The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

Hierarchies of Criteria

"Criteria" refers to the values or standards a person uses to make decisions and judgments. The term comes from the Greek word krites, meaning "judge." Our criteria define and shape the types of desired states that we will seek, and determine the evidences we will use to evaluate our success and progress with respect to these desired states. For example, applying the criterion of "stability" a product, organization or family, will lead to certain judgments and conclusions. Applying the criterion of "ability to adapt" may lead to different judgments and conclusions about the same product, organization or family.

Criteria are often associated with "values," but they are not synonymous. Criteria may be applied to any number of different levels of experience. We can have environmental criteria, behavioral criteria and intellectual criteria as well as emotionally based criteria. Values, on the other hand, are at the same logical level as beliefs. From this perspective, values are similar to what are called "core criteria" in NLP. In fact, people may share similar values (like "success," "harmony," and "respect") but have very different forms of evidence for judging whether these criteria have been met or violated. This can be the source of either conflict or creativity.

Recognizing that people have different criteria is essential for resolving conflicts and managing diversity. Culture contact, mergers between organization and transitions in a person's life often bring up issues related to criteria, hierarchies of criteria and criterial equivalences.

Understanding people's criteria is important for successful mediation, negotiation and communication. Criteria also play an important role in persuasion and motivation. The identification and utilization of criteria are a key element in many NLP techniques and processes. It is the basis for the Hierarchy of Criteria technique, a number of Sleight of Mouth Patterns and is an important part of almost every NLP conflict resolution format.

Establishing criteria for meeting goals and evaluating progress is an essential aspect of planning and decision making. "Criterial equivalence" is the term used in NLP to describe the specific and observable evidences that define whether or not a particular criterion has been met. People often differ in the representational systems, level of detail and perceptual positions they use to evaluate their success in meeting their criteria.

Hierarchies of Criteria

A person's Hierarchy of Criteria is essentially the order of priorities that person applies in order to act in the world. Hierarchies of criteria relate to the degree of importance or meaning which people attach to various actions and experiences. An example of a 'hierarchy of criteria' would be a person who values 'health' more than 'financial success'. Such a person would tend to put his or her health "first." This person would probably structure his or her life more around physical activities than professional opportunities. A person whose hierarchy of criteria placed "financial success" over health would have a different lifestyle. He or she might sacrifice health and physical well-being in order to "get ahead" monetarily.

One of the main ways to elicit a person's hierarchy of criteria is through the process of finding what are known as "counter examples." Counter examples are, in essence, 'exceptions to the rule'. The following questions use the process of finding counter examples to reveal a person's hierarchy of criteria:

  1. What is something that you could do, but do not do? Why?
    e.g., "I would not go into a toilet that has been marked for the opposite sex, because it is against the rules." Criterion = 'Follow the Rules'.
  2. What could make you to it anyway? (Counter example)
    e.g., "I would go into a toilet marked for the opposite sex if there were no other choices, and I really had to go badly." Higher Criterion = 'Expediency in a Crisis'.

As the example illustrates, the identification of counter examples can help to uncover 'higher level' criteria which override others. To get a sense of your own hierarchy criteria by exploring counter examples, answer the following questions:

  1. What would motivate you to try something new?
  2. What would cause to stop doing something, even if it satisfied your answer to question 1? (Counter example A)
  3. What would make you start doing something again, even if you stopped for the reasons you identified in question 2? (Counter example B)
  4. What would cause to stop doing it again? (Counter example C)

As you reflect on your answers, notice which criteria have emerged, and in what order of priority. Perhaps you would do something that you felt would be "creative," exciting" or "fun." These would be your first level "criteria." You might stop doing something that was creative, exciting and fun, if you felt you felt that you were being "irresponsible" to your family (Counter example A). In this case, the criterion of "responsibility" would override "creativity" or "fun." You might, however, do something that you thought was "irresponsible" anyway if you felt it was "necessary for your growth as a person" (Counter example B). "Growth" would thus be higher on your 'hierarchy of criteria' than "responsibility" or "fun." Going more deeply, you might find that you would quit doing something that was "necessary for your growth as a person" if you believed it would "jeopardize the safety of yourself or your family" (Counter example C). Thus, "safety" would be the higher on your "ladder" of criteria than the others.

Incidentally, another way to identify counter examples (and thus hierarchies of criteria) is to ask:

  1. What would motivate you to try something new?
    e.g., "If it were safe and easy."
  2. What would motivate you to try something new, even if it did not did not satisfy your answer to question 1? (i.e., If it was not safe and easy.)
    e.g., "If I could learn a lot from doing it."

