Steve Andreas’ NLP Blog

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Response to Shawn Carson’s blog post on the swish pattern

Steve Andreas


I appreciate all the time and effort that Shawn put into his response to my blog post on the swish pattern. This has provided a unique and refreshing opportunity for me to think through many issues, and develop more clarity. Accordingly, it has taken me some time to compose my response. This kind of exchange of views and understandings is woefully infrequent in the field, and I think it’s absolutely necessary if NLP is going to become a coherent and systematic set of understandings and methodology—rather than a “herd of cats.” Shawn’s response appears below, with my comments in brown type interspersed, so that you can see exactly what I’m responding to.


How to Save the Swish: A Thoughtful Response to Steve Andreas

NLP in a State of Change

By Shawn Carson Aug 07, 2016


In this article we will comment on a blog post by Steve Andreas, entitled How to Ruin the Swish Pattern: “Let me count the ways”’.

I believe the NLP and hypnosis community shares a common goal of ‘raising the bar’ in respect of change work and coaching, and healthy debate about NLP techniques, principles and the merits of different philosophical viewpoints supports this goal. No one can doubt the many contributions Steve Andreas has made to the field of NLP and it is with a due sense of the debt the NLP community owes to Steve that I respectfully disagree with some of the premises in Steve’s blog post.

In his blog post Steve critiques (although it might be more accurate to say ‘criticizes’) various YouTube videos of the swish, including videos featuring Michael Carroll, Tony Robbins as well as yours truly.

Steve has two problems with the various swish techniques or variations he critiques:

  •    Firstly they reflect a “lack of ability to learn and follow the steps of the pattern”
  •    Secondly they reflect a “lack of understanding of the principles underlying each step”


“Lack of ability to follow the steps of the pattern”

Let’s deal with the first point first. NLP has never been about following the steps of a pattern. Richard Bandler (co-founder and arguably the creative force behind the birth of NLP) defines NLP as “an attitude of wanton experimentation that leaves behind a trail of techniques,” meaning the steps of the pattern are something that are left behind after the application of NLP. If you are simply following the steps of an NLP pattern, it does not mean you are necessarily ‘doing NLP’.


Firstly, Bandler’s quote is at least partly a marketing statement designed to distinguish what he does from the rest of us. Grinder has made similar statements describing his work as “real NLP,” implying that the work of others is not.

Secondly, if we apply Shawn’s statement that, “NLP has never been about following the steps of a pattern,” to the context of cooking, then anyone who uses a recipe would not be a cook; only someone who creates a new combination of ingredients would deserve that title. While it may be useful to distinguish between creating a new recipe and following an existing one, I think most people would consider both to be “cooking.” Does Shawn really mean to say that someone who uses the swish, or 6-step reframing, or “mapping across” with submodalities is not doing NLP?


Neither of the co-founders of NLP (Richard Bandler and John Grinder) teach NLP using the deductive teaching approach of ‘follow these steps’.


I trained directly with Bandler for a dozen years, and Grinder for about half that, and I can assure you that they both offered many “follow these steps” patterns, from predicate matching to 6-step reframing. Anyone who doubts that can easily verify it by reading Frogs into Princes, Trance-formations, Reframing, or Using Your Brain—for a Change. In several recent Bandler videos he uses the same stepwise process to cure a phobia, “Take that picture, shrink it down to the size of a quarter, and blink it black and white 25 times.”


Rather they teach by encouraging their students to step into a state of personal excellence, and then to work with their ‘client’ from that state. As a result, their students all have unique experiences.


The principles underlying the Swish

I totally agree with Steve Andreas that it is vital to understand the principles underlying the NLP patterns. Once you understand these principles, you can step out of the confines of the ‘steps of the pattern’ mind-set, and enter the dance of change with your client. This is why we write our NLP Mastery books to fully explore the principles underlying each of the core NLP patterns (including ‘NLP Mastery: The Swish’ by Jess Marion and Shawn Carson).

Therefore I will re-analyze each of the videos Steve Andreas critiques, but with the intention of pointing out how these videos reveal some of these principles, especially where they vary from the “standard” swish Steve Andreas describes, i.e. from the perspective of ‘what is right’ rather than ‘what is wrong’ with the videos.

Before we get to that, I would like to point out a few areas of disagreement that I have with Steve’s discussion in his “Background” section.


What is a ‘swish’???

Steve defines the swish as “a rapid way to change any troublesome habit or other unwanted response”, and it’s certainly the case that the swish was originally described in the contexts of problems such as smoking and nail-biting (we will talk more about this ‘classical’ swish a little later).

*However, I would define the swish as a technique that chains or links two representations (typically two pictures) using a sliding submodality shift, in order to redirectionalize the mind.


I think both descriptions are accurate, each points out different aspects—and each is also incomplete.


As an example any technique that links a trigger picture with an outcome picture by making the trigger picture shrink, as the outcome picture gets bigger, is in my mind a swish pattern.


That definition omits the very important criterion that the outcome picture is a desired self-image, not a specific behavior (more on this later).


Obviously techniques that are swish patterns under my definition, would not necessarily be swish patterns under Steve’s definition, but this is semantics.


I think it is much more than semantics. If someone describes a suspension bridge as one that is suspended from cables, and later someone else describes a bridge built entirely of bricks as a suspension bridge, that is simply not true, even if it’s a useful bridge. And if you are building a suspension bridge, but you leave out the cables, it won’t work very well. The swish was described in great detail about 30 years ago, so that word has a very specific meaning. Using the word “swish” for an avocado and cheese sandwich isn’t useful, even if the sandwich is nourishing.


Does this matter? Well, certainly if you are teaching an NLP Trainers Training, then it is important. Trainers should be able to ‘speak the language’ of NLP in a way that allows them to communicate with each other. But if you are working with a client, or even teaching an NLP Practitioner course, it’s less clear that overly ‘standardized’ NLP terminology provides any substantive benefit to your client or students.


If I’m working with a client, I wouldn’t use any NLP terminology at all.


‘Classical’ or ‘standard’ swish

In the classical swish (Steve refers to this as the ‘standard’ swish), the issue is an unwanted behavior (say smoking). The trigger picture is whatever the client sees out of her own eyes immediately before she loses conscious control (e.g. the cigarette packet, or the newsagents where she buys her cigarettes, or the cup of coffee that precedes her first cigarette of the day, etc.). The outcome picture is how she sees herself being as a person (identity level dissociated picture) when the habit is no longer an issue for her. So far, so good, we all agree on this basic foundation.


I agree with this description. However Shawn’s earlier description (marked with an asterisk* above) omitted the “identity level dissociated picture.” My main criticism of the swish videos I reviewed was that this crucial piece was left out of all the demonstrations (except for Tony Robbins,’) replacing it with a specific behavior. This change is what I described as “replacing the engine in a Lamborghini with a hamster wheel.”


So why is the desired self-image dissociated? Richard Bandler told me that the classical swish was intended to maintain the client’s state while changing the context. Meaning the client has a desire for the cigarette, and the classical swish is intended to maintain the state of desire but to then apply that desire to the self-image. The client maintains the state of “I want” but changes from “I want to smoke” to “I want to be her”; meaning her ideal future self.


This is an interesting alternative understanding of principle. Perhaps someday when NLP has become scientific, someone will design an experiment to decide between Shawn’s view and mine. Until then I can only offer my rationale. Yes, the cue image triggers desire, but it also triggers a conflicting urge to not yield to the desire, a state of unpleasant incongruence, which is why the client wants to change it. If Shawn is correct in saying that the feeling state triggered by the cue picture is transferred to the self-image, that would mean that this incongruence would be transferred. I don’t think that would be useful, and I don’t think that is what happens. I think it is much simpler and more accurate to think of it as moving away from the unpleasant incongruence of the cue to the congruent desired self-image.


This is why the image is dissociated in the classical swish, because (as Steve Andreas rightly says), if it is associated there is no longer the ‘wanting’, rather a ‘being’.

I discussed this idea (that the classical swish is intended to maintain a state of desire) with my teacher and mentor, John Overdurf. John shrugged and said “well, maybe”, again because he sees the swish as a much wider pattern than mere changing of unwanted habits. In any case, if we limit our discussion to the classical swish as described by Dr. Bandler then there is no state change (the state is ‘desire’ for both the trigger and self-image pictures) and the state changes that Steve Andreas describes do not take place, i.e. they are inconsistent with Dr. Bandler’s original swish.


Shawn states that “the classical swish is intended to maintain a state of desire.” This does not appear in Bandler’s original description in Using Your Brain—for a Change. Since the state in response to the cue image is incongruent (both desiring and not desiring) and the state in response to the self-image is congruent desire, it doesn’t make sense to say that the first state is “maintained,” or to say that “then there is no state change.” If that were true, the incongruence would be maintained. It makes more sense to me to think it as a shift from incongruent desire to congruent desire, propelling behavior away from an incongruent state, and toward a congruently attractive self-image.


Self-delusion of change

Now Steve makes a strange and in my view a mistaken claim:

“if the self-image were associated, that would assume that the client had already become it, so there would be no motivation to change, only a self-delusion that change had already happened.”


Please see my next comment below, and also my more extensive comments clarifying what I mean by the word “delusion” in response to Shawn’s first video below, and in response to David Shepard’s video later.


The problem with this statement is that if the swish (however it is done) works then change has already happened; it’s no delusion, it’s reality. The reason to keep the image dissociated (in the classical swish) is to utilize the client’s (existing) state of desire, not to avoid self-delusion.


Perhaps we are talking about different time frames as if they are the same. The desired self-image is dissociated to create motivation, because at this point in time the client is separated from the image that they want to become. “If the swish works” is a bit later when the cue triggers the desire to become like the desired self-image, and this change is very fast, so they become it. But if the desired self-image were associated to begin with, there would be no motivation, and no change, because the client would think they had already changed, and this is what I referred to as a delusion. Again see my more extensive comments on delusion in response to Shawn’s first video below, and in response to David Shepard’s video later.


State based coaching

Substitute behavior

Steve suggests that seeing the self-image in a context, “doing a specific behavior” is a mistake. If so, then it’s a mistake that Richard Bandler made with the original swish as he describes getting smoke-free clients to see themselves happily co-existing with smokers (because he claims he did not want to create anti-smoking crusaders). Indeed it’s impossible to see a self-image absent any behavior; standing is a behavior, sitting is a behavior, so how can a self-image have no behavior?


Firstly, the word “behavior” usually means a movement is involved. A still image is not a behavior, even if the person is standing or seated, but a movement like standing up or sitting down is. So it is not at all “impossible to see a self-image absent any behavior.”

Secondly, I agree that Bandler often made statements like, “getting smoke-free clients to see themselves happily co-existing with smokers (because he claims he did not want to create anti-smoking crusaders),” and that could be understood to indicate a specific behavior. However, “Happily co-existing” is a general statement that could include a huge variety of specific behaviors. My understanding is that he wanted the self-image to have that attitude or capability, not a specific behavior.


Now in the HNLP (Humanistic Neuro Linguistic Psychology: Overdurf and Silverthorn) coaching model we are always looking for ‘context-trigger-state-behavior’, both for the problem and for the change. If the behavior has not changed then typically the problem hasn’t either. Therefore, there is no way to test change unless the coach sees (and the client experiences) a new state and a new behavior.


I’m OK with that; that is why all good NLP work is tested to be sure there is a change in behavior. The question boils down to whether the change is chosen in advance by a conscious mind (client or practitioner, or by the client’s unconscious mind as a result of wanting to become the desired self-image.


State-based coaching

State based coaching is the basis of HNLP. State based coaching assumes that behaviors and other responses are based on:

  • Your state,
  • In a context,
  • Presented with a trigger.

For example, if you are in your cube at work (the context), and you notice your boss looming over you (the trigger) then your response will depend upon the ‘state’ you go into when you notice your boss. For example if you go into a ‘flapping panic’, then you are likely to respond inappropriately, while if you go into a state of ‘unflappable calm confidence’, then you will likely respond appropriately.

Change work is therefore about collapsing a problem trigger so that the trigger becomes an anchor for a resourceful state, rather than an unresourceful state.


Although I don’t think the word “collapsing” is a good metaphor (I think “linking” would be better) I otherwise agree with this.


The major issue I notice, when watching unsuccessful swishes (or any other NLP pattern for that matter) is that the coach fails to elicit a resourceful state or fails to attach that resource to the trigger.


In the case of the swish, that would be to make sure that the desired self-image elicits a resourceful state.


