NLP presuppositions: The ‘beliefs’ of Neuro-linguistic programming
NLP presuppositions curated by Tobias & Liz from the metaFox team.
What is NLP or Neuro-linguistic programming? Is it about coding?
When we hear about ‘neuro-linguistic programming’, many of us may think of programming languages or even ‘natural language processing’ (a computer trying to understand human language). However, we are speaking about human communication and psychology here. When NLP was conceived in the second half of the 20th century, the term ‘programming’ did not yet refer to ‘computer programming’ as we commonly associate it with today. Thus, in the context of NLP, ‘programming’ means our internal operating system or how our minds function in relation to our past experiences, thoughts and emotions.1
A pragmatic NLP definition is that of a toolbox with various models and tools from psychology, communication science and non-scientific resources. This means that NLP is not a closed theory but an evolving collection of techniques and methods. NLP does not claim to be evidence-based. Rather, it focuses on the application of tools than the theory behind them. It was developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s after which several other therapists and educators contributed to the NLP toolbox.
The NLP presuppositions
The philosophy underlying its tools is provided by a set of presuppositions or assumptions that NLP makes about the world. They vary depending on your source. The metaFox curation of the NLP presuppositions is as follows:
The map is not the territory. (Words are not the item they represent.)
NLP presents a set of models and also fully acknowledges that it does not describe the exact reality. Neither does any other model, according to NLP.
More concretely, this means that how I see the world – my map of reality – is different from how you see the world, your map of reality. And both of them are valid and both of them are ‘distorted’. We can understand ‘maps’ as our ‘subjectivities’, while the ‘territory’ as the ‘objective truth’. Then, for instance, we both understand what the word ‘home’ refers to but we might conjure different meanings or see different ‘collages’ when we speak of or think about it.
People respond to their experience, not to reality itself.
Because all of us have a unique map of reality, the filters for what we perceive, what kind of meaning we give to perceptions and how we make sense of them, depend on our very individual culture, background, values, education and experience.
This means that we navigate the world using our unique maps and make sense of reality using our individual filters. Our responses to what’s happening inside and around us and to other people are always filtered through our subjectivity.
Behind every behaviour there is a positive intention.
This is one of the most controversial assumptions of NLP. The controversy goes away if we unpack this NLP presupposition in the context of the previous statements. People act according to their maps and the assumptions they make about their environment. Every action has a reason and makes sense in the acting person’s point of view.
Putting ourselves in the shoes of someone with social anxiety, we may discover the reasons why they shy away from socializing. It’s not because they are aloof or anti-social but because these situations produce negative feelings and uncomfortable physical sensations. By avoiding social situations the person thus has the intention to protect herself from negative feelings. In (self-)coaching, making the effort of understanding the intention behind behaviour often enables us to understand behavior and (if desired) alter it.
This presupposition makes NLP very useful and highly applicable in personal development because it begins in understanding and acceptance. Perhaps this is why NLP for anxiety and NLP for weight loss are some real-world applications.
People are not their behaviour. (Accept the person, change the behaviour.)
NLP interventions often differentiate (and help to discover the difference) between a person and their behaviour in a certain role/context. This helps to uncover opportunities for, firstly, acceptance and acknowledgement of behaviour, and secondly, the change towards a more positive behaviour.
Moreover, separating the person from their actions allows us to not define people and ourselves through our actions, which can be paralyzing and limiting. If you think of yourself as an ‘overthinker’ or an ‘overanalyser’, then you will tend to follow a pattern of behaviour that feeds this definition you’ve set for yourself. What if you start thinking of yourself as someone who often (or only sometimes?) overthinks or overnalyses? This small shift in perspective – a change from noun to verb – opens up the possibility of changing a mental habit to eventually let you escape your boxed conception.
The meaning of communication is not only defined by what you intend, but also by the response you get.
“You didn’t intend that as a compliment, but I took it as such. Thanks!”
At the core of NLP is communication – both internally within a person and externally between people. The NLP communication model asserts that meanings generated in communication come not only from the speaker, but also the listeners. And because of our unique maps, the meaning we give to statements and situations determines our response to them. This is why sometimes when we interact with others what we intend to mean is taken as something else. The other person, the receiver of our message, then responds with the meaning they generate based on their map. Looking at communication in this way expands our understanding of interpersonal interaction and meaning-making within and among ourselves.
