The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.


Pragmagraphics is an area of NLP established by Todd Epstein and Richard Bandler in 1980, and developed further by Epstein with Robert Dilts over the following decade. Pragmagraphics provided both the theoretical and practical basis for much of NLP’s submodality technology. The term, coined by Epstein, comes from a combination of the words “pragmatic” and “holographic,” and suggests an integration of the two disciplines.

Pragmatics is an area of linguistics that involves the study of how context and other nonlinguistic factors (such as the personal history and beliefs of the speaker and listener) affect the interpretation of spoken expressions. It involves the examination of the system of influences which determine how we make sense of or give meaning to words or linguistic expressions, which are beyond the expressions themselves. For example, to understand the meaning of the statement, “Father was not drunk tonight,” one must factor in assumptions about the history of speaker and his or her father, the context in which the speaker made the statement, the person to whom the statement was made, the degree of understanding the speaker has about the possible impact of such a statement, and so on.

Holography is a method for recording and then reproducing a complete image of a three-dimensional object. In a hologram, the whole picture is contained in every part of the image. Holography involves the recording of an entire picture by recording the relationships between the interference patterns of light reflected from the object, and shined directly onto the film. As a phenomenon, the hologram has become a metaphor for the notion that, in many systems, all of the information relevant to that system is distributed through every part of the system, in some form.

As an integration of the principles of these two fields, Pragmagraphics strives to explore the qualities of, and relationships between, the experiences and information that is being represented in a person’s inner map of the world. It has to do with the practical aspects of how we create and derive meaning from our experiences. Its purpose is to (a) identify key characteristics relating to the experiential substance of a particular image, set of words or feeling state, (b) explore how experiences are represented, sorted and punctuated, and (c) examine the resulting influence that these factors have on a person’s emotional and behavioral responses and reactions. In many respects, pragmagraphics can be considered the attempt to describe the structure of meaning.

To illustrate, Epstein might draw the figure “Æ” on the board and ask people, “What is that?” 99% will immediately say, “It’s a triangle, that’s what that is.” But Epstein would then point out that it is not really “a triangle.” It is an intersection of three lines at three given angles—which we call “a triangle.” The question that pragmagraphics asks is, “What needs to be there to call it a triangle?” What would need to be shifted or added in order for us to call it an “arrow head,” a “roof top,” or a “pyramid.”

Similar questions could be asked in relation to the process of learning. “What needs to be there to call some mental activity ‘spelling’, for instance, versus ‘remembering a sequence of shapes’?” What are the underlying processes and capabilities upon which spelling is based? Notice that this is very different than asking, “What are the behaviors that would indicate to us that a child was spelling a word correctly?”

To be able to ask and answer such questions, Epstein advocated entering a state of “not knowing,” in which all previous mental maps and assumptions are put aside with reference to one’s ongoing experience. To explain this state, Epstein invented the character “Nerk-Nerk.” Nerk-Nerk is the name of a fictitious space alien who has the exact same nervous system and physical characteristics of human beings, but none of the perceptual, linguistic or cultural assumptions. Nerk-Nerk has studied and is familiar with all forms of human language, but is incapable of making the deletions, generalizations and distortions that most human beings do habitually while communicating verbally with one another. Nerk-Nerk is only able to understand and respond to fully specified sensory based descriptions and instructions.

Thus, when a person enters a “Nerk-Nerk” state, he or she attempts to drop and challenge pre-existing assumptions, and get a fresh and unbiased view of a particular situation or experience. Another use of Nerk-Nerk involves acting “as if” one is describing or explaining something to Nerk-Nerk in such a way that he would be able understand it. Such an exercise forces one to be more precise and sensorially grounded.

Similar to the notion of “Meta Program” patterns, Pragmagraphics arose as a result of the attempt to understand ways in which people kept “coherency” in their mental programming (like the ‘reference beam’ in an optical hologram). It is about, what Epstein would call, the “goo” which holds everything together in our map of the world.

Like Meta Program patterns, Pragmagraphics came from the attempt to better understand the functioning of cognitive strategies. In particular, they developed as a way to explain how individuals with the same cognitive structure to their strategies could sometimes end up with widely divergent results. For instance, two people might have a motivation strategy with the structure: Vi->Ki (deriving feelings from internal imagery as a way to stimulate themselves into action). One person, however, might report, “When I can picture what I want to achieve very clearly, I really start to feel excited about doing what I need to do to get there.” The other person, on the other hand, might say, “I need to get a general image of the direction I’m heading. If I picture what I want to achieve too clearly, I begin to feel afraid that I will be disappointed.” Pragmagraphics seeks to explore and explain what is at the root of such different outcomes to two processes that have a similar structure.

Epstein postulated that these differences had to do with patterns related to the qualities by which the representations (the pictures and the feelings in the example above) were linked together. Drawing from the analogy of holography, Bandler and Epstein hypothesized that a particular submodality feature (the “clarity” of the internal image, for instance) could function like the “reference beam” used to make a hologram. Altering this submodality, like adjusting the angle or wavelength of the reference beam, would change the resulting “interference pattern,” bringing out different dimensions and facets of the experiences with which it was linked, perhaps shifting it to something else altogether at times.

