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A is for Adjacency


What is it?

‘Adjacency’ is a term we use – in Symbolic and Systemic Modelling and in Clean Interviewing – to refer to what we (can) do with our attention and to where we invite our clients’ or participants’ attention when we are being clean.

On the whole, when we are using Clean Language, we want their attention to go next to where it currently is (or to where it has been earlier in the session). In a way, ‘going adjacent’ is a synonym for ‘being clean’.

What does the word 'adjacency' mean?

Adjacency is a noun meaning ‘The quality or state of being adjacent; nearness’. This derives from the adjective adjacent. When things are adjacent they are next to or near each other but do not necessarily touch. Things can be adjacent in someone’s physical space and also, by extension, in someone’s perceptual space.

Where does it come from?

The word adjacent is derived from the Medieval Latin for ‘lie at, border upon, lie near’.

It has two parts:

The latter in turn is related to iacere ‘throw, lay’.

The noun adjacentia (adjacency) in Medieval Latin meant neighbourhood.

A neighbourhood of questions

This must mean that things that are adjacent form a neighbourhood of sorts. Looking at the word in the context of clean from an etymological perspective, we might say that the basic clean questions have been thrown together by David Grove and form a neighbourhood of questions. (Of course, the word ‘thrown’ in this context is metaphorical. David actually spent several years carefully honing the questions.)

Illustration by Doris Leibold

And as long as we stick to using the client’s words, we might even turn that around and say they can be termed questions of neighbourhood. Asking a clean question of something a person said somehow always seems to take their attention adjacent to (i.e. next to) something that is already in their awareness. So even if you have not been aware of the concept of adjacency in Clean Language up until now you will have made use of it whenever you have asked someone a clean question. And if you ask a question of something that is not adjacent to what is in the client’s awareness (i.e. you bring in something they have not mentioned) you are likely to move into unclean territory. You are leading and taking their attention somewhere else.

Illustration by Doris Leibold

Adjectives and adjacency

Interestingly, the prefix ad in the words ‘adjacent’ and ‘adjective’ share the same Latin roots (ad ‘to, near, at’) and both are also related by their ending words (adjective from iacere ‘to throw, lay’; adjacent from iacēre ‘to lie, rest’). In a sentence, an adjective (a word that describes a noun, such as blue, happy, dry, soft…)  is most often next to a noun (blue tractor, happy child, dry wood, soft pillow).

In an email conversation with James Lawley I discovered that David Grove had:

“long been interested in adjectives. His interest in adjectives increased when he discovered the root of the word: throw to, fling at, throw to, place near. Later he became interested in ‘edges’ and then, while developing Clean Space, adjacent spaces, those ‘lying next to’ each other.”

So while the concept of adjacency is used in other fields (such as mathematics, network theory, design, medicine, to name but a few), it entered the clean lexicon through David Grove’s exploration of adjectives. Penny Tompkins and James Lawley saw the value in the concept and generalised it in their article Proximity and Meaning where they also formulate ways of working with adjacency.

Thinking about adjacency...

If you take a moment to notice what is near you, you will become aware that adjacency is a fact of life: we do not exist in an empty void but rather in a context of other things and beings. Look a little closer still and you may notice adjacency is a relational thing: one thing is adjacent to another. A pen might be adjacent to a book, a cup adjacent to a hook, a chair adjacent to a table. Like the word ‘next’, adjacent always goes with the word ‘to’.

The American poet Jorie Graham suggests that adjacency creates a glow of meaning. When trees are adjacent to each other in a certain way, we may get the meaning ‘forest’ or ‘clearing in a forest’. If you change the quality of nearness of the things in your physical space you may create order from perceived chaos. Add some flowers and you might even create an inviting space.

Why is it important?

Changes in adjacency can bring new meaning to things that exist in a physical form. Likewise they can bring new meaning to things that exist in non-physical form, such as thoughts in your head or experiences. Something perceived as a problem, for example, may suddenly change its meaning to ‘resource’ when changes in adjacency occur.