We have all the resources we need, or we can create them.
Resources mean the internal responses and external behaviours needed to get desired results. Our most basic resource is our ability to learn. This does not necessarily mean that everybody can achieve anything. It rather means that our success can also be shaped by our ability to define success.
For example, if you think of yourself as someone who can’t learn how to drive because you get nervous easily, you’ll never learn this skill as even before any attempt you’ve already put it beyond your reach. However, if you start defining yourself as someone who can overcome your nerves and learn to be calm, then you’re now a step closer to acquiring the skill.
The most flexible system within a system or person within a group will have the most influence.
The goal of NLP is to increase the variety of ways in which we can respond to a situation. When we grow our (internal and external) behavioural flexibility, we increase our chances of choosing successful responses. Flexibility here means a large variety of e.g. points of view, behaviours, attitudes, approaches, ideas, etc. to choose from.
We are able to cultivate our flexibility when we are open to many things and to different kinds of people while also exercising self-reflexivity. And when we are the most influential, we can deliver the greatest impact in a team or an organisation not only through our arsenal of successful responses but also because we can move and inspire people to action. Flexibility, then, will help us instigate changes and transformations towards our desired results.
If something does not work, do something different.
Our ability to choose from different behavioural options defines our success. Making use of the different options we (would) have, requires a conscious proactive choice for change which might not always be easy.
This is especially true if we’ve already invested much time and effort on the first option we chose and had to work from scratch once again on an alternative path. Nevertheless, our ability to change directions or switch strategies when we get stuck on something will always work to our benefit in the end.
There is no such thing as failure, there is only feedback.
NLP focuses on ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘problems’, more on the ‘how’ than the ‘what’. It asks “What did we learn?” instead of “Who is to blame?” and is directed forward rather than to the dead ends of failure.
Dwelling on failures and playing the blame game will only give us gloomy outlooks and finger-pointing. When we reframe failure as feedback, we make way for a space to improve on our mistakes and come up with solutions or even something better than our original plan.
The NLP presuppositions as belief sentences
These presumptions create a worldview that is very different from what many people grow up in. Although the presumptions we have about the world (e.g., “There are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people.”) influence our life drastically, we are often unaware of them and hardly ever question them. The NLP presuppositions strive to enable us to be more aware of our map.
In a way, the NLP presuppositions can be viewed as the ‘Beliefs’ of NLP.
Beliefs are statements which we believe to be true about ourselves or our life. They can be limiting (“I am not good enough to deserve this, so I will fail.”) but also empowering (“No matter the outcome, I will get out of this experience wiser and stronger.”). Of course, no statement like this is universally or objectively true but the impact they can have on us, our attitude and behaviour can be very real. We often hear the saying “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” because people who lived before us experienced first-hand the power of beliefs – and yet, this statement is of course a belief in itself.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of beliefs, Sleight of Mouth: The Magic of Conversational Belief Change by Robert B. Dilts might be an interesting read.
(In)famous quotes: Beliefs in everyday life
A quote card from the deep quotes ‘Fresh Perspectives’
We come across beliefs more often than we become aware. When our colleague tells us “I’m not a numbers person.” this is just as much a belief as Barack Obama stating that “We are the change that we seek.” However, the impact of those two quotes is rather different. While the first quote is limiting, the second one is empowering.
At metaFox, we love quotes and slogans which can serve as empowering beliefs, able to carry us through life and inspire us both during tough times and everyday situations. For this reason, we have created the deep quotes ‘Fresh Perspectives’. The 52 quote cards can serve you as an ‘anchor’ on your vision board, or as a get-to-know activity on your next workshop.
About the authors
Tobias is one of co-founders of metaFox and has been learning about NLP since 2016. He became an NLP Practitioner with Timo Schlage and an NLP Master with Tom Andreas who combines elements of systemic coaching with NLP and various other fields. The contents of this article and much of the learning influencing metaFox is based on their wisdom.
Liz loves to write and understand things. She’s currently attempting to develop healthy ways of looking at the world and living life.
1 See https://www.nlp.com/what-is-nlp/.
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