But you will all-ways create change if you follow the four steps of John Overdurf’s Meta-Pattern (associate into the problem, dissociate, associate into the resource, and collapse i.e. attach the resource to the trigger so the trigger becomes an anchor for the resource).


Earlier Shawn disparaged “following the steps” as “not necessarily doing NLP”; now he is advocating following “the four steps of John Overdurf’s Meta-Pattern.” This particular meta-pattern that Shawn attributes to Overdurf is one that we learned from Bandler many years ago, way before the swish.

The steps Shawn proposes are one useful sequence, but not the only one. Many other patterns don’t follow the Meta-pattern sequence, for instance context and content reframing, simply directing attention to a different scope of time or space, or a different categorization. “Mapping across” with submodalities, the compulsion blowout, and other patterns of change also don’t follow the Meta-pattern outline.


See The Meta Pattern by Sarah Carson and Shawn Carson for more.


The description of this book states that, “The Meta Pattern is at the heart of all successful influence whether in therapy or business.” “All” is an overgeneralization that is not true. It is one useful meta-pattern, but not the only one. Thinking that it’s the only meta-pattern puts a severe limitation on the “wanton experimentation” and “dancing with the client” that Shawn advocates.


So, if the new self-image triggers a sufficiently powerful resource state, and the swish attaches this resource to the trigger, the technique will be successful, if not, it won’t.


Agreed. Which is why it is so important to be sure the self-image is very desirable.


If you get hung up too much on the image, rather than the resource state, or ‘end state energy’, you are ‘focusing on the finger and missing all the heavenly glory’.


I would need to see a denominalized translation of that last sentence in order to respond to it.


‘State’ versus ‘end state energy’

Understanding the concept of a resource ‘state’ versus ‘end state energy’ (using HNLP terminology) is important. Typically, if you ask a client for a resource state, how they would prefer to be feeling in their problem context, they will offer a word that is more-or-less the ‘opposite’ of their problem state. For example, if they feel afraid of speaking in public, say, they might say they want to feel ‘awesomely confident’.


Yes, I agree. Clients often ask for the other half of a polarity, rather than a state of integrated resolution.


These big resource states are great for breaking down problems, but not so good for generative change.


“Big resource states” are not necessarily the best; they are much less stable, more likely to flip back to the other polarity, unless they two are integrated.


Why is this? Because these states are difficult to maintain over time; they are too high energy. An accomplished speaker will probably not say they feel ‘awesomely confident’ when they speak in public, they’ll say something like “I feel free, relaxed, open…”.


I couldn’t agree more with the paragraph above. When you approach a door, twist the knob and open it, you don’t say to yourself (or someone else) “Wow, I can open the door!!” In fact, you usually don’t even notice it at all. That is why it’s useful to say that the desired self-image is of “the you for whom smoking is no longer an issue,” in contrast to, “the you who is triumphant about having conquered the habit,” or some other “big resource state.”


These lower energy ‘end states’ are typically associated with ‘values’ or ‘identity’ level states, such as “freedom”, “love”, “being myself”. Think about it, it’s pretty easy for you to feel “free” all the time, but to feel “awesomely confident” all the time would be exhausting!


I wish Shawn, or somebody else, would convince Tony Robbins of this! He is very good at getting people to flip to the other side of a polarity (for example see him turn a stutterer into a speaker like Tony). This can be a useful first step, but Tony seldom takes the next step to integrate the polarity, so that, for instance the stutterer can talk like an ordinary person. There are several videos in which Tony asks for someone who is suicidal, and they end up saying something like, “I can conquer anything.” A statement like this is a universal quantifier that reality will soon refute.


Now it’s important to know that if you as a coach, generate a big powerful resource state in your client (“awesomely confident”, say) and use that to collapse the trigger, change will happen. And, over time, that “awesomely confident” will transform into a lower energy (but more sustainable) ‘end state’.


I would be interested in Shawn’s understanding of how this transition from a big energy state to a lower energy state occurs. I would say that sometimes that happens. Other times the change will fall apart, and the person will revert back to the other side of the polarity.


The swish pattern typically uses ‘end states’ (remember end states arise at ‘identity’ level, or ‘self-image’). BUT a good swish can (and should) also layer in more energetic resource states such as laughter, excitement, confidence, and so on. When you watch the videos, please look primarily for the state of the client, and how their state changes, as they go through the swish.


Video Review

Before we get to the videos themselves, I think it’s important to bear in mind the purpose of a YouTube video. Most of the videos discussed are short videos, not extracts from lengthy trainings, and even the ones from trainings do not contain all the teaching that preceded and followed the demo. Such videos are never intended to teach chapter and verse on a specific pattern; wouldn’t life be easy if you could master an NLP pattern by watching a three minute video! I would suggest that you watch each video as a summary of the swish, more intended to raise the profile of the trainer than to lay out all the details of the swish.


I can agree with all this; in fact I wrote much the same in my blog post. However, what is presented in a short video should be accurate. Making sure that the cue is associated and that the outcome is a desired self-image are essential pieces, not “chapter and verse” minor details, and most of the videos did not get these right.


Michael Carroll

Michael describes the swish using the ‘slingshot’ method. This is not a client demo, and is not really even a ‘covert demo’ (compare this to the Tony Robbins video discussed below).

It does utilize the ‘slingshot’ swish, where the trigger image is sent out to the distance and returns as the new self-image. In HNLP we consider the slingshot to be often superior to the ‘standard’ swish because of two important underlying principles:

  1. Different clients react to different submodality shifts. The swish Andreas describes uses two of the principle submodalities (size and brightness), while the slingshot uses three (size, brightness and distance), so if your client’s driving submodality is distance, she would get a better result using the ‘slingshot’ than using the ‘standard’ swish.


There are two issues here; one is the use of distance. I totally agree that distance will be a better driving submodality for some people, and using three submodalities rather than two is fine. If one of the submodalities truly is a driver, it will carry one or more other submodality shifts along with it spontaneously, without having to mention them. This is why when we teach the “designer swish” pattern we teach people how to identify which submodalities are drivers for the client, and use those.

The other issue is the way distance is used. The slingshot first sends one image into the distance, and then brings the other image back in, what I have called a “butt joint.” If one image goes off into the distance at the same time that the other comes in from the distance, this creates a continuous change, which I have described as a “lap joint,” which I think makes a more dependable connection.


Michael could have done a better job of stressing this in the video, but again it’s a short 6 minute YouTube video.

  1. NLP is ultimately theater; it relies on communication between coach and the client’s unconscious (this by-the-way is the basis of New Code NLP, which Michael practices – to maximize unconscious involvement in each key step of transformation). The slingshot swish is often better geared toward a theatrical presentation by the coach, which is more likely to engage the client’s unconscious.


I agree that good NLP work depends heavily on nonverbal cues (“theater”). However, you can be just as theatrical (or even more so) using both hands going in different directions simultaneously, gesturing with one to indicate the cue image moving away, and the other hand to indicate the self-image moving closer. Given Shawn’s emphasis on the importance of nonverbal “theater,” it’s curious that his two videos below use still images of cartoon characters, leaving out theater altogether.


It’s true that Michael does emphasize behavior over state in the video (the antithesis of New Code), but again I suspect this is more to do with the ease of describing the swish in a short 6 minute video, than the way Michael would actually work with a client.


Possibly; we have no evidence on this. Shawn writes that “Michael does emphasize behavior over state.” However neither behavior or state is a desired self-image.


Tony Robbins

This is a great video.

The first thing to note about Tony Robbins’ video is that his definition of the swish is much wider than the classical swish, designed to change a habit, that Steve Andreas seems to be focused on.


I think Shawn means “application” rather than “definition.” I specifically wrote “troublesome habit or other unwanted response” (not just “habit”) which I think is pretty inclusive.


The video is excellent (of course, being Tony Robbins). I will point out a few of the principles Tony is using:

  1. Tony is doing a ‘covert demo’, meaning he is overtly talking about his own experience, but covertly is leading his ‘client’ (in this case his audience), to actually experience the swish. This means that when they actually come to practice it their unconscious minds have already been through the swish at least nine times!


I agree. Good point.


  1. Tony not only uses the visual association of chaining the two pictures, he also uses the physical behavior (raising the hand to the nail-biter’s mouth) to trigger the swish. So when the client actually raises their hand to their mouth, this physical motion (as well as the visual cue of the hand) will trigger the swish.


Excellent observation; I missed that nice utilization of the hand movement.


  1. Tony triggers the swish by reaching down with his right hand to a resource (in this case Tony’s identity level self-image as a communicator). For a normally organized individual, this reaching down-right accesses their kinesthetic resources, and moving the hand up toward the chest associates into the chosen resource by ‘pulling it’ into the body. If you are familiar with Tony Robbins’ work you will know this is a common feature of his ‘swish’ patterns (and one described in detail in Jess and my book ‘NLP Mastery: The Swish’).
  2. This reaching down also sets a gestural anchor that can be used by the client whenever they need. Tony refers to this at 7.40 of the video.
  3. Tony also plants a post-hypnotic suggestion that the change he has installed will transform the audience’s life in unexpected ways (generative change).


Agreed. But it is the desired self-image that drives the generative change.


The really great thing about this demo is watching Tony use the theater of the pattern to create a big positive state in the audience. You will see this in the faces of the audience around 7.00 of the video. Tony creates this energy using speed and tempo, and voice tonality, as ‘sliding anchors’ as he repeats the swish (getting faster, more up-tempo and more energetic each time).


Yes, Tony does a nice job (excluding the role-play clips of the father and daughter) in using his nonverbal expressiveness to amplify his verbal instructions—the best of all the videos, in my opinion—and impossible to do in a cartoon animation.



Alkistis (Steve Andreas refers to ‘Akistis’), discusses a pattern she calls a swish, but which is closer to a map-across. As such we will not discuss this video further.

Note that Ms. Alkistis does not claim to be an NLP trainer, so it seems petty to fault her on calling a ‘map-across’ a ‘swish’.


Firstly, what she did is not even a “map across.”

Secondly, I didn’t research the trainer status or background of any of the people in the videos. However, this doesn’t seem to be a relevant variable. For instance, Mark Hayley’s web site states that he apprenticed for 5 years with Bandler, is licensed by Bandler as a Master Trainer of NLP, has been “attendee, assistant, apprentice, or the principal trainer of 150+ NLP and hypnosis seminars, has practiced for over 15 years, and is personally endorsed by Bandler as follows: “Mark Hayley is thoroughly trained, highly skilled and very elegant with my most up-to-date teachings. I highly recommend him.” Despite all that training experience, his demonstration of the swish (next video) is almost as bizarre as ‘Alkistis.’


Mark Hayley

This is a file download. I was not comfortable downloading this to my computer so did not open and review the video.


Shawn Carson (oh, wait, that’s me!)

This is part of a series we did using an animation program called ‘Two Minute NLP’ (although this video runs an impressive 3.17).

This sets out the classical swish, but using the ‘slingshot’, in a (hopefully) fun way. I lead the client Sophie into choosing a self-image not a behavior.


This is flat out false. The caption states: “Sophie, what if there were a way that every time you saw a donut, you felt motivated to work out?” “Felt motivated” is a feeling and “working out” is a behavior; neither is a desired self-image. The sketch is of Sophie with a barbell and exercise ball — doing a specific behavior. Sophie responds, “That would be fantastic!!” which is a clear indication that she hasn’t thought this “solution” through at all.

Firstly, it means that she can never enjoy choosing a donut, because if she has to exercise instead, she will be just as choiceless as when she’s not able to refuse it. That is replacing one robotic response for another — not necessarily progress, and certainly not generative.

Secondly, whenever a specific behavior is selected as an outcome, it’s important to expand the frame and ask, “How well will this work in the real world?” In this case, the answer is “Not very well!” If Sophie is offered a donut at a meeting, and feels motivated to work out, she won’t be able to, so now she’ll be frustrated by not being able to (on top of being tempted by the donut!). There will be many other contexts in which she won’t be able to work out in response to seeing a donut. This is a great example of the limitation of a specific behavior chosen by someone’s limited (and often downright stupid!) conscious mind. Another example is in David Shepard’s video, where the desired behavior is a dissociated image of himself going around a tight turn on a motorbike (see below).

The next frame says, “Make a picture of yourself as you want to be . . . your ideal self. . . Make it big and bright. . .” The image is of her with barbell and exercise ball again, looking slim, and the balloon over her head says, “OK I look fantastic!!” This image is either her behavior, or the result of her behavior (being slender and fit) but it’s definitely not an image of someone for whom responding to a donut is an easy and effortless choice.


