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The Mind Map as an Aid for Therapists

by Ian Woodrow(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 16 - December 1996

Many of us would claim allegiance to the 'Holistic Model'. It frees us from some of the boundaries of conventional wisdom and suggests that we can treat 'The Whole Person'. A virtue of the holistic approach is the possibility of influencing/effecting change indirectly from a 'remote point of entry or focus'. The focal point for my chosen activity (psychotherapy) is the mind/brain accessed by 'normal' communication and though mostly directed at 'mental' outcomes, physical gains accrue in many cases (and conversely where physical gains are the prime objective). An implication of this model, for any intervention, is that a detail change in any single factor will affect every detail of all other factors in some measure. An understanding of 'The Whole Person' would be 'infinitely' complicated, and an understanding of the process of therapeutic intervention perhaps more so? For those who believe that "it is the client that does the work" there is a requirement for two such processes to run concurrently.

In my practice, such (conscious) understanding is not available and the process is very largely intuitive. Nevertheless, I try to respect the 'holistic' concept and welcome tools that help guide my clients and me through the confused and largely uncharted territories of our journeying. Accepting the infinite complexity (or 'endless simplicity'?) of the holistic approach implies that, whatever understanding we bring to it, will be an over-simplification. This brings enormous benefit in that it frees us to use deliberately simplistic constructs and seek to 'add value' rather than find 'ultimate truths'. It encourages me to follow my intuition assuming that ALL my beliefs and constructs are probably 'wrong' or at least capable of improvement. More than this, it encourages me to recognise recurring patterns, 'nested within each other' and to extract greater value from ever simpler models.

Maps and navigational aids are always welcome, especially those that enable us to establish points of reference and afford a more 'solid', less unidimensional, understanding. These allow us to locate and appreciate our 'realities' with greater clarity and so establish key landmarks or building-blocks of confidence. Such tools abound and are used in normal 'verbal' communication. Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) has extracted several psycho-geographical and spatial anchoring techniques (some more formal than others) that enhance multi-sensory focus (and reality) and accelerate learning.

Some of these require, or can be enhanced by, graphical representations, e.g. time-lines, boxes and grids, produced on the floor with marking-tape.

Simple pen and note pad diagrams can also be powerful in examining, illustrating and communicating concepts and relationships and flow-charting can help clients identify their process and progress.

Fig. 1 Is a Mind Map® of my understanding, showing 'Health' and 'Behaviour' as analogues; my understanding of the scale, nature and process of the mind-brain; my understanding of 'Holistic'; my understanding of 'Understanding', and some of the relationships between these factors. This is also shown in a reduced form in which only main themes are highlighted.

Fig. 1 Is a Mind Map® of my understanding, showing 'Health' and 'Behaviour' as analogues; my understanding of the scale, nature and process of the mind-brain; my understanding of 'Holistic'; my understanding of 'Understanding', and some of the relationships between these factors. This is also shown in a reduced form in which only main themes are highlighted.


Fig. 2 Is a Mind Map® modelling the essentials of my clients' process and therapeutic strategies. Colour coding highlights the therapist and client roles and interface. I find this a salutary reminder of just how little I have to do in the process, how important it is that I respect my client's space, how essentially simple the process and how much the client can do. This is an empowering message for clients when they grasp it.

Fig. 2 Is a Mind Map® modelling the essentials of my clients' process and therapeutic strategies. Colour coding highlights the therapist and client roles and interface. I find this a salutary reminder of just how little I have to do in the process, how important it is that I respect my client's space, how essentially simple the process and how much the client can do. This is an empowering message for clients when they grasp it.

Tony Buzan's Mind Mapping® is a simple, powerful, 'user-friendly' tool with wide application to therapy. A Mind Map® is a one-page free-form note that shows divergent and convergent thinking, detail and overview. Ideas represented by single key-words radiate from a central origin. Further key-words connect to each preceding key-word in descending hierarchy. Key-words may be replaced or supplemented by symbols or images, and coding and emphasis aid clarity. Though the finished product represents a 'whole-brain', the process can be led by 'left' or 'right' brain attributes. Mind Mapping® was originally designed as a memory tool and though further rules add to its power, its essence is simplicity and minimalism. Although entries should be key ideas only, an idea may appear at several locations on a map. There is, however, no place for redundant detail on a working Mind Map®. The Mind Maps® used in this article employ a deliberate minimum of symbolism.

