Steve Andreas’ NLP Blog

NLP Articles, News, and Tidbits about Psychotherapy and Personal Development

A Response to Shawn Carlson’s blog post Patterns Within Patterns


I’d like to start by completely agreeing with Shawn’s description of a lovely piece of reorienting in time that can be used to consolidate any change, however made: An additional temporal step is added by inviting the client to step into the future and, looking back, see the changes she has made within the ‘past-future’ visible from the farther future, “step into the future, and looking back toward now, realize how far this change has taken you.”       

However, this great process doesn’t appear to me to fit the steps of the Meta Pattern, which assumes integration (“collapsing”) anchors, rather than some other way of combining experiences, such as chaining. The beginning state is a solution state, rather than a problem state, so when you ask a client to “step into the future,” that dissociates from a solution, and associates into a “farther future” that is a resource in itself, (rather than simply a “break state” from which to choose a resource state). While associated into this farther future, the client views scenarios from the intervening time (the past from the point of view of being associated into the farther future).

This process is an example of a general pattern that Erickson called “reorientation in time.” It is also an example of nesting one experience inside another one, rather than integrating two experiences, or chaining them together sequentially in time. It is structurally identical to the phobia cure, in which the client associates into the movie theater, and nested within that dissociates from the past phobic memory. It’s also an example of utilization. If someone has a phobia, we know that they are skilled at associating into a memory, so we ask them to associate into the movie theater visualization to provide a context for dissociating from the troubling memory. This nesting of experiences is a different experiential process (there are others) that doesn’t fit the steps of the Meta Pattern.


I’m getting a little tired of playing “whac-a-mole” responding to misrepresentations of what I have written. For instance, Shawn writes, This is exactly a formulation of the HNLP Meta Pattern (so I am a little surprised that Steve is arguing there is no such thing!).”

I never said there is “no such thing”; if that were true, we wouldn’t be able to talk about it! What I said was that this meta-pattern was a useful, but somewhat crude early generalization, with a lot of exceptions. Connirae’s and my statement from Change Your Mind (1987) starts with. “One very broad general formulation of change work . . .” The word “One” clearly implies that there are others, and stating that it was “very broad and general” indicates that it lacks a lot of detail, and likely has exceptions or counterexamples. It was also written 30 years ago; luckily we know more now than we knew then.

What I disagree with is Shawn’s statement that, “Perhaps if I demonstrate how the Meta Pattern is the basis of all change work enough times, the universal truth of the Meta Pattern will become unarguable!”

         There are a number of problems with this statement. First, it’s not possible to prove universality by providing “enough examples.” [just as Finding 100,000 apples, or even a million apples, wouldn’t “prove” that other types of fruit don’t exist — and I have already provided some oranges and bananas. The Meta Pattern is useful, but there are many significant examples of change work that don’t fit the Meta-Pattern.

Setting aside the question of whether or not there is any such thing as “universal truth,” let’s take a look at Shawn’s description of the visual squash, which he presents as an example of the Meta Pattern:

“Similarly, in the visual squash, you separate and externalize the parts that are creating the inner conflict. You place one as an image on the client’s left hand and the other on their right. We are now at step 2 of the Meta Pattern, we have dissociated the client from their problem (the internal conflict).” I agree with Shawn fully up to this point.

Shawn goes on to write: “On to step three of the Meta Pattern, associating into the resource. First let’s help your client to find the appropriate resource. We do this by chunking up on the ‘intentions’ of each part until we find a shared value, or at least values that sufficiently overlap. This shared valued is the resource. At the same time we build rapport between the parts by asking what each can learn from the other.”

It’s important to realize that the intention of each part — as well as any shared intention — is still dissociated, not associated. The two parts (and their intentions) are still represented as separate images in the two hands, and also separate from the client.

Shawn follows with, “We then associate the client into this resource, typically by internalizing it “bring that back inside your body.” Shawn has omitted a very crucial step, namely bringing the two hands, and their associated images together to “collapse” them, before bringing the resulting integrated image into the body. The Meta Pattern specifies “collapsing” two associated states (problem and resource). But in the visual squash, two dissociated images are “collapsed,” followed by association.

Furthermore, neither image in the visual squash is either a problem state or a resource state. Neither one is a problem in itself, the problem is the conflict between the two. The resource is the result of combining them.

         In the discussion above, and in previous posts, I have set forth my understanding of the Meta Pattern, and Shawn has set forth his. Readers will need to come to their own conclusions.


Shawn writes, “In collapsing anchors, as Steve rightly says, there have to be two states or two anchors to collapse. Steve then for some reason says that this requirement is not included in the Meta Pattern; this is incorrect.”

In the Meta Pattern diagram there is no mention of any anchoring — none whatsoever. There is also no mention of a cue for the problem state, or the context of the problem state. This kind of omission is inevitable in any vague general outline that purports to be universal. I prefer more detail and specific steps, to be sure that nothing essential is left out.

One of the sources of much of my disagreements with Shawn is that we are describing very different levels of detail. This can be illustrated by different responses to the question, “Where is Times Square?” One answer is, “It’s in North America.” Another is, “It’s in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue.” Both answers are true, but the second provides much more specific and detailed information.

A car that is running poorly could be described as being in a very bad “state,” but that wouldn’t indicate much about how to fix the problem. A good mechanic might be able to listen to it and determine that it only needs a small adjustment in timing. Likewise, someone’s “problem state” is a very general description, while “see a movie of yourself in that situation” is a very specific small intervention — a change in point of view that leaves all the other aspects of a “problem state” (content, sounds, context, etc.) undisturbed.

When talking about general states it is easy to ignore differences, and see similarities. I keep making distinctions, and Shawn keeps saying they aren’t important, and that they all fit the Meta Pattern, which is based on integration of a resource with a problem state.


One principle that I have found very useful in making changes (whether in NLP or in other contexts) is to make the smallest change necessary to get the desired outcome. There are at least two important reasons for this. One is that it is much easier to make a small adjustment, such as point of view, the location of an image, or in some other submodality. As Milton Erickson said, “Your task is that of adjusting, not abolishing.” The other reason is that a small adjustment is much less likely to interfere with the rest of the client’s functioning than a large one — what is usually called “ecology” but which would be more accurately called congruence.

For instance, imagine that you notice some irregularities and palpitations in the beating of your heart, so you consult a doctor. After she listens to your heart, takes an EKG, and asks a few questions, she says, “Well, some simple life-style changes will resolve those symptoms, but a heart transplant would also work.” I hope it’s obvious that a heart transplant would be a lot more difficult, and have significantly more risk of problematic consequences. Unfortunately working with “states” (especially ones like “awesomely confident”) is a lot more like a heart transplant, changing much more than is necessary or useful.


         Shawn writes that, “The problem and resource then ‘duke it out’ within the client’s physiology. This is repeated until the resource state (or a resource state) emerges the winner.” That is a description of what happens if you integrate two very different “large chunk” states, an indication of trying to make a “heart transplant” type of change, in contrast to a small adjustment. Unfortunately a client’s responses to a “heart transplant” change is often quite intense, leading both client and therapist to be unduly impressed, rather than realize it’s only a result of sloppy work. Years ago, a boss I had frequently said, “Do not confuse motion with progress.” The best changes don’t usually involve pyrotechnics; they are usually exemplified by the classic, “Hmn, I never thought about it that way.”

The idea that states have to “duke it out” until one “emerges a winner” usually results from thinking about the emotional intensity of a state, rather than its appropriateness for the problem. This leads to an assumption that I have called a “the mathematical fallacy of states”: that if you have a negative state rated at a 7, you need a positive state rated at least 7 or 8 to “overcome” it.

This is obviously false in the case of the phobia process. A phobia is a very emotionally intense state, let’s say somewhere in the range of 7-10; Dissociation is a much less intense state, perhaps somewhere in the range of 1-3. There is no “duking it out,” nor any “winner” when using the phobia process; there is no conflict at all. The change in point of view is a specific and precise adjustment that is makes it easy to view a troubling memory comfortably.


Shawn follows with, “The Meta Pattern is then repeated on an iterative basis by running the client through other triggers, and other contexts, until the client is not able to identify any more examples of the problem. This is typically fairly quick as the brain is an amazing generalization-machine!”

Yes, the brain is an amazing generalization machine, and you can do change work by repeating the same change on different contents and contexts to help it generalize, a Shawn describes. However, it is far easier and simpler to begin by asking the client to choose the most intense example of a problem response. This is identifying what cognitive linguists call a “prototype” experience that represents the entire category of problem experiences. If you do this before intervening, a change in the prototype will automatically generalize to all the other examples, in a kind of “domino” effect, so you only have to do the change once, which is more efficient. Of course it’s important to check other examples to make sure that generalization has occurred, but you don’t have to keep repeating the change work. Checking three different past examples, followed by three future examples, is usually sufficient to confirm generalization.


Shawn goes on to write, “By the way, when this happens the Meta-Pattern-TOTE-strategy ends (to quickly address another of Steve’s objections).” I assume that is how Shawn works; my objection (yet again) is that there is no mention in the Meta Pattern diagram of a TOTE, an exit, or a criterion for stopping. The arrows go around clockwise between the four circles, and Shawn has emphasized that you can start anywhere on the circle.


Shawn writes, “I agree with Steve that dissociation is part of the resource state for a phobia.” Again that is not what I wrote; I wrote that dissociation is the resource state (not “part” of it). The “laughter; and ‘safe-to-safe’ experience” that Shawn mentions are embellishments (and there are many others) that be used to support dissociation, but they aren’t usually required.


Finally, I completely disagree with Shawn’s statement that, “Steve’s modal collapse, ‘How is it possible that you should be able to do something you can’t do?’ is an example of what Robert Dilts calls ‘apply to self.’ ” I’m pretty sure Robert would agree with me, and I would think that John Overdurf might also agree. Can you send this section to John and ask him if he would be willing to comment?

The sentences, “I can’t do it” and “I should do it” both apply to the self of the person speaking, but neither refers to the sentence itself, which is what the phrase “apply to self” refers to.

A trivial, but instructive, example of “apply to self” is “This sentence is true,” because the sentence describes itself. A more useful example is, “Everything I do is stupid.” Since saying that sentence is one of the things that someone does, the sentence refers to itself, and therefore the sentence must also be stupid. Pointing this out can weaken or break the problematic generalization.

What happens in what Shawn is calling a “modal collapse” is that an unrecognized contradiction becomes apparent. “I should do it” presupposes that I can do it, while “I can’t do it” presupposes the opposite. By juxtaposing these two statements, the contradiction (“speak against”) becomes apparent, and something has to give. If there is good evidence that the “it” is not something I can actually do, the “should” vanishes. If the evidence is less robust, the contradiction can be resolved by reconsidering the “can’t” and exploring alternatives that I might actually be able to do.

I think the explanation above is a lot simpler and clearer than Shawn’s description: “The modals ‘can’t’ and ‘should’ exist in different ‘modal spaces’ (we will call them ‘frames’): ‘can’t’ generally inhabits either the epistemic (personal knowledge) frame, or the doxastic (personal beliefs, without knowledge) frame. ‘Should’ generally inhabits either the deontic (duty), or axiologic (cultural) frames. In any case for brevity I will only address the can’t modal here using the doxastic (belief) space.”