To represent this in an animation there has to be a picture of something, in this case Sophie in work-out clothes (Steve Andreas describes this as a ‘behavior’; so be it).


The barbell and exercise ball clearly indicate a context in which the behavior is exercising.


Steve Andreas makes the point that the ‘standard’ swish uses a submodality change that allows the self-image to (for example) get bigger as the trigger picture gets smaller. The changes take place simultaneously. In contrast the slingshot swish, which is used in several of the videos including this one, uses sequential submodality changes. The trigger image gets smaller as it moves further away, followed by the self-image picture getting bigger as the picture returns.

We talked about a couple of the advantages of the ‘slingshot swish’, versus the ‘standard’ swish when we analyzed Michael Carroll’s video above. But what about Steve Andreas point that the simultaneous change in submodalities of trigger picture and self-image is like a “lap joint” and therefore “stronger and more lasting”?


This is another difference that perhaps can only be decided by experimentation when NLP becomes scientific.


As you watch all the videos, you will see that the swish pattern begins slowly, to allow the client to acclimatize, but ultimately each swish is being run in a fraction of a second. This does not allow time for one state to decrease and the other to increase.


That last statement is offered without proof or rationale, and in any case it is the images that increase/decrease, and those changes elicit the feeling changes.


States take up to a minute to ebb and flow, not fractions of a second.


If that were true, the swish couldn’t work, because the feeling elicited by the cue wouldn’t have time to transform into the feeling of desire for the self-image. If you vividly imagine that you are furiously angry at someone, and then that person points a loaded gun at you, with a facial expression that indicates they are quite willing to pull the trigger, and you will find that your anger response changes to fear in a very short period of time — certainly less than a minute.


In fact, the swish is run so fast that the client realistically does not have time to even change the pictures in a meaningful way;


That is a conscious-mind statement, without evidence or rationale. One of the reasons for doing it fast is to force the client’s unconscious mind to make the connection.


I would argue that the swish neurologically wires the end-state to the real-world trigger, via Hebb’s Law. As a result, the trigger becomes an anchor for this new state.


I agree, but that will happen with either a lap joint or a butt joint; it’s only a question of which is stronger.


Finally, Steve Andreas talks about images being ‘realistic’ (see discussion above or Steve’s swish video at It’s pretty clear that in reality the trigger is not going to actually reduce in size. Imagine walking into Dunkin’ Donuts and seeing the donuts actually get smaller before your eyes (in reality). Ain’t gonna happen; not realistic.

Given the length and very basic nature of the video, there are no ‘important principles’ revealed here.


Thanks, I had forgotten about that little clip. When I used the word “realistic,” I meant “believable” to the client (which I think is clear from what I say in the video) not “realistic” in the size of the image. Luckily, readers can click on the video and decide for themselves — one of the great things about having a video to observe.


Shawn Carson (me again!)

This excellent video (did I just say that?) uses the swish to deal with difficult people. I learned this pattern (which Jess and I refer to as the ‘New Behavior Generator or NBG Swish’ in our book ‘NLP Mastery: The Swish’) from John Overdurf. When understood it does reveal some important and useful principles, including:

  1. Creating patterns by Integration. Some great hybrid patterns can be created by incorporating elements of one NLP pattern with another. For example we use Deep Trance Identification or New Behavior Generator as Steve Andreas rightly points out, within the swish. This can be a particularly powerful approach with clients who can’t imagine their ideal future self, but can find a model (Superman, Oprah Winfrey, James Bond, Emelia Earhart or whoever) with the qualities they wish they had. Seeing, then stepping into, this image can create powerful change. Just ask Steve Gilligan who used DTI to model Milton Erickson. Steve Andreas refers to this image as “unreal”, and “a delusion”; it’s actually called a “positive hallucination” in hypnosis!


It is fine to use the DTI or NBG (both are patterns with steps that Shawn earlier disparaged as “not necessarily NLP”) to access qualities for a desired self-image. However, the NBG has an important step that Shawn has left out, namely to adjust the image of the model before you step into it, so that the face is mine, the body shape is mine etc. This both adapts the quality to make it appropriate to the individual person, and also provides a kind of reality check.

Regarding delusions, I think there are two related issues. One is the selection of an imaginary model like superman, in comparison to a real person. Superman relies on “superpowers” which don’t actually exist in the real world. If you identify with Superman, and think that bullets will bounce off your chest, I hope you don’t have an opportunity to test that delusion! Some kids who decide that they can fly like superman, so they put on a cape and launch themselves off a top bunk. There are a number of people in mental hospitals who believe that they ARE Christ or the Virgin Mary, and that is not particularly useful. Quite a few NLP trainers are deluded in much the same way.

When using DTI or NBG with a real person, it is relatively easy to access useful general qualities or attitudes like persistence, empathy, courage, kindness, etc. It is somewhat more difficult to access specific abilities and behavioral skills, particularly those that require systematic practice over time. Identifying with Usain Bolt may be useful, but it probably won’t get you to the Olympics. Gilligan spent a long time in his very thorough identification with Erickson, and learned a great deal from it, but even now, over 35 years later, he hasn’t reached Erickson’s level of perceptivity, subtlety, and skill — and I think he would be the first to agree with that.


  1.     This pattern is structurally different to the classical swish. In the NBG Swish, the client steps into (associates with) the new self-image. This is particularly effective when the pattern is being used to generate a specific new state and behavior (rather than to eliminate a compulsion as in the classical swish). So in this case, the client steps into a state of (say) confidence so he can deal with his difficult boss.


I agree that stepping into an image can be useful to link to a specific behavior, but then it is no longer a swish (just as a bridge without cables is no longer a suspension bridge), and it will no longer be as generative.


  1. The coach presupposes the change has taken place (as Steve Andreas notes), so that the client can search for and notice what is different.
  2. It is vital that there be a break state in any pattern

(see NLP Mastery: The Meta Pattern by Sarah Carson and Shawn Carson).


I strongly disagree with that statement. I don’t think there is a break state in the compulsion blowout pattern, or in a content or context reframe, mapping across, or many other patterns. The break state is essential in the swish pattern because we using repetition to teach the client a certain sequence of experience, a direction and not a loop.


However here it is not the ‘blank-the-screen’ break state that appears the classical swish. This is presumably why Steve Andreas, focused on the classical swish, misses the break state. The break state at 2.12 of the video when the client sticks the post-it (or postage stamp) onto Burt’s forehead; if there is someone who makes the client feel bad, and you ask them to imagine sticking a post-it on that person’s forehead, you can get them to laugh (laughter is a break state). That’s why I crack a joke at this point in the video.


I didn’t laugh, so I guess it wasn’t a joke or a break state for me. However, let’s assume it’s a break state. The purpose of a break state is to interrupt one state to keep it from being connected to a following state. However since the next step is to have the “picture leap out of the forehead,” a break state at this point will only interfere with the sequence that Shawn wants to establish. A bit later (2:40) the instruction says, “Repeat several times to condition the change.” “Repeat” isn’t very specific about what exactly to repeat, and there is no mention of a break state in between the repetitions. This is where a break state is needed, because if there is no break state between repetitions, that can result in a yo-yo effect. Instead of creating a single direction from the problem image to the desired image, it may oscillate back and forth.


  1. Many patterns use physiological tricks to enhance their effect. This one is no exception: the act of looking at someone’s forehead (i.e. above their eye level) is associated with social dominance. Having the client stick the post-it (and hence look at) the forehead of their nemesis tends to put them into a more socially dominant physiology, and hence will tend to shift the dynamics of the encounter in their favor.


That’s an interesting point that I can agree with. However, my end goal would be equality, rather than either submission or dominance, which are opposite polarities.


Anthony Beardsell

For me this technique was more like a ‘double map across’ (such as is used in the NLP Belief Change) than a swish. But what the heck, who’s splitting hairs now!

I enjoyed this video because it shows a really important principle, namely that change arises primarily from the rapport between coach and client. Rapport is much more important than ‘following steps’. Anthony creates very nice rapport with Michelle and she gets her change quickly and easily as a result.


I can easily agree with all that, but what he did was not a swish, and it was not generative.


David Shepard – The Performance Partnership

The great thing about this video is that you can see how the coach enters into the dance with the client. As Steve Andreas notes, the client responds with several problems throughout the pattern. The coach responds to each with an elegant reframe, for example using submodalities, meaning reframes and hypnotic suggestions. The end result of the intervention appears to be extremely positive for the subject.

Steve Andreas does raise some excellent issues regarding the video which, I believe, come from the fact that driving a motorbike round a tight bend on a race-track is primarily a kinesthetic experience, while the swish is primarily a visual pattern. Perhaps this demo would have been better using a different NLP pattern?


Perhaps. But the swish can also work fine if done appropriately; the desired self-image would be someone with exquisite kinesthetic sensitivity and balance — far better than a dissociated image, or the delusion that the motorbike is actually on rails, so it can’t possibly slide. This is another example of expanding the frame to find out how well a specific behavioral outcome will work in the real world. In this case, the answer is that it would likely be catastrophic. The client would happily make an image of himself going around the turn fast “on rails” and have a nasty crash — and no one would realize that it resulted from an incompetent NLP intervention!


The video does not show the ‘demo selection process’ that preceded the demo, but in an ideal world I might have saved this problem to demo a more kinesthetic pattern, such as Bandler’s ‘backward spin’. At the end of the day, the change appeared to come more from the client’s feeling of ‘being on rails’ than the change in the (visual) picture.

In any case, this demonstrates the adage than any NLP Pattern can be used to address any problem,


Another universal statement that I strongly disagree with. If you use the phobia cure on grief (or the grief resolution process on a phobia) it will not work, because a phobia has a structure that is the opposite of grief.


assuming rapport between the coach and client, and the coach’s ability to ‘dance’. Again David Shepard’s rapport with the client is excellent, as is his dancing!


Jevon Dangeli

This is a very rich demonstration with lots of great learning points. I’ll point out a few of these:

  1. Utilization: at an early point in the demo there is the sound of construction, an electric drill or saw, from outside the seminar room. Jevon utilizes this by commenting, ”we are cutting through already!”
  2. Jevon elicits a nice ‘clean language’ metaphor for the problem behavior, a ‘machine gun’ (although he doesn’t utilize it further in the demo).
  3. Jevon associates the client (Rene) into the problem state and calibrates Rene’s physiology nicely (so he can test his change later on).
  4. After associating Rene into the problem state, Jevon breaks state nicely by first ‘wiping’ away the internal image, then re-associating Rene back into ‘now’ by getting her to focus on the light coming into the room through the leaves of the trees outside. He uses this break state several times through the demo.
  5. Jevon elicits a ‘last time and place’ trigger very nicely (the look in the other person’s eyes; 11.40 through 13.00). Those familiar with John Overdurf’s work will recognize this as the first step in the Meta pattern. This is not surprising as Jevon is an HNLP coach.
  6. Jevon first finds the client’s desired state, and uses this state to elicit an image. This presupposes (correctly) that if the feeling elicits the picture, then seeing the picture will elicit the feeling. At the end of the day, in my opinion the swish relies on the ‘end state energy’ feeling associated with the new self-image.


That is what results from keeping the desired self-image dissociated. If the client associates into the self-image deliberately, the motivation to become it is lost.


  1. Jevon gently challenges Rene’s change using Overdurf’s ‘testing loop’ (“Are you sure…”). When the client responds with “90% sure”, Jevon utilizes the Ericksonian technique (‘90%? Not 91% or 89%?’).
  2. In the Q&A Jevon gives a good explanation of the positioning of chairs (or relative position of client and coach) for the swish.

One issue with the demo is (as in the last video), the swish might not be the best NLP pattern to use in Rene’s context. I say this because Rene had a workable strategy (the ‘machine gun’ strategy) for dealing with the problem. Simply changing the state does not necessarily offer the client a new strategy that will necessarily work to give her the desired outcome. To complete the change, Jevon might have used e.g. a strategy installation, to make sure the client had a new strategy.


I can agree with this. However Shawn’s “Meta-pattern” described earlier “state-based coaching” states that a resource state is all that is needed, and doesn’t say anything about strategies.


Of course, he might have done some additional work later in the course that we didn’t see. In any case Rene’s post course feedback indicates that the change was effective.

For those still uncertain as to the difference between the swish and the map-across, there is also an interesting discussion between a couple of the students in the audience.


Mel Cutler

Again Mel does not claim to be an NLP trainer, so it’s perhaps a little unfair to judge the video according to some strict standard of whether the pattern is a swish or not, or the fact that Mel does indeed appear to be consulting his notes as he speaks. Mel’s focus is clearly to get change for the client (which he appears to do).