Some uses that I have made of it are:

1) Mapping and developing my therapeutic model

2) Tracking consultations

3) As an aid to communication between therapist and client

4) As an aid to the client's self-communication.

5) For the client to use

a in opening 'Confusion Loops'
b in general problem solving
c in understanding relationships and resource management
d as a new skill aiding clearer thinking.


1) Mapping and developing my therapeutic model

Both Mind Maps® (Figs 1 & 2 above) were produced for my use and benefit. They are essentially maps of my own mental sets which I use in negotiating working relationships with clients. Some people like visual tools more than others and, where appropriate, I might sketch some elements or occasionally show a complete map. For others, a flow diagram (Fig. 3 – developed from Fig. 2) may be more friendly.

2) Tracking consultations

Mind Mapping® is a particularly useful way of taking interview notes. It allows key-points (only) to be taken unobtrusively and in-the-moment, and placed into structured form. A 'picture' of the situation builds as discussion proceeds and shortly the map begins to be an interview resource in its own right. A 'friendly' and powerful aid, it is also an ideal device from which to summarise.

When both parties are involved in its generation, it can be a powerful negotiating tool and in addition to such use in consultations, it has similar benefits in the following areas.

3) As an aid to communication between therapist and client


4) As an aid to the client's self-communication

For clients who seem to be distracted with multiple loops of confusion, and need to determine a plan of action, Mind Mapping® is brilliant! Any issue can be acknowledged and noted and placed on the Mind Map® in as many locations as the client wishes, using agreed key-words. Since the key-words are agreed, communication is closer to clients' deep structure and confusion is lessened. Key words remain open to renegotiation and such renegotiation results in increased clarity. Clients then see their thinking patterns and logic(s) laid out before them and do not need to retread ground with the same compulsion. Indeed clients see the redundancy of their own 'diversionary' tactics and often ask for these "irrelevant" elements to be removed. We can do better than this! A single line through each redundant key word shows reprioritisation and the old logic though still in view, is less easily returned to. This process allows clients to slow down or stop "Ideas going round in my head" and they become calmer and focus and prioritise more easily and effectively. "Irrelevant" or "redundant" patterns which have been discounted by striking-through, can yield bonuses. I have worked with clients who having discounted a pattern as 'worrying and self-confusing', have been able to lift the pattern from the Mind Map® and find real use for it in a new location thereby reallocating their resourcefulness:

Ted was convinced that he could not continue and that his business would fail if he did not redecorate his office. He did not "have the strength to do this myself" and felt totally stuck. He felt that his business was facing disaster if he could not make an input (and was probably correct in this assumption). He also acknowledged that there were two matters that needed attention. These related to PR and income generation and each had a deadline.

I started a Mind Map® for him to resolve the continued running of the business and as a first 'branch' – OFFICE – REDECORATE. As this was his chosen first priority and "pivotal to the business surviving", I encouraged him to lay out all significant features of the problem and then to seek answers from resources he could find both in the business and then from known outside sources (suppliers, consultants, etc.). To do this we developed branches for each of these aspects. As the mapping proceeded, Ted became focused upon resources and how he could use them to resolve the two 'lesser' problems. This process led us away from the 'REDECORATE' branch for some time and some of the ideas which he used for the PR and income generation projects had nothing to do with redecorating. When he realised how far he had strayed, he demanded that we return to the initial objective. We were able to return to this section of the Mind Map® instantly and found that some of the strategies which he had "wasted time on" in working on the other two problems could be used to help get the office redecorated. Within 45 minutes he was confident that he could handle all three issues. When I met him some weeks later, he was not concerned about his office decor (though it was unchanged) but had coped with the two 'lesser' issues with ease. We spent half an hour mapping an outline plan for the next three months.