In volume II of my book, Six Blind Elephants, chapters 4, 5, & 6 go into much more detail about modal operators, self-reference, and self-contradiction and how to change them in useful ways.

Notice that Shawn uses the same word “collapse” to “apply to self” and “modal collapse (contradiction), ignoring the distinctions I have made above — and he also uses the same word to nesting experience (discussed in the first paragraph of this post). In earlier posts he uses “collapse” for both integration and chaining. There is a further possible alternative, combining two experiences into a hierarchy of relative importance.

Using the same word “collapse” for all these very different experiences, is like saying that Times Square is in North America. It’s not false, but failing to recognize the different kinds of “collapse” makes it impossible to do really elegant work that makes the smallest change necessary in order to get the client’s outcome.


P.S. I was pleased to see Shawn describe discussion of dopamine as a “red herring,” and then disappointed that he went on to discuss it as if it weren’t.

I think the finding that news of a loss results in a dopamine spike may be a result of the “gambler’s fallacy” in which a gambler believes (erroneously) that a loss on one round signals a greater probability of a win on the next one. If the news of a loss is immediately followed by an image of a future win, the latter, not the former, would be what actually elicits the dopamine spike. That would fit better with the overall finding that dopamine is released in response to an expectation of reward. Does anyone know a compulsive gambler they could model to explore this possibility? Even if it’s irrelevant to NLP change work, it’s an interesting puzzle.

Since Shawn describes the “Tree of life” process as not NLP, I won’t comment on that, except to respond to Shawn’s statement, “I find it to be the simplest model that captures any and all human experience.” It seems extremely unlikely to me that any simple model could do that.

Free Holiday Gift for you and yours!

Dear Friends,

For the holidays Mark Andreas has just released a free booklet of two “outside-the-box” cop stories that people are finding touching, humorous, and inspirational in a time when police shootings and abuse of power has regularly made the news. Just a few days ago one of the stories was requested by Macmillan Learning to be included in a popular text book with a print distribution of 175,000 hardcover copies and 25,000 e-books!

We believe these stories carry an important message to be going out at this particular moment.

Download the free booklet from Amazon here.

Also available free on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, and Kobo.


Message from Mark:

“I want as many citizens and police officers to read these stories as possible, so the booklet will remain free forever. I hope you will help in spreading these great stories to your networks. Would you please consider sharing this inspirational booklet with your personal and/or organizational email list and/or via Facebook and Twitter?”

Please let me know if you would like to join me by sharing this gift between now and Christmas. Below, is a sample email and social media post to make it easy for you to share these stories with others.
Wishing you a peaceful holiday season!

~Mark Andreas


******SAMPLE EMAIL******

Dear Friends,

For the holidays I’m sharing a free booklet of two outside-the-box cop stories that people are finding touching, humorous, and inspirational in a time when police shootings and abuse of power has regularly made the news. One of these stories will soon appear in a popular textbook by Macmillan Learning with a print distribution of 175,000 copies. In these stories a police officer with a 30-year police career recounts examples of his unusual creativity as he was called on to deal with dangerous situations where his own life, and the lives of community members, were on the line. I believe these stories carry an important message to be going out at this particular moment.

Download the free booklet from Amazon here:

Also available free on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, and Kobo.

I hope you consider sharing this booklet with your friends and loved-ones—especially if you know a policeman or someone who works in policing or as an emergency responder. You can share this email or use the sample social media post below. Often a true example is the first step to meaningful change in challenging times.


******SAMPLE TWEET******

Read a police officer’s humorous and creative responses to dangerous conflict #PeaceOfficer

Note: my old email address no longer works. To email me, please use my new address sandreas44 [at]

       A variety of studies find that overall the median number of sessions that a therapist has with a client is one — roughly half of all clients don’t return for a second session. Whether or not they intend it, many therapists are doing “single-session” therapy a lot of the time. When you realize that there is a better than even chance that your first session with a client will also be your last, that can focus your attention on doing everything you can to elicit a useful change that the client wants. If you are cautious, if you allow the client to ramble on, or if you spend most of the first session taking a history or doing a genogram, you will have very little time left to do anything useful.

       One thing you can do to maximize your impact is to be very specific about what you do in therapy. One of my favorite reminders is that “An ounce of framing is worth a pound of reframing.” If you allow the client to set the frames for what will happen in your sessions, and their frames aren’t useful, you will have to waste time reframing. In contrast, if you begin by offering useful frames for what you do, the client will usually accept that direction — or they will have to work to reframe it.

       Everything you say — or do nonverbally — in the first session will participate in setting a direction for what will occur in your sessions. Pause now, and imagine that a new client enters your office. Allow your unconscious to surprise you with a detailed image of this specific client. Notice how this client is dressed, his or her posture and attitude, facial expression, etc. How do you greet this client for the first time? As you hear yourself greeting him or her, listen to what you say and how you say it. The messages embedded in any discussion of fees, insurance, missed sessions, or other logistics, and any “small talk” that occurs before you get down to work may be as important in setting frames as what you say when you are ready to begin. Your nonverbal behavior may also be more influential than the verbal, but it’s very difficult to discuss that in a written article.

       However, let’s examine the words that you say to a client after the preliminaries and logistics are done, and you are ready to get down to work. What is a typical sentence you might say to start the session? Pause now to write this sentence down. If you think of several different possibilities, write them all down, so that you can examine them later and learn from them. (If you don’t pause to do this, you will rob yourself of a valuable learning experience.) . . .

       Below are actual first sentences to clients, taken verbatim from videos or from transcripts of sessions, many of which were conducted by widely-known and well-regarded therapists. As you read each sentence, imagine being in the position of the client. Notice how each sentence directs your attention in a somewhat different way, and how you respond to it. Again, to learn the most from this article, jot down a few words or brief notes about your response to each of the sentences below, before reading the next one. (Again, if you don’t pause to do this, you will rob yourself of a valuable learning experience.) . . .

  1. “Can you begin by your telling me what you’d like help with?”
  2. “What’s up?”
  3. “Maybe a good place for us to begin is why are you here, and what would you like to get out of the time we have?”
  4. “What’s the problem?”
  5. “I really appreciate your seeing me. You don’t even know me.”
  6. “Let me just tell you a little bit about how I work, and then if you have any questions or anything, let me know. Usually when I meet somebody I’ll spend about thirty, thirty-five minutes chatting with them, getting to know them a bit, finding out what they are hoping for from the visit.”
  7. “I don’t know much about you now. I just simply know that your name is Sally, so if you could fill me in on your age and what you do.”
  8. “What made you decide to come to see me.”
  9. “So what’s the question you wanted us to focus on?”
  10. “I guess I’d just like you to start wherever you feel you want to.”
  11. “So, I noticed you let out a huge sigh of sorts as you walked through the door.”
  12. “What would you like to create in your life?”
  13. “Tell me a little background; tell me where you got stuck, and where you want to go.”
  14. “What can I do for you?”
  15. “What changes do you want to make today?”
  16. “What, specifically, do you need to be able to do, that you cannot yet do, and we will make sure you can do it before you leave here today.”

       I hope it’s clear that there is a huge variety in how these sentences direct attention by setting (or not setting) frames. What does each of these sentences presuppose or imply about what will (or won’t) happen in the session? Below I have noted some aspects of each of the opening sentences listed above; perhaps you will notice others:

  1. “Can you begin by your telling me what you’d like help with?” Presupposes the therapist will help the client, an invitation to dependence, implicitly problem-oriented rather than outcome-oriented, “Like” is weaker than “want” or “need.” “You’d” (“You would”) makes the help hypothetical or conditional. I “would” like help IF some condition were met.
  2. “What’s up?” Very undirected and unfocused, permitting a huge variety of responses, total freedom for the client to respond in any way, and take charge of the session.
  3. “Maybe a good place for us to begin is why are you here, and what would you like to get out of the time we have?” “Maybe” sets a frame of uncertainty, with potential implication of incompetence. “Us” creates a mutual frame. The “why” orients toward a problem, and the “what” orients to an outcome. “Like” is weaker than “want” or “need.” “Would” is conditional.
  4. “What’s the problem?” Exclusively problem-oriented, and presupposes one problem. There is no other direction about what will happen in the session.
  5. “I really appreciate your seeing me. You don’t even know me.” Focuses on the therapist’s feelings resulting from the client’s actions, a curious role reversal. There is no other direction about what will happen in the session.
  6. “Let me just tell you a little bit about how I work, and then if you have any questions or anything, let me know. Usually when I meet somebody I’ll spend about thirty, thirty-five minutes chatting with them, getting to know them a bit, finding out what they are hoping for from the visit.” “Chatting” implies relatively superficial communication, a casual interaction without much purpose or direction—and the sentences above are congruent with chatting. “Getting to know” client is a different focus than either problem or outcome. “A bit” presupposes the therapist isn’t going to really get to know the client — just “a bit.” The purpose of the visit is framed as half connection between therapist and client, and half about the client’s “hopes.” “Hoping” is much weaker than “wanting” or “needing.” “Thirty, thirty-five minutes” is more than half of a 50-minute hour. This presupposes not getting anything done for more than half the session.
  7. “I don’t know much about you now. I just simply know that your name is Sally, so if you could fill me in on your age and what you do.” This implies that to “know much about the client” means learning about their demographic data such as age and occupation, in contrast to their individuality. Neither problem nor outcome is mentioned.
  8. “What made you decide to come to see me.” Oriented to the past, and implied problem, and puts the client in a passive role of having been made to decide something.
  9. “So what’s the question you wanted us to focus on?” Presupposes that the client had a question. “Wanted” assumes the client had a question in the past, which is rather a strange combination, since the “focus on” is of necessity in the present. Flipping to past tense takes the client slightly out of the present moment. “Us” sets a joint frame of alliance.
  10. “I guess I’d just like you to start wherever you feel you want to.” By beginning with “guess” and “I’d” (“I would”) the therapist presents him/herself as being uncertain about the therapy process, with implication of incompetence. Completely open-ended, client can start anywhere, and take control of the session. “Feel you want to” is curious. Since wanting is already a feeling, this asks for a feeling about a feeling, creating intellectual distance from “want.”
  11. “So, I noticed you let out a huge sigh of sorts as you walked through the door.” Indicates that the therapist is attending to client’s nonverbal expression in the present (in contrast to past history). This brings the client’s attention to his/her current nonverbal experience. While this is a nice for rapport and feedback, it doesn’t provide any direction about what will occur in the session.
  12. “What would you like to create in your life?” Present and future-oriented. “Like” is weaker than “want” or “need.” Presupposes that creating something is the solution. Some clients may not want creativity and newness; they may want something to be the way it used to be, as in loss/grief. “Would” is conditional and weaker than “do.”
  13. “Tell me a little background; tell me where you got stuck, and where you want to go.” Asks for both past and future. Presupposes the client is stuck, and that the solution involves going somewhere. Categorizing this information as “background” presupposes that the client’s responses aren’t the “real thing” — they are just background; the foreground isn’t addressed.
  14. “What can I do for you?” Presupposes that the therapist will do all the work for the client, and that the client can tell the therapist what to do.
  15. “What changes do you want to make today?” “Changes” (plural) embraces both problem and outcome, focusing on the transition between them. Presupposes that changes can be made today, and that the client is the one who will make them, yet doesn’t restrict the kind of changes to be made.
  16. “What, specifically, do you need to be able to do, that you cannot yet do, and we will make sure you can do it before you leave here today.” This is the sentence that Don Aspromonte, a colleague in Dallas Texas, who has an extensive background in business and sales, as well as hypnosis and NLP, and who has written an excellent book on sales, Green Light Selling. Don has used this sentence with every client in both therapy and business consulting for over 20 years, after much experimentation and careful thought. Below is Don’s description of the different patterns of influence contained in it.