Hierarchies of criteria are one the main sources of difference between people, groups and cultures. Similar hierarchies of criteria, on the other hand, are the basis for compatibility between groups and individuals. Hierarchies of criteria are a key aspect of motivation and marketing. Consider, for instance, the following hypothetical example of using the process of finding counter-examples to identify a customer's hierarchy of criteria for purchasing beer

Q: What type of beer do you usually buy?
A: Well, I usually get XYZ beer.
Q: Why XYZ beer?
A: It's the kind of beer I always get. I'm just used to it I guess. (Criterion 1 = Familiarity)
Q: Yes, its important to be familiar with what you're buying isn't it. Have you ever bought any other kind of beer? (Identify counter-example)
A: Sure. At times.
Q: What made you decide to buy it even though you weren't already used to it? (Elicit higher level criterion related to counter-example)
A: It was on sale. A big discount from its usual price. (Criterion 2 = Save Money)
Q: Saving money can sure help out sometimes. I'm wondering, have you ever bought a beer that you weren't used to buying that wasn't on sale? (Identify next counter-example)
A: Yes. I was paying back some friends for helping me move into my new house. (Criterion 3 = Show Appreciation to Others)
Q: Good friends can be hard to come by. Its good to show them how much you appreciate them. Is there anything that would motivate you to buy a beer that was unfamiliar and wasn't inexpensive even though you didn't need to pay someone back for a favor? (Identify next counter-example)
A: Well sure, I've bought more expensive beers when I've been out with the guys at work. I'm no cheapskate. (Criterion 4 = Impress Others)
Q: Yes, I guess there are certain situations where the kind of beer you buy can make a statement about your priorities. I'm really curious to know if there's anything that might get you to buy a more expensive unfamiliar beer if there was no one you owed a favor to or that you wanted to make a statement to? (Identify next counter-example)
A: I suppose I might if I really wanted to reward myself for doing something difficult. (Criterion 5 = Appreciate Self)

Assuming that this person is representative of a larger population of potential beer buyers, the interviewer has now uncovered a particular hierarchy of criteria that may be appealed to in order to sell an unfamiliar and more expensive beer to people that might not normally purchase it.

This process of eliciting hierarchies of criteria by identifying counter-examples can also help in the process of effective persuasion. By getting people to answer these types of questions you can help them to break out of their habitual ways of thinking and can learn about the ordering of their values.

This information can then be used to get around boundaries that are often taken for granted. As an example, this method of questioning was once taught to a group of men who were shy about meeting women because they didn't think they had anything to offer a woman. They were instructed to go out and interview women and learn to identify values in women that could help them realize that they had more choices socially. The following is an example of one such interview:

Man: What kind of man would you most like to go out with?
Woman: Someone who is rich and handsome, naturally.
M: Have you ever gone out with someone who wasn't particularly rich or handsome?
W: Yes. There was this guy I knew who was really witty. He could make me laugh about practically anything.
M: Are the only people you go out with rich and handsome or witty, or do you ever consider going out with other kinds of people?
W: Well sure. I went out with this person who was so intelligent. He seemed to know something about everything.
M: What would make you consider going out with someone who wasn't rich, handsome or witty, and who didn't particularly impress you with their intelligence?
W: There was this one guy I really liked who didn't have any of those things but he just seemed to know where he was going in life and had the determination to get there.
M: Have you ever gone out with anyone who didn't have money, good looks, wit, intelligence or determination?
W: No. Not that I can remember.
M: Can you think of anything that would motivate you?
W: Well, if they did something or were involved in something that was unique or exciting I'd be interested.
M: Anything else?
W: If they really cared about me and helped me to get in touch with myself as a person..or brought out something special about me.
M: How would you know if someone really cared about you?...

This dialogue demonstrates how some simple questions may be used to get from surface level beliefs to deeper beliefs and values that can broaden a person's choices and flexibility.

Recognizing that people have different criteria (and different hierarchies of criteria) is essential for resolving conflicts and managing diversity. Culture contact, mergers between organization and transitions in a person's life often bring up issues related to criteria, hierarchies of criteria and criterial equivalences. Some individuals and cultures value the 'achievement of tasks' more than they do the 'preservation of relationships'. Other have exactly the reverse set of priorities.

Having some tools and strategies to be able to identify and address different hierarchies of criteria can be important to the success of managers, teachers, coaches and therapists.


Beliefs: Pathways to Health and Well-Being; Dilts, R., Hallbom, T. and Smith, S., 1990.
Changing Belief Systems with NLP; Dilts, R., 1990.
Overcoming Resistance to Persuasion with NLP; Dilts, R., and Yeager, J., 1992.
Visionary Leadership Skills; Dilts, R., 1996.

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