5) As an aid for the client to use

Though I am licensed to train Mind Mapping®, I find that most clients, having seen me do it, pick it up for themselves. Some use it regularly and for these I recommend appropriate books. I do, however, encourage the use of three devices:

1 Place an 'Open Line' on the map anywhere you have an intuition that something is missing or that a thought will come. You can then maintain momentum, knowing that the line is waiting for you when you are ready.

2 Place an 'Open Line – with question-mark' when you need to research a point, so that it also awaits you when you have the key information.

3 Put an 'Irrelevant' or 'Rubbish' branch on your Mind Map® and when you find yourself with distracting thoughts – PUT THEM DOWN HERE!; this allows you to get back to 'the issue'. It's surprising how often inspiration emerges from within this 'rubbish'.

Regular Mind Mapping® encourages clear, ordered and integrated thinking and can be therapeutic in its own right. Where appropriate, I encourage clients to use it for:

a. opening 'Confusion Loops'

The process here is as the example with Ted. You allow thoughts to flow onto the paper and then expand and develop them. Having simplified/clarified the situation, if the Mind Map® looks over- complicated, recast with fewer (more powerful) key words

b. general problem solving

The simple approach above can solve many problems and is good for establishing the underlying nature and structure of situations. Mixing Mind Mapping® with De Bono techniques can aid decision-making and I use modified versions of 'Six Thinking Hats' and 'PNI'.

c. understanding relationships and resource management

Separate Mind Maps® can be drawn showing the attributes and requirements for each party or centre of interest. They can then be brought together and reconciled. Alternatively, a composite map can be drawn with several 'centres'. This is quicker, when it works, but it is essential to maintain the flow of information in order to make it work. It suffers if you attempt to reconcile relationships between 'centres' before assembling the information. Mind Mapping® aids the suspension of judgment as long as generative flow is maintained.

d. as a new skill aiding clearer thinking

Mind Mapping® and a few other simple study skills and principles (including self-management skills) can help transform many stress situations. Students are not alone in suffering 'study-stress' and become overwhelmed and oppressed by volume of work. I have seen several students, troubled to the point of abandoning their studies, recover their confidence and happiness, make up lost ground in remarkably short time, and move to relaxed group leading performance.

One of the exercises in Buzan training for Mind Mapping® is to make 'normal linear' notes about a topic for 5 minutes and then give a 1 minute presentation from these notes. Later in the same course the exercise is repeated using Mind Mapped® notes. Delegates are invited to assess their performance and to assess which of their notes would be of greater use if they had to use them for a 1 hour presentation. On my third repeat of this course I found that the difference appeared to be less marked. When I looked at my 'linear notes', I found (unlike my original note-taking) that they were a correctly prioritised list of the key points that I wished to address.

Perhaps I now access 'The Map in My Mind' more effectively? Perhaps my mind is better mapped!

This section related to the Mind Maps®

These Mind Map® examples are of my own process in developing my therapeutic model. They are intended to illustrate the process of the technique rather than of the model itself. Clearly, the content of these maps gives some indication of my thinking but the objective of providing 'linear decodes' is not to give insight to the content but to illustrate the way that Mind Mapping® builds logic and structure from freely associative thinking.

Decoding Mind Maps® Key-words on the Mind Maps® are underlined

NB The 'plus'(+) and 'minus'(-) notations on the map are conveniences to indicate process polarities and are essentially value judgments only. '+' merely indicates alignment with (the client's) chosen outcome and '-' indicates misalignment (conflict). The 'scales' symbol is used to represent 'balance'.

The 'Reduced Map' shows the key ideas that I would use in practice to recover the concepts in the main map. It is, in effect, a Mind Map of the Mind Map.

'Linear' version of Fig 1 Detailed Map Hierarchy:

Centre An examination of 'Health'

First level – Main (Numbered) Arms Nature of: (1) Health, (2) Behaviour, (3) Holistic, (4) 'The Mind-Brain' and (5) (my) Understanding.