This video is a pretty good straightforward demo of the swish with a nicely responsive client. Watch it for a nice, simple, clean demo of the swish.


No, whether good or bad, effective or not, it is not a demo of the swish; what he did was quite different from what Bandler described as a swish in detail some 30 years ago.


The one point I found interesting was that Mel used the image the client provided and chunked up on that, “what will that do for you, and what will that do…” He went as far as values (“make more money, grow your business” – Mel is after all an ‘entrepreneur’s coach’), rather than identity, but it’s a nice approach to get a new self-identity from a client who otherwise has difficulty finding that new self-identity.


“Make more money, grow your business” are both goals, not identity, and not even behaviors that would result in achieving the goals.


Pip Thomas Edge NLP

To me, this is more like a cross between a swish and the Coaching Pattern, because the new image is associated. Pip uses submodalities to boost Louise’s resource state. I would have liked to have seen more of a ‘pop’ in Louise’s state, although this may have been because the demo was more ‘staged’ than the typical demo in a seminar where the client brings a bigger issue.

It’s a nice demo of using submodalities within an NLP pattern (although not a typical swish pattern).


George Hutton – Mind Persuasion

This is not a demo, but rather a ‘hypnotic product’. George sets anchors for positive and negative states using blue and red circles, and then ‘swishes’ by changing the size of the circles. It’s a cute video (and has lots of fun state breakers). It will not teach you the swish but if you run through the video with a problem in mind you may find yourself getting some change! Enjoy!


Alex of

This video contains one real gem of information. Unfortunately it is skipped over so fast it’s easy to miss. It’s this: for procrastination, one of the most powerful resource states you can bring to your client is the feeling of completion. Nobody likes doing their taxes (or their homework as in this case), but we all enjoy the feeling of having mailed our tax return off to the IRS and knowing we are done till next year.


I can easily agree with all that — changing the scope of time to elicit a useful state. Another key piece is to be able to chunk down the task into small enough pieces, and to have that good feeling of completion after each chunk is done, so that there are motivating rewards all along the way. If they only get the good feeling at the end of the entire task, it won’t work nearly as well.


This feeling of completion creates the new self-image of being a person who ‘gets things done’ so that you can enjoy the feeling of being free.

This is all ways a great starting point when using the swish for overcoming procrastination strategies.


The nice feeling of completion is great, but it doesn’t necessarily result in a change in identity. It can remain simply a useful learned behavior unless the client generalizes to “I’m someone who can get things done.” All of us have behaviors (both good and bad) that are not part of our identity. A client may use a change in behavior to conclude that they now have a different identity, but you can’t depend on it. If you assume that will happen, you (and your client) will often be disappointed. For how to work with many different aspects of self-concept, see my book, Transforming Your Self.


Ved Prakash –

I have to say the Caribbean or maybe Pacific background music does not add value to the quality of this video! I was unable to watch the whole thing, sorry Ved!


Terry Elston –

This is a demo from a seminar. Again, for me it’s a very clean demo of the Coaching Pattern rather than a swish. Terry doesn’t use a trigger picture or an outcome (self-image) picture, but rather attaches the client’s (Rachael) resource state to the ‘trigger’ by ‘stealing anchors’.

Terry discusses the importance of attaching the resource precisely at the trigger point, rather than when the client has already dropped into their negative state. He gives a good demo of rewinding the client’s story, although for me he did not actually identify the trigger point (meaning an external event that lets Rachael know it’s time for her to book her train and hotel). The trigger becomes ‘six o’clock’, rather than “I look at my watch and realize it’s six o’clock”.

Terry does give a good demonstration of ‘stealing anchors’ by mirroring Rachael’s physiology in her resource state. It’s worth watching this demo for that alone.


Keith Livingston –

This is a very short (2.40) description of the swish. As such it is a brief overview and will not add much to your understanding of the swish, if you have watched all the other videos so far.



It is my belief that NLP is a living, evolving discipline. The co-founders of NLP continue to develop their own techniques as do the those that I admire most in the field, such as Tony Robbins and John Overdurf. The moment we say “NLP is this and only this, so that is not NLP”, we remove the creative spark, the ‘attitude of wanton experimentation’ that created NLP in the first place.


That is chunking way up from “The swish is this and only this” which was my focus. Knowing how to do a swish correctly doesn’t prevent anyone from “wanton experimentation.” Neither does it prevent someone from proposing a new pattern, or a change in how the swish is done. But none of those is a swish, any more than a rabbit is a robin.


The moment we say “the swish is this and only this, so that is not a swish” we limit our ability to ‘dance’ with the client, and the dance is where we find the magic of change.


That is not a logical conclusion. You can dance with a client all you want to, or experiment wantonly all day long. But if you are communicating with someone else, and you say you did a swish, it would be nice to know that you both agree about what that means. If you order a chocolate cake from a bakery, you probably would expect that it had chocolate in it (not carob!).


Please do study other practitioners who are courageous enough to post their material publicly. Notice what they do well and absorb that. Notice the mistakes they make and avoid them. Focus on the true aim of this wonderful art, which is becoming more of the person you were born to be.


That is all well and good, but how does the average person “Notice what they do well and absorb that. Notice the mistakes they make and avoid them”? I may be a much slower learner than most, but I needed a lot of examples of both good and bad pointed out to me, along with some rationale for why something was useful or not useful. Sometimes learning what is a mistake is far more important than what to do correctly.

People often learn most easily from contrast — red looks much redder when it is next to green, for instance. Contrasting what to do with what to avoid clarifies both. That is why I wrote my original post, and why I have taken the time to respond to Shawn’s post. I hope this exchange of understandings has been useful, or at least identified interesting questions to be explored further.

Again, thanks to Shawn for his thoughtful post.

The disastrous state of NLP training

Steve Andreas—with even more valuable input from Connirae than usual



I’ve spent the last 35 years of my professional life — and much of my personal life — learning, developing, and training high quality NLP. Recently I saw a video in which someone was teaching the swish pattern in a way that greatly weakened it. Looking around a bit, I found 16 videos of the swish online. I was dismayed to find that none of them taught it as originally presented, and all but one made the same very fundamental mistake, as well as many others. The fundamental mistake is equivalent to replacing the engine in a Lamborghini with a hamster wheel. Other mistakes are like putting wagon wheels on it.

These mistakes show not only a widespread lack of ability to learn and follow the steps of the pattern, but also a lack of understanding of the principles underlying each step. In this article, I’ll review the 16 videos (which provide you with sensory-based experience) and point out the mistakes. I hope this can add to the understanding not only of what to do, but why to do it, which is essential to the field’s integrity and progress. But first, a little history.



The swish pattern is a rapid way to change any troublesome habit or other unwanted response, so it has a very wide range of applications. The swish was developed by Richard Bandler in the early 1980’s, and was first published in Using Your Brain for a Change (chapter 9) in 1985, over 30 years ago. Connirae and I taught it and used it extensively over the next couple of years. During this time we accumulated a lot of experience of when it didn’t work, or only partially worked, and we had to figure out what we needed to do to correct that. In Change Your Mind—and keep the Change (chapter 3) we included many additional details, including how to design a swish in the auditory modality. A case example, with follow-up, appeared in our later book, Heart of the Mind (chapter 17). We also produced a video on the swish in the early 1980’s, including two demonstrations, one of the standard size/brightness swish with nail-biting, and also an auditory “designer” swish with a woman who went “ballistic” when her daughter used a particular tone of voice. These sources provide a rich description of all the different essential elements in the process, the principles underlying each element, and specific examples of how to make the pattern work.


The “standard” swish using size and brightness, (or size and distance)

This swish is often used to teach the basics of the pattern. Often it’s demonstrated with nail-biting, because it’s easy to identify what the client will always experience immediately before the problem behavior or response — their hand has to move up toward their face just before biting their nails.

After identifying this cue image, the next step is to elicit a desired self-image of “the evolved you of the future, for whom nail-biting is simply no longer an issue.” The client is asked to see themselves in a dissociated self-image, much like a 3-D portrait. Seeing this positive self-mage provides strong motivation, engaging unconscious processes to develop ways to become like the self-image. This creates a direction for change at the more powerful identity level, in contrast to only selecting a specific replacement behavior.

This desired self-image works best when it is seen without context or background, and not doing any specific behavior. Any background would tend to limit the scope of generalization to that context, and picturing a specific behavior would limit the change to that behavior.

In the next step, the client is asked to see the cue image (of hand coming up to face) big and bright, and somewhere in that image to see a small dark dot containing the desired self-image. Then the client is told to allow the desired self-image to very quickly become big and bright as the cue image shrinks and becomes dark. This links the cue image to the desired self-image, so that any time they are in a situation that used to trigger the unwanted behavior, they will immediately see the self-image.

After a break state, the client is asked to exchange the images again, repeatedly, with a break state in between, to make sure the direction is always from the cue to the self-image. After 7-10 repetitions, the cue image often becomes insubstantial or disappears, while the self-image becomes prominent, so this is one way to test the intervention. Asking the client to bring a hand up to the mouth is another good way to test, and real-world follow-up is best of all.

The dissociated self-image provides powerful motivation to change, without specifying how the change will occur, which is left to the client’s unconscious processes. The change is usually instantaneous, and the client usually isn’t consciously aware of any specific behavioral change. Often they’re “just a different person” who wouldn’t even think of biting their nails. If the self-image were associated, that would assume that the client had already become it, so there would be no motivation to change, only a self-delusion that change had already happened.

This standard swish usually works well as a very simplified introduction to the pattern. But it makes a lot of assumptions, and omits many important details. For instance, it uses size and brightness because for most people those two variables will increase the feeling response to any image, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Ideally we would test this, and often use other visual (or auditory) submodalities that elicit the strongest response for a particular client. The standard swish doesn’t include training in how to elicit a dependable cue image when there is no obvious external image like the hand coming up to the face. There is no testing to be sure that the client has a strong positive response to their self-image, or training in what to do to increase their response. There is no mention of searching for a positive intention of the problem state, or what to do about satisfying it. There are no suggestions for how to “trouble-shoot” when the test at the end indicates that the process didn’t work. There is nothing about using other visual submodalities, or how to design a swish in the auditory or kinesthetic systems, etc. Despite all these limitations, the standard swish is a good way to teach the overall structure of the process; training in the additional details can be added later.


The importance of the desired self-image

The most significant mistake (which appears in all but one of the video presentations of this pattern that I reviewed) is that instead of a desired self-image, the client is asked to see themselves doing a specific substitute behavior. Using a specific behavior instead of an evolved self-image is an error that also appears in Robert Dilts Encyclopedia of NLP. “Form a mental image of herself engaged in the behavior she would like to do instead of smoking.” Since Dilts has written in great detail about the power of identity in change work, this fundamental mistake is particularly surprising. A consciously chosen image of a specific behavior provides only one option — which may not fit very well — in comparison to the infinite variety of possible choices that a positive self-image can generate unconsciously.

If you create a sequence from a problem behavior to a more desirable behavior, that is essentially chaining with submodalities, not a swish pattern. That can work, but it won’t be nearly as dependable or powerful, for several reasons.

A positive self-image is far more powerfully motivating and generative than an image of a different behavior. For example, an image of yourself flexing your fingers (instead of biting your nails) just isn’t as intensely motivating as seeing “the you that you would be without this problem.”

As the cue image for the problem behavior becomes smaller and darker, the unpleasant feeling decreases at the same time that the self-image becomes larger and brighter, and the pleasant feeling increases. This smooth analog transition can be diagrammed using a rectangle with a diagonal dividing it into two triangles, one green and one white, to show how this creates motivation away from unpleasantness (green) and toward pleasantness (white). (In the diagram, time goes from left to right.)


In contrast, the diagram for a simple chain from one state to another, would show one (black) state ending, and another (yellow) state beginning, an abrupt digital change that occurs in a moment in time. That can work, but the connection isn’t as solid. The diagram above is like a lap joint; the diagram below is like a butt joint. Anyone who has worked in wood, metal, or fabric will tell you that a lap joint is always far stronger and more lasting.


In Dilts’ article on the swish, he credits the power of the method to the submodality changes (size and brightness), but this is only partly true. These submodality changes can only amplify the existing feelings in response to the two images. If those feelings are not very intense to start with, there is little for the submodality shifts to amplify. It is really important that the feeling in response to the cue image is unpleasant, and that the feeling in response to the self-image is as strong as possible, so it’s important to test. “See that image of the evolved you for whom biting nails is simply no longer a problem; how desirable is that image?” and notice the nonverbal response as well as the verbal. If the response is weak, you need to do whatever you can do to intensify it before proceeding. Often this will involve resolving incongruence, or amplifying other submodalities.

