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Headless Chicken Gets to See the Big Picture


By Marian Way and Wendy Sullivan

First presented as part of the 2nd Integral NLP Conference in Glastonbury, June 2005.

Have you ever felt you were behaving like a headless chicken, or as though you were under a big black cloud; have you suffered from jangling nerves or painful tension in your neck and shoulders?

If you are one of the estimated five million people in this country who suffer from work-related stress, it’s likely that you can relate to one of these symptoms, or if not, you can list one or, more likely, several of your own. If you work as a therapist or counsellor, you’ll be very familiar with the signs of stress.

We all know that a healthy diet, enough sleep and regular exercise are great ways to minimise stress – but when there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it, the prospect of finding the time to eat well, to relax, and to exercise only adds to the pressure we’re under. This is true of other physical symptoms too, where we fail to do what we know would help. And so the symptoms just carry on – or get worse….

Given that people often don’t act on what they cognitively know would be good for them, we decided to approach the subject from a different and very powerful angle, harnessing the way we are hard-wired to think – i.e. by making use of metaphor.

Jangling Coins

One of Marian’s stress symptoms was jangling nerves… “I would wake up the day after a long work-day and it was as though there were coins at the end of every nerve in my body, banging up against my skin and banging into each other and jangling loudly, leaving me without the energy I needed to function properly that day.” The exploration of this metaphor resulted in its transformation from jangling coins within the body, into a visualisation – outside the body - of the word ‘JANGLING’ made of the same coins. This picture now comes to mind whenever Marian is working at a fast, overactive pace, using up energy at a time of day when she should be slowing down. “Now ‘jangling coins’ have a useful function – they remind me that it’s time to stop work, so I can have energy for more than one day at a time.”

A Mat of Hooks

Wendy’s described her symptom as… “Like having a mat of hooks across my back, all interlinked, and so difficult to undo.” They shrunk that area of her back, which pulled on the area around them, puckering it and hurting. In her exploration, she realised that the hooks wanted to rest - and with this realisation, she found herself no longer sitting in her chair, but lying down, resting!

We’d begun our explorations with one person asking the other, “Your stress symptom is like what?” before turning our attention to what the desired outcome might be.

We noticed some similarities between our metaphors: both transformed into an early warning system that allows us to notice / act on stress before it results in the symptoms that we identified, and both our metaphors involved metal. While this is certainly not universal, it is interesting given the original use of the word ‘stress’ related to an external force that produced an effect in metal, either distorting it or putting a strain on it.

Some more typical definitions of stress these days might be:

  • Anything that makes you tense, angry, frustrated or unhappy. (Wilkinson)
  • Stress level = potentially stressful events + response to the event(s) + significance of the events to us. (Wilkinson)
  • Stress occurs when pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope. (Cooper & Palmer)

Research commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive indicates that:

  • Stress is reportedly the second most common form of work-related ill-health conditions (after musculoskelatal disorders).
  • Nearly 1 in 5 of all working individuals think their job is very or extremely stressful.
  • 12.8 million working days a year are lost to stress
  • In 2003-04, nearly two thirds of a million people reported work stress at a level that was making them ill.

These findings seem to be reflected in our experience when we’ve asked groups of people if they have experienced stress in the last week. Typically at least half, and often far more, say that they have.

Of course this is not scientifically rigorous: each person has a different, personal understanding of what stress is, and what they want instead of stress: for example

My stress symptom is / is like…

What I want….

A phone ringing and ringing

To be surrounded by quietness

I am shut in a box

To be out in the open, with the box put away behind me

A twisted neck

My head to be poised, easy breathing

Agitation (said with flapping hands)

To be able to breathe

Pulling a very heavy weight with no end point

Seeing the end point and the weight becoming less heavy so it can be pulled more quickly (this person spoke very slowly as she explored the heavy weight and pulling it)

Black clouds coming down, enclosing me

Warm, clear light in my heart and the sun to be shining

Violent explosions of garish colours

Pastels, slowly moving like a lava lamp

A headless chicken in my mind

To see the big picture

Tunnel vision, and things in vision either changing too fast or too slowly

See for miles, with wide fields to either side

I cannot sleep


The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. (Lakoff and Johnson)

So when we say ‘I am buckling under the pressure’, ‘I ran around like a headless chicken’ or ‘I’m under a cloud’ we are using metaphors.

According to Lakoff and Johnson, we have no choice but to think and speak metaphorically. Just as there are some things in the world we can only experience by seeing them, and others by touching or hearing, there are some things we can only experience through metaphor. “ Because we reason in terms of metaphor, the metaphors we use determine a great deal about how we live our lives.”

So metaphors are not just random collections of words used to describe our experience; there is a fundamental mind-body connection involved. Our metaphors come from how we experience the world physically, and they affect how we behave in the physical world.

Hejmadi and Lyall state that they have used their process called Autogenic (self-generated) Metaphor Resolution successfully with many stress-related illnesses including cases of allergies, colitis, endometriosis, migraine, and Raynaud’s disease and even helped to stabilize cases of rheumatoid arthritis and multiple scherosis. They point out that:

“It is estimated that 50 to 80 per cent of all physical illnesses requiring medical attention are stress-related or functional in nature.”

