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Mastering the art of asking, “That’s … like what?”


Everyone who’s attended a Clean Language training – whether for Systemic Modelling, Symbolic Modelling or Clean Interviewing will have come across the question, “That’s … like what?”

Indeed, we start many of our trainings with a Clean Set Up which incorporates a form of this question into two of its three sections:

  • For this training to go just the way you’d like, it will be like what?
  • And for the training to go like that, you’d like to be like what?

We also often invite participants to develop their responses to questions such as “When you’re learning at your best, you’re like what?” or “When you’re coaching at your best, you’re like what?”

“That’s … like what?” was devised by David Grove as an invitation for the recipient to generate a metaphor that encapsulates their experience. David had recognised that metaphor provides a way in to someone’s inner world, a way to access to their unconscious structures – and that by asking clean questions to develop these metaphors, whole inner landscapes could evolve and change. And – most importantly – that the changes that take place within a client’s inner landscape are then reflected in their behaviour in their outer world when they leave the session.

“That’s … like what?” is an important and useful question within the Clean Language lexicon – and there are times when it’s not so useful, too, so in this post, I will be discussing its upsides and downsides

When is it useful?

Let’s start with when it IS useful. The Clean Set Up and ‘at your best’ examples I’ve already mentioned can be used in one-to-one coaching contexts – and they are particularly useful in group facilitation. If everyone in a group generates a metaphor for when they are learning at their best, and these are developed with a few clean questions, then it’s not only possible for group members to learn about one another’s learning styles, it also makes it easy for them to compare and contrast the various metaphors and notice patterns that people have in common, as well as differences that need to be taken into account. The fact that a metaphor fits a lot of information into a small package helps with this too. 

These questions also work well as training activities because activity starts with one person inviting a metaphor – and as long as the other takes up the invitation*, the trainee can then practice developing it; they don’t need to be able to ‘spot’ a metaphor within a whole discourse on a topic.

*Even though the intention of “That’s … like what?” is to invite metaphor, if we’re following Clean Language principles, it also has to be okay for someone to respond conceptually or by using sensory language. We need to accept and extend whatever response they give.

Within a one-to-one clean coaching / Symbolic Modelling session, “That’s like what” comes into its own when the client has already generated quite a bit of information about a symbol or about a particular context, but no metaphor has yet appeared.

A symbol is the smallest ‘unit’ within a metaphor. Examples of metaphors might be:

  • “It’s like I am climbing a mountain and I have gone off the beaten track.”
  • “There’s a block in the way of me moving forward.”
  • “I was like a rabbit in the headlights.”

Within each of these metaphors all the ‘things’ (nouns and pronouns) can be considered as symbols, as follows:

  • I, mountain, beaten track
  • Block, me
  • I, rabbit, headlights

In these examples, all the symbols already have names, but if a client doesn’t yet have a metaphor, we might well facilitate them to generate a metaphor by asking them to locate a particular feeling, then to notice its size/shape and then to ask, “That’s … like what?”. This way, we stay closer to their experience and gradually invite their attention towards metaphor, e.g.:

Client: I’m feeling confident
Coach: And whereabouts are you feeling confident?
Client: It’s in my chest.
Coach: Whereabouts in your chest?
Client: Right here, in the middle.
Coach: And when you’re feeling confident right here in the middle of your chest, does that feeling confident have a size or a shape?
Client: It’s bright and it’s glowing.
Coach: And it’s bright and glowing and it’s in the middle of your chest. And when it’s bright and glowing and in the middle of your chest, that’s bright and glowing … like what?
Client: Like a bright glowing shield.

Notice that the coach repeats the client’s words for the location (middle of chest) and the attributes (bright and glowing) of the emerging symbol a few times before asking, “that’s ... like what?” This is to give the client a chance to notice and fully experience what’s happening in their chest. Asking this question fairly slowly also increases the chances that the client will come up with a symbol, which can then be developed further.

Another time to use this question is when the client refers to an action that is obviously metaphorical but the metaphor doesn't seem complete, for example if someone says "I'm cracking down on that" we could say "And you cracked down on that and that cracking down is like what?" This will encourage the client to complete the metaphor, e.g. "Cracking down like a massive hammer smashing an egg."

The examples so far have been about inviting the client to complete a symbol or a metaphor when it is partially in place; and it could be that when a client is relaying a lot information about a particular context and how they or others are being/behaving in that context that is (so far) not metaphorical (or not obviously so). In this instance, we can summarise everything they have said, and test to see if a metaphor emerges by asking , “And when all of that, that’s like what?”

When isn't it useful?

Generally speaking, it is better to work with the metaphors that a client mentions naturally as they speak or to facilitate them towards metaphor by going adjacent (next to) their existing experience (as illustrated in the example above) rather than to ‘jump’ their attention from where it is by suddenly inviting a metaphor. Research (Pollio, 1997) has shown that, on average, people use six metaphors a minute, so it’s highly likely there’s no need to even go adjacent – the main job is to listen well and to be able to pick out the metaphors and develop them.

This leads us to the context when asking “That’s … like what?” is not so useful: when a client already has a metaphor. If we ask it now, then we are helping them to generate a metaphor for their metaphor. This can make things tricky for the facilitator (which one do we develop?) and can have one of three different sets of effects on coach and client:

  1. They don’t notice. In this case, they probably haven’t noticed their own metaphor, so the question doesn’t faze them. For example:
    Client: I just seem to work against myself.
    Coach: And you just seem to work against yourself. And when you're working against yourself that's like what?
    Client: It's like I’m stuck. I'm not flowing. I feel really tired, low in energy. It’s like a heavy weight on my shoulders, like a burden on my shoulders that I'm carrying around. And just feels like an upward struggle.

    Although the client hasn’t noticed, the coach now has to choose between several metaphors, when they could have just worked with the initial: “I seem to work against myself.” This added complexity can make things more difficult than they need to be.
  2. They do notice (e.g. they may look confused) and they answer anyway. For example:
    Client: It’s like I’m on a mountain and I’ve gone off the beaten track.
    Coach: And when you’re on a mountain and you’ve gone off the beaten track, that’s like what?
    Client: Uhh? Oh, it’s like I’m walking down a road towards my destination and then I take a left turn because I see something happening and after a few times doing this I am lost.

    This results in the same problem for the coach as above (more than one metaphor to contend with) and the client’s confusion about the question means their attention has temporarily moved from their own process and towards the coach’s process, which is the opposite of what we want to happen in a clean session.
  3. They do notice and they say so. For example:
    Client: It’s like I’m on a mountain and I’ve gone off the beaten track.
    Coach: And when you’re on a mountain and you’ve gone off the beaten track, that’s like what?
    Client: Uhh? It’s like I’m on a mountain and I’ve gone off the beaten track. (In an “I’ve just told you that” tone.)

    Again, the client’s focus on their own ‘stuff’ has been disrupted, but at least the coach has only one metaphor to deal with. (I always think that the client is doing the coach a favour when this happens.)

So while “That’s … like what?” can be immensely useful in eliciting metaphors when they haven’t naturally surfaced, it’s crucial to recognise situations where using it may not be beneficial, where asking it can lead to unneeded complexity and confusion. It’s also important to note that this complexity and confusion can be compounded if you ask this question repeatedly – you really don’t want a metaphor of a metaphor of a metaphor! Ultimately, mastering Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling involves working out when to employ “That's ... like what?' for maximum impact and when to allow metaphors to emerge organically.

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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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