*  *  *  *  *


What, specifically indicates that we will not be working with general outcomes, which is where most clients start, in contrast to a specific behavior that is needed in a specific context.

       do you need (vs. weaker “hope,” “like,” “want,” etc.)

       to be able (optional whether they do it or not, presupposing choice.)

       to do (a behavior, vs. thinking, speculating, attitude, etc.)

       that you cannot yet do ( “Cannot” points them to something they can not do (can=able and not=avoid), something they are able to avoid doing. “Yet” implies that it is something they will be able to do in the future. This tends to eliminate things they believe are not possible or that they never expect to be able to do.

       and (links the foregoing with what follows below; “If you do what I ask, we will make it happen.”)

       we (cooperatively together)

       will make sure (test the results)

       you can do it (strong hypnotic command, with downward tonal inflection)

       before (time specified)

       you leave here today (since they will, in fact, leave here today, this implies that the entire utterance is also true)

       The whole sentence starts out sounding like a question, but ends as a statement. With a downward inflection at the end, the entire sentence becomes a gentle, but even stronger command. After I say the words I shut up, leaving them to ponder the answer without any help from me. Sometimes they will negotiate with themselves and sometimes they will say things that don’t answer the question. It is important to let them respond before you do. Then, your participation amounts to repeating the question, “So…what, specifically, do you need to be able to do that you cannot yet do and we will make sure you can do it before you leave here today.”

       I have often had to repeat the question twice, but rarely three times. They quickly figure out that they need to answer the question before we move on, and I don’t negotiate with them.

       The most common issue we encountered with this sentence was that the client would often begin by saying, “I feel—” or “I want to feel—” We would interrupt as soon as possible, and bring them back to what they need to do.  One effect of this interaction is that our clients were learning to respond to their environment instead of to their own emotional responses.

       Beginning the therapeutic session with this framing we were able to immediately focus on the specific behaviors and contexts where our clients needed to perform better, and we avoided having to listen to long historical recitations. When our clients identified the specific “do” that they “needed” to do, it was usually easy to arrange for them to do it. Our clients achieved better outcomes more swiftly, and we felt refreshed at the end of the day.

       This does require that you have many excellent methods to accomplish these kinds of well-formed outcomes, so that you can keep your promise. If you find this prospect daunting, that indicates that you need to develop specific skills.


*  *  *  *  *


Simplified Checklist

       From the examples above, we can notice some recurring themes, and develop a checklist that can be applied to any first sentence, to make it clear how a sentence orients and directs the client’s attention.

  1. Problem, outcome, or transition?
  2. Time frame: past, present, future?
  3. Open ended or focused; specific or general?
  4. Doing, vs. thinking, feeling, complaining, talking about, etc.
  5. Who is responsible for making the change — client or therapist (or both)?
  6. What is presupposed, and does this facilitate or hinder change?
  7. Strength of motivation: hope, wish, desire, want, need, must, have to.
  8. Is client/therapist active or passive (or interactive).


       Now go back to the sentence(s) that you wrote down earlier when I asked you to think of what you typically say to a new client, and examine it, using the checklist as a guide. If you often have the same kind of difficulty with clients, examine your sentence to see if it invites or permits that difficulty. If you decide that you would like to make changes in what you say, write out your new sentence and try it out with clients — first in imagination, then in reality — to find out how that changes what happens in your sessions. Alternatively, you could try out Don’s sentence (#16) or any of the other sentences, to learn how that focuses your sessions, and impacts your clients.

       You might choose a different first question than Don’s, or decide on some modification that would be a better fit for your typical client and the kind of change work you offer. The point is not to find the “perfect sentence”; the point is to be aware of the impact of a sentence, so that you can frame your sessions in a way that facilitates what you do, making your work easier. As Don writes, “Our clients achieved better outcomes more swiftly, and we felt refreshed at the end of the day.” I hope this article helps you gain clarity about your own first question, and to what extent it sets a direction that is useful.

Steve Andreas responds to Shawn Carson’s post, “The Swish, States, and Neuroscience: Continuing the Dialogue with Steve Andreas

Steve’s responses are in italics.


This blog post (round 6) focuses on the question: “Does neuroscience actually help us know what to do with clients?” Shawn’s answer is “Yes”; my answer is “No.” Enjoy the dialogue! Summaries at the end.


Shawn wrote:

This post is in response to a continuing dialogue between Steve Andreas and myself, revolving around the swish (but occasionally veering off onto other topics). Steve and I hope this dialogue can act as an example of deep yet respectful debate of important areas of NLP.  Of course I am also deeply enjoying this dialogue and hope Steve and the rest of the NLP community who are reading this discussion are as well.

As usual, I’d like to take one aspect of Steve’s prior post and explore it a little more deeply. The aspect I have chosen is Steve’s wonderful line: “I have great respect for neuroscience, and also for nuclear physics. However, I don’t think either one has much to tell us (so far) about learning and change.”

That’s rather like saying I respect French cooking and nuclear physics, but neither one will help me entertain my friends from Paris!


Steve responds:

        This argument from analogy seems to be an attempt to show that my statement is not only wrong, but perhaps a bit ridiculous. However, Shawn doesn’t go on to show how this analogy establishes that, so for me it’s a non sequitur. An analogy can be useful if — and only if — the similarities are relevant, and if the analogy reveals a new understanding or prediction. How specifically is neuroscience like French cooking, how is entertaining friends from Paris like learning and change, and what can we learn from that analogy? I think it best to forego a confusing analogy, in favor of simply saying, “I disagree, and here are my reasons.” 

        I assume that the laws of nuclear physics underlie the practice of therapy, and I also assume that they underlie the process of kissing someone or making a soufflé. However, I have never seen any way in which physics can tell us how to do any of those things (or vice-versa)! They are simply different levels or realms of knowledge. When a carpenter cuts a board, she needs to know about the grain, and about splits or knots, but knowledge of the chemistry or physics of cellulose or lignin is of no use to her. Likewise, neuroscience is at a completely different level of understanding than therapy and change, so it doesn’t tell us anything about what to actually do with a client.


Shawn continues:

In this blog post I’ll focus on how neuroscience may indeed be able to assist with one of the key points of disagreement between Steve and myself: the difference between the ‘slingshot’ swish (aka Steve’s “butt joint”) and the ‘standard’ swish (aka Steve’s “lap joint”).


Steve responds:

         Though it’s a bit peripheral to this dialogue on the usefulness of neuroscience, perhaps a reminder might be useful. A slingshot swish is one in which the cue image rapidly recedes to a point on the horizon, and then returns as the desired self-image, which I likened to a butt joint, because the two images don’t overlap. In the swish as Bandler originally described it, the cue image rapidly becomes smaller and more distant at the same time as the desired self-image becomes larger and closer, which I likened to a lap joint, because the two images overlap at all points in the transition.

         More relevant, there is a key difference between the kind of evidence that Shawn and I are using for our differing views, Shawn is using theoretical understandings based on neuroscience. Even if they may be true, images of neurons firing don’t provide us with the kind of sensory-based experiences that are utilized in the swish. In contrast, everyone has had the experience of turning our head, and seeing one scene change quickly to another, connecting the two in a smooth transition. We have also had the experience of a door opening, and seeing the image of the door diminish in size, revealing an enlarging image of what is beyond the door. These provide concrete reference experiences of connection between images that are similar to those used in the swish.

         I have been searching for examples of experiences in real life that are similar to the slingshot swish, without success. In movies, a “jump cut” (butt joint) always indicates a discontinuity — a change in objective viewpoint, a shift from what one person sees to another person’s view, or a gap in time or space. All of these are disconnecting rather than connecting.

         Good change work accesses experiences that we have all had in the real world and applies them to problems in our inner world. For example, fairly often when people are making a difficult decision, they find that their images of different aspects of the decision don’t stay put in their visual field; they fall down, zoom in or out, or slide around, etc., causing confusion and overwhelm. If you suggest to them that they put Velcro on the back of each image, and hear the slight sound that Velcro makes when you press it down, suddenly all their images will stay put, and they are no longer confused.


Shawn continues:

Before we dive into the client’s brain and swish their neurons, I’ll preface by saying the principal use of neuroscience in change-work (IMO) is that it provides a complete and compelling set of metaphors to create change-potential in clients. That’s why I wrote a book on Neuroscience for coaches (‘Keeping the Brain in Mind’) with my co-author Melissa Tiers. Explaining how the processes you (as coach) will use with your clients actually rewire their brain, you set them up for success. For example I coach a number of hard-nosed New York business men and women on a long term basis. They may initially be reluctant to try any technique they consider “woo-woo”, but as soon as I explain how their ‘working memory’ operates, they are keen to get started as those “woo-woo” techniques have now become scientific. Science is the new religion.


Steve responds:

         When someone is reluctant to engage in change work, talking about neuroscience can indeed be used metaphorically to elicit cooperation. Depending on the client’s background and reasons for hesitating, other metaphors based on energy, digestion, computers, or religion might be much more effective. One fundamentalist client’s concerns about Satan were satisfied when he was told that the swish was a form of “visual prayer,” a way of communicating with the almighty.

        I usually use a simpler and more universally applicable approach, based on refocusing a client’s attention on his/her outcome. “OK, you’ve been (past tense) concerned that the methods I use might be “woo-woo,” so you think they won’t work. I don’t care whether you think they will work or not, because I know that they work. Your cell phone works whether or not you believe in the electronics and physics that make it work — all you need to know is which buttons to push. I don’t do faith healing; if you want faith healing, you’ll need to see someone else. Now here’s the really important question, ‘If my methods did work to get your outcome, would you have any objection to that?’ ”

         Some variation of that approach side-steps the whole belief issue, and refocuses attention on the client’s outcome. This elicits cooperation. My phobia client was totally disbelieving (6:25) until after I tested her response at the end, but she cooperated fully, which is all that was needed.

         While you can use neuroscience to motivate a client to do a processes, that is using an external authority, which won’t fit for someone who has a strong internal reference. I prefer the approach I outlined above, because it teaches clients to focus on their outcomes, and to try things out and notice their own experience, rather than believing in what a “neuroscience expert” says. Many clients already suffer from taking on limiting beliefs from others, and I don’t want to add to that. I want clients to learn from their own experience, and develop more of an internal reference. I often say to clients, “I’m the expert on what might work to get your outcome; you are the expert on what actually does work.”

         Since talking about neuroscience is an abstract, conscious-mind activity, it can be used to dissociate a client from their problem. As the client pictures neurons firing together, or “hijacking the amygdala,” it will be hard to attend to whatever internal images have been troubling them. However, there are hundreds of much simpler and more direct ways to interrupt the client’s problem state, such as commenting on their shoes, or a non-sequitur like, “Yes, except for the ladder.” Talking about “brain science” may delude both client and practitioner into thinking they are discussing something useful, when its only utility is as a break state.

