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Physicalising a Metaphor


In our trainings we often talk about encouraging clients to physicalise their metaphors - sometimes during a session and sometimes between sessions. ‘Physicalising’ means taking a metaphor and embodying it, making it ‘real’ - or as real as possible…

In our trainings we often talk about encouraging clients to physicalise their metaphors - sometimes during a session and sometimes between sessions. ‘Physicalising’ means taking a metaphor and embodying it, making it ‘real’ - or as real as possible.

Within a Symbolic Modelling session, this may mean that if someone is talking about standing on a riverbank we may invite them to stand up and find a place in the room to represent the riverbank - the edge of a rug maybe. Or if someone is talking about taking steps on a journey, we may invite them to stand up and take some steps, so that they get to have an embodied understanding of that metaphor rather than just talking about it.

At this point we may ask a few Clean Space questions such as:
When people’s bodies inhabit a spatial arrangement that closely responds to how it would be in real life, they tend to know more than if they are simply talking about their metaphorical landscape.

  • And what do you know here?
  • And is there anything else you know here about that river-edge?

Or. we can stay with regular Clean Language questions, such as:

  • And is there anything else about standing on the edge of that river?
  • And what kind of river is that river?
  • And when steps on a journey, where are those steps?

Of course, outside of a session, many more landscapes than the features available in our living or consulting rooms become available to the client. In my book, Clean Approaches for Coaches, I tell the story of Sue who doesn’t want to “spend my life on rock bottom in order to go to the opposite extreme”. Sue decides to embody her metaphor by taking a walk on the hill near my house, where she was able to experience ‘rock bottom’ and a ‘halfway house’ and the cliff-top’. While on the hill, she writes a story and when the walking and writing are complete and Sue comes back to resume her session, her metaphor landscape has transformed.

The physical and spatial nature of metaphor has always intrigued David Grove, the developer of Clean Language. When he and his wife Cei Davies-Lynn ran a retreat centre in the USA, it had a lake, a hill and a wood. If a client’s key metaphors corresponded to any of these, David would go with them to the equivalent physical environment to continue the therapeutic work there. By externalising their internal symbolic world, a client could experience changes they would be unlikely to have any other way.

All the metaphors I’ve alluded to so far are about standing in particular locations or moving through particular landscapes. In Clean Language sessions I am always alert to metaphors that involve standing, walking etc. but I don’t think I’ve given as much thought to other kinds of metaphors and how they might be physicalised…


However, just recently, I realised I have been physicalising one of my own metaphors, without really thinking about it…

My Clean Set Up

At the start of all our trainings we do a Clean Set Up for how we want the event to go:

  • For this training to go just the way you’d like, it will be like what?
  • For it to go like that, you’d like to be like what?
  • And what support or resources do you need?

In the role of trainer, I have done this activity many times, and although I sometimes have a new metaphor, I also have two or three metaphors which often come to mind:

  • We are all going on an adventure / journey together and I am the tour guide with the umbrella, pointing out signs along the way
  • We are all at a party and I am a butler finding out what people need and serving up tasty morsels
  • We are all weaving a special piece of fabric together. I have two baskets of wool, one each side of me, and everyone else has wool too - and while we know the overall size and shape of the weaving, the exact pattern, colours and threads and the order these are woven into the fabric is determined by the skills, questions and interests of the group.

I have used the ‘weaving’ metaphor many times ifferent variations - and it seems a very apt description of how I operate as a trainer. But, until recently, I had never done any actual weaving. Then, just before Christmas, I got a sudden urge to take up weaving. This seemed to come from nowhere (I certainly wasn’t thinking about my metaphor) and before long I had purchased a cheap loom and some odd balls of wool and, with the help of Pinterest and YouTube, I got started.

Now I have dabbled with many arts and crafts over the years and when I am just beginning, I usually get a pattern or I copy existing works of art. It usually takes quite a while before I understand something well enough to make my own creations. Knitting, cookies and sewing for example. This time, however, even though I bought a book of wearing patterns (and I definitely needed that and the online resources, to work out the ‘logistics’ of weaving), I haven’t actually copied a single pattern just utilised them for ideas.

Instead, my weaving is very similar to my metaphor! I start with an empty loom and add the warp threads vertically. Then I rummage around in my (growing) wool collection, choose what seems a suitable starting colour / texture and get weaving. After each colour, I look at what I’ve done so far and then choose something I think will go with it. I have an overall theme in mind, such as ‘landscape’ so this guides my choices - e.g. greens and browns at the bottom, hill and tree shapes in the middle and blue for the sky at the top - but each particular thread is chosen in the moment rather than planned in advance.

Now that I am a weaver in real life as well as metaphorically, I realise how much more apt the metaphor is than I had originally thought, including that Symbolic Modelling and Systemic Modelling are bottom-up processes, metaphorically speaking and, of course, weaving is an actual bottom-up process. 😊

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28th Mar 2019

By Marian Way

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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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