This idea lead Epstein, Bandler and Dilts to begin to explore in detail the relationship between two consecutive representations or steps in a cognitive strategy. If an image and a feeling were joined together, and the image was made brighter, for instance, what happened to the feeling? What happened if the image was made dimmer, given more color, made larger or smaller, etc.?

Epstein developed a notational system to describe some of the basic interrelationships between representational qualities. Rather than the linear, horizontal arrows, typically used in NLP strategy notation to indicate the sequencing of representations, Pragmagraphics uses vertical arrows to indicate the quality of influence one representation had on another.

If an increase in the clarity or detail of a picture created a corresponding increase the intensity of the feeling of excitement or motivation, for example, it would be notated Vi (clarity)^^ Ki(intensity), indicating a parallel relationship between the two submodalities. If, on the other hand, an increase in the clarity of a picture created a corresponding decrease the intensity of the feeling of motivation, it would be notated Vi(clarity) ^v Ki(intensity), indicating an inverse relationship between the two representational qualities.

It was these types of explorations that eventually lead to the development of the Swish Pattern, the Threshold Pattern, Submodality Chaining, and the other applications of Submodalities in NLP.

Another area of exploration in Pragmagraphics was the examination of the representational structure of what are called “minimal pairs” – experiences that are similar in many respects, yet are considered opposites. e.g., “anxiety” and “excitement,” “anger” and “determination,” “appreciation” and “flattery” etc. The question to be explored was, “What is the difference that makes the difference?” What has to be there in order for us to call a particular feeling “excitement?” The feelings of “anxiety” and “excitement,” for instance, share many kinesthetic features. They are both often experienced in the ‘midline’ areas of the chest and stomach, for example. What quality or qualities would have to be changed or altered in order for us to call a feeling “anxiety” instead of excitement?

One such pairing explored in depth by Pragmagraphics was in the area of Meta Model patterns known as ‘modal operators’. Modal operators include words like: “should” “have to,” “can,” “must,” “impossible,” “want to,” “ought to,” etc. Pragmagraphics would ask the question, “What needs to be there in order for us to feel that we ‘have to’ do something versus that we ‘want to’ do it? In other words, what is the difference between “desire” (wanting something, but still having the choice) and “compulsion” (having to do something, and having no choice about it). What needs to be there in order for us to call something “choice” or “compulsion?” And, “How can we use this information in order to help transform compulsion into choice?”

The Pragmagraphic Swish Design Patter

The Pragmagraphic Swish Design Pattern is an example of the application of Pragmagraphic principles to the design of a Swish Pattern for shifting a compulsive behavior to a state of creativity and choice. The Pragmagraphic Swish Design Pattern was created by Robert Dilts and Todd Epstein in 1986 as part of their work in addressing issues relating to addictions and compulsions. The basic premise of this process is that it is much more difficult to attempt to change or stop a compulsive act when it has already reached the threshold of intensity that a person feels that he or she “has to” do it – i.e., the “point of no return.” Trying to change the compulsive response at that point leads to struggle and frustration. Consider the following scale.

Scale of Intensity

Scale of Intensity for a Compulsive Response

This scale suggests that we can rate a compulsive response with respect to its degree of intensity – in which 0 represents “no desire” to engage in the compulsive act and 10 represents a point at which there is no longer any choice, and the person “has to” do the behavior. It is much easier to redirect the behavior when the response is only at the level of 1, 2 or 3 than when it is at 9 or 10.

The challenge for most people, however, is that they only become aware of the compulsive response after it has already reached an intensity level of 7 or 8. Thus they have no possibility to make any intervention at an earlier point, and always end up struggling. One objective of the Pragmagraphic Swish Design process is to help people bring into consciousness, and distinguish between, more of these gradations in the level of intensity of the compulsive response.

One interesting question from the Pragmagraphics perspective is, “If we call this response a ‘compulsion’ when it is at the level of 9 or 10, what do we call it when it is at 7 or 6, or 3 or 2?” Do we still call it a “compulsion” or do we have different names for it? At the level of 5, for instance, we might call the response a “desire” or a “wish” rather than a “compulsion.” Perhaps at the level of 2 or 3, we would call it “emptiness” or “confusion.” By being able to bring the entire scale of the response into conscious awareness, we are suddenly provided with much more possibility to take action earlier, when it is more simple and easy to shift our behavior somewhere more ecological and appropriate.

A next question would be “What is the easiest to change or redirect the response?” Most people try to simply negate or squelch their compulsive feelings or responses. The fundamental NLP approach to change, however, is pacing and leading, and typically involves dealing with the structure of a response rather than its content.

The steps leading to a compulsion, for instance, could be considered a type of ‘chain’. And, as the old adage points out, “the chain is no stronger than its weakest link.” The purpose of the Pragmagraphic Swish Design Pattern is to weaken the link leading to the compulsive response, and strengthen the link in the chain that leads to the state of creativity and choice. This is done by identifying and shifting the Submodality qualities that create these links. The typical “Swish” format involves de-intensifying one set of submodality qualities while simultaneously increasing another set, stimulating different pathways of neurology and resulting in a shift in the direction of the internal response.

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