         Finally, if science really were the new religion, then everyone would “believe” in evolution and climate change, but that is certainly not the case. Science explains nothing, but makes many testable predictions. Religion explains everything, and predicts nothing. Here is a mathematician’s poem that captures the essence of science:

Not truth, nor certainty. These I foreswore
In my novitiate, as young men called
To holy orders must abjure the world.
“If . . ., then . . .,” this only I assert;
And my successes are but pretty chains
Linking twin doubts, for it is vain to ask
If what I postulate be justified,
Or what I prove possess the stamp of fact.

Yet bridges stand, and men no longer crawl
In two dimensions. And such triumphs stem
In no small measure from the power this game,
Played with the thrice-attenuated shades
Of things, has over their originals.
How frail the wand, but how profound the spell! 

                                    –Clarence R. Wylie Jr.

From “The Imperfections of Science” by Warren Weaver. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 104, No. 5, October, 1960.


Shawn continues:

Hebb’s Law and Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity

OK, let’s dive into that brain. Inside your client’s brain (let’s say they came for smoking cessation), you see a tangle of long cells, with sparks of electricity moving between them.


Steve responds:

         It is simply not true that “sparks of electricity” move between neurons. A presynaptic neuron releases one or more neurotransmitter chemicals from a vesicle, the neurotransmitters diffuse rapidly across the synaptic cleft, and bind to receptor sites on the postsynaptic neuron, stimulating it to fire in response.

         However, more important is that neither Shawn’s nor my explanation is of any use whatsoever for someone who has an everyday problem of angry outbursts, thoughts of revenge, shame, or grief; it’s just irrelevant in helping them change.


Shawn continues:

These are your client’s neurons. When one neuron (the pre-synaptic neuron) fires, the neighboring neuron (the post-synaptic neuron) can either fire in response, or fail to fire in response. Whether the neighbor fires depends on a number of complex factors, one of which is how receptive the second neuron is to signal from the first neuron, i.e. whether or not the two neurons consider themselves to be ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’.

How do the neurons decide whether to be friends or enemies? Pretty much the same way you do! If one neuron fires, and its neighbor fires in response (“Hi neighbor, how are you today?”; “I’m just great, how are you?”) then they become friends; and the second neuron becomes more likely to fire when the first neuron fires.


Steve responds:

         Shawn’s anthropomorphic metaphor describing the relationship between neurons at a synapse is misleading in several ways. Neurons that fire sequentially don’t “talk to each other,” they aren’t “friends,” and most important, the postsynaptic neuron never “talks back” to the presynaptic neuron. They also don’t “decide” whether or not to fire; if the connections are numerous enough, and strong enough, they fire, and if they aren’t, they don’t.

         Again what’s really important is that neither Shawn’s nor my neuroscience explanation is of any use whatsoever in deciding what to do in order to help someone who has an everyday problematic response that they would like to change.

         Until someone can give me a specific example of how a piece of information from neuroscience can tell us something about what to do with a client that we don’t already know from NLP, I stand by my statement that “I have great respect for neuroscience, and also for nuclear physics. However, I don’t think either one has much to tell us (so far) about learning and change.”

         Shawn’s discussion of neuroscience below only provides a different explanation of what we already know. Since it offers no new predictions about how to respond to a client with a problem, it’s irrelevant to the swish, or any other method. Explanation without prediction is a useless self-deception. Nevertheless, I have made a few comments below where I thought it might be useful to clarify and respond to certain points.


Shawn continues:

But if the first neuron’s greeting is ignored by being met with a chilly ‘failure to fire’ response, then the neurons become ‘enemies’ and second neuron actually becomes less likely to fire when the first one fires.

This process is called ‘Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity’ (STDP). This is the basis of the famous Hebb’s Law which is somewhat inaccurately stated as, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. As we have seen, it would be more accurate, but less poetic, to say “neurons that fire sequentially, wire together”.

Self-Directed Neuro-Plasticity

Now let’s focus on two specific neurons, the pre-synaptic “smoking neuron”, and right next to it, the post-synaptic “ideal-future-self” neuron. I do realize these are not actually individual neurons, rather they would be neural networks, but let’s stick with the simple case first! What do you see when the “smoking” neuron fires a spark of electricity to its “ideal-future-self” neighbor across the synapse? How does the “ideal future-self” neuron respond? Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond at all, because you haven’t yet run the swish pattern with your client, and the neurons are currently enemies! After all, if these neurons were wired together, the client wouldn’t be a smoker because every time she saw a cigarette she would imagine how she wanted to be a non-smoker.

We want to wire these two neurons together so that whenever your client sees their cigarettes, they imagine their ideal-future-self. Hebb’s Law (or rather STDP) says we first get the smoking neuron to fire (by asking our client to imagine seeing her pack or cigarettes), then immediately afterward get the ideal-future-self neuron to fire (by swishing into the picture of their ideal-future-self). Repeat this a few times, and voila the neurons become friends, and the ideal-future-self neuron will fire each and every time the smoking neuron fires. As Steve rightly says we are linking the two pictures (or in this description, linking the two neurons) and this can be done very quickly. Indeed it must be done quickly if STDP is to work. This is why we speed the swish up until it is done very quickly. Incidentally, this is also why the cue image (say the pack of cigarettes) always precedes the outcome image, because we have to fire the pre-synaptic neuron first for STDP.

So the swish helps the client to literally rewire their own brain, what Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz calls self-directed neuro plasticity (see Dr. Schwartz’ book ‘The Mind and the Brain’).

Now Steve draws an erroneous conclusion. He says that because we are swapping images (which is fast), or wiring neurons (which is even faster),


Steve responds:

         I wrote about swapping images; Shawn is talking about wiring neurons. Swapping images is experiential, and you can give a client specific instructions how to do that. Wiring neurons is entirely theoretical, and you can’t tell a client how to do that.


Shawn continues:

therefore (and I quote) “a simultaneous transition will be much more dependable than the sequential slingshot swish”. Clearly the one statement doesn’t at all follow from the other, any more than saying “because the pre-synaptic neuron fires first and only afterward does the post-synaptic neuron fire, then the sequential transition is more dependable”. In NLP jargon this is a ‘cause-effect statement’ from the Milton Model, but it’s not good logic.


Steve responds:

When I wrote “simultaneous transition,” the word “transition” clearly indicates a sequence. My use of the word “simultaneous” described that the cue image decreases in intensity at the same time that the desired self-image increases in intensity. I have no idea how that relates to the sequential or simultaneous firing of neurons, and I don’t think Shawn does either. I am not aware of any neuroscience research on the swish pattern that would tell us what is going on in the brain when images are exchanged in the swish. Even if that kind of information were available, it would only be useful if it told us something we didn’t already know — for instance if it made some prediction about how a change in the swish process would make it more efficient or more lasting.


Shawn continues:

Sequential or Simultaneous, That Is the Question

So what’s an NLPer to do to decide between the two swishes? Fortunately we have a wealth of data on ‘sequential’ versus ‘simultaneous’ neural firing from the field of classical conditioning. Now the white-coated ‘behaviorists’ who get excited by ringing bells and salivating dogs, have their own jargon, which I will use here so readers can take a look at the underlying research if they wish. They call sequential firing “trace conditioning”, and call the type of ‘simultaneous’ firing Steve is referring to “delay conditioning”. To make this clearer, if Pavlov rang his bell and then fed his dog that would be trace conditioning, but if he rang the bell and then fed the dog while the bell was still ringing, it would be delay conditioning.

So what does the world of neuroscience have to say about trace versus delay conditioning? It turns out they say some pretty interesting things, and at least one VERY interesting thing.

So first and foremost, both trace and delay conditioning are effective.


Steve responds:

         I want to repeat that Shawn’s use of the word “simultaneous” to describe the “lap joint” swish is misleading. The lap joint is both simultaneous and sequential at the same time, so Shawn’s discussion above doesn’t apply.

I know very little about different kinds of conditioning, and even less about the extent to which they might be applicable to understanding the swish. However, in looking up trace conditioning and delay conditioning, I find that they are both versions of classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, in which a physiological response (salivation) is conditioned to a different stimulus, (such as a bell or a light) instead of the unconditioned stimulus (meat powder). In both versions of classical conditioning the unconditioned stimulus doesn’t decrease at the same time that the conditioned stimulus increases. And since the evolved self-image in the swish is not a physiological response like salivation, it is at least questionable whether the principles of classical conditioning have any application to the swish.

         Operant conditioning, in which a behavior (rather than a physiological response) is rewarded or punished, would seem to be somewhat more relevant to the swish, but my ignorance is abysmal, and I don’t know if that would apply either. The desired self-image is not a specific behavior to be reinforced, the fact that it is desired means that the source of reinforcement is internal (intrinsic) rather than external (extrinsic), and there are other differences that lead me to think that operant conditioning is also a poor fit for understanding the swish pattern.

         Again the bottom line is, “Does any neuroscience explanation offer any information about the swish that we don’t already know?” So far in this discussion, the answer is clearly “No.”


Shawn continues:

Outside of some specific contexts (that I will get to in a moment) they seem to be pretty equal. One context in which they are not equal, where delay conditioning (Steve’s lap joint) is better, is if there is a significant delay between the stimulus and response. For example if Pavlov rang the bell then waited for five minutes before feeding his dog, ‘delay conditioning’ would likely be more effective because the bell would still be ringing when the dog was fed. Obviously there is no significant delay between trigger picture and outcome picture in the swish, so this is not an issue (unless you are a fan of the slooowww-swiiisshh pattern).

Another context where ‘delay conditioning’ is also more effective is where there is significant damage to the subject’s pre-frontal cortex (PFC) or hippocampus. It appears that trace conditioning uses a different neural pathway, one that travels through the hippocampus and PFC, while delay conditioning requires only a cerebellum and brain stem. Therefore if you have a client who has had a full frontal lobotomy, or has serious brain damage to the PFC or hippocampus as a result of say a stroke, or if you’re a frog-whisperer and your client is an amphibian, you should definitely stick to the classical (lap joint) swish. Otherwise feel free to use either, confident that both are effective. Or use the one that butters your parsnips, or better yet the one that butters your client’s parsnips.


Steve responds:

         Again, these are all comments about classical conditioning, which could be relevant to a process involving straight anchoring of physiological responses, but they don’t appear to apply to the swish.


Shawn continues:

Actually this comes to an important principle of NLP, namely that, as NLPers, we do not use exclusive ‘or’s’. Meaning as the classical and slingshot swish actually use different neural pathways, you could try using both (either sequentially or simultaneously – just kidding!).

Neural Networks and Hebbian Engrams

Now let’s expand the discussion from individual neurons to the more accurate neural networks. Because neighboring neurons either become ‘friends’ (more-and-more likely to fire) or ‘enemies’ (less-and-less likely to fire), your brain becomes tribal, forming cliques of neurons that all tend to fire together and also stop other cliques from firing. This process is described by the famous psychologist Gordon Allport as follows:

“If the inputs to a system cause the same pattern of activity to occur repeatedly, the set of active elements constituting that pattern will become increasingly strongly inter-associated. That is, each element will tend to turn on every other element and (with negative weights) to turn off the elements that do not form part of the pattern. To put it another way, the pattern as a whole will become ‘auto-associated’. We may call a learned (auto-associated) pattern an engram.”