(1) Health

(2) Behaviour, are shown as metaphors of each other and seen as a Balanced response of all external and internal factors (including memory-coded factors) (balance is represented by 'scales' symbol and emphasised by heavy underlining as important key point). The Response is seen as a combination of the habitual (works reliably – though may be +ve or -ve) and the novel (though variable). Both are seen as learned and the controlling agent, the 'mind-brain'.

(4) The 'mind-brain' itself is the bottom arm of the map (symbolised). Memory, regarded as total and permanent and accessible to conscious awareness of (=) competence (of response) and to the unconscious where it promotes responses of excellence – +ve excellence enhancing ease and -ve excellence enhancing dis-ease. The process is seen as one of 'Balancing' the brain in both its triune and lateral (Left/Right) aspects by seeking co-incidence/co-herence. Some lateral characteristics are shown. Features of the process are the ability to produce natural elegance and a sentinel or censor function. The Scale of probable memory potential (Anohkin's number) and the comparatively miniscule 20 to 25,000,000,000 memories collected at about 10 per sec (Hz.) over say 70 years of waking hours underline the elegance of a process which assembles behaviours from elements of memory recovered as if "from needles recovered from a cosmic haystack".

(3) Holistic is seen as embracing all of a being's life, of which (therefore) health is (only) an integral part.

(5) the 'Understanding' is mine, incomplete and changing (hopefully dynamic and growing) and that I need to (2) risk using it and learn from the experience.

There are some 'leaps of abstraction' between Fig. 1 and Fig. 2. It is not my intent within this article to examine the model and its development fully but to illustrate the usefulness of thought-organising tools and techniques for therapists and, sometimes, their clients.

'Linear' version of Fig. 2 (see also Fig. 3 – the flow chart version) Hierarchy:

Centre (my) Therapeutic Process Model

First level - Main (Numbered) Arms (1) 'Understand', (2) 'Acknowledge', (3) 'Accept', (4) 'Choose', (5) 'Notice' and (6) 'Help'.

Note that the first 5 are elements of the client's process whereas the last is the therapists role and coded in a second colour as are therapist interventions to the client's domain (and coded in italics in this linear format).

(1) The 'Understanding' of the scale and elegance of the mind brain is negotiated with the client; that the process is continuous, its intent is good; seeks direction and to reinforce patterns (build and reinforce habits); that direction must be specific ("do 'X'" and NOT "don't do 'Y'") and conscious direction is a skill. Also that problems arise from, and are reinforced by misdirected attention.

(2) Need to 'Acknowledge' the (understanding and) good intent behind all mental models, even if misdirected; and to give attention to the desired outcome. Therapist may explain further if needed.

(3) Need to 'Accept' awareness of current consciousness.

(4) Need to 'Choose' direction towards outcome (therapist may assist) and check that it is +ve.

(5) Need to 'Notice' awareness of +ve direction of progress towards chosen outcome. Therapist can 'en-courage' this self-enhancing loop.

(6) Need for therapist to 'Help' (the client) to: accept the current awareness and detach interest from current deficiencies; create and attach interest to the desired direction (outcome); recognise the excellence of the UCS (unconscious), how (indicated by arrow) it feeds the CS (conscious); and to reinforce intuitive confidence.

NB. This Mind Map® incorporates arrows that indicate process and aid the drafting of Fig. 3, the flow diagram


Use Your Head Buzan ISBN 0-563-20811-2
Get Ahead North & Buzan ISBN 1-874374-00-7
Teach Your Child to Think De Bono ISBN 0-670-84806-9

Mind Mapping® is the registered mark of the Buzan organisation and may only be taught by licensed instructors.

Note: The Mind Maps reproduced above are not as clear as they should be and will be redrawn and uploaded again as soon as we can get it done. There is another article on the same subject at Mind Mapping® for Positive Health.


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About Ian Woodrow

Ian Woodrow is a UK-based business development executive with an international media company. Through a work career of 25 years across four continents, his most enduring impression of business activity is an inability by management and staff to correctly identify underlying problems and develop appropriate solutions. His book, Close, but no Cigars attempts to remedy that situation.


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