In the 16 videos of the swish that I’ve watched recently there is quite a lot of variation, and only one of them (sort of) used a desired self-image. Every video either modified the pattern in ways that weakened it, or left out important steps. Only a few of them included how to test to find out if it had worked or not. If a test didn’t work, the only remedy offered was to repeat the process a few more times. None of the videos include any follow-up that would indicate how successful the process actually was. The specific details are in the video reviews below.


Reviews of videos

I found videos on YouTube by searching using the terms “swish” “swish pattern,” and “swish pattern NLP.” I may have missed a few, but the huge variation in them clearly shows how much they differ from the swish pattern as originally developed and taught by Bandler. I encourage you to watch the videos before reading my comments, because my comments will make a lot more sense if you already have the sensory-based experience provided by the video. That also gives you an opportunity to notice errors, and compare what you observed with my comments. If you have only a little time to watch videos, I suggest watching the first four, since they provide a wide range of examples. Quite often the language used in these demonstrations is ambiguous and imprecise, but there are so many examples of this I won’t usually comment on them. (6:10)

1. Michael Carroll describes the swish as being useful for “a minor behavior” which implies erroneously that it can’t be used for more intense difficulties. He role-plays the pattern in order to demonstrate it, walking himself through the steps. He uses nail-biting as the problem, and size and distance as the submodalities. His description of how to select the cue image could be more precise, but it’s basically correct — an image of what he dependably sees out of his own eyes just before the problem behavior/response, namely fingers moving toward the mouth.

Then he says, “Think about what it is that you’d like to do instead,” and goes on to specify “staying within the frame” of the cue image. This asks for a behavior (in the same context) rather than a desired self-image (without a context).

He suggests that he might pick “flex your fingers or do something with your hands,” as the new behavior to replace nail-biting. This is a specific behavior chosen by the conscious mind, in contrast to the evolved self-image. Michael is a primary sponsor of John Grinder and his “New Code” method, in which a decision about a new behavior is completely turned over to a client’s unconscious mind. So it’s particularly puzzling that this principle of relying on unconscious selection is ignored in this demonstration, despite its being an explicit part of the original swish pattern.

In the middle of self-demonstrating this change process, Michael switches from biting nails to cracking knuckles as the problem to be resolved. Changing the content “midstream” isn’t ideal for teaching, but isn’t a problem with the method itself.

Then he says and demonstrates “see themselves flexing their hands,” as the new behavior, and then to shrink that image “very small, and send it far out to the horizon.” Then he has the close cue image go quickly out to the horizon, as the outcome image quickly comes in. His verbal instructions only mention distance. The corresponding change in size is presupposed, but not mentioned explicitly. For the swish to be effective, it’s best to explicitly utilize two submodalities together. (8:50)

2. In what must be a quite old video, Tony Robbins teaches a group, also using nail-biting as the behavior to be changed. He is very expressive, and clear in his instructions to get the cue image. His instruction for the outcome image is a mixture of specific behavior and self-image: “What you want is a big bright colorful picture of myself looking good, lecturing, and being proud of myself, and also noticing that my nails are great, too.”

Then Tony demonstrates the transition. He uses size, and gestures with his right hand grabbing the self-image and bringing it up so that it gets larger and explodes and breaks through the cue image, without mentioning a second submodality. Grabbing the small image is a nice kinesthetic addition that will make it more powerful for some clients. Tony says, “I get the experience of feeling good about myself,” in response to the self-image. Tony summarizes the overall pattern nicely as, “I don’t need to do this (the problem behavior), this (the outcome image) is who I really am,” continuing to emphasize the positive self-image.

The basic process here is correct. However, he uses only one submodality, size, and the self image “breaks through the cue image, rather than simply getting larger as the cue image gets smaller. In his desired self-image, he mixes in a specific behavior, i.e. “a picture of myself … lecturing.” This context tends to limit the unconscious from generalizing the change to other contexts where it would be useful.

“Being proud of myself,” is certainly a motivator for Tony, but it’s not ideal, because pride (one of the 7 deadly sins) is one half of a very troublesome polarity (the other half is shame) that compares the self to others. Pleasure or satisfaction is a much better motivator, because it’s an evaluation that doesn’t require a comparison with others — and when many people use the word “pride” loosely, that is what they really mean. The detailed structure of pride and shame is beyond the scope of this article; if that interests you, see chapter 10 of my book, Transforming Your Self.

Next is a short staged video vignette of a father and daughter in which Tony gives a summary of the steps to the swish. In this description, Tony makes a significant error in each step. Tony says the first step is to “see how you’re behaving now,” a dissociated image. The cue image will only work if it’s what you’ll actually see at the time (your hand coming up to your face).

In the second step Tony says to “think of how you want to behave — get a clear picture of what you’d like to behave like in the future.” Here he asks for a behavior, rather than an image of the person you want to become — the person who would no longer have this problem.

Tony suggests making the background of the cue image red (“stop”) and the background of the outcome image green, (“go”) which is a cute addition, but one that has a problem. The green, signifying “go” for the desired self-image might make it more powerful for some people. However, the cue image works best when it is a close match for what the client will see in the problem context. Very seldom will the problem context actually have a bright red background, so that will make it a poor match for the real world, and less likely to work as a cue.

Next Tony walks the group through using the swish to change a fear, asking them all to “get a picture of the fear” for the cue image. That language is ambiguous at best; “see what scares you,” or “see what you see just before you get scared” would be more precise.

Then when he asks for the outcome, it’s a self-image as in his first description — “seeing yourself as you would be, free of that fear, but also seeing yourself the way you’d be if you were totally proud of yourself; if you felt really good about who you are as a person, something that would really motivate yourself.” This instruction is basically fine, except for including the emphasis on pride.

Tony then walks the group expressively through the size transition, break state, repetition and testing, and then talks about how the self-image has a generative ripple effect, “It didn’t just make me feel different about my fingernails. . . . it now makes me think to be like the person who’s elegant, who I respect, who I want to be. So I found myself doing a lot of other things I wasn’t doing before, like just picking up things around the house. Before I’d just let it go, but the person I pictured in my mind wouldn’t just let it go, so I’d handle it.” This is a very nice description of the generative impact of the desired self-image, which goes far beyond any specific alternate behavior chosen by the client’s conscious mind. (7:38)

3. Akistis guides the viewer through the process, starting out with, “In your upper left (gesturing with her right hand) I want you to imagine the thing you want to improve,” which is more than a bit vague, since “thing” could indicate a partner, a garden, or an automobile. Then she clarifies, saying, “See a holographic image of yourself going through some negative emotions.” This instruction is a little more specific but has two problems. One is that she asks the viewer to be dissociated, rather than associated. The second problem is that she asks the viewer to see multiple emotions, rather than select one.

Next she gestures with her left hand (the viewer’s upper right) and says, “Imagine yourself in something that you know for certain, something that you do well, and that you are confident in.” Then she says to bring that first image over to the same space as the desired image, put it in front of it, and “integrate those feelings” (gesturing with both hands in a swirling motion) “until the stronger sense takes over the weaker sense.” This is much more like a clumsy version of the “visual squash” than a swish.

Then she asks the viewer to imagine someone on your left “who you dislike, who makes you feel weak, disempowered, in a situation where they’re getting you upset.” (3:42) “And now I want you to imagine on your right hand, right here, see the positive feeling, your feeling when you’re self-confident, the faces of people who really make you smile — think about those people’s smiles, let those feelings, let those juices flow, let those positive hormones come out, and just feel all that positive energy that you have in exchange with those people.” This is verbatim; I couldn’t make up such a mishmash of instructions. What does it mean to “see a positive feeling” or to “let those positive hormones come out”? And how do you combine seeing yourself confident with seeing other people’s smiles? Then she “integrates” the two pictures “So the strong image is washing over and disintegrating the old image.” (integration becomes disintegration!) Akistis then follows with a lot of new-age feel-good bogusities, such as, “the image will no longer find anything to grab upon in your own mind,” and “going to the next level.” This has got to be the worst example of teaching the swish I have ever seen, though the next one is a close second. (This is a download link; 34:14)

4. Mark Hayley demonstrates what he calls a “kinesthetic swish” with a workshop participant. In this “director’s cut” the demonstration is interrupted so that Mark (and an interviewer) can discuss the process. If you want to bypass the discussion, the demonstration alone can be viewed in the following short segments: 5:04-7:00, 10:55-12:33 16:30-17:39 Mark first asks the client to:

  1. Identify a bad feeling that she has experienced repeatedly.
  2. Notice the location of this feeling in the heart area of her chest.
  3. Mark pulls it out of her chest and asks her what it looks like.
  4. She sees it as a “yucky green rotating blob.”
  5. Mark tells her to shrink it down and make it black and white.
  6. Mark elicits a sudden feeling that dissipates quickly, which is located in her throat area.
  7. Mark tells her to bring the shrunk-down black-and-white image back into her body in the location where she has the sudden feeling (in #6 above).
  8. Which then dissipates quickly and automatically out of her body.

Whatever you think of this intervention, it bears no resemblance to the swish. The only submodality change that links all these steps is location; there is no second submodality as in the original swish pattern, and no self-image (or behavior) representation.

Curiously, step 3, pulling the feeling out of her body, is much the same as the last step in which the feeling dissipates out of her body. Why not just pull the feeling out of her body at step 3 and fling it across the room and be done with it, as many masseurs or “body workers” do in order to get rid of accumulated tension or “bad energy”? If you want to learn how to do a true kinesthetic swish, read this article published 18 years ago: (3:17)

5. NLP and Hypnosis Training New York (animation). The unwanted behavior is eating donuts; the cue is a hand reaching for a donut. The new behavior is working out (image of woman in gym clothes with barbell and exercise ball). “Fling the picture out into the horizon. It will get far away, small, and dark.” (three submodalities rather than two, which is OK.) “When it comes back, it comes back as your ideal self.”

In the swish, the cue image gets smaller, etc., at the same time as the self-mage gets larger, etc., so the motivation dynamic, “away from negative, toward positive” is active throughout the analog transition. In this example, the two are only connected at the horizon, like the butt joint I mentioned earlier, making both the motivation and linkage much weaker. In addition the positive image is of a behavior (working out), instead of being an identity image (the you who you would be without this problem). (3:31)

6. (animation) Shawn Carson applies the swish to dealing with a difficult person “Burt.” “How would you like to feel? If you could be anyone when dealing with Burt, who would you choose to be?” (image of superman in cape) This mixes in a bit of the “new behavior generator” pattern to get an image; there is no instruction to make this into a self-image, rather than an image of someone else. The superman image also makes it a “magical solution” rather than something real, suggesting that the only way to deal with Burt would be to have super-human powers. When the self-image is unreal, it won’t be very motivating. If the client believes in something unreal, that is a delusion. Either way, it’s not useful.

The next instruction is: “Take this ideal you, the new you, and shrink the picture down until it’s small enough to fit on a postage stamp. In your imagination, stick the stamp with the picture of the new you on Burt’s forehead. Have the picture of the new you spring out from Burt’s forehead. The new you appears life-sized in the space in between you and Burt.” In these instructions the image of Burt does not change, so it will continue to elicit the unwanted response. “Repeat several times.” There is no mention of a break state in between repetitions, which can result in a yo-yo effect, instead of the single direction from the problem image to the desired image. “Step forward into that new you, as you step forward to greet Burt. Feel how good it feels to be this new you.” This implies that the change has already happened, so there is no motivation to change further. The self-image needs to stay dissociated in order to elicit motivation to change. (10:50)

7. Anthony Beardsell works with a live client, Michelle, who has difficulty responding in a meeting with superiors when she is asked a question. He asks “Is there a state or mood that you’d prefer to be in at that point in time?” This asks for a resourceful feeling, rather than either a behavior or a self-image. Michelle says, “I’d like to feel as confident as I do when I talk to them on a one-to-one basis.” Anthony uses her feeling as a lead to elicit images, both of which are in the same location close in front of her and associated. Although it’s not entirely clear, she appears to be seeing what she saw when she had the feelings. Neither is an image of her evolved self. He has her step out of the desired image to use in the swish, using size, brightness, and distance (three submodalities rather than two). In order to use distance, he has to ask her to move the positive image away from her, which is inelegant at best; if he had only used size and brightness, that would not have been necessary. Michelle soon reports that she has only an empty frame for the cue image, so the chaining appears to have been successful, but it isn’t likely to be generative. (13:45)

8. David Shepard begins with a clear description of the dynamics of the swish, before eliciting the client’s problem state, which is fear of sliding when he’s on a motorbike going around a turn. After identifying the cue picture of beginning a turn, David asks, “How do you want to be?” asking for an alternate behavior, not a self-image. The client replies, “I can feel the tires completely locked into the road,” indicating an associated experience. David asks, “As you think about that, do you have a picture?” and then “For a moment, step into that picture, so that you’re looking out of your own eyes.” This assumes that the client previously had a dissociated image, which I think is probably not the case. David then asks the client to change the size, brightness, color, speed of the movie image, to intensify the response — all of which would have been more useful if it were a self-image. Then he asks the client to step out of the picture again, and uses this as the picture to swish to.

