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Modelling Mysterious Power


The art and skill of modelling forms an intrinsic part of using Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling well. Some facilitators seem to have a natural ‘gift’ for it, yet a satisfying description of what makes a good modeller remains elusive. Modelling is certainly not a mystical process, yet it has a touch of the mysterious about it, hard-to-describe, yet tangible. I have found that my occasional forays into the translations of old Chinese texts have taught me things about modelling and working cleanly that conceptual descriptions have not.

Those of you who have attended our Clean Learning trainings may have heard us recite the short poem called ‘Acting simply’ that starts ‘True leaders are hardly known to their followers…’ It comes from a superb interpretation by Ursula K. Le Guin of the ancient Chinese classic Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu)*. You can find the poem at this link where it is the second one down on the page. It’s not hard to see the relationship between the characteristics of the ‘true leaders’ of the poem and those of a clean facilitator or coach.

Recently I’ve returned to the book and another poem has attracted my attention, called ‘One power’. This one speaks, I think, to another aspect of using Clean Language, that is, modelling and pattern spotting. I found it harder to get into at first; it took a few readings before I recognised what had attracted me to it..

Before I come to that, here’s the original short poem:

One power

Once upon a time
those who ruled according to the Way**
didn’t use it to make people knowing
but to keep them unknowing.

People get hard to manage
when they know too much.
Whoever rules by intellect
is a curse upon the land.
Whoever rules by ignorance
is a blessing on it.
To understand these things
is to have a pattern and a model,
and to understand the pattern and the model
is mysterious power.

Mysterious power
goes deep.
It reaches far.
It follows things back,
clear back to the great oneness.

‘Tao Te Ching’, Lao Tzu, interpr. Ursula K.Le Guin

One of the hard things about reading ancient texts is that they are written by an author who lived in a very different time and context to us. Making sense of the poems can be hard for an interpreter who is some 2500 years younger than the poem. Despite Le Guin doing an amazing job in bringing this old text forward in time and displaying its relevance to today’s world, all the talk about rulers and keeping the people ignorant seems very unfashionable now.

Yet, after a few goes at reading it, I started to recognise in the poem what had drawn me to it: the parallels that I could see between Clean Language modelling and the ‘mysterious power’ of the poem.

Rather than write conceptually about my interpretation, I thought I would be cheeky and rewrite it specifically for the context of a facilitator with a client (I use the word ‘coach’ in my version because it’s shorter than ‘facilitator’) and also that of a client with him/herself. I have found this easier to do than writing ‘about’ my experience of it. I make no claim to artistry with my clumsy version; still, it does capture for me some of the essence of what working cleanly can mean for the coach and the client.

These days
those who coach others cleanly
don’t try to make themselves knowing
but work within the unknowing.

Coaches find it hard to coach
when they have too much need to know.
Whoever coaches by intellect
is a distraction for the client.
Whoever coaches through not knowing
is a resource for him or her.
To understand these things
is to recognise a pattern and a model in the self,
and when self understands the pattern and the model,
there is mysterious power.

Mysterious power in self
goes deep.
It emerges from the client, from the system.
It reaches out.
It follows things back,
clear back to the great oneness.

Paraphrased by Phil Swallow
(with heartfelt apologies to Ursula K. Le Guin and ancient Chinese authors everywhere and everywhen)

What emerged for me from this exercise was:

  • The ‘mysterious power’ in self-knowledge comes from the client, not the process or the facilitator.
  • A facilitator taken with their own need to understand and ‘know’ can make it hard for a client to process.
  • Even asking ‘what do you know?’ or ‘what does this space know?’ imposes the tyranny of ‘knowing’ upon the client.


*Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, interpr. Ursula K. Le Guin, Shambala Press, 1997, ISBN 1-57062-333-3

**the ‘Way’ is a fundamental yet paradoxical metaphor in the Tao Te Ching; ‘hard to grasp’ as the book itself says. Wikipedia describes the Way as having ‘special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnameable process of the universe.’ As soon as someone tries to describe it, you can be sure that’s not it, so I won’t try! Happily, understanding the Way is not critical to appreciating this short article.

Photo by Johny Goerend on Unsplash

About Phil Swallow

Phil Swallow's avatar

Phil has worked closely with leaders in the developing field of clean approaches, both in UK and France, as experienced facilitator, co-trainer and assessor. He wishes David Grove could be here now to know the spread and development of his original ideas worldwide.

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