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Systemic Modelling training: And what do I know now?

Paddles - And what do you know now - Chandiima

I was drawn to Clean Language when I attended a coaching conference where James Lawley gave a demonstration of Symbolic Modelling. To be honest, I didn’t know quite what to make of it. I watched in bemusement as James (after checking where and how the client wanted to be seated) asked her some questions. The first one caught my attention and held it.

“And what would you like to have happen?”

That was very direct, I thought, no messing about here.

As he proceeded to ask her a series of what I know now as clean questions to explore her inner thoughts and feelings, I could ‘see’ her metaphor unfolding and changing before me as James skilfully helped her to reframe a particularly pressing issue she had.  I still remember her metaphor and I continue to be fascinated by this connection we have between our inner worlds and what we act out in the outer world.

My own story reflects this inner-outer struggle. I went a traditional route after leaving school, studying Applied Mathematics at University, then joining a large energy company as a graduate. My first job involved developing software to model the flow in natural gas networks. I progressed through different roles over 24 years, did a Masters to improve my technical expertise and held some key planning, policy and strategy roles, managing teams on complex projects.

As time went on though, I started feeling that there was something missing, something more I wanted to do, so I stepped away from this world. This had been triggered by a period of depression; I felt fragmented. One thing that had carried me through was the facilitation I was doing as a ‘side gig’ at work. I was getting good results with creative problem-solving approaches, wanting to have more time to do this and give myself the space to express my creativity in my work.

I was driven to enrol in a Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership at City University’s Business School in London, to immerse myself in exploring the different ways that creativity and leadership show up in technology, design, the creative arts, psychology and law.  

I work as a facilitator, coach, trainer and consultant now which is why I was at that conference watching James doing his thing. That experience of witnessing how quickly a client can shift their internal frame led me to investigate Clean Language in more depth. I decided to develop some skills in Systemic Modelling, the approach to using Clean Language with teams, developed by Caitlin Walker, which fits well with my facilitation skills. I enrolled on Clean for Teams in London in February 2020.

I expected it might be like some of the training courses I’d attended when I worked in the energy industry, or perhaps more like some of my modules on the Masters programme. I didn’t really give much thought to it apart from buying a copy of Caitlin’s book. I turned up at the venue, introduced myself to a few people and took a seat on one of the brightly coloured chairs in the room, which were arranged in a large circle. I was a bit nervous. I wondered if I would be as ‘good’ as some of the other people there, who’d been coaching and training for much longer. And the course was being led by Marian Way – she’d written books on Clean Language!

“And what would you like to know before we begin?”

Again, my attention was drawn to the question, the invite to share information, thoughts, questions. Marian was scribing on one of the flipcharts in the room, making sure everyone had an opportunity to ask for what they wanted to know and that it didn’t need to follow a particular topic or theme. We then did several exercises in a large group or pairs or threes. What struck me was the sense of discovery and learning I had. And how curious I was to know more about other people’s models.

I had a practice at facilitating a smaller group towards the end of the training and realised that there was more to this technique than met the eye! Although I had been facilitating workshops for a few years, there were many skills required here that went beyond those I had previously developed. I signed up to the Rolling Programme that started in May.

The UK was well into lockdown by the time it started, so all the sessions were conducted online. I decided to ‘double down’ and attend two concurrent programmes – which as it turned out, was pretty intense when I added the online Practice Groups and Peer Support sessions I was attending.

What kind of intense? Well, it was like being on a big yellow dinghy with lots of other people paddling furiously down a fast flowing river, and I was getting wet occasionally (sometimes soaked to the skin) but having a lot of fun as well.

My yellow dinghy metaphor was one I’d developed in Clean for Teams, except it was more like a nice steadily flowing river back then. And in all those 9 weeks, and in the continued practice I have done since, whilst I might have fallen out and been swept under by the current, it has never happened. Mainly because the other people in the boat will always notice and give me a steadying hand if I did look like I was going to go overboard. And if my paddling isn’t up to much sometimes, they’ll patiently show me how to improve my technique, giving me timely feedback on how to get better at it.

And that’s the thing about this work – what would take me many lengthy passages to convey in prose can be conveyed so well, quickly and memorably in metaphor. And if you can gather just enough of a metaphor from each person in a group, they start understanding each other at a much deeper level. And then the magic begins – they start getting curious about each other’s metaphors. And if they can build that curiosity and respect for each other, they will be creative and productive in what they do together. And it comes full circle back to my interest in creativity and leadership.

And what do I know now?

Reflecting on the last few months, what I have experienced is deeper than might be implied by the word ‘training’, and I am not sure there is a single word to describe it. Three words come to mind, if you’ll indulge me… emergent, significant and personal.

Emergent because no two sessions are ever the same, and yet there are golden nuggets of learning in each session. The key to mastering these skills is to practice and be open to feedback and try again, which is why I make the most of the Practice Groups and Peer Support sessions available from the Systemic Modelling community to hone my skills ready for the next Rolling Programme. 

Significant because this work really has the power to transform thoughts, bring groups of people together and transform ways of working.

Personal because although practising Systemic Modelling requires me to be in service to the group I am facilitating, I am finding out much more about myself than I could have imagined, so I can facilitate at my best. And we all show up to this work differently. And that’s what gives it meaning – for me at least.

Image by David Nisley from Pixabay


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About Chandima Dutton

Chandima Dutton's avatar

Chandima is a creative and strategic problem-solver, coach and facilitator with extensive experience facilitating collaborative working in energy, water and the academic sector, across functions and between organisations. She combines a background in Applied Mathematics with a Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership and over 25 years’ experience in the energy sector. She has managed technical teams in R&D, commercial, policy, asset engineering and operations, leading successful projects in network and business planning, strategy development and software engineering.

Chandima specialises in leadership development, individual and team creativity, and resilience coaching. She is training in Systemic Modelling, Clean Language and Emergent Knowledge and helps deliver regular Systemic Modelling Peer Support and Practice Groups.


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