Choosing the Right Words and the Right Thoughts:

The Presuppositions of NLP [*]


Jamie Duncan and Laura Szmuch

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It has been a long day.  A student is about to explode either into anger or tears, and is protesting increasingly loudly about a test mark.  It is not the first time.  You have explained it all before. It is only one mark and one test amongst many.  Why doesn't he understand?  Why is he so obsessed with the mark and not about actually learning?  You feel your blood start to boil and you want to stop this discussion and get the lesson back on the rails for the rest of the hour.  What can you do?

Let us defer the possible answers to this question.  Chances are that many of the possible denouements to this scene will leave at least one, if not both of the protagonists, frustrated and misunderstood.  So how can we avoid repetitions of this type of breakdown in communication?

We could hope for a miracle from the student - a realisation that the teacher is right after all, and that he could have studied more for the test and been more careful in actually doing it, but that scenario is not very likely.  Sometimes the message does get across, but that depends on the student changing his point of view or having a revelation and that, in turn, is reliant on him actually being open to seeing the situation in a different way. Much easier is for the teacher to approach the scene differently herself.

"Why should I?" asks the teacher.  Well, simply because an aware teacher is in a better position to find a resolution to the dispute.  As the teacher knows why she gave the test and how it fits into the school programme, and probably has a fair idea of what the protest is about, she undoubtedly has a wider perspective of the situation.  She is also the more experienced at 'reaching the other' by dint of being a teacher and, by adding the use of some tools from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), we can be the better equipped to bring flexibility to the communication.

How exactly can NLP help?  One of the many ways it can aid our communication is if we acquire some of the strands of philosophy that form the foundation of NLP and use these as a basis for our actions.  This philosophy is expressed in the form of presuppositions or assumptions that we can take with us into any act of communication.  These presuppositions may or may not be true but, more importantly than that, they are functional.  By accepting them as true, we start to reconsider HOW we communicate and find alternative ways of sending out message so that both we as the sender and the other person as the receiver understand more clearly what is being said.  The presuppositions also allow us to get even more information about what is motivating the protagonists.

Let us look at some of these presuppositions and consider how they fit into teaching.  In the following sections we will comment on the presuppositions and give you an activity to help you explore them for yourself.

Presupposition 1 - The meaning of my communication is the response I get.

Think about it.  If the other person doesn't give me the reply I am expecting, then probably the way I asked my question or made my comment was the cause.  In some way my communication influenced the reply.  It may seem quicker to blame the other for misunderstanding or for not wanting to listen, and even if there seems to be evidence for that, you probably won't get very far with that approach.  If you really want to reach the other person, that is!  The communication will remain blocked or twisted.

If we take the responsibility for resolving this glitch in communication, we can help the other person to understand our message.  Where do we start?  With our words and with our actions.

Studies have revealed that only seven per cent of our communication is verbal.  The remaining 93 per cent of our messages is conveyed by gestures, body language, voice tone, and intonation.

So while you can start analysing your words, perhaps the first step is to ask yourself "How did I say it?"  "What did I say with my body?"  Very often we have expressed ourselves with a tone of voice that contrasts with the message of the words.  "That's great!" can be said with real admiration in your voice or with a bored disinterest.  It's the tone that carries more weight and we are wise to pay attention to this.  How many times do we mean to give an order like "Close the door!" in a gentle tone and it comes out as a fierce bark?  As our subconscious mind reads the non-verbal communication very effectively and very rapidly, it tends to overrule the logical conscious part of the mind grappling with the words on the surface.



Often when we speak we try to mask emotions that we are feeling, but the body gives us away.  We say "I'm fine" but in a tired voice with a slumped body.  Try to imagine then how the person receiving the message will interpret it and respond.  Usually they are confused and therefore choose to give priority to one of the messages.

Task: Becoming aware of your messages

1. Choose a common phrase like "That's right", "Give me that book" or "Stop that noise".  Experiment saying it with tones of voice that represent different emotions.  For example, with pride, with surprise, with anger, with regret, with amusement, with bitterness, with tiredness, etc.  Notice how you feel.

2. Now, repeat the activity adding clear gestures and body language.

3. Repeat the phrases a third time, but contrast the voice tone and body language.  For example: say the phrase "That's right" in an angry tone of voice with a body posture of surprise, or "That's right" with amusement in your voice and tiredness in your posture.

4. Focus on the phrases again and try to make the words, voice tone and body language congruent.  Happy words in a happy voice with happy gestures.

5. Try these exercises out on someone else and ask them to react.  What did they interpret?

If you want a hint of how to achieve this congruency of message in practice, one aid is to breathe deeply before speaking.  This gives you time and helps you look inside and decide how you really feel.