After a couple of swishes using size and brightness, the client reports (7:33) “It’s very fast, it goes about half-way when you tell me to open my eyes; it takes a bit of time to get up there,” with expressive gestures indicating great effort. This slowness and effort could be just inexperience with the transition, but it could also be an indication of incongruence that needs to be taken into account.

There is a real danger in the “solution” David invites his client to construct. If you’re going around a turn fast on a motorbike, and you have a dissociated image of yourself going around the turn, you’ll have reduced access to the feeling experience of being on the motorbike, which is an important part of what you need in order to turn safely. Although an evolved self-image is also dissociated, the result of using a desired self-image will be useful, since this change will occur almost instantaneously — long before he gets on a motorbike again.

After several more swishes, when David asks the client to get the first picture back (8:10) he replies that he can “sort of” see it, that it is indistinct, and (8:40) that the second image doesn’t expand to fill the whole screen. “It doesn’t go ‘whist,’ it goes ‘uurngh’ ” and again he gestures expressively indicating great effort. Since this slowness and effort persists, it is more likely to indicate incongruence, and I think it likely that it is because of the danger of having a dissociated image while going around a turn. David urges him to do it faster, and tells him that the first picture will eventually disappear. Since he has made this suggestion, when the picture later disappears, it’s not a good test of the process, since it might only be response to the suggestion. After some more swishes, David tests by asking him to imagine being on a motorbike on a turn and the client feels very different, and as if the bike is “on rails,” so it will keep to the turn. While it’s possible that being “on rails” is only a metaphor, I worry about that. In fact, a motorbike is not on rails; it will definitely slide if it goes too fast on a turn, so this could establish a dangerous delusion. (32:28)

9. Jevon Dangeli spends the first 8 minutes or so offering a number of frames, both general and specific to the swish, before asking for a volunteer and eliciting the cue image, which is a “picture of things not going the way I want them to go, me being ignored.” When Jevon asks her to identify what in the external world triggers this internal picture, she says, “an aggressive look” in their eyes. Then he says, “Tell me about that peaceful confident state (which she mentioned earlier) that you’d like to have,” and she says, “feeling relaxed, no tension in my body.” “When you’re feeling relaxed, there’s no tension, and you’re peaceful and confident, what image represents that for you?” When she asks, “An image of myself, or?—” Jevon says, (14:27) “Both — anything you want,” and she responds, “(I see) myself walking on a beach.” Not only is this an image of a specific behavior, rather than an evolved self-image, but if the swish works so that she sees herself walking on a beach in response to an aggressive look in someone else’s eyes that’s not likely to be useful in the real-world context.

Then he sets up the cue image, with the beach image shrunken to a speck in the middle of it, and whooshes that image out beyond the horizon, and come back as the beach image. This uses only one submodality, distance, and the two images are only connected at the horizon. This makes both the motivation and the linkage much weaker than if one image increased at the same time as the other decreased. He repeats the whoosh a number of times, each time following with hypnotic suggestions about the cue image changing. Jevon tests using the cue image, and in several future scenarios, and the client reports feeling peaceful and confident. He ends the demonstration at 24:07 and then responds to questions from the group. (7:17)

10. Mel Cutler works with a very responsive client who has trouble organizing papers on his desk. Mel appears to be reading most of what he says from notes. “How would you like to feel or act instead?” asks for a feeling or behavior rather than an evolved self-image. “Step into that picture so you’re looking through your own eyes, . . . adjust the submodalities of that new positive picture to make it more desirable than ever before, etc.” Stepping into this image isn’t necessary, and isn’t in the original swish, but since he later has the client step back out of the picture to use for the swish, it’s not likely to be a problem. He tests at the end, getting a 9 out of 10 and does the swish a few more times, until the client reports only seeing the desired image. (8:15)

11. Pip Thomas (edge NLP) asks client for an image of a “current negative behavior that you have in a certain context,” and then asks her to “step out of the image so you can see yourself in it.” Then she asks the client to get an image of the “new behavior you want to have in that set of circumstances,” rather than a self-image. She asks the client to adjust the color, brightness, volume, feeling, to make her response more compelling, and then to step into the picture. Both images are of behaviors; the old behavior is dissociated, the new behavior is associated, the reverse of the standard swish. Then she does a size/brightness swish, “Old behavior up on the screen, new behavior in the bottom right-hand corner, ready, one, two, three, swish—big and bright, old behavior gone.” Pip tests by asking client to imagine being in the problem context, and she feels “completely different.” (8:51)

12. George (, audio with graphics) explains that the pattern is used to replace an unhelpful feeling with a “good emotion that you’d like to feel instead.” (No behaviors or self-image) “Next we’ll attach those emotions to some colors and shapes. As you think of that negative emotion, think of the situation where this comes up, and focus on this red circle (on screen, left). . . . Now think of that good feeling that’s going to replace the bad feeling, focus on this blue circle (on screen, right).”

Then George repeatedly tests the connection between the colored circles and associated feelings, using circles that start small, and grow to be the same size as the previous circles. Then the intervention appears on the screen: a small red circle appears on the left and grows to its previous size, followed by the blue circle that grows and covers the red circle. The growing red circle will increase the old feeling (rather than decrease it) and after that the blue circle will increase the replacement feeling. The two changes are only connected at the point where the blue circle first appears, a butt joint. This sequence is gradually sped up until it is very fast. (6:00)

13. Alex (therapytipstv) asks the client, who procrastinates doing homework, “And how would you like to be in that situation. I’d like you to build an image of you doing your homework in exactly the way you’d like to do it,” which is an alternate behavior, not a self-image. Size is the only submodality mentioned when he has her do the “swish.” After some repetitions, he has her check with the homework image, and rehearses her twice in the future. Each time she reports feeling calm and relaxed. (9:22)

14. The Indian accents make this one very hard to hear — and the background music makes this worse. The practitioner asks for a preferred behavior, and then asks about positive intent, and checks to see if the new behavior satisfies the positive intent. This is fine, except that eliciting the positive intent ought to come before the target image, so that it can guide its selection and elicitation. He adds in additional pieces of having the client compliment himself, and see himself “achieving all his goals.” I gave up trying to hear about half-way through the video. (11:41)

15. Terry Elston works with a client who has some kind of trouble (hard to hear her) on Sunday evening. He asks her, “What would you like to do instead?” asking for a behavior rather than a self-image. She describes a positive feeling, using the word “possibilities,” with nice expressive expansive gestures. Then Terry talks her through a transition from “six o’clock to the positive feeling,” using her gestures. There is no mention of any submodality shifts, so this is simple behavioral rehearsal (chaining), without even using the word “swish.” Since the change is contextualized to Sunday evening, it will only occur then, even though it might be useful at other times. (2:46)

16. Keith Livingston describes (rather than demonstrating) how to change an image of a cigarette when they answer the phone that “takes them to a bad place. How would you like to feel when you answer the phone?” (feeling rather than behavior or self-image) “Can you see yourself relaxed and confident?” Then he “swishes” the pictures using size, not mentioning brightness or any other submodality. Keith talks about rehearsing this repeatedly, but with no mention of a break state in between swishes.



All these examples are from trainers who are confident enough about their knowledge and skill to teach others by publicly demonstrating. This makes me wonder how much more variation there is among all the practitioners who didn’t make videos. The kindest thing one could say about all these variations is that they can’t all be correct. These trainers either never read the original sources mentioned at the beginning of this article, or they forgot many important aspects of what they read — or they were taught by someone who didn’t. The wide variation also indicates that most practitioners don’t understand the key principles that underlie each aspect of the pattern.

This brief survey indicates that the problem with NLP’s public “image” is not just a result of a few mavericks who gave the field a bad name. Nor is it just a result of the inappropriate research, the NLP trademark lawsuit, or the Bandler murder trial. The problem goes much deeper than that, to the lack of any kind of quality control over the processes used. It seems likely that a similar review of different people teaching the phobia cure, or any other NLP pattern would show the same kind of essentially random variation. Unless we can come to some kind of agreement about what we do, NLP will continue to be — and be seen as — no different from astrology, numerology, aromatherapy, crystal healing, or all the other bloviations out there.

Of course it’s possible that the original swish pattern can be improved; perhaps one or more of the different ways of doing the pattern is more effective than the original. In that case, anyone proposing changes in the pattern ought to be able to provide a principle for the change, and/or explain how the principles supporting an aspect of the original swish are erroneous. That could be the basis for some interesting discussion that would result in agreement about the best way to do a swish, and perhaps to modifications that would make it work more dependably. That kind of discussion is an essential part of the development of any scientific field, but it is entirely lacking in NLP. If anyone would like to respond to this article, I’m willing to offer you space for it in a future blog post; send your thoughts to me at andreas [at] qwest [dot] net.

New Steve Andreas Video and More

“Briefest Moments” video of Steve.

In January 2015 I invited a colleague, Chris Gunn, who is also a videographer, to spend a week with me in a house on the beach in Kauai. One afternoon Chris set up a couple of cameras and asked me some questions — some professional, some personal, some both — and edited the result into a 40-minute movie that might be titled, “Hanging out with Steve.” A sample from the video appears below. Chris created the video as a gift, but knowing the time and skill that went into this project, all proceeds will go to him.

Watch a sample on Youtube!

You can purchase the full video here for $7.99.


Therapy Case Example article by Ron Soderquist

The current issue of the Psychotherapy Networker has an elegant example of using careful framing, and both conversational and overt hypnosis to change a simple unwanted habit. (with comments by Steve)

Read the article here.


How to motivate a family member to participate in therapy

In the same issue of the networker I have a letter to the editor about using “mental Aikido” to gently motivate a family member to join in change work by expanding the scope. The editor shortened my letter somewhat to fit the magazine. The slightly longer version of my letter is below:


In Kirsten Lind Seal’s case study, “Managing Hecklers in the Therapy Room,” the father insists that the problem is his daughter’s disrespect, and wants Seal to treat the daughter without involving him in therapy. Seal quite rightly wants him to be involved, and says, “Can we try it my way first?” The father responds, “All right, you win,” clearly indicating that he sees this as a struggle between them, and that he has given in—not the greatest for eliciting rapport and cooperation.

Whenever a client attempts to take charge of what happens in therapy in ways that are not likely to be productive, there is a more subtle intervention to elicit voluntary compliance.

“Look, you’re a lawyer, and I’m not. It would be pretty silly if I told you how to prepare for and handle a case, don’t you agree?” That sentence is something that the father has to agree with—and the more arrogant and dictatorial he is, the more he will have to agree. The implication is that it would be equally silly for the father to dictate how to do therapy. But since this is unstated, the father can change his response without a struggle or having to “give in.”

Whenever a family member refuses to participate in therapy, there is another intervention that will usually elicit compliance without a struggle. “You’re saying that the problem is entirely your daughter, so there is no need for you to participate. I’m OK with working with your daughter alone on this. However, that means that you will have no opportunity to contribute your views and ideas, and I assume that also means that you will have no objection to whatever changes we make without your participation.”

The changes in the father’s facial expression in response to this expansion of scope are a delight to watch, and if the daughter is present, her change in expression will be even more precious.

If you rehearse these two interventions so that you can deliver them smoothly and congruently, you will find many opportunities to use them to avoid struggling with this kind of client.



In my previous blog post I went into some detail about the difference between content and process. In this post I explore this important distinction further by examining a method called, “Imagery with Rescripting,” described in an article, “Treatment of childhood memories: theory and practice,”  (pdf) by Arntz and Weertman. The article is unusually clear in describing exactly what the authors actually do with a client, including examples of verbatim dialogue, making it possible to clearly distinguish process interventions from those involving content.

This article presupposes that a problem in the present is a result of a memory of a traumatic event, and that the best way to change the present problem is to change the memory. In my commentary below, I will also accept those presuppositions, but it is useful to keep in mind that some other change method, such as core transformation, timeline adjustment, strategies, submodalities, etc., might be more appropriate and effective. All quotes below are taken directly from the article.


