The NLP Pattern of the Month:

The Foreground - Background Process

The Foreground-Background process involves noticing what is in the "foreground" and "background" of perception with respect to a problem situation and a resource experience. Usually, what is foregrounded in the two experiences is quite different. The background of the two experiences, however, often shares many features. For a person who has a phobia of heights, for example, the distance to the earth, a sense of tunnel vision, and a dizzy feeling in the head may be very much in the foreground when the person is looking down from a building or ladder. When recalling a resourceful experience of feeling calm and courageous, he or she may notice that objects in his or her peripheral vision and an awareness of his or her center of gravity are in the foreground of perception. The feeling of the person's left earlobe, the space between his or her big toe and the adjacent toe, or the distance between the tip of his or her chin and chest bone, however, may be in the background of both experiences (like the whistle in Pavlov's experiments). Sensations which are naturally in the background of the problem experience can be linked to other responses, such as the resource experience.

Steps of The Foreground - Background Process

  1. Identify an automatic limiting response that occurs in a well defined context and is testable.
    e.g., anxiety related to being in the dentist's office
    Associate into a specific example of the limiting response enough that you experience its affects on your physiology.
    1. a. Identify what is in the "foreground" of your awareness - i.e., which features of the limiting experience you are MOST aware of at the time it is happening.
      e.g., pitch of dentist's drill, awareness of heart rate and jaw
      You may check representational systems and sub-modalities for both external and internal perceptions.
    2. b. Identify what is in the "background" - find some things that you are not aware of during the experience and that have no bearing on it.
      e.g., soles of feet, earlobe, color of the walls

  2. Identify a counter example to the response - that is, a time when you could or should have had the limiting response but did not.
    e.g., a time when dentist friend was demonstrating his equipment
    If there is no counter example then identify an experience that is as close to the limiting one as possible in all respects but where there is no limiting response. Associate into this experience.
    1. a. Identify what features of this experience that you are MOST aware of (foreground ). As you focus on these features establish an anchor as you experience the intensification of the physiology [A1] .
      e.g., curious internal voice, dissociated image of whole office
    2. b. Establish a "common ground" - that is, features which are in the background of both the limiting experience and the counter example.
      e.g., awareness of soles of feet, color of the walls

  3. Create a strong association between the common background feature and the foreground feature in the counter example experience. This may be done by focusing your attention on the background feature and firing the resource anchor [A1] and by using suggestion.
    e.g., "The more you pay attention to the soles of your feet the more you can notice how that curious internal voice grows louder and louder. And the as you find your awareness shifting to the color of the walls you are more easily able to maintain an image of the entire dentist's office."

  4. Go back to the limiting experience and focus on the "common ground" feature that you identified in 2b.
    e.g., "Put yourself back into the dentist's chair in that first memory and simply put your awareness on the soles of your feet, and notice the color of the walls in that memory."
    If this does not change the limiting response then either
    1. identify a more powerful or appropriate counter example and repeat the process from 2a.
      e.g., getting a blood test and not noticing the pain
    2. go back to 2b and strengthen the association between the "common ground" and the foreground features in the counter example.

  5. Test by focusing on the features that were the foreground in the limiting experience identified in 1a. You should now experience the response associated with the counter-example experience.
    e.g., "Now put yourself back in that dentist's office and actually focus your complete attention on the pitch of the drill, your jaw and your heart rate."

The Foreground-Background process stands in marked contrast with many submodality techniques, such as the Swish Pattern, in which part of the stimulus which is most in the foreground, the so-called "driver submodality," is used to exchange one response for another.

One problem with focusing on elements in the foreground is that it creates a type of conflict, in that the two experiences struggle to dominate the foreground of consciousness. The Foreground-Background process has a very subtle, almost magical, quality to it. The change in the problem experience is gentle, unconscious and effortless.


Beliefs: Pathways to Health and Well-Being, Dilts, Hallbom, T. & Smith, S., 1990.

Also see the Article of the Month or the Archives if you are interested in checking out NLP in more depth.

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