Presupposition 2 - The map is not the territory

We perceive through our eyes, ears, nose, taste buds and skin.  As the morphology of our organs is unique, the way they receive and transmit information will be special to each person and as such cannot ever be precisely reproduced in another person.  All our sensations are different from those of other people and they always will be.

The question of perception is not only that of the senses.  Take a flower for instance.  Our first contact with it may be a glimpse of its colours and shape.  We may smell it or touch it.  Immediately after that lots of mechanisms are triggered and we connect the flower with our personal experience, thoughts, ideas, values and beliefs.  And when we say "flower" and somebody else hears the word, a whole array of connections and chemical reactions are produced.  Then what happens?  The other person's interpretation of flower turns out to be absolutely different from ours.  Even though we share the same general concept and meaning of the word "flower", the internal re-presentation we form of it, even when talking about the same flower, will differ in colour, intensity, shape, angle and so on.



The map is not the territory means that we all have different views of reality and represent it in our own way, just as the cartographer has his own version of the geography he draws.  If you look at different atlases you will discover that despite the fact that the content is generally the same and certain features will appear in all the maps, the focus or emphasis each map maker produces in his map will have subtle differences.

What is the connection of this presupposition with teaching?  In NLP, the most important tenet is that we are all different.  We appreciate, value, and celebrate the fact that no two raindrops are alike.  Diversity means richness because we can learn from the maps or representations of reality that other people have.  We can grow and prosper by knowing that the world can be interpreted in different ways.  There is no right or wrong interpretation.  The way that we interpret the world is simply different because we are all physically unique and our internal representations likewise differ thanks to the varied life experiences we have had.  By accepting that there is another possibility of "seeing reality", we can awaken our creativity and can definitely enhance our communication.

As teachers we must always remember that just because we have "taught" students something, this does not necessarily mean that they will receive the message the way we intended.  We can learn to perceive more clearly the way they receive our messages, however, and it is our privilege to have access to tools that will enable us to approach all students in the way they each deserve.  We should consider it as our gift to tune into the same wavelength as our students and to be able to establish solid and powerful rapport.  We have an invaluable treasure as teachers and that is the immense potential to reach out and make contact with the "legitimate others" that our students are.

When we put NLP techniques into practice, we create healthy relationships because we acknowledge the value of all the maps.  By stepping into someone else's shoes, we begin to understand their point of view and, as a result, conflict resolution becomes a win-win game in which everybody's feelings and opinions are taken into account.


Task: Discovering maps

This is an activity that you can do with your class or with colleagues and friends.

1. Form a circle and place an object in the middle where everyone can see it. Give the group a minute to write down everything that occurs to them concerning the object.  You may write individual words or sentences, descriptions or reactions.  Anything goes.

2. Get each person to read out their piece of writing and notice the different "approaches" to and interpretations of the subject matter.

After this, place an object that has an interesting shape in the centre.  A plant is a good choice.  Have each person draw their representation of the object.  If you have coloured pencils or crayons, colour can be added.  After four or five minutes stop and compare pictures.


Although the pictures in the second part of the activity above may fall short of the reality the artist was striving for, they surely represent the way that that person perceives the object, recreated as best they can.  What is interesting is which features each person highlights.


Presupposition 3.  Knowing what you want helps you to get it.

Imagine getting on a bus and not knowing where we want to go.  The bus driver has no idea how much to charge us, nor where to let us off.  It's no problem if he's willing to let us ride around all day.  But we are probably not going to end up any place we want to be this way. We need destinations.  These are called goals or objectives in life.  Humans have constantly set goals for themselves in attempting to improve their living conditions.  In the past the goals were aimed at making our survival less precarious.  These days, however, our survival is more assured and we find ourselves overwhelmed by choice of what to do and how to do things.  We have more information and more alternatives for action.  This is good.  The trouble is that we often end up doing nothing, because we don't know where to start or how to start.  Sometimes we have an inkling of what we want to achieve, but the goal seems so big or far off.  Which road will be the shorter to achieve it?  Sometimes we know very clearly what we don't want, but not what we do want.  If we do want to achieve things, then we need to start defining our path.  It is very rare that we can get to our destination by accident.  Mostly we have to follow a route.  And mostly we need to have a place to go to.  We can ask the bus driver to take us where he thinks fit, or we can take charge of our own lives and make our own choice.


