The NLP Pattern of the Month:

Operationalizing NLP Presuppositions

The field of NLP is based on a set of fundamental presuppositions about ourselves, our behavior, and our world. NLP presuppositions, however, are not simply theoretical axioms. They are intended to be principles to live by. The following exercise was designed by Robert Dilts, Todd Epstein and Judith DeLozier to help people enact or "operationalize" the key NLP presuppositions in their relationships with others.

Identify a situation involving another person in which you were not able to perform as masterfully as you know you that you could have. Enrich your perception of the system or 'problem space' surrounding this experience by considering the following questions.

  1. The map is not the territory. Every person has their own individual map of the world. There is no single correct map of the world.

    Find at least two other maps or ways of perceiving the situation.

    How would a (anthropologist, artist, minister, journalist) perceive this situation?

  2. At some level all behavior is (or at one time was) "positively intended". It is or was perceived as appropriate given the context in which it was established, from the point of view of the person whose behavior it is. It is easier and more productive to respond to the intention rather than the expression of a problematic behavior.

    Consider the positive intention(s) behind the behavior(s) associated with the issue or situation.

    What could be the positive intentions (protection, attention, establishing boundaries, etc.) behind the behaviors of the other person and/or your reactions?

  3. People make the best choices available to them given possibilities and the capabilities that they perceive available to them from their model of the world.

    Consider the issue or situation from at least three points of view (self-other-observer).

    What do you see, hear and feel through your own eyes, ears and body?
    Step into the shoes of the other person. How would you perceive the situation if you were that person?
    Imagine you were an uninvolved observer looking at this situation. What would you notice about the interaction from this perspective?


  4. It is not possible to isolate any part of a system from the rest of the system. People cannot not influence each other. Interactions between people form feedback loops such that a person will be effected by the results that their own actions create with respect to other people.

    Consider in what way you might be participating in creating or maintaining the issue or situation.

    What part are you playing in reinforcing this pattern?

  5. Not all interactions in a system are on the same level. What is positive on one level may be negative on another level. It is useful to separate behavior from "self" to separate the positive intent, function, belief, etc. that generates the behavior from the behavior itself.

    Consider what kinds of factors might be influencing the issue or situation (e.g., environment - where, behavior - what, capabilities - how, beliefs & values - why, identity - who, system - who else or what else).

    How is the external environment or context influencing this situation? (physical space, background noise, quality of air, etc.)
    What are the specific behaviors involved in this interaction? (averting eyes, tone of voice, specific gestures, etc.)
    What capabilities are involved or missing in this situation - i.e., something that you or the other person knows or does not know how to do? (creativity, rapport, calibration, etc.)
    Are there beliefs or values that are being violated or missing from the interaction? Are you operating from different criteria? (safety, loyalty, boundaries, play, etc.) Why is this interaction meaningful?
    How are you and the other person perceiving your sense of self in this interaction? (peer, subordinate, victim, rescuer, etc.)
    What influences from the larger system (the 'field') may be effecting this interaction? (other members of the group, past experiences, expectations, assumptions, etc.)


  6. No response, experience or behavior is meaningful outside of the context in which it was established or the response it elicits next. Any behavior, experience or response may serve as a resource or limitation depending on how it fits in with the rest of the system.

    Consider the problem or difficulty from more than one time frame. (i.e., long term, short term - past, present, future)

    Have you looked at this situation with respect to an hour, a day, week, a month, a year from now?
    How is this current situation influenced by the past?
    What if I saw this experience as part of a cycle instead of linear cause and effect?


  7. The 'wisest' and most 'compassionate' maps are those which make available the widest and richest number of choices, as opposed to being the most "real" or "accurate".

    Clarify the perspective, level and time frame from which you are experiencing the issue or situation.

    Are you clear about which perspective you are taking when you are experiencing the situation?
    Are you clear about which level of process is influencing you in this interaction? At which level is your attention most focused?
    Are you clear about the time frame from which you are perceiving the situation?


  8. In order to successfully adapt and survive, a member of a system needs a certain minimum amount of flexibility. That amount of flexibility has to be proportional to the variation in the rest of the system. As a system becomes more complex, more flexibility is required. If what you are doing is not getting the response you want then keep varying your behavior until you do elicit the response.

    Make sure you have at least three different choices for responding to the issue or situation.

    What are three other ways that you could respond to this behavior or situation?

NLP Presuppositions Exercise

The following exercise, designed by Tim Hallbom and Suzi Smith, is another way to operationalize NLP presuppositions with respect to a specific symptom, situation or problem. It involves establishing reference experiences for each presupposition and then transfering them into a particular context in which you would like to experience them more strongly.

First, lay out a space for the problem context or situation. Then arrange a series of locations, representing various NLP presuppositions, around the problem situation.

Exercise 1: Building Intuitions Using Second Position

  1. Standing in the context space, access the symptom or problem state, and the context in which it occurs to create an anchor.
  2. Step into each presupposition space, accessing and anchoring the idea, then look at yourself in the problem context (disassociated), through the filters of the presupposition.
  3. Access the presupposition full, then step into the context space, adding the presupposition.
  4. Continue around the circle until all spaces have been accessed and integrated.

(Copyright 1995-1997 by Tim Hallbom and Suzi Smith. Reprinted with permission.)


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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