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Recontextualizing Skills – Postscript

The previous blog post, “Recontextualizing Skills,” featured an example from Don Aspromonte, who taught a man who was a skilled runner, but had difficulty writing reports, how to “run a report.” (If you haven’t read that one yet, you may want to read it first.)

Don sent us an email with some important additional detail that we’re passing on to you below:

The most important NLP skill to bring to this task is the ability to notice when the client transitions from a dissociated state to an associated state. As you ask them to think of a hobby that they enjoy, they will initially begin to tell you about it. This dissociated state does not fully elicit all the resources and strategies they use when they are actually doing it.

You need to continue to challenge them to tell you more about actually doing it. When you see them transition to the actual state they enter when they are engaged in the activity, you are ready to deliver the integrating question. When they enter the associated state they will begin to describe perceptions and strategies that are difficult to follow. When I get lost, I know it is time to say, “Can you find any parallels between what it takes to [do the skill] and [the problem task]?”

Typically, they will stay in the associated resource state while they process the integration. This intense learning state lasts from about 30 seconds to more than 2 minutes. Then they will begin to make an attempt to explain the solution to me. I do not allow them to do that. I simply change the subject and break off the intervention as soon as possible. This allows the integration to continue without interference from conscious activity until all the connections have been made.

The end result is that they usually become amnesic for the event and find the resulting enhanced solution to be unremarkable — which it is for them, since they already had the skill in a different context. I think that is ideal because they simply accept the ability to do what they have not been able to do before as a natural part of their capability. This enhanced ability in an area where they were previously weak, may also result in some improvement in their sense of identity.

The distinctions Don makes are important when using many other NLP methods, particularly when working conversationally. When someone is talking about something, it is rarely useful in creating change unless they go on to live it more fully from the inside. And when someone’s eyes glaze over, indicating that they are processing something internally — putting things together — that is the time to wait patiently for them to complete what they are doing before attempting anything else.

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Recontextualizing Skills

Milton Erickson, probably the greatest therapist who ever lived, often helped people by utilizing, “what you know, but you don’t know that you know.”

All of us are skilled in certain contexts and very limited in others. When we feel incompetent, we may despair, thinking that we will have to laboriously learn a complex new skill — and often that may be true. However, sometimes we already have an appropriate skill in another context. For instance, someone may find themselves shouting at their squabbling kids, yet be a highly skilled (and highly paid) mediator in business or law. Whenever this is true, all you need to do is apply the existing skill in the troublesome context. “What if you thought of your kids as if they were having a corporate dispute?” The following example from Don Aspromonte, a colleague in Dallas, TX is marvelous in its conversational simplicity:


One day several years ago the sales manager of a large company mentioned the following problem to me. One of his key people, who was responsible for selling millions of dollars worth of products each year, was driving him crazy, because he wrote absolutely worthless reports. Whenever the sales manager needed written information, what he would get were badly organized, incomplete, even erroneous reports. The manager asked me if there was anything I could do to help this key employee, because the man’s job was in jeopardy.

I sat down with the fellow, and asked him about the report-writing problem. He knew that his boss was having some kind of problem with the reports, but he was unaware of the seriousness of the situation. As we talked, it became obvious that he had never been very good at organizing information for a written communication. It was as if his brain was “broken” in that special place that generates reports.

I knew that his most important hobby was running. In fact, he was a very serious amateur marathon runner. I began to ask him questions about running marathons — something I knew almost nothing about. At first, he simply told me general things about getting into condition, practicing, and the sort of things you might tell someone who you know is not familiar with your hobby.

I continued to probe into the details by asking questions like, “What does it take to be really, really good at running a marathon?” Suddenly, he began to almost live the experience. He said, “Well, what I do is I break the course down into logical segments. Then I analyze each segment of the course and decide how I am going to run that particular piece. Of course I have to keep in mind the entire run to make sure I pace myself—”

I interrupted him and asked, “Can you find any parallels between what it takes to successfully run a marathon, and what it takes to write a really good report?”*

The transformation was amazing. Suddenly I could see him beginning to make the connections in his “broken” brain. He began to explain to me how there were many parallels between the two activities, which he had never noticed before. I left him to ponder those ideas, and went on about my business.

A few days later the sales manager asked me to step into his office. He said, “I want you to look at this report. It is one of the best reports I have ever received from anyone who worked for me. It is neat, complete, concise, and accurate. What did you do to him?” I replied, “I taught him how to run a report.”

Each of us has developed excellent ways to accomplish things in our hobbies, our personal lives, and our work. Often we just don’t apply these skills in other areas of our lives. I have especially noticed that often people don’t apply strategies that they use in their hobbies to their work situations. If you are a great cook, you could view your work as the preparation of a special holiday feast for family and friends. If you are a musician, you might compose or orchestrate your day at the office, and come home happier and more refreshed. I leave it to your imagination to discover how you might enjoy using your existing skills in new areas.


A parallel example comes from Rob Voyle, who teaches communication and change skills to ministers. A pastor was having great difficulty preparing sermons. However she was an expert quilter, and discovered that she could easily “quilt a sermon.”

Another example — also involving running — can be found in the free verbatim transcript of a therapy session with a man who had great difficulty keeping track of money and taxes. As part of my work with him, I elicited his strategy for planning how to run a race in some detail, and then suggested that he apply it to managing his finances.

*Any sentence that begins with “Can you—?” is an everyday hypnotic language pattern called a “conversational postulate.” For instance, “Can you shut the door?” or “Could you pass the gravy?” The literal answer to such a question is almost always “Yes,” and it usually elicits the response or behavior specified by the words that follow the “Can you—?” in this case, “—find any parallels between what it takes to successfully run a marathon, and what it takes to write a really good report?”

UPDATE 3/7/2014: Don added a few more key points here in this postscript.

Different Ways to Help a Client Make Changes

Fairly often someone writes to me asking about how to gather information to determine what the structure of the problem is, and what intervention to use. “How can I decide what to do when, and which method to use?” This is a very important basic question, and I want to offer a few thoughts in response to it, and some alternate ways of thinking about it.

When you have a number of different interventions that work for different problems — and not for others — it is important to make sure that the solution is appropriate to the problem. In contrast, many therapists still use a “one-size-fits-all” method, so they don’t have to gather information at all; they simply launch their one intervention and hope that it works.

For instance, Gestalt Therapy — which I was deeply involved with for about ten years back in the 1960’s and 1970’s — always involves fully experiencing and identifying with different aspects of a conflict in the present moment. That works pretty well for grief, in which the client feels separated from the lost person, because in the two-chair process they can fully experience reengaging with the special feelings they had with the lost person. But Gestalt has no impact on a phobia, because the client is already fully experiencing the terror in the present — the solution offered by Gestalt is the same as the problem.

Now let’s take a look at the presupposition in the word “the” in “the problem” — that there is only one problem. Some limited problems have a structure that can be resolved with a single intervention, and this is true of most phobias and many simple habits or responses. A problem like a phobia that occurs only occasionally in a limited set of contexts will usually have a simpler structure and will be easier to resolve. A problem that occurs in a wide range of contexts is more likely to result from a combination of factors, or from a key element of someone’s functioning, such as decisions, motivation, the way they organize time, or a part of their identity.

Sometimes a single inappropriate structure may have many different problematic results, so when you change that structure, a number of seemingly unrelated problems resolve simultaneously. Changing someone’s personal timeline often does that. For instance, a timeline that is stretched out in space, so that images of tomorrow and yesterday are always a block away, will cause someone to disregard past mistakes and future consequences, and pay more attention to the immediate present. This will tend to have a large number of consequences, including strong motivation toward pleasure in the present, vulnerability to temptation, and a poor ability to hold a job or stay with a task that is not pleasant in itself, but which promises future rewards. With a more compressed timeline, those images of tomorrow and yesterday will be closer and larger (and often brighter and more colorful) so they will have much more impact on present decisions and motivation.

But most people don’t have one problem, they have several, and some have quite a lot of them. What may seem to be a single problem may have many different separate aspects or elements, and each of them usually requires a different method to resolve.

For instance, in PTSD, there is usually what I call the “phobic core,” a memory of a terrifying life-threatening experience, often a “frozen” momentary image that appears in “flashbacks” in response to sensory triggers. But usually PTSD also includes other aspects — guilt, shame, grief, regret, anxiety, hypervigilance, violence, etc., and the client often experiences them as a single tangled mess. My online video streaming program, The PTSD Training, demonstrates how to tease these different aspects apart and work with each of them separately, so that each one can be worked with using an appropriate method. (The introductory discount for ordering this program—with no risk money back guarantee—is available through January 31.) My other online streaming video program, entitled Releasing PTSD, demonstrates how to do this in working with an Iraq vet over 4 sessions totaling 9 hours.

When I’m teaching a particular pattern or intervention, I don’t have to gather any information; I simply ask for someone who has the kind of problem that the intervention is designed to work with. I ask for someone who is grieving, or has a phobia, or has difficulty making decisions. Occasionally the volunteer has a different experience of the words I use — for instance, they have anxiety, rather than a phobia — but usually there is a good match, and what they have is appropriate for the intervention I want to demonstrate.

This suggests a possible alternate way to work with a client, particularly for a beginning therapist, or someone who has only a few methods available to them. Rather than beginning with a general inquiry about what problem(s) they would like to resolve, or what outcome(s) they would like to achieve, and then gathering more detailed information, you could try a different approach.

You could make a mental list of the different methods that you know, and what problems they resolve, and then do the same thing I do in a training — ask your client if they have a problem for which you have a dependable solution. “Do you have a phobia? Are you troubled by grieving over a loss? Do you have anger or resentment that interferes with your life? Do you have anxiety in certain contexts? Are you ever troubled by regret?”

When the client answers “Yes” to one of your questions, you can proceed to offer them a method that is appropriate, with a high probability of success. Rather than risk getting lost in endless information-gathering and possibly getting “over your head” trying to solve problems for which you are not well prepared, you can offer them a sort of smorgasbord of what you know how to do dependably.

This approach is particularly useful with a client who is in a major muddle, and doesn’t have much idea of what they need. Your list of problems may include one that they hadn’t thought of, or that they assumed was not something that can be solved, so they wouldn’t think of asking for it. If a client doesn’t realize a phobia can be cured in one session, they won’t ask for it.

There are a number of advantages to this approach. You can be more confident of being useful to a client, knowing that you can deliver results rapidly when working with the kinds of problems you know how to solve. When the client gets results quickly, that delivers value, and builds rapport and the likelihood that they will return to get resolution for other difficulties.  In the process of solving one problem, others may emerge, and you may get information about other aspects of the person that is useful in making other changes.

However, this approach would not be as appropriate with a client who already has a pretty well-formed description of their problem or outcome, because they might feel that you are ignoring that, so it’s important to maintain rapport, or use a different approach with them.

Yet another way to work is to become fluent in several fundamental processes that often underlie so many problems, such as decisions, motivation, timelines, and identity. Then when a new client comes in, you can listen respectfully to how they describe their problem, and if you know how to resolve it, proceed to do so. But this would only be a sort of preamble to saying, “I have found that if I investigate certain fundamental skills that everyone has and needs, I can be of more use to you more quickly in helping you with the specific problems that you are concerned with,” and then gather information about how they make decisions, how they motivate themselves, how they represent the flow of time, or how they think of themselves, and offer any useful changes you can identify that would be useful. (There is an introductory chapter on each of the first three topics in Heart of the Mind,and a whole book about the fourth, Transforming Your Self.

Making changes in any one of these four basic processes may even solve the problem that brought them to you, or it may resolve other issues that they may not have recognized, or which may not have been in the forefront of their experience. At the very least it will be interesting, and offer important clues about what else might be useful or not useful to explore further.

To summarize, you can gather information about the presenting problem or outcome, you can offer a sort of smorgasbord of different specific changes for the client to choose from, or you can investigate some very basic processes that are likely to be useful for every client. And you can always combine these different approaches, or move smoothly from one to another as the session unfolds, making it less likely that you will ever get stuck in any one of them.

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NLP Finally Gets Respect & Notice

Many of us in the field have complained for years that NLP methods have been largely ignored in mainstream research into therapeutic processes. Periodically research appears that “rediscovers” and proves some aspect of NLP that we have known and published years ago — but without any reference to NLP. Recently a Psychology Today blog post by Guy Winch took a small and welcome step toward remedying this situation, which you can read here:

NLP in Psychology Today

Thanks very much Guy!

Core Transformation is among the “examples of NLP” that Guy chose to include. The next Boulder Core Transformation Training is Feb 28-Mar 2, 2014. Click here to learn more and to register for the Core Transformation Training.

—Steve Andreas

Filling a Gap

Tom Kavanaugh raised an interesting question in response to viewing the streaming videos on SteveAndreasPTSDTraining.com.

He wrote:

“None of the processes and protocols I’ve studied has provided any information about what to do with someone once they have released the effects and symptoms of PTSD.  It’s my opinion that up to 80% of a person’s life may be spent coping with the symptoms they experience. So when those symptoms are released, there is a huge gap in their life because they don’t know what to do, where to go, or who to be with. In other words, there’s no real direction for them to follow to get on with their life. Have you considered this perspective in your work; and, if so, what conclusions or suggestions would you make?”

Steve Andreas replies…

Your question is an excellent one, pointing out a significant omission in what I had time to present in the four-day training. Here are my thoughts:

If someone experiences PTSD later in life, they have probably already developed many interests, abilities, habits, and activities. Then when much of their life becomes preoccupied with coping with the symptoms of PTSD, that interrupts their normal activities, but doesn’t erase them. When their PTSD is resolved, they can easily return to their previous life and interests.

John, in our book Heart of the Mind (chapter 7, pp. 61-63) is a good example of this. Despite 13 years of coping with PTSD, he had no difficulty adjusting to its resolution. This was also true of Tara, the Iraq vet I saw recently. (Streaming video of the entire 4-session treatment is now available online at: http://releasingptsd.com/.) Both John and Tara were already employed, and functioning well, despite the considerable difficulties caused by their PTSD. When someone has gone through a major life challenge and resolved it, they may do even more than just return to their previous life. They are likely to participate in things that always interested in them, but with additional depth and perspective.

It is good to keep in mind that many people who experience terrifying events either experience no PTSD at all, or their disturbance is very short-lived, and they quickly return to their previous life, even without any therapy or treatment.

In contrast to this, if a person suffering from PTSD has been sitting on the couch in front of the TV for years, withdrawn from most of the world, sometimes in an alcohol or drug induced “self-medication” stupor, perhaps scraping by on disability payments, the situation is very different. Their adjustment to having their PTSD resolved will probably be much more challenging.

If someone experiences PTSD fairly early in life (or has had a very sheltered and limited life) they may never have had the opportunity to develop satisfying interests, abilities and activities. Or their development of these interests may have only been peripheral and in the service of their coping with PTSD. Then when the PTSD is resolved, they may indeed feel lost, and not know what to do, and require additional help.

Yet another variable is the extent to which PTSD has become a part of someone’s identity. Some people have PTSD, in the same way that people have a car, a habit, a disease, or a problem with alcohol. It is simply something that they have to cope with, but it isn’t part of their identity. For others PTSD becomes something that is a key part of who they are (in contrast to what they have) and they may have arranged much of their behavior around that core identity, and the activities that are involved in it. The same is true of people who have used drugs or alcohol for some time.

When someone with PTSD has been on disability payments for some time, they are faced with the possible loss of this income if they resolve their PTSD. If they have been out of the job market for many years, it may be very difficult to get a job that pays as well. If they continue to receive disability payments, while knowing that they no longer have PTSD, they have to find a way to make that congruent with how they think of themselves. “Am I a person who is willing to accept money for being disabled, when I know that I am no longer disabled? Is that OK? I do need a way to get by. Is it OK to accept disability payments until I can get a job?” One of the useful functions of identity is to provide a stable and durable foundation for our behavior and our direction in life. When something negates that identity, it also negates the stability and direction that it provided.

Whenever someone is uncertain about their interests and direction in life, it is very useful to help them discover what is interesting and important to them, and explore the opportunities that are available to them to actualize these interests. This might include what is sometimes called “values clarification,” “life coaching,” “career counseling” or “discovering one’s mission in life.” Many people try to figure out their life path on the inside — by just thinking about it. However, it usually works much better to learn what we like and how we want to contribute by taking action in the world. This is how it happens naturally for people. As children and young adults, we do lots of different activities and notice what we like and don’t like. We also notice what others seem to appreciate from us. Many careers are discovered this way, and this process of exploring and getting feedback never stops for someone engaged in the world. So giving a client tasks to do a range of different activities is a way to further this process. Ask your client to explore activities that s/he knows little about, or give a task to volunteer for some kind of community service, or some other activity that takes them into contact with activities and people whom they otherwise wouldn’t get to know.

Keep in mind that many people who have never experienced PTSD can also make good use of this kind of exploration, so it can also be useful for many other clients as well. If someone has passively “gone along with the crowd” and never really chosen their life path, then when that path is disrupted by a significant change — loss of a job, retirement, loss of a spouse through death or divorce, serious injury or disease — they may also feel very lost, and need help in finding a new life path that is in alignment with who they are now in their changed circumstances. This often occurs in what has been called a “mid-life crisis,” but of course it can happen at any point in someone’s life.

So Tom’s question is a good one that goes far beyond PTSD, to whenever someone makes a significant change. Rehearsing the change in several future contexts to find out how well the change works will usually indicate when further work is necessary.


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