Steve responds:

         Since Allport died almost a half-century ago, I don’t think he is the best authority on current neuroscience. But even if his (somewhat vague) statement is correct, it doesn’t make any predictions about the swish, or tell us something we don’t already know about how to do it.


Shawn continues:

If that’s a bit of a mouth-full, think of the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story, you’re either a Jet, or you’re a Shark (but not both), and when the Jets visit Doc’s Drug Store, the Sharks generally stay away, and vice versa. Revisiting our client’s neurons, the smoking neuron (let’s call it Tony) has a whole gang of other neurons, let’s call them the Jets, associated with it. These Jets will include memories of smoking, contexts where the client smokes, beliefs about smoking, the feelings associated with smoking, and so on. And the ideal-future-self neuron (which we will call Chino) has its own gang (the Sharks) of neurons relating to how that ideal-future self will look, feel, behave (OK Steve no behaviors) and so on.

When we use the swish to wire Tony and Chino together, we end up wiring all the ideal-future-self resources onto all the smoking contexts and triggers – we may have to swish several contexts to fully generalize of course. At the end of the swish, the Jets and the Sharks become friends, reconciled through Smoking-Tony’s demise, and the Maria neuron sings “One Hand-One Heart” as the credits roll.


Steve replies:

         It’s a cute metaphor, but since it is based on classical conditioning, it doesn’t fit the structure of the swish, and makes no predictions, so it’s irrelevant, and doesn’t teach us anything.


Shawn continues:

Choosing the ‘Appropriate Resource’

I will comment briefly on Steve’s points about resource selection. I completely agree that the resource should be “appropriate” for the problem. However that doesn’t get us very far: what is appropriate and what is not? There is something in NLP called an ‘ecology check’, which seeks to ensure the change being made by the client will be ecological for all aspects of their life. For example if a client wants a high energy confidence state to do something silly, the coach has to deal with the lack of ecology as a first step.

In HNLP (Humanistic Neuro Linguistic Psychology) we say, “the conscious mind has no business choosing the resource-state”. This includes the hypnotist/coach’s conscious mind. HNLP presupposes it is up to the client’s unconscious to choose the best resource.


Steve responds:

         I agree that is a very useful principle, and that is why, in my original post “How to ruin the swish,” I stressed the importance of the desired self-image, which doesn’t include a specific behavior; that is left to the client’s unconscious mind. However in Shawn’s animated video, the narrator/therapist asks, “What if there were a way that every time you saw a donut . . . you felt motivated to work out?” “Working out” is a specific behavior chosen by the narrator/therapist’s conscious mind, not the client’s unconscious mind.

         Furthermore, as I pointed out in my original post, “feeling motivated to work out” is not ecological in at least three respects: 1. If it succeeds, the “every” means she has given up the choice to eat a donut now and then, 2. The contexts in which she sees a donut will seldom offer an opportunity to work out, so her motivation to work out will be frustrated, and 3. Sometimes she may think of eating a donut when she’s already worked out and be too tired to work out more.


Shawn continues:

This might be a high energy resource, or a lower energy ‘end-state’ type of resource. If a high energy resource state is chosen then would then tend to moderate into a lower energy end-state over time (as in the discussion of Bella – see previous post). The principal tool for achieving this is pacing and leading.

Steve seems to imply that high energy resource states are by their nature bad (“a thousand red flags flutter in my mind”).


Steve responds:

         Shawn has taken my quote out of context, and has substituted “high energy resource state” for “awesomely confident,” when those are not the same thing. What I actually wrote was, “Whenever someone wants to be “awesomely confident,” a thousand red flags flutter in my mind, as I wonder if they have the competence to go with it.” A high energy resource state may be appropriate for a particular task, such as Olympic performance where you need to mobilize every ounce of energy and concentration, but you also need to have specific skills (competence).

         However, “awesome confidence” is a contradiction. If you are “awesomely confident” about something, you don’t even notice it, because you so completely take it for granted. When Tony Robbins elicits a “high energy state” (using the same methods that evangelist preachers have been using for hundreds of years) it is always to “break through” fears or doubts — the opposite polarity that usually lurks beneath the desire for a state of “awesome confidence.” Disregarding the reasons for the fear or doubt is a violation of ecology that is likely to cause trouble. Integrating the polarity will be much more useful — and lasting.


Shawn continues:

High energy states can indeed be risky, that’s why we still use the Greek word hubris for those who tempt the gods. However, I would hazard to say that for every person who has made a bad decision due to over-confidence (the number of Las Vegas gamblers shows there are many), there is a person who has failed to take action toward their goals and dreams due to low energy lack of confidence. Some who only rarely access high energy states often “live lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with their song still in them”. It cuts both ways, and many people admire James Dean over the man who retires from his desk job and spends the rest of his days playing bingo until expiring unremarked at the age of 90.


Steve responds:

         The foregoing poses a false either/or dilemma, in contrast to what Shawn wrote earlier, “Actually this comes to an important principle of NLP, namely that, as NLPers, we do not use exclusive ‘or’s’.” There is an infinite range of possibilities between James Dean and a geezer playing bingo.

         When someone suffers from uncertainty, and wants more confidence, both sides of the polarity need to be recognized and honored, and they need to be integrated if change is to be lasting and ecological. If James Dean had only raced his Porsche on the race track in sanctioned races, instead of on a public highway, he might still be enjoying life today.


Shawn continues:

A great example of a higher energy state is Dr. Richard Bandler’s client session called ‘Shyness’. Dr. Bandler does a classical new strategy installation. If you have seen the video of the session, you will recall Dr. Bandler installs an initial step in the strategy where he asks the client to make a sort of primal yell. BTW this takes place inside the client’s head, not out-loud when introducing himself to a young lady! This could be interpreted as a high energy sense of confidence (and why not). There is a similar step Tony Robbins uses in his ‘stuttering’ demonstration (that Steve refers to in an earlier post), where Robbins leads the client to make a ‘warrior’ yell; again this generates a high-energy state in the client. What you may not realize when seeing these is that this high energy yell also takes back control of the voice from the word and language based left-brain, to the more emotional right brain (there’s always more going on!). In any case, Bandler does a follow up with his shyness client, who sits back in his chair relaxed (wearing badly fitting shorts if memory serves), talking as if meeting girls was never a problem for him. The high energy state transforms into an end state.

Amygdala Hijack

Finally, another piece of neuroscience. When talking of phobias, anger, fear and embarrassment, and similar states, these are moderated  by the so-called ‘amygdala hijack’. The optic nerve runs from the eyes to the visual cortex at the back of the brain, where it’s processed into a meaningful representation of the world, which is transmitted forward to the PFC at the front of the brain for rationale decision making. This route is too slow to prevent me from being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger (“Oh is that a saber tooth tiger over there? Hmm that’s interesting, perhaps I should run…”; CHOMP!!!). Therefore, to save me from danger  my brain takes a feed from the optic nerve and runs it straight into the amygdala, before the information even reaches the visual cortex. The amygdala is responsible for fight-or-flight responses, and if my amygdala has any doubt about what it’s seeing, it sends a jolt of adrenaline into my body that I feel as a phobic response, or physical fear, or embarrassment (social fear), or anger. This is known as the amygdala hijack because it hijacks the rational mind, and is why I can feel afraid when I see a snake-like twig on the ground at night, and why these emotions can instantaneously interrupt everyday emotions.

The phobia cure, and similar techniques, target ‘amygdala hijack’. We calm the amygdala (“imagine you’re sitting in a comfortable theater, about to watch an old grainy black and white movie”), while gradually introducing the stimulus. This ultimately results in a rational ‘so what’ response, as the information follows the longer pathway through the visual cortex and PFC (for a visual phobia).   Notice that this depotentiation of the amygdala hijack follows the meta pattern: there is the phobic response; gradual exposure to the trigger in a dissociated manner; a calm response (the resource); and finally the ability to associate into the context (have the bee land on you) and retain the resource-calmness, i.e. the ‘collapse’.


Steve responds:

         Even assuming that all the above is true, it doesn’t tell us anything new about what to do with a client with a phobia. People have realized for hundreds of years that extreme feelings of fear “hijack” thinking. Does it really matter whether this occurs in the amygdala, rather than the liver, the left elbow or the (raised) middle finger of your dominant hand?


Shawn continues:

I totally agree with Steve that client’s don’t generally go from a phobic response to ‘confidence’, but again this doesn’t mean high energy confidence is never appropriate.


Steve responds:

         As I explained above, high energy confidence is a contradiction indicating an inner polarity between confidence and doubt. If you elicit either side of the polarity, that ignores the other, and that is not ecological. “High energy confidence” is a castle built on quicksand.


Shawn continues:


I am greatly enjoying this ongoing discussion with Steve, and I hope it provides some interesting jumping off points for readers own thoughts, discussions and experiments. Due to modern imaging techniques such as fMRI, neuroscience is making leaps and bounds in our understanding of how the brain works. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in NLP, how the brain and mind work, or the human condition in general to become familiar with the principles of neuroscience. These will aid you in choosing a solid direction for your own experimentation with clients.


Steve responds:

         Please provide a specific example of how a specific “principle of neuroscience” can be used to choose a direction for “experimentation with clients” in a way that goes beyond what we already know and can predict from NLP principles or practice.


Shawn continues:

The tai chi master was delighted after three years of training that his student was able to replicate the tai chi  forms he had been taught. He told the student to go away and practice by himself for a further three years and then return. After three years the student returned, crestfallen and confessed that even while practicing diligently, he had lost 30% of what his teacher had taught. The teacher was disappointed and sent the student away to practice for another three years. Three years later the student returned and said he had lost 60% of his learnings. Once more the teacher sent him away to practice for three more years. On his return the student told the teacher he had now lost 100% of his learnings, at which point the teacher congratulated him as he had made the art his own.

  • – Ancient Chinese story


Steve responds:

         That is a nice story about the difference between conscious explicit memory, and unconscious implicit memory. That is an important distinction that is often useful in deciding how to intervene with a client, but it is irrelevant to our exchange, which is an discussion of whether neuroscience can tell us anything we don’t already know about how to do the swish pattern or any other NLP process.



         I’m going to repeat a paragraph from the beginning of my response that summarizes my argument that neuroscience is irrelevant to doing therapy or change work:

         I assume that the laws of nuclear physics underlie the practice of therapy, and I also assume that they underlie the process of kissing someone or making a soufflé. However, I have never seen any way in which physics can tell us how to do any of those things (or vice-versa)! They are simply different levels or realms of knowledge. When a carpenter cuts a board, she needs to know about the grain, and about splits or knots, but knowledge of the chemistry or physics of cellulose or lignin is of no use to her. Likewise, neuroscience is at a different level than therapy and change, so it doesn’t tell us anything about what to actually do with a client.




A further response in the ongoing dialogue between Shawn Carson and Steve Andreas, regarding the HNLP Meta Pattern, (including comments from Connirae Andreas) (round 5b)


         In this post I’ll respond to Shawn’s claim that “all human change is based on the HNLP Meta Pattern” and “all NLP patterns follow the Meta Pattern.”