Task: Objective setting circles

1. Think of a situation you would like to resolve, or something you would like to achieve but don't know how.

2. On a big sheet of paper (or three sheets) draw three circles (one on each sheet if using three).

3. Label one circle "I definitely don't want" and note down inside the circle any things, factors, consequences you want to avoid in dealing with the situation.  This part acknowledges our fears or concerns.

4. Call another circle "I want" and note down anything you feel sure or fairly sure you want when resolving he situation or achieving your wish.  State these wants in the positive, not with words like "avoid".  They should be concrete objectives, physical, mental or emotional.

5. In the third circle note down "Variables and uncertainties" which could include results you are not sure about or factors or side effects you think you should bear in mind.

6. Pay attention to the "wants" list more than the others and continue refining it today, tomorrow, next week, until you clarify exactly what you do want.

That is all.  Simple really, but an effective way to start to organise your thoughts and separate the light positive wishes from the heavy demands of conflicting and often negative "don't wants".  Your brain, when focused on your "wants", will start working to find ways of making them happen.




Task: Stepping Stones

1. Take a piece of paper and place it horizontally on the table.  At the top of the page draw a small box and beside it write the state your would like.  It could be relatively small like "having finished an assignment" or larger like "having moved into a new house" or "doing regular exercise".

2. At the bottom of the page write your current situation.  For example, "not started assignment" or "doing no exercise", or you can simply write the words "assignment" or "exercise".  You should spend a few minutes, however, reflecting one exactly where you are, because knowing this is vital.  We cannot find our way if we don't know where we are starting from.

3. Now, consider the first step that you need to take to move towards the top of the page.  It could be "define my topic", "go to the library".  Draw boxes for your new ideas going up the page and write a note next to them.  It is not essential that you start with the first idea. What you are doing is asking your brain to start offering possibilities of action and to break down what may seem like a big goal into manageable steps or chunks.


r Handed in assignment  r I'm fit and healthy
r Sign up at gym   r Speak to tutor
r   r  
r   r Speak to friend
r Buy track suit   r Go to library
r Define topic  r Ask at gym
r Assignment  r Exercise

You can adjust the boxes as you proceed with your plan, adding new boxes and updating those old ones.  It's good to see when you can cross steps off as having been done.





Let's return to the teacher and the student complaining about his mark.  How does our thinking alter the way we handle the situation?

1.  The meaning of my communication is the response I get.  If I am not getting anywhere with my arguments, I can stop, notice how I am communicating, and start to change something.  Doing the same things has not got results, doing something different might get them.

2.  The map is not the territory.  After I have noticed my communication, I can turn to that of my student.  What does this test mark mean in his world?  What else is happening in his life today that may have caused this reaction?  I do not need to ask this question directly but rather open myself up to the fact that his perception of this mark is very different from mine; not wrong, not bad, just different.  It is not necessarily an attack on me so much as an interpretation of a situation by the student that does not equate with mine.

3.  Knowing what I want helps me to get it.  Have I stopped to think about what I want from this difficult situation?  Do I want the student to stop  bothering me?  Do I want him to learn a lesson from the mark?  Am I ambiguous in what my role is? Am I part judge and part helper?  Part authority and part colleague?  Is this confusing the student?  If I start to think very clearly about my role in the discussion and what I want as an outcome, I can start to adjust my language to reach that outcome.  

The objective may be beyond this moment in class.  For example, I may want my student to perform better in tests and to be more relaxed and confident when doing so.  How can I go about this?  What steps can I take now to start to achieve it?  It will probably mean something like meeting the student outside class to talk over the test mark and work on improving his strategies and study for future tests.  Maybe he too has suggestions on how to avoid this situation recurring.  I can ask him and at least get him to think about it.  If I have these alternatives for action, I can offer choices to the student which will unblock the communication and allow for us all to proceed winning rather than losing.


And if that is not enough, I can always employ another presupposition: "There is no failure only feedback!"  Good thought!


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[*] This article was originally published in New Learning, Issue No. 5, Autumn 1999

[1] Cartoon by Albert Saunders (ALB), from An ABC of NLP by Joseph Sinclair, ASPEN, 1992.

[2] Cartoon by Yaron Livay, from Peace of Mind is a Piece of Cake by Michael Mallows and Joseph Sinclair, Crown House, 1998


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Laura Szmuch and Jamie Duncan. are Master Practitioners and Trainers in NLP.  .Laura is a graduate of the Instituto Superior del Profesorado "Dr. Joaquín V. González" and works as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in her studio in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Jamie Duncan is lecturer in Language III at the I.N.S.P.T of the Universidad Tecnológica Nacional in Buenos Aires and works with students of all ages.  You can find out more about them and their work at the Resourceful Teaching website: