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The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971

Patrick Jemmer                                  Alowvelkí Consulting Limited



Neuro-linguistic Programming and the Unknown Tongue…          Part 2 [1]

Part 2: Systems, Subjectivity and States

The eldest Oyster looked at him,

But never a word he said:

The eldest Oyster winked his eye,

And shook his heavy head—

Meaning to say he did not choose

To leave the oyster-bed.

To leave the oyster-bed.

From: “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll (1872)

Having established a framework for the development of NLP, let us now turn our attention to how subtle human communication actually is. First of all, it has been estimated that verbal communication makes up only about 30% of the total ‘message’ we convey in interactions with other human beings [4,5,6]. The other 70% consists of things like Body language (particularly whether we ‘match’ or ‘mismatch’ with our correspondent); Voice tone (pitch, timbre, intonation); Words (the ‘modalities’ that we typically and habitually use based on our preferred ‘representational systems,’ as discussed in detail below); and the idea of ‘pacing-and-leading’ (that is, matching or pacing body language, words, speed and tone with the correspondent, and then changing posture, modalities, speeding up or slowing down our speech to lead the other person in a different communicative direction. A good example of this would be to pace a stressed individual’s tense, closed posture; rapid breathing; cast down eye position; and staccato speech pattern, and then lead them into a more open, relaxed posture; with deeper, abdominal breathing; and slower, less tense speech, and so help them calm down. If you pace appropriately and then lead correctly, you cannot fail to get a calmed-down response: it’s just basic physiology. On the other hand if you ‘enter into’ the stressed person’s zone and ‘join in’ by ‘winding up’ the stress signals, you will simply and unfailingly end up with not only one but two very stressed people! These ideas are discussed more fully below when we describe the idea of ‘getting in a state’ (and how to get out of it again!). If we define ‘congruence’ as the state where all of a person's internal beliefs, strategies, and behaviours are fully in agreement and oriented toward securing a desired outcome, we see that congruence is immensely important in communicating effectively. This is because if we are not congruent we send ‘mixed signals’ and this contaminates and dilutes the message we are trying to convey. So for example, a person who is twitchy, tense and agitated, breathing quickly and shallowly, and yet who is telling someone else to be calm and relaxed, is likely to produce the opposite effect to that desired! We also have to reslise that it is possible, and indeed sometimes desirable, to picture the world from multiple ‘positions.’ We could call the First position, your own individual, personal, internal, subjective reality.  Second position is another’s point-of-view, separate and different from your own. There is also a Third position, which is that of a detached observer, who we could imagine watching and listening to First and Second positions’ interaction. Being aware of our own subjective position, to empathise with another’s position, and to stand back and become detached are all useful skills in communicating effectively, according to NLP.

Let us now turn our attention to the link between our internal ‘subjective’ experience and the external ‘real’ world [7]. We process all information through our senses, which act as ‘filters’ and stop our conscious logical minds from being overwhelmed with a verisimilitude of information. By distorting, generalising or deleting parts of the information we receive, we construct what might be described as our own personal ‘map’ of the ‘real’ world. We then respond to our map of reality and not to reality itself. Beliefs, values, interests, occupations and preoccupations act as filters as well, with the same result. Even though we all have (maybe very different maps), one thing is always true: you make your map: and live with it! In this sense it is true that ‘Reality leaves a lot to the imagination!’ However as Korzybski (1994) states: ‘The map is not the territory’ [18]. This means that things that happen ‘outside’ in the world of sensory experience, certainly do influence us ‘inside:’ our mental states, feelings, emotions and body chemistry. Conversely, the way we think and feel, due to our chemistry, beliefs and so on can drive the way in which we act and react in the external sphere of influence. If we get to grips with this we realise that we can control how we feel, and achieve goals we never thought possible, by changing the way we think, and thus perceive our reality: this well illustrated by the common phrase “there’s no such thing as can’t:” but this depends entirely on how you perceive the world!

In forming our maps of the world we have commented that we delete things (we are selective about what we leave in and what gets thrown out); we distort our internal record of our experiences (quite literally we change our experiences); and we generalise (we are only too good at extrapolating from one specific case to a whole class of events).  Thus our senses lead to internal representations and these are expressed as language [19]. As O’Connor and McDermott (2001) put it: “The world does not come with labels attached. We attach them and then forget we did so. We can mistake the words we attach to our experience for the experience itself and allow them to direct our actions” [17]. The Meta model of NLP recognises this, and gives us tools to reverse the deletions, distortions and generalisations that limit our experience of the world, using the techniques of ‘cunking.’ For example, if faced with the statement ‘Everyone here is unfriendly,’ we can gain resources by chunking down and asking  ‘Do you mean everybody? Is there no one here who’s friendly?’ Alternatively it’s possible to chunk up, so to counter ‘I’m no good at exams. I only ever passed one GCSE,‘ you could respond ‘That shows you definitely have the ability to pass exams then.’ Sideways chunking gets us from the statement ‘I’m a hopeless student. I’ll never pass anything,’ to the more resourceful ‘But you passed your driving test the first time round. Only 10% of drivers can say that! 

It’s useful at this stage to introduce the idea of a state. O’Connor and McDermott (2001) define this as follows: “A state is… the sum of your thoughts, feelings, emotions, mental and physical energy… we can change our state at will” [17]. As far as NLP is concerned, all experience is subjective, and this statement is absolutely true: we can control our emotions, capabilities and states. Coupled with this, NLP reminds us that having choice is better than not having choice and more to the point, you make the best choice you can at the time, with the resources available. So, we constantly need to be acutely aware of our states. We should constantly ask ourselves: ‘What state am I in most of the time from day to day? How helpful is this Baseline state?’ Hayes (2002) comments: “In some states things are learned very fast, whether they are how to (a) tie your shoelaces or (b) understand quantum mechanics or (c) do a phobia or (d) have an orgasm, whereas in other states an individual may require many repetitions to grasp the required skill, pattern or knowledge and commit them to memory” [20]. The word ‘anchor’ is used for any stimulus that triggers a change of state. Robbins (1988) gives as an example: “An example of an anchor for a particular set of responses is what happens when you think of the way a special, much-loved person says your name” [21]. If we are ‘stuck’ in a ‘bad’ state and wish to move to a ‘resourceful’ state then an anchor for the good state is a useful tool to have at your disposal to ‘pull yourself out of it’!

Moving on, NLP presupposes that the mind and body are one system, and that our filtered perceptions of external reality are represented in different ‘systems’ which can be categorised as Visual (V), Auditory (A), Kinaesthetic (K), Gustatory (G) or Olfactory (O) [5,16]. People tend to favour one particular representational system: for example, a ‘visual’ person often stands or sits with her head up, in an erect posture, breathing high up, from the chest, speaking fast with a higher pitched voice, and with eyes cast upwards or defocused. Such a person will tend to form ‘mental pictures’ when thinking. A ‘kinaesthetic’ person, on the other hand, will tend to have his head down, adopting a slumped posture and breathing from the abdomen, whilst speaking slower and softer, with eyes downcast and often looking to the left. These observations are complemented by the discovery by Bandler, Grinder, DeLozier and Dilts (1980) in their initial studies into NLP [7] that there are some typical ‘cues’ as to how someone is thinking. These are based on the (often very quick) movements of the eyes, and hold in general for most right-handed individuals and most cultures (left-handers and Basques reverse the cues!).


The so-called ‘eye-accessing cues’ are summarised in the picture above [22]. The following notation is used: K, V and A stand for kinaesthetic, auditory and verbal representational systems; superscripts r and c for remembered and constructed (imagined) feelings, sounds or images; d for digital (sounds) like talking to yourself. Note that it turns out that there is no real distinction between ‘remembered’ and ‘imagined’ feelings (and hence no separate accessing cue for Kr as contrasted with Kc ). If you want to experiment with these cues, ask someone a few questions and watch closely. For example, in general if you ask the person to think about a pink elephant wearing a blue polkadot tutu balancing on a beachball, her eyes will more up and to the right as you look at her (she has never seen such an image and so is constructing it). You can think of an appropriate question to elicit the cue for a physical or emotional feeling, or a remembered sound, for example. We return to the idea of representational systems and modalities later in discussing strategies. 

Part 3 of Neuro-linguistic Programming and the Unknown Tongue will be published in the next edition of FIDELITY


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