         Any general formulation such as the Meta Pattern will always be incomplete, and have omissions and implicit presuppositions. That is what makes a general formulation useful. However that incompleteness also provides opportunities for misunderstanding.

         First I’ll point out what I think are some of the significant omissions in the Meta Pattern, and then provide examples of interventions that don’t fit the four steps of the Meta Pattern.

         Finally, at the end, I’ll offer an alternative way of understanding the different structures of change, a reorganization of the different patterns of reframing.


(Below are links to the Previous Exchanges.)

Steve’s Original Article 

Shawn’s Response

Steve’s Response to Shawn

Shawn’s Response to Steve

Steve’s partial response to Shawn


Shawn wrote:      

         Finally the Meta Pattern…

In my blog post on the Swish (which itself was in response to Steve’s original blog post), I explain that the second step of the HNLP (Humanistic Neuro Linguistic Psychology) ‘Meta Pattern’ (not the Meta Model!) dissociates the client from their problem state. And because all human change is based on the Meta Pattern, all NLP patterns follow the Meta Pattern, and therefore all contain a ‘break-state’. Steve argues this is not true, citing a number of examples, the most intriguing of which is the Compulsion Blowout that clearly doesn’t contain a break-state…

…or does it?

Origination of the Meta Pattern

The Meta Pattern was observed and formulated by John Overdurf. Note that it was not ‘created’ by John, any more than relativity was created by Einstein; it was ‘discovered’.

Steve says that he learned the Meta Pattern from Bandler. This may be the case, but I doubt it for a couple of reasons. Firstly John Overdurf told me he developed it and strictly attributes to others where appropriate; so John Overdurf did not learn it from Dr. Bandler (despite being a Master Trainer under Dr. Bandler). Therefore if Dr. Bandler was previously teaching it, he must have stopped teaching it to his Master Trainers before John Overdurf trained with him.

Secondly, John Overdurf discussed the Meta Pattern with John Grinder and Grinder gave no intimation that it was something he had taught before. So either Grinder wasn’t present when Bandler taught it, or he had forgotten.


Connirae Andreas joins the discussion:

         Shawn, I’ve heard a lot of good things about John Overdorf, so I believe what you are saying about his integrity, and I also respect that you’ve learned a lot from him. This note is about Steve’s saying we learned a “meta-pattern” from Bandler’s group. I’d like to tell you my experience of this.

         This was a long time ago, so some of my memories are a bit vague. The part I remember clearly was that Steve and I sometimes taught “a” meta-pattern in our Master Practitioner Trainings. I remember teaching it as part of some of the advanced language patterns sections. Early on Steve and I taught that together, and then I was usually the one who taught that section. We taught the “meta pattern” as part of understanding how to do “conversational change.”

         The “meta-pattern” that we taught had 4 basic steps: Stage 1: The “client” starts out being associated into the problem experience, e.g. “So you are problem-ing…” Stage 2: Dissociate the person from the problem in the present, and place the problem in the past. “And this has been a terrible problem, hasn’t it?” Stage 3: Elicit the “solution” or resource as dissociated future possibility “What would it be like,… when you have all the resources you need for things to go in a much different way (voice tone indicating pleasure)…” Stage 4: Associate the person into the resource, in the present. “…Now!”

         So the essential aspects of understanding this meta-pattern are a) time frame: being aware of the time frame and shifting it as appropriate, and b) shifting association or dissociation, plus c) shifting experience from problem to solution. (This example is just for illustration – there would be many ways to do it which could be much more detailed and thorough.)

         This meta pattern is quite similar to the one you describe John Overdorf mapping out, although there are a few differences. I had thought we learned this meta-pattern from the Bandler group explicitly. However, it’s possible that this formulation was what we came up with in trying to understand Bandler’s demonstrations of conversational change. Steve and I went over examples together, and also Cathy Modrall (who was studying with Bandler at that time) shared some additional examples with us, and we were all trying to figure out the structure. I don’t know if Bandler ever taught it formally, but he was systematic and I think it was quite clear he was following that structure.

         We were teaching it as one key way to organize presuppositions and language patterns to make change possible. There were other ways that I used conversational change that didn’t involve that sequence.

         And also, as it sounds like John O. did, we presented this as a fundamental sequence through which change happens through the NLP formats. And how when one understands this underlying structure, one can organize presuppositions and language patterns to create change.

Re: John O. being in Bandler’s trainer training and not being taught this. That doesn’t surprise me at all. Bandler never was very systematic about training. He wasn’t interested in teaching people a systematic or “complete” NLP experience. He was always more interested in teaching whatever he felt like teaching—or exploring. This often annoyed some of his colleagues, who were trying to offer a more “complete” or “systematic” training.

Steve and I often took on the role of making things more thorough, complete, and systematic, so that people would learn what (at that time) was “the whole thing.” As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t learn this meta-pattern from Bandler in any training, either.

It’s also not a surprise that Grinder had never heard of the meta-pattern. When Bandler started demonstrating conversational change, that was already quite some time after he and Grinder had stopped teaching together. Even earlier when they showed up to teach in our practitioner trainings in ‘79 and ‘80, each wasn’t aware of what the other had taught. The conversational change and “meta-pattern” was happening after the time that the “Big 4” (Richard, John, Leslie & Judith), went their separate ways. From then on they really didn’t know what each other was doing. If I understand the timing right, John O’s trainer training was after the “Big 4” had split up.

This “meta pattern” was evident in the change personal history pattern early on. But we didn’t teach it as a meta-pattern until the ‘80’s sometime. I’d have to look up more specific dates. It was when I was doing conversational change, and somewhat before that.

After writing the above, I noticed we’d published a version of this “meta-pattern” in our book, Change Your Mind—And Keep the Change (1987).

“All NLP involves accessing and resequencing experiences in time. One very broad general formulation of change work is that you start with a problem state, and then identify and access an appropriate resource state. Finally you install the resource state so that it’s triggered in response to the same cues that previously had been cues for the problem state.” (p. 28)

And on Page 29 of Change Your Mind there is a more detailed 5-step version of this “meta-pattern”:


“1. If I have a problem I can’t solve, I am associated into the problem state, in the present. I may have no awareness of the desired state.

“2. The first step toward change is for me to think of the desired state, dissociated, as a possibility in the future. So I see myself acting resourcefully in the future.

“3. Next I dissociate from the present problem state, and associate into the future resourceful self. Now I am in the future, with resources.

“4. From this future vantage point, I can see the old problem behavior in the completed past.

“5. Now I can collapse the future “now” with the present “now” so that I experience the resources in the present, and the problem as over in the past.”


         As Shawn mentions, some of the above steps need to happen before other steps. However some can happen in a different sequence. For example, one can dissociate from the problem state before thinking of the resource, OR one can think of the resource first, before dissociating from the problem state. We taught with examples both ways.


Shawn wrote:

Thirdly, Steve doesn’t understand the Meta Pattern (I’ll explain why in a moment) so if Steve learned it from Bandler, then Steve has also forgotten it. Now obviously Bandler (and Grinder) taught applications of the Meta Pattern (because all NLP patterns follow the Meta Pattern), for example ‘The Structure of Magic’ is a clear application of the Meta Pattern. So I suspect Steve may be seeing the Meta Pattern in something Bandler taught and thinking that was the Meta Pattern.


Steve Andreas comments:

Though not so named, the four steps in the Meta Pattern are explicit in Bandler and Grinder’s early presentation of the “change personal history” pattern in the 1979 book, Frogs into Princes (pp. 82-86) which I believe is some years before Overdurf got involved in NLP. That was the basis for my saying that I learned it long ago. The Meta Pattern was a fairly crude early outline that was useful but oversimplified—something that typically happens in the early stages of any field. Subsequent discoveries and developments have revealed a number of important distinctions and exceptions to the Meta Pattern, some of which I’ll discuss below.


Shawn continues

Meta Pattern Overview

Overdurf noticed that all human change follows four basic steps. These steps are associating into the ‘P/S’ (think of P/S as the ‘problem-state’ for now), dissociating from the P/S, associating into the R/S (think ‘resource-state’ for now), then ‘collapse’ (think ‘collapsing anchors’ for now). Overdurf called these four steps the ‘Meta Pattern’ of change. Note that Steve said I was over-generalizing by saying all NLP patterns follow the Meta Pattern, here I’m over-generalizing even more by saying all human change follows the meta-pattern!

Let’s represent this pictorially in the case of the Collapsing Anchors pattern:



Steve writes:

I agree that the “collapsing anchors” pattern (which has the same steps as “Change Personal History,” mentioned earlier) is a reasonably good fit for the Meta Pattern.

         However, even here the fit is a clumsy enough that I don’t think the Meta Pattern alone will be a practical guide for practitioners. For example, let’s look at step 4 “collapse anchors.” If you want to collapse anchors, you need to have 2 states to collapse. However, in Shawn’s 4 steps, there isn’t a step to reelicit the problem state so that you have something to anchor and then collapse with the resource state.

         Also, there is a significant ambiguity about what to “collapse”; the resource state could be collapsed with the problem state, or with the trigger for the problem state, and the results of each will be different. Either the problem state or the trigger has to be re-elicited before it can be “collapsed” with the resource state, but there is no such re-elicitation step in the Meta Pattern.

         The Change Personal History pattern itself has more precision in it. You elicit the problem state, do a break state (dissociation) then ask, “How would you like to feel in this situation?” You access and anchor this resource, then say, “Take this resource, into that situation, and notice how things are different.” (collapse)

         I have never liked using the word “collapse” as a metaphor to describe combining two states. What, exactly “collapses”? When two states are elicited in a brief time frame, they can combine in a variety of ways. For simplicity, I’ll only mention two of the most common useful ones:

  1. Integration, in which two states simultaneously blend into a third state containing elements or aspects of both.
  2. Chaining, in which the two states remain unchanged, but one state I linked to the other sequentially.

         Although I have been using the word “state” in this dialogue it is helpful to realize that the word is ambiguous. Some people use the word “state” to mean emotional feeling alone, while others would include all the different sensory elements (VAK) of an experience in a moment in time—but without specifying any of them. So it’s good to keep in mind that the word “state” is a sort of “place holder” for a package of ignorance.

         Shawn’s Step 3, “associate resource state,” specifies association; however in the swish pattern the resource is dissociated, not associated, in order to create motivation. This is an important counterexample to the Meta Pattern.

         Now let’s examine the NLP fast phobia cure. Here the second step is to dissociate from the problem state. This dissociation is also the resource state, rather than a separate “step” as in the Meta Pattern. And in the phobia cure there is no collapse step, another significant counterexample to the Meta Pattern.

         One can find even clearer examples of change that don’t fit this meta-pattern in conversational change work. For instance, often a client will say that they feel bad because they should be able to do something about a problem, presupposing that they can. At another time they also say, “I can’t do anything about it,” often because it is simply not under their control. If you say to them, “How is it possible that you should be able to do something you can’t do?” you’ll often see a “smoke coming out of the ears” response, as they realize they have been torturing themselves by thinking that they should do the impossible. When the “can” and “can’t” presuppositions are brought together in the same sentence in a moment in time, the two opposite presuppositions “collide,” and one of them has to go—usually the “should” that has been making the person’s life “shoulddy.” The two states don’t integrate; neither do they chain; one of them vanishes. If you think of the “should” as the problem state, and the “can’t” as the resource state, putting them in the same sentence simultaneously combines the two, creating a contradiction. This might be an instance in which the word “collapse” is appropriate, though only one of the “states” actually collapses.