How can you ‘go adjacent’?

Adjacency is not just something that describes what is and something that clean facilitators attend to, it is something they do. ‘Going adjacent’ is at the heart of being clean. Choosing a word and asking a clean question of that word is respectful curiosity in action.

In a Symbolic Modelling session there are two things that can go adjacent:

  1. The client’s attention
  2. The facilitator's attention

The client's attention can go adjacent to where it currently is (or where it was previously in a session) while the facilitator's attention can go adjacent to where the client’s attention is/was AND to where their own attention is.

Are you following so far?

The thing is, to be really useful to a client, we not only need to go adjacent to where their attention is (if we keep doing this repeatedly, we can end up down a proverbial ‘rabbit hole’) – it can help to have one or more models in mind which are guiding our thinking. And to be really clear what you are trying to do with all this ‘going adjacent’.

For example, in our Core Skills training, where I’m on a personal journey of going adjacent from assistant to co-facilitator, we spend quite a bit of time on the idea that you can invite a client to develop a symbolic, embodied representation of a resourceful quality such as joy, integrity or patience.

Going adjacent, we may first establish the location of joy (in the heart, perhaps), then get a more specific location (in the centre of the heart). Going adjacent again we may ask about joy’s size or shape and discover it’s like a fountain. In only three ‘going adjacent’ questions the client’s attention has switched from a conceptual word ‘joy’ to an embodied experience ‘fountain in my heart’. Further clean (adjacent) questions will deepen and enrich this experience.

In Systemic Modelling the idea of ‘going adjacent’ is expanded further. Not only are there more models to bear in mind, but there are more people (and all their attentions) too. Now it’s important to not only invite one individual to ‘go adjacent’ to something that’s happening within their own system, we also need to take the other group member’s attention there with us. And ‘going adjacent’ can also mean asking the same (or similar questions) of other people. Now we know your metaphor for joy, let’s find out about the person next to you. 

Examples of going adjacent

  • Asking a clean question of something someone said. This builds a metaphor landscape in Symbolic Modelling.
  • Asking a question that takes someone’s attention adjacent in relation to a model e.g. going from inference to evidence or asking ‘Who’s different’? This builds a network of attention in Systemic Modelling.
  • Directing someone to ‘find another space’, thereby inviting them to quite literally and physically go adjacent and gain insights in space. (Clean Space, in a way, is the ultimate ‘going adjacent’ process.)

What now?

Next time you are facilitating, hold the idea of adjacency in mind. Ask questions to deliberately invite your client’s attention to go adjacent to where it is now. Also notice their responses.

Just because we invite adjacency, doesn’t mean their attention won’t wander off into a new neighbourhood. Now what do you do? Go adjacent in the new neighbourhood, or bring it back to the old one?

  • How are you deciding?
  • What role do the models you’ve learned play in your decisions?
  • How about the client’s desired outcome?
  • If you’re facilitating Systemic Modelling, what additional considerations are there?
  • How does it work for you in Clean Space?

Related courses

About Doris Leibold

Doris Leibold's avatar

Doris has trained in Clean Language, Symbolic and Systemic Modelling and is currently working towards her ACC level of certification with the International Coach Federation (ICF). She delivers Clean trainings and workshops in German and runs a monthly Clean Circle in Munich where she holds space for an open group to experience Clean Language by way of exploring common values and approaches to life.

With a background in non-violent communication and mediation as well as plenty of experience on the drama triangle, she is passionate about sharing tools and strategies that enable people to stay empowered in difficult situations and make decisions that are in line with their values.

Clean Language for her is like the master key to all of life’s questions, unlocking access to the next level of knowing. She loves to show others how they can use this key in their own life to their own benefit.

Doris hosts our 1-hour Clean Language Tasters together with Karrie Shield as well as our series of A-Z conversations.

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