If clients benefit from exploring their own self-generated metaphors, then facilitators’ metaphors have no place in those explorations. But people – including facilitators – use metaphor unconsciously, so how can they keep those metaphors ‘out’ of the interaction and let clients focus fully on their self-generated metaphors? The approach known as ‘Symbolic Modelling’, developed by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, provides a perfect solution to this dilemma. It makes use of ‘Clean Language’ questions (developed by David Grove) which are as free of obvious metaphor as possible to enable the client to generate and learn from their own metaphors. The facilitator uses a limited number of questions, customising them by slotting in words and phrases (or gestures, sounds etc.) that the client has used. The questions direct the client to different aspects of their experience, and from the learning that happens, conditions are set up that are conducive to change / transformation.

This approach can be used as a stand-alone process or can be integrated with other counselling and therapy approaches.

The Clean Language questions that are used most frequently are listed below. The questions are grouped according to the aspect of experience that the question draws the client’s attention to.

The 12 Clean Language Questions of David Grove

Develop the metaphor

And what kind of x is that x?
And is there anything else about x?

And where/whereabouts is x?

Ask for a metaphor
And that’s x like what?

Relationships between symbols
And is there a relationship between x & y?
And when x, what happens to y?


And what happens just before x?

And then what happens/What happens next?

And where could/does x come from?

Desired outcome
And what would [you/symbol] like to have happen?

Conditions that are necessary for change
And what needs to happen for [outcome]?
And can [condition happen]?

x’ and ‘y’ = the participant’s words.

How does a metaphor for stress transform into a potential resource for the client? As facilitators, we can’t make this happen but we know some of the conditions that make it more likely. So with these in mind, and in keeping with NLP’s focus on outcomes rather than problems, we direct the client to pay attention to their desired outcome, and to the desired outcome of the stress metaphor.

We therefore do not start with an in-depth exploration of the stress metaphor (we can come back to it if necessary – and it often isn’t necessary). Once the client has told their story and we’ve given them a brief opportunity to do some self-modelling of the stress symptom, we direct the client’s attention to their desired outcome.

For example:

  1. Client: My life has ground to a halt
  2. Facilitator: And your life has ground to a halt. And when your life has ground to a halt, is there anything else about ground to a halt?
  3. Client: It is like I am on a wagon and the wheel is not secure and sooner or later it will collapse.
  4. Facilitator: And a wagon and wheel not secure. And what kind of wagon is that wagon?
  5. Client: It’s got four wheels and is going along in a rut. But one wheel is coming off its axle.
  6. Facilitator: And when a wagon with four wheels in a rut and one wheel coming off its axle – what would you like to have happen?

As well as asking the client, ‘And what would you like to have happen?’, we ask: ‘And what would [stress symbol] like to have happen?’ This last question honours the NLP presupposition that there is a positive intention behind every behaviour: while coins jangling on ends of nerves aren’t fun for the client, we assume that the coins have a positive intention for the client in doing this. In this instance, Marian’s coins were making all that noise in an attempt to get her to really listen to her body so that she didn’t use up several days’ worth of energy in one go.

Sometimes, having the opportunity to find out more about their desired outcome is all that is needed – many people have a tendency to focus on their problems, so they know much more about them than about their outcome. This lack of information about the outcome can mean they have no idea about what needs to happen to achieve it, and so they can never take the first steps towards it, and instead remain stuck in the status quo. Also, focusing on the outcome helps them to get into a better state, which will support them in finding out how to get what they want. In contrast, a thorough exploration of stress is likely to leave the client feeling stressed, and this is not the best state from which to improve the situation.

Once the client knows more about what they would like to have happen, we direct their attention to what needs to happen to reach their outcome, and check that these conditions can be met, or help them to model what needs to happen to achieve the conditions. The end of the session is not the end to any transformation of the client’s metaphors: there are often further developments after the session. After resting for some weeks, Wendy’s hooks discovered that they could fill a useful function by transforming into a thin metal wire running through her body, to provide the power and strength of a sportsperson, on their mettle(!), ready to meet the challenge of their sport – and for this to happen, she needed to exercise. And can she exercise? Yes, and she is exercising. How could you apply this? As well as using this process with stress, it can be used with any other physical symptoms, and also with non-physical issues. Indeed some counsellors and therapists use this approach exclusively in their work and it is also widely used by coaches. More broadly, since Clean Language is an ‘honouring, affirming and facilitatory language’ (Lawley and Tompkins), it has a place in a multitude of conversational interactions – anywhere that clear communication is important.

References, Reading and Websites

Cooper, C. & Palmer S. ‘Conquer your Stress’, 2000, CIPD

Health and Safety Executive website: http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/index.htm

Hejmadi, AV. & Lyall, PJ. Autogenic Metaphor Resolution in Bretto, C. et al. (eds.) ‘Leaves Before the Wind’, 1991, Grinder, DeLozier & Associates

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. ‘Metaphors We Live By’, 2003, Univ. of Chicago Press

Lawley, J. & Tompkins, P. ‘Metaphors in Mind’, 2000, The Developing Company Press

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley’s website: http://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk

Wilkinson, G. ‘Understanding Stress’, 1997, Family Doctor Publications

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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