach and a member of the National Council of Psychotherapists since 2012.  A holistic, system and integrative thinker, Michael appreciates that sometimes we have to be strategic and sometimes we need to buckle down and take action, albeit a step at a time.  Changes in his own life have involved deeply personal, relationship, career and location based choices. Understanding why these need to happen and working out approaches to attain them is how he can bring clarity to an unsettled situation.  His previous career spanned nearly twenty five years in the music industry culminating in running Operations for Europe, South East Asia and Japan.  Michael has back-packed for a year and a day and attained his Open University degree while holding down his day job.  He currently lives in Sussex overlooking the sea. Visit his website at



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