         Another example. In the visual squash pattern, the two parts of a conflict are both seen dissociated, but in the next step the resource state is created by the integration of the two parts—each of which is part of the problem state conflict. This is a collapse (step 4 in the Meta Pattern). So in this case the collapse (step 4) comes before the resource state (step 3).

         Furthermore, before the collapse there is a step in which the meta-outcome of each part is elicited. The Meta Pattern is a fairly good fit for simple reanchoring when there is no positive outcome being served by the problem state—what used to be called “first order change.” But when the problem state has an outcome (which is most of the time) resolution requires that it be satisfied—what used to be called “second order change.” The Meta Pattern doesn’t provide a step to include either an outcome, or a meta-outcome in the choice of a resource state to bring resolution.


Shawn continues:

However, the Meta Pattern is not a pattern in the sense of the Swish or the Compulsion Blowout. Rather it represents the structure of all change work, so Steve’s comment that I am introducing “steps” is not really correct. What is important are the transitions contained within the Meta Pattern, i.e. moving from one step to another.


Steve’s comment:

         Shawn writes “one step to another” just after writing that, “Steve’s comment that I am introducing ‘steps’ is not really correct,” a puzzling contradiction. Shawn continues to use the word “steps” in what follows below.


Shawn continues:

Let’s take a look at a typical client session:




Perhaps first I build rapport with the client, and perform an intake that asks about their hobbies, interest and favorite places (among other information). This is accessing resources, so I am starting on ‘step 3’ of the Meta Pattern.

Now at some stage, I am going to have to ask the client what they want to work through. You can think of this as a mini ‘collapse’ if I have succeeded in making them feel secure (say) with me, Step 4 of the Meta Pattern. I am then going to begin associating my client into the problem, perhaps by saying “Tell me about the last time this happened, where are you…”. We have finally reached Step 1 of the Meta Pattern.


Steve Comments:

         Asking the client “what they want to work through,” is not a collapse, it elicits the problem state, which could be either associated or dissociated.

Alternatively, you can skip eliciting the problem state entirely, by asking for the desired outcome (resource state) in a particular context. If the resource state is elicited behaviorally, step 4 (collapse) becomes unnecessary, because the resource state is already associated with the cues in the problem context.


Shawn continues:

We then begin some change work, which itself will follow the Meta Pattern through any number of iterations.


Steve comments:

Any process with iterations requires an exit in order to avoid infinite looping, but there is no exit in the Meta Pattern, as there is in the TOTE (Test, Operate, Test, Exit) model of Miller, Galanter and Pribram’s book, Plans and the Structure of behavior. All NLP processes need to have a test of the intervention, in order to know when it has succeeded, and stop the iterations. In Shawn’s diagram, there are arrows between all four circles, with no indication of when to stop cycling.


Shawn continues:

So the Meta Pattern is not a fixed sequence of steps like in Steve’s interpretation of the Swish, it is the ‘dance’.


Steve comments:

         Firstly, I didn’t present an “interpretation” of the swish pattern, I presented it exactly as Bandler originally taught it, without interpretation.

         More important, when Shawn says, “the Meta Pattern is not a fixed sequence of steps,” that is somewhat ambiguous. Shawn’s diagram has arrows from one circle to the next, clearly indicating a sequence from one step to another, and not the reverse. “Not a fixed sequence of steps,” could mean that you can start anywhere in the diagram and follow the arrows.(Shawn’s example below is consistent with this meaning.) Or it could mean that you can skip steps in the sequence. But if it means that you can do the steps in any order, then the arrows in the diagram are misleading.


Shawn continues:

It simply indicates to the coach or hypnotist what the next step in that dance ought to be, but does not spell out how to take that step. As an example, if you have your client feeling good, perhaps laughing (Step 3: R/S) and you as the coach don’t use that opportunity to go to Step 4: Collapse by saying “Hey, what was that problem you used to have” with a twinkle in your eye, then you as the coach have wasted an opportunity to shift the problem. If you want to see this approach in action watch Nick Kemp do provocative therapy!


Why Does the Meta Pattern Work?

To understand why the Meta Pattern underlies all change work, you need to first understand the nature of a typical client problem. In HNLP we say there are four types of problem: something a person feels, which they don’t want to feel; something they don’t feel, which they would like to feel; something they do, which they don’t want to do; or something they don’t do, which they would like to do.


Steve comments:

Since it is common to divide experience into three aspects, thinking, feeling and doing (or internal computation, internal state, and external behavior) I would add thinking to this list, as in obsessive thinking, or lack of ability to think in certain ways—though of course thinking can be described as a kind of doing.

         More important, whether the problem appears to be one of thinking, doing, or feeling, it is the resulting unpleasant feeling that motivates the client to seek help.


Shawn continues:

Now, a ‘state’ only lasts (let’s say) about a minute if left to its own devices; that is the amount of time it takes for the chemicals that wash through the body. So if I can only feel bad about my problem for longer than a minute if I ‘throw logs on the fire’, meaning by thinking about the problem, making pictures of the problem, saying nasty things to myself and so on.


Steve comments:

The foregoing appears to equate “state” with emotional feeling, omitting other (VAK) aspects. I agree that longer lasting states are maintained by some process that repeatedly elicits them. However, that is true of many very problematic states, such as depression, moods, and anxiety, so Shawn’s Meta Pattern solution below would not apply to those.


Shawn continues:

Otherwise my bad feeling is pretty much over in one minute; not much of a problem, right? This is how most of us deal with most of our problems:


Steve comments:

This may be adequate for trivial problems, but even when that is true there is no permanent resolution of the problem, only an avoidance of the problem. And quite often the “decide what to do” step chooses an activity that is harmful to the person, for instance drugs or other risky distracting behavior, hardly a good solution.




Shawn continues:

But I could use the negative feeling to mess my life up, by assuming the feeling is just going to get worse and worse and last forever.


Steve comments:

Forecasting a troubling future (usually with an internal voice) can certainly be a problem, but avoiding a feeling by finding something else to do can be just as problematic. An unpleasant feeling, like a “trouble light” on the dashboard of your car, indicates that something needs attention; ignoring it is generally not a good idea.


Shawn continues:

I might therefore avoid the context of the feeling (“I can’t speak in public because I get scared”). There is no change because the Meta Pattern is not complete.




Steve comments:

I think it is more accurate to say that there is no change because there has been no intervention of any kind, Meta Pattern or otherwise. I agree that avoidance prevents change; previously Shawn advocated avoidance in order to “decide what to do” and “get on with it,” but now he presents it (accurately, in my view) as “problem avoidance.”


Shawn continues:

Alternatively, I give in to the feeling by doing something I know I shouldn’t (as in a compulsion). Again either the Meta Pattern is not complete, or even worse I install a meta-problem by feeling bad about my addiction…

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and Compulsions

There is plenty of research showing change follows the Meta Pattern. For example Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz successfully treated OCD simply by getting his clients to say, “That’s not me, that’s my OCD” whenever they experienced their compulsion, and then go and do something else, perhaps gardening say.


Steve comments:

         Firstly, Schwartz’s instruction to the client to dissociate from the OCD is very crude (“take a step back”) and secondly he also tells clients to think of the OCD thoughts as “not real,” which may be even more useful. Finally, Schwartz’s method takes a lot of conscious effort, and a very long time. I have written a blog post in which I go into much more detail about his work.


Shawn continues:

They would then be asked to notice how much better it is for them to be gardening than compulsively checking that the front door is locked.


Steve comments:

Even if/when “doing something else” works, the problematic feeling of compulsion is left unchanged. That leaves the symptom intact, in contrast to changing the cause of the symptom so that the symptomatic feeling is no longer elicited. This fundamental error is also true of many other approaches, such as “stress reduction” or “anger management.” Rather than changing the process that causes the stress or anger, interventions are directed at modifying the resulting symptoms. In medicine, prescribing an aspirin for a fever caused by an infection is considered malpractice—unless there is no known effective treatment for the underlying cause.


Shawn continues:

By the way, this is an example of the Meta Pattern. Take a look and you’ll begin to see how the Meta Pattern does indeed underlie all human change.


         This is the fifth time Shawn has made this assertion. Repetition does not establish truth; this is an informal logical fallacy, sometimes called “argumentum ad nauseum,” for good reason.




Shawn continues:

Ultimately both feelings and behaviors are driven by ‘states’, these problems boil down to the client going into an inappropriate state in a particular context, and this state lasts one minute left to its own devices. I have been talking about ‘states’, so what is a state? A state is a combination of emotional biochemistry, thoughts, behaviors (including physiological behaviors), and sense-use (what I focus on when I’m in that state, and how I focus).


Steve comments:

Now Shawn is using a much more inclusive definition of the word “state.” As I described earlier, the word “state” is a kind of “place holder” for a package of ignorance, unless all the elements that Shawn mentions (and more) are specified, which is very difficult. Fortunately, many very effective process interventions are directed at only one or two elements of a state. For instance, “Expand your view to include what surrounds what you see,” can elicit “the big picture,” which often results in a more balanced emotional response. In this example there is no dissociation step, the instruction elicits the resource directly, and there is no collapse. When the client sees the larger context, they often spontaneously have a much more useful response.


Shawn continues:

How to Install a Compulsion

Dr. Schwartz explains how a compulsion is installed in the first place. I’m writing this at Hypnothoughts Live in Vegas so let’s use gambling. I think “Vegas Baby!” and I go into a state, including a desire to play some Blackjack. Then I ‘add logs to the fire’, I say, “I’ll have so much fun”, and I make a picture of flashing lights and pretty waitresses so I go to the tables. I win a hand, I get a shot of dopamine, “This is awesome”. Then I lose a hand, that’s no fun and I get a dopamine crash. So I picture myself winning again and get a shot of anticipatory dopamine.


Steve comments:

I believe the current understanding is that all dopamine release is anticipatory, rather than a reward following a behavior. It is that anticipation that keeps people at the gaming tables; the occasional win only keeps the anticipatory images refreshed—and it is those images that create and maintain the state of anticipation.


Shawn continues:

I bet again and win, more dopamine… Ultimately I become addicted to my compulsion, because my brain gets addicted to the dopamine rush.


I don’t know exactly what happens neurologically. But experientially what creates the compulsion is a change in one or more submodalities used to represent the image of the object of desire, not the content represented. Often this will involve an increase in size, closeness, or zooming in, height in the visual field, brightness, etc.


Shawn continues:

Note that installing a compulsion cause me to change (obviously); I didn’t have the compulsion before and now I do. As I said above, all human change involves the Meta Pattern. The dopamine crash following my loss becomes the ‘P/S’, putting that loss behind me to see myself win the next hand becomes the ‘Dissociation from the P/S’, the dopamine rush I get when I win is the ‘R/S’, which is ‘collapsed’ onto the idea of Blackjack.


Steve comments:

Since the dopamine rush is anticipatory, the description above has to be incorrect. Dopamine doesn’t surge in response to a win, or crash in response to a loss. It surges in anticipation, and sinks when behavior commences—before there is a win or a loss as a result of the behavior.




Shawn continues:

Compulsion Blowout

Now we are ready to explore the Compulsion Blowout. For those unfamiliar with the pattern it involves taking a compulsion and actually making it worse. Make it bad enough, and it ‘blows-out’, it essentially disappears.




Steve comments:

The feeling of compulsion disappears, but the representation doesn’t; there is a spontaneous change from submodalities of reality to submodalities of unreality, as a result of a submodality passing a threshold.


Shawn continues:

How do you make a compulsion worse? Well, the easiest way is to get your client to see a therapist for 10 years to talk about it (just joking), alternatively you can amp up the submodalities of the compulsion; that’s a little quicker!

Obviously this compulsion blow-out does not contain a ‘break-state’, a dissociation, right?

Well actually, it does. Remember a state will last one minute unless I throw logs on the fire. My brain may make a picture big, for example, as part of its ‘log throwing’, but not too big. By asking a client to crank up the submodalities of a problem beyond this threshold, the client’s thoughts are taken out of the pattern normally associated with the problem, and are distracted from running other parts of the problem pattern. This is a mental dissociation; the client is dissociated from their usual thought patterns. Starved of further fuel, the state runs for another minute then disappears. The disappearance of the feelings associated with the compulsion (the ‘blow-out’), is the second part of the dissociation; dissociation from the feelings.

Now, you may argue that we are doing more than just breaking the client’s normal thoughts patterns when we super-amp the submodalities, and that may be true. But either way we’re now at step two of the Meta Pattern.


Steve comments:

I agree that the compulsion blowout creates an experience of crossing a threshold. After the threshold is crossed, the image will be in submodalities of “unreality.” (Schwartz asks his compulsive clients to think of their compulsion as unreal, but he doesn’t tell them how to do it.)

         But I disagree that this process involves dissociation. If a client’s compulsion, for instance, involves a martini that is 12” tall, he is asked to continue to see it and then to rapidly increase its size to be “larger than the known universe,” in order to cross a threshold. This is not dissociation; if anything it is an example of “throwing logs on the fire,” increasing the feeling response until the size exceeds a threshold for “reality.”

         With a driver submodality that doesn’t have an infinite range, you have to use a different process, called the ratchet method, which uses a repeated increase of a submodality, for instance, zooming in repeatedly (described in our book, Change Your Mind, chapter 5). Both methods are fully associated, contrary to what Shawn asserts. Furthermore, there is no step 3 or 4 (associate resource state, collapse). The compulsion blowout is one of the few NLP patterns in which a problem response is eliminated without eliciting a substitute resource state. That is why it is necessary to follow it with a swish, in order to provide that. Shawn’s follow-on comments below seem to agree with this need.




Shan continues:

If that was all the coach did, I very much doubt the change would take.


The change will “take,” but you can’t predict what new response will take its place.


Shawn continues:

Any good coach will associate their client into how they will be without the problem e.g., “How will you be as a person when this is no longer an issue?” (remember this can be done at the start of the session – the Meta Pattern is not restrictive). And will collapse the outcome state (at least in the testing phase) into the trigger, “Now as you’re feeling free, see those losers around that blackjack table and realize what that freedom means to you and your family”.


Steve comments:

I don’t think it’s useful to install superiority and disdain for “those losers”; most people are already burdened by many judgments of others—as well as judgments about themselves. Judgment is a problem, not a solution.




Shawn continues:


The problem with thinking too strictly in terms of NLP ‘patterns’ without understanding how the patterns are working (e.g. within the Meta pattern of change) leads to inflexible thinking (in my opinion). Keeping the Meta Pattern in mind (or some other frame that is larger than just the NLP pattern being used), facilitates the coach-client ‘dance’, leading to greater flexibility (i.e. the Law of Requisite Variety).


Steve comments:

         I totally agree that understanding how interventions work, and having flexibility in applying them is important—something that I emphasized in my original post on the swish. In cooking, if you know that the function of vinegar in a recipe is to provide sour flavor (or to react with baking soda) you can substitute lemon juice, tomatoes, etc. The alternative is to apply a pattern by rote without understanding it, which leaves you helpless when something unexpected happens. However, it still makes sense to follow a recipe that is known to dependably get the results you want, and I don’t see how trying to force all interventions into a single Meta Pattern increases flexibility in the “dance” with a client. (Procrustes had a bed like that!)


Shawn continues:

Thank you Steve for continuing this dialogue.  It is a pleasure to engage in such thought provoking discussions.  Exchanges like this benefit all of us, including the greater NLP community.


Steve comments:

Thanks to you Shawn, for raising issues that I would never have thought of on my own, and for taking the time and effort to respond to my posts. Responding to your views has been a unique opportunity to think about them and clarify my understanding. I’ve hoped that others would also chime in and offer additional views, but perhaps you and I are the only ones reading these.   ;-)



         Every way of generalizing about a data set will focus attention on certain aspects and ignore others. People talk about “thinking outside the box,” but I don’t think that is possible. However, you can expand the scope of the box, and you can think inside a different box, and that is what the different patterns of reframing do.

         I view the Meta Pattern as a schema that is useful for beginning students to understand the basic structure of simple anchoring formats for problems that don’t involve outcomes. But there are too many counterexamples for me to agree that, “all human change is based on the Meta Pattern, all NLP patterns follow the Meta Pattern,” as Shawn repeatedly claims. Rather than present yet more counterexamples, I’ll offer an alternative outline of how all change can be understood as the consequence of three experiential variables. Few—if any—of the interventions below follow the four steps of the Meta Pattern.


Reframing Patterns: A Reorganization

Steve Andreas

Every reframing pattern changes one or more of the following: a scope of experience in time or space, the categorization of a scope, or the logical level of categorization. This organization helps you understand how all the different reframing patterns are related, what kind of change of experience will result from each, and points out ambiguities in earlier presentations of reframing patterns. Whenever a pattern has previously been named (for instance in Dilts’ “sleight of mouth” descriptions) that name is used. Dilts lists 14 different patterns; the list below contains 26 patterns, but some are different names for the same kind of scope/category distinction, and some differ only in content. The number of patterns is not written in stone; that depends on how specific you make distinctions in creating categories. A simple sentence stem is used to exemplify each intervention to make it easy to distinguish differences (sometimes this restriction results in somewhat awkward sounding sentences).

  1. Change of Scope:


Expand frame (larger scope) “And the larger context around that is. . . ?”

Shrink frame (smaller scope) “And part of that is. . . .”

Change frame (different scope) “And something entirely different than that is . . . .”

Perceptual Position (self, other, observer) “And how s/he would see this is. . . ?”


Prior cause (earlier scope) “And that’s because. . . ?”

Consequence (later scope) “And the result of that is. . . ?”

Expand frame (larger scope) “And if that still picture were expanded into a movie. . . .” Shrink frame (smaller scope) “And the most significant part of that event is. . . .”

Change frame (different scope) “And a very different time is. . . .”

  1. Change of Categorization: (at the same logical level)

Redefinition or Redescription “And how else could you describe that. . . ?”

  1. Change of Logical Level of Categorization:

       Eliciting a more general category (higher logical level)

Meta-frame (The prefix “meta” alone has been used ambiguously in the past to indicate either scope or category, but “meta-frame” has usually indicated a shift to a more general category, rather than a larger scope.) “And that is an example of. . . ?”

There are many such meta-frames. Some of the more useful and well-known ones that have been described previously are listed below:

Positive Intent “And his/her positive intent is. . . ?”

Model of the world “And so the way you see it is. . . ?”

Learning “And what you learned from that is. . . ?”

Curiosity “And what was most interesting to you about that is. . . ?

Hierarchy of criteria “And what is more important to you than that is. . . ?” Analogy/Metaphor “And that is like what. . . ?” (Metaphor creates a category, and often also creates a prototype example that represents the category.)

       Eliciting a more specific category or an example (scope)

Category to more specific category “And that is what kind of. . . ?”

Category to scope And an example of that is. . . ?”

Counterexample category (Category to specific category with negation) “And examples of when that isn’t true are called. . . ?”

Counterexample scope (Category to scope with negation) “And an example when that wasn’t true is. . . ?”

       Looping between category and example, or between category and more specific category (the category includes itself as an example) These patterns are seldom applicable, but very useful when they are, because they are logically “airtight.” Both of these loop between logical levels;

Apply to self (applying a category to itself) “And is that true of what you just said?” “You said that you hate complaining; is what you said a complaint?” (See Six Blind Elephants, volume 2, chapter 5)

Paradox (apply to self with negation) “You said, ‘I won’t communicate with you,’ but what you said is also a communication.” (See Six Blind Elephants, volume 2, chapter 7)

       Ambiguous Reframing Patterns (in addition to, meta -frame, or meta above) Each of the categories below is an example of one of the previous categories described.

Outcome “And the outcome of that is. . . ?” An outcome can be either a scope of experience (a specific new car) or a category of experience (status). Asking about an outcome could shift from one scope or category to another, or from scope to category, or vice versa (four possibilities).

Another Outcome Just as an outcome is ambiguous, another outcome could also yield the four possibilities listed above.

Meta-outcome (outcome of the outcome) Again, asking about a meta-outcome could also yield the four possibilities listed above. When the prefix “meta” a used in other ways, it is also ambiguous in regard to scope and category.

“Chunk down” can mean either going to a smaller scope or to a more specific category. “Chunk up” can mean either going to a larger scope or to a more general category.

Reality Strategy “And the way you know that is. . . ?” asks for the evidence (the epistemological basis) for their experience. The responder may tell you a category (“That is one of the things my parents told me.”) or a scope of experience (“I saw it happen,” or “It’s in the Bible.”).



There are many ways to use the information in this very brief outline; here are just a few:

You can write down examples of what you have said to clients, and discover which patterns you typically use. The ones that you don’t use indicate ways to expand your range of skills and flexibility.

Better yet, make a transcript of a short segment of a session with a client, and notice both what patterns you use, and which patterns your client uses in response. Do they respond appropriately to the pattern in what you said, or not? If not, did you repeat what you said, or accept their inappropriate response?

You can do the same with transcripts of different therapy sesions, to notice how they are biased, and how this limits what they can accomplish. For instance, psychoanalysis mostly asks for an earlier scope of time, and the tired old, “How do you feel about that?” asks for a higher category, what is often called “meta” (All emotional feelings are “meta” to the experiences they evaluate.)

You can practice using different patterns together for greater effect, for instance: “When you see the larger context around that event, how else could you describe that situation?” asks first for an expanded scope of experience, and then for a recategorization of that scope.

As an exercise, pick any two patterns at random, and create a sentence that uses both; then notice your response to that sentence, how it changes your experience.

You can say to a client, “Tell me more about that,” which is ambiguous, and notice which patterns they use in response to it, which will tell you something about how they are naturally organized—or how a previous therapist has trained them to respond in the therapy context. They might tell you more detail, they might tell you about its history, or its consequences, they might recategorize it, or tell you their intent or outcome. Generally speaking, the patterns that they don’t use will be more impactful in changing their experience, so they are more likely to be useful.