Outline of the Method

The article describes a package of several different interventions to change a troublesome memory, derived from what is called “Schema-based therapy.” A schema is defined as “an organized knowledge structure, which develops during childhood and manifests in certain behaviors, feelings and thoughts,” also described as a “belief.” The authors present a three-phase process for changing a schema experience, summarized below:

  1. Client thinks of a troublesome memory from childhood. Client reviews this memory as a child, and describes what happens in detail out loud in present tense to the therapist as s/he relives it. “Now he is turning and coming toward me. . . .”
  2. Client reviews the same memory as an adult bystander, and intervenes to alter the memory by taking some kind of action.
  3. Client experiences the altered memory as a child again, and if needed, asks for further intervention from the client as adult.

The authors present graphs showing improvements on several outcome measures using this method with a client, indicating scores at 5 different times, pretest, at 12 and 24 sessions “focusing on the past,” and at 12 and 24 sessions “focusing on the present,” for a total of 48 sessions. This is definitely not brief therapy, indicating a laborious process, and one that offers only limited improvement. No figures are presented for rates of dropping out of treatment.



Phase 1. Describing the troubling memory out loud to the therapist is a process intervention, because the verbal description will always be a huge simplification of the experience itself. Describing the experience verbally will also slow down the tempo of the memory. The therapist may ask about categories of experience to elicit what the client sees, hears, feels, thinks, does, etc., but the client supplies the content.

This kind of re-experiencing is a kind of “exposure” therapy; depending on how long it goes on, perhaps even “prolonged exposure.” Exposure is widely accepted as a valid treatment, but it risks re-traumatizing the client. At best it is usually very uncomfortable for the client, slow, only partially effective, and typically has a high dropout rate.

Phase 2. “Becoming an adult bystander” is another process intervention, because being an adult implies a more extensive background of knowledge and experience gained in the years between childhood and adulthood, and it also provides a different point of view, but the client provides the content for both.

The bystander point of view involves “self-distancing” and this often elicits different feelings, for instance compassion instead of terror. This is somewhat similar to the phobia cure, but with a very significant difference; instead of seeing a movie of the entire memory from a distant outside point of view as if viewing it in a movie theater, the bystander is in the memory as they review it. This limits the separation between the viewer and the events viewed, like being in a play, in comparison to viewing the play from the back of a theater. When viewing a movie, the implication is that the events occurred in a different time frame, which creates additional separation, but if the bystander is in the play, there is no separation in time.

The adult client is invited to first describe what s/he sees, hears, feels, thinks, does, etc., which again is a process intervention, since the process of describing is different from the sensory-based experience. Then the adult client is asked, “What are you inclined to do?” and then instructed to do it. These actions can range from lecturing an abusive parent in the scene, or telling the child that “it is safe now, and the abuse was not your fault,” to physical interventions such as “pull him off the little girl, curse him, and throw him out of the room,” or even getting a gun to threaten or shoot an abuser. All these actions are content interventions, which can be revised, repeatedly if necessary, until the child is fully satisfied.

Phase 3. The client becomes a child again, and the process of changing the content of what happens continues by having the child as adult ask the child, “Is there anything you need,” and changing events in order to provide it. For instance, if the child says, “I’m afraid that papa will punish me,” the adult says, “I won’t allow that to happen.” If the child says, “I want to be comforted, held in your lap,” then the adult does that.

Any action, comforting, etc., that the adult does is a content intervention, because it changes what happens in the memory, not just the process used to represent it. There are several aspects of these content interventions that need to be examined and clarified in order to understand their consequences.


Problems with making content changes

Altering reality. Any content change in what happens in the memory will create an alternate reality for the client, which can lead to confusion about what actually happened in the past. In careful NLP work we don’t attempt to change the external events; instead, we change the way those events are perceived, evaluated, and responded to internally, as I described in considerable detail in an earlier blog post:

If a change in internal response suggests an action to be taken, that is only useful if it is both under the client’s control, and consistent with external events. For instance, if the client is reviewing a memory of being in a car wreck in which they were injured, the client could decide to relax just before the impact, so that their body is softer and less likely to be damaged. That is under their control, and it is something that doesn’t change the external facts of the accident—the speed of the car, the force of the impact, etc.

If you attempt to change the external events in a memory, such as “pull him off the little girl, curse him, and throw him out of the room,” that can lead to confusion between imagination and memory. It can result in denial of the events that actually happened, and/or living in a fantasy world in which we expect unpleasant events to be magically “fixed” for us. Many clients already have confusions of this kind, sometimes called “delusions.” We certainly don’t want to add to them.

Under client’s control? Even as an adult, the client may not have the strength or ability to, “pull him off the little girl, curse him, and throw him out of the room.” To imagine that this is possible provides another kind of discrepancy between the reality of what is possible for the client and imagination. If the client accepts this kind of intervention, it will be at the cost of their sense of what is real or possible for them and what isn’t. If the client holds onto reality and says, “I wouldn’t be able to do that,” the intervention will have no effect.

Indeed, the article states that in some cases, “the patient is too anxious or feels too powerless in the adult role to undertake any corrective action,” and that sometimes “the patient dismisses the intervention and starts an argument with the therapist (using rationalizations like that the intervention would have been impossible, that the method is useless because the past cannot be redone, etc.)” These “rationalizations” sound quite rational and reasonable to me; these objections can easily be avoided if no there are no attempts to change the external events of the memory.

Empowerment. “The major aim (of imagery with rescripting) is to increase the sense of empowerment. . . . When the patient does not feel powerful enough to intervene (e.g. stop the abuse) in phase 2, or is too afraid of the perpetrator(s) the patient can imagine others, and/or tools as helpers.” These “others” can include friends, family members, neighbors, the police, “or fantasy figures like Batman,” and “tools” can include guns or other weapons.

If these content interventions are not fully successful, “the therapist might actively instruct the patient in what needs to be done, proposes actions, etc. . . . When the patient is completely unable to play an active role in phase 2, or is unable to view the situation as an adult, the therapist plays the role of the correcting adult. In that case, the patient imagines the interventions by the therapist from the perspective of the child.”

Even when this kind of intervention makes the client feel better during a session, it doesn’t empower them, because the power is in the “other,” not themselves. It might be very nice to be rescued by Batman or a gun or the therapist, but that implies that the client is powerless to act on their own, so it actually decreases the sense of empowerment, rather than increasing it.

When the client as child is comforted, assured, held, etc., by the client as adult, that is also disempowering, because the power is in the “other,” not the self. However, if the child as adult does any of this with the child, it is empowering, because the adult has the power. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but empowerment will only occur when the client identifies with having the power, rather than being only the recipient of power provided by an “other,” whether real or imaginary.

These are inevitable results of using content interventions to change what happens in a memory. There is a simple test of any such content change to decide whether it is useful or not. Ask, “If a similar situation were to happen in the future, would the proposed change help the client deal with it?” Clearly expecting to be rescued by Batman would not be helpful, but relaxing just before a car crash could be. The therapist is unlikely to be available to help, but the client’s knowledge that they survived a similar event in the past could be useful in reducing the fear of imminent death.

This illustrates that a useful intervention will be one that changes the client’s perception, understanding, attitude, ability, etc., as described in my earlier blog post. In contrast, any intervention that attempts to change the objective external event will not protect from a recurrence, and will only confuse and delude the client.

Role-playing. The article goes on to describe how phases 2 & 3 can also involve role-playing, which involves further content changes. “The patient playing him/herself as a child, the therapist playing the other person (often a parent),” and that other people (colleagues, friends) can also play roles as needed. Role-playing only further complicates the problems I have described above.

If the therapist plays the role of an abusive parent, that aversive role may become part of how the client perceives the therapist’s identity—and this can happen even with careful de-roleing after a role-play (the article doesn’t even mention de-roleing). Reversing roles is also a possible intervention. “The patient takes the role of the other person, the therapist takes the role of the child.” If the client identifies with the other, that can be very useful in gaining understanding the other’s point of view, intention, confusion, limitation, etc., because the client provides the content.

But if the therapist plays the role of the child, that will add content, because even an accomplished actor will play a role somewhat differently than how the client remembers someone in their past. A therapist’s role-play will always be only a rough approximation to the client’s experience, introducing additional changes in content, both verbally and nonverbally, increasing possibilities for confusion. All these possible content confusions resulting from role-plays can be completely avoided if the client plays all the roles him/herself. When the client imagines being someone else, the resulting understandings emerge from the client’s experience, uncontaminated by content introduced by others.


Useful alternatives

It would be far better to begin phase 1 by using the phobia cure on the entire event—or on the worst example of a series of events. The phobia cure teaches a dependable and clear form of dissociation, in contrast to the exposure method presented in phase 1 of this method. The phobia cure neutralizes the intense feelings from the unpleasant memory, making any additional changes much easier, faster, and more comfortable. Often the reduction of the strong feeling also results in more details of the event becoming available to the client, and this additional information can result in some useful spontaneous reframing. After using the phobia process, there are much more elegant ways to reprocess a troublesome event.

Robert Dilts’ Reimprinting

In this method, the client finds an appropriate resource experience that happened at a different time and place, elicits it, and combines it with the problem event. This alters the client’s internal response to the event, without changing what actually happened.

Richard Bandler’s Decision Destroyer

In this process the client is asked, “What experience could you have had earlier than that event, which would have prepared you for it in some way? That if you had had it earlier, it would have prepared you for that problem experience?” Then the client is instructed to create this experience in a way that is vivid and powerful in preparing them for the traumatic event. Both the choice of the experience, and the details of it, is content that emerges entirely from the client, so no content is introduced from a therapist, role-player, or other outside source. It results in an internal experience that the client carries with them, and it is one that is carefully designed so that it doesn’t change external events. The entire process is essentially a way to reorganize the client’s internal experience, in contrast to meddling with what happened in the traumatic memory.

The inspiration for the Decision Destroyer was Milton Erickson’s case titled “The February Man” in which Erickson age-regressed a woman and appeared at various times in her lonely childhood in order to give her experiences of being cared for and acknowledged. Erickson was extremely careful to appear in her life at times that would not conflict with actual events in her life.

The client advises and comforts the younger self.

The client imagines being with the younger self in the troubling memory, and advises and comforts the younger self in whatever way is appropriate, using nonverbal feedback to verify when the younger you has, in fact, been comforted and reassured. This process was published in Frogs into Princes (1979) by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, s a follow-up to the phobia cure, but this step was later replaced by the “rewind” process.


“And now I want you to do something very powerful and important for yourself. Younger Tammy did something very powerful for you; she went through those feelings again for you, and she let you watch and listen with comfort and strength to stimuli which in the past have triggered overwhelming responses. This time you were able to see and hear those without panicking. I want you to walk over to young Tammy in your mind’s eye. I want you to reach out and use all of the adult female resources you have, to comfort her and reassure her that she will never have to go through that again. Thank her for living through the old feelings for the last time for you. Explain to her that you can guarantee that she lived through it, because you are from her future. And when you see on her face and in her posture and in her breathing that she is reassured that you will be there to take care of her from now on, I want you to really reach out, take her by the shoulders and pull her close and actually feel her enter your body. Pull her inside. She is a part of you, and she’s a very energetic part. That energy is freed now from that phobic response. I would like your unconscious mind to select some particular pleasurable activity that some of that energy can now be used for, for yourself here in the present and in the future. Because energy is energy and you deserve it. Just sit there and relax and enjoy those feelings. Let them spread through your whole body. Take your time.” (p. 115)


This process is completely content-free, so it avoids all the problems I discussed earlier. It’s immensely faster—typically effective in one session, instead of 48! It’s a really lovely integration process that can be used for any troubling memory. I have used it to reprocess past memories of many different difficult times of uncertainty, turmoil, despair, losses, etc. The statement that, “I can guarantee that you lived through it, because I am from your future” is hard to argue with, and you can expand on this by mentioning positive events that happened later that the younger you couldn’t know about—achievements, relationships, children, etc. This provides a broader positive perspective in time for the unpleasant memory. I urge you to try this process yourself, and let me know how you experienced it.

Content and Process

The distinction between content and process is one that many people talk about, but very few pause to think about in any detail. When we communicate with a client, we can use a process intervention or a content intervention, or a single intervention could include both. Each kind of intervention can be useful (or not useful) but they are different, and it is useful to know which kind of intervention you are doing so that you can anticipate the kind of response you are likely to get.

The most important difference is that a process intervention invites the client to think of the same content using a different process, without the therapist introducing any additional content. This is completely respectful of the client’s world, so you don’t need to know anything about that world in order to offer them new choices. It is very simple and elegant, and it is very difficult to impose your opinions, values, etc. A process intervention is also typically very rapid.

In contrast, a content intervention introduces specific content as a way to change the client’s response to what they experience. That can also be very useful, and it may be exactly what they need. But since it introduces content from your world into theirs, it risks imposing your opinions and values on the client, and sometimes those may not fit well into their world.

Let’s start with some ridiculously simple examples of the content/process distinction, and then move on to others that are more interesting and relevant to therapy. If you have a cup of coffee, the coffee is the content, and the cup is the process, which in this case is a “container,” it keeps the content in a particular place and shape. A different container, such as a jar with a tight lid would supply a different kind of process to the same content. The cup of coffee can be tipped over and spilled (a different process), while the jar with a lid would continue to contain the coffee if it were tipped over. If you change the liquid from coffee to tea, or soda, or dandelions, that would change the content, but the process would be the same.


Sensory Modalities When we are aware of an event in real time, we can be aware of it in any one or more of the five different sensory modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, taste and smell). Each of these modalities is a distinct process, and since each is sensitive to different aspects of a given event, each will carry significantly different content information about the same event.

One of the simplest interventions is to ask a client to attend to one or more sensory modalities that they are not attending to, in order to expand the scope of their experience of an event, or a memory of an event. “When you look at that image, what are the sounds that accompany it?” or “What is the sound of that event?” is a pure process intervention. The client supplies any change in the content (the particular sounds that they hear).

In contrast, “That probably sounds awful, like a screen door slamming,” or “Can you hear that conversation in your head as if it were a pleasant babbling brook?” introduces content on two different logical levels simultaneously—on the sensory level, a particular sound (screen door slamming, or babbling brook) and also at a higher level, an evaluation and categorization of the sound—that it is “awful” or “pleasant.”

If our representation of an event omits any of the sensory modalities, we will have less information than if we had input from all five modalities. Our evaluation of an event is in response to the information received; when this information is only partial, we may have a very different response than if we had full information (and vice versa).

For instance, a visual image of a food might look very attractive, but if we add in the actual taste of it, and/or how it would feel in our stomach if we ate it, the same food might become much less attractive to us. A Playboy magazine centerfold may look fantastic; but if you add in a whiny voice with many demands, or the smell resulting from not taking a bath for a week, it’s probably not nearly as appealing. Sometimes the reverse will be true; the visual image might be unattractive, but if the taste and feel are added in, it might become quite alluring. The same is true of any event that is recalled in memory, or any representation of a forecast of a future event.


Submodalities Within each sensory modality there are smaller process aspects or subdivisions within each modality—each of which is represented in the brain as a separate neurological processing mode. For instance, in the visual modality, an image can be large or small, close or distant, bright or dim, black and white or color, panoramic or framed, etc. In the auditory modality, a sound can be loud or soft, near or far, high or low, fast or slow tempo, melodic or staccato, etc. In the tactile kinesthetic system, a sensory feeling can be felt in any part of the body, both from touch sensors in the skin and internal sensing of position, tension, etc. The feeling can vary in intensity, extent, pressure, rough or smooth, hot, warm, cold, etc. Just as each of the five sensory modalities is a different process, each submodality is also a somewhat different way of processing the same content, and each will include or omit some information.

Perspective In the visual modality, the position from which an image is seen is a very important process variable. Seeing an event from out of your own eyes will always be different from seeing the same event as if we were looking out of someone else’s eyes, or out of the eyes of a disinterested observer, or from any other particular location in space. The ability to choose to take a different perspective is the basis for a wide variety of human skills and abilities, including being “objective,” empathizing with someone else, knowing clearly what I want in a given situation, etc.

Although a process change in perspective provides different content, that content emerges completely out of the client’s experience; the only thing the client is asked to change is the process. Being able to shift perspective is a major skill that enables flexibility and choice in responding to a situation with wisdom and balance. When the different perceptual positions are “aligned,” the usefulness of these different positions is enhanced immeasurably, because the different sensory elements are sorted and arranged for greatest clarity.


Phobia In a simple phobia, the content is what the person is afraid of: spiders, mice, water, heights—even stuffed olives, which is my all-time favorite. Mainstream psychology has classified phobias by content—arachnophobia, musophobia, aquaphobia, acrophobia—but they haven’t yet gotten around to giving a Greek or Latin name to an intense fear of stuffed olives. Most psychotherapies attempt to resolve a phobia by focusing on the content, its history, its symbolic meaning, its development over time, or its place in the dynamics of a family system, etc.

However, what is important in a phobia is not the content, or the past events that caused it, or the current context, etc. What is important is the process in the present. Someone with a phobia responds to an external stimulus by recalling an unpleasant traumatic memory. This process is not a problem in itself; we all sometimes respond to external stimuli in this way. What is important is that someone with a phobia remembers it by being back inside it, as if it were happening again in the present. As a result, they have all the same horrible feelings that they had in the original experience, often with the same intensity.

The phobia cure changes the process that the client uses to recall the memory, so that they are outside the experience, as if watching it on a movie screen. Now it is as if they are watching someone else go through the experience, so they have the feelings of an observer instead of those of a participant. That is a very different feeling in response to the exact same content. Instead of the fear, shock, etc. that they felt in the original traumatic event, now they can have feelings of compassion, or sadness, being glad that it is happening to that other person, or whatever other feelings they would have if they watched someone else go through that horrible experience in real life.

The same process can be used for any disturbing traumatic memory, from mild unpleasantness up to and including PTSD flashbacks. Some people use this process spontaneously; despite undergoing truly horrible experiences, they never experience PTSD symptoms. A few years ago I heard a radio interview with a woman who was arrested in Bahrain for treating injured political protestors during the “Arab Spring.” She was repeatedly severely beaten and raped for many weeks by many men—certainly a “history” that most therapists would consider adequate to cause PTSD. But in describing her memory of those experiences, she said calmly, “When I think of those events, it’s like they happened to someone else.”

Since the process is what is important, a therapist using the phobia cure doesn’t need to know anything at all about the content of the phobia to resolve it. The therapist doesn’t have to explore the content, probe the symbolic meaning, history, development over time, or its impact on the family system, etc. And the client doesn’t have to reveal any of the sensitive or shameful details of what happened, so it is much simpler and less unpleasant for them. The therapist only needs to know that the client has a very rapid unpleasant response to a memory or cue. Since the same procedure can be used for any content, this greatly simplifies the therapist’s task.

Sometimes the cue that triggers a phobic response is something that is not actually dangerous, but only what the client happened to be aware of at the moment of peak arousal in the original traumatic event. I don’t think that anyone has ever been attacked or harmed by a stuffed olive, but if the client was looking at a stuffed olive at a moment of the intense fear, it may become the trigger for it. A client who had a phobia of not seeing her feet happened to be looking down at her feet in shallow muddy water at the moment of peak terror after falling off a boat. These and other examples clearly indicate that the content is really irrelevant to the phobia; it just happens to have been the stimulus that got associated with the emotion, and became a trigger for it.

This focus on process rather than content is a revolutionary paradigm shift that was offered to the field of psychotherapy over 35 years ago, in the book Frogs into Princes. Most therapists spend a great deal of time “working through” clients’ unpleasant past experiences, and usually that involves some form of re-experiencing, “prolonged exposure” or “emotional expression.” Given that someone with a phobia has probably re-experienced it intensely hundreds or thousands of times already, it seems unlikely that simply doing the same thing a few more times in therapy would be useful.

The shift of attention from content to process was a shift that many therapists found very difficult to accept. My wife Connirae once demonstrated the phobia resolution process to a group of therapists with a woman who had a phobia of heights. Before doing the process, the woman was trembling and sweating when she put one foot on the second rung of the ladder, and couldn’t go higher. After doing the process, she climbed to the top of the ladder, cheerful and relaxed. A psychiatrist who had observed the entire process spoke up and said, “Excuse me, you’re a nice lady, but you just can’t do that.” One might think that therapists would be happy to learn a quick and effective way of working in this way. Unfortunately, it is has been largely ignored by mainstream psychotherapy, and most therapists are unaware of it.


Resolving Grief The process in grief is the exact opposite of a phobia in two ways. Someone with a phobic response is stepping back inside a negative experience; someone who is grieving is stepping outside of a very positive one, feeling only emptiness and longing for the lost good feelings. Accordingly, the process for resolving grief is the exact opposite of the process used for a phobia, namely stepping back into the treasured experience to recover the good feelings that they had with that person, a pure process intervention. Many therapists think about “grief work” as “learning to say goodbye” but this is exactly backwards—they really need to say “hello” again and reengage with the good feelings they are presently separated from.

Many grieving clients remember the fight, accident, or death that ended a relationship, rather than an event that represents the good experiences that they enjoyed. However, the ending of the relationship is not what they miss and yearn for. When this is the case, it is crucially important to change this content to a representation of what was positive about the relationship, because this is what the person misses and longs for. This is a content change that must be done before doing the process intervention, because stepping back into a fight, accident, or death scene is neither pleasant nor useful. In a recent conference workshop I asked for someone who experienced grief, in order to demonstrate the grief resolution process. The first two people who volunteered were troubled by remembering the end of the relationship. As soon as I asked them to change the content to a special moment, they no longer experienced grief. In the grief process there are both content and process interventions, and both are useful.


Decisions Making a decision has both a content and a process. The content might be whether or not to marry, or buy a car, or eat another cookie, or any of the many thousand of decisions that we make every day. The process that we use is the series of mental events that we use to think of options, evaluate options for their desirability, and finally choose between them. Typically, each of us has one basic decision process, no matter what the content of the decision is, though there will always be small variations to adapt to the content. For instance, a decision about music will usually require an auditory evaluation step, while a decision about food will usually require a taste evaluation step, a decision about a shirt might require both a visual evaluation of how it looks, and a kinesthetic evaluation of how it feels on your body.

Some people have a decision process that works very well, while others have a process that doesn’t work well at all, or only works well in certain contexts. Since this is a more complex process than a phobia, there are more opportunities for processing errors. For example, a person may not have a way to think of additional options, or they may represent options only in one major modality (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) rather than all three, omitting vitally important information. They may think of an option as a still picture rather than as a movie, again omitting important information that is only available in a movie that extends into the future. They may use only one (or a few) criteria in evaluating options, or they may oscillate between different criteria. They may try to decide among many options at once, rather than taking only two options at a time, and discarding the less desirable one. If the decision process is faulty, the resulting decisions will be unsatisfying, irrespective of the content, even if many desirable options are available. (For more detail on decisions, see chapter 16 of Heart of the Mind.)


Communication When we communicate, we usually attend to the message that we want to send—the words that are primary in conveying the content. The process that we use to communicate the content is everything else—the volume, tone, tempo, hesitations, melody of the voice, and the visual information offered by the posture, facial expressions, tilt of the head, proximity, body tension, hand gestures and movements, the clothes we are wearing, the larger context—and all the ways in which these separate aspects are linked together into repeating patterns.

That “everything else” is a huge amount of information that far exceeds our limitation of 7 +/- 2 “chunks” of conscious attention that George Miller identified over a half century ago. If most of our attention is focused on the content—and often also on the other person’s response to it, we have only a tiny bit left to notice a few aspects of that “everything else” that is going on. Accordingly, most of this process information is not conscious most of the time (though it can become conscious with a shift of attention). This “everything else” of the process may convey far more important information—particularly about the relationship between you and the other person—than the content being expressed.


The tricky part The distinction between process and content is not fixed, but is dependent on what is attended to, and the context. A process can become the content of another process. For instance, if you pay attention to voice tone, or any other process, then what had been process becomes the content, and the process becomes something we might call “observing,” or “noticing,” or “evaluating.”

A world event is a content that is processed by our sensory modalities and submodalities to yield what we call our experience of the event. Then that experience becomes the content that is processed by language to become a verbal communication. That communication can then become the content that is processed by linguistics (words, grammar, syntax, etc.)

In this article, both “process” and “content” have become the content of a process that might be called “describing” or “understanding.”

Exploring the shifting dance between process and content requires some mental gymnastics that few of us can do easily; if you think you understand this clearly, then you probably don’t.

Hopefully this short article can begin to sensitize you to some of the differences between content and process, the beginning of an interesting and very useful exploration that can often make sense of what otherwise be very puzzling and confusing. For further reading about this, read my book, Six Blind Elephants.

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