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Change Work September 2010

What's the "programming" in Neuro-Linguistic Programming?

Mark Twain said, "All generalisations are false, including this one"!  They are also the basis for many false, personal beliefs, where a specific experience is turned into a general principle.  For example, trying something once and failing leads to the belief, "I can't do that", which you then take even further to become, "I'm not that kind of person".

I think it's a generalisation with a lot of truth in it to say that the biggest obstacle to self-development is the belief that you're a particular type of person.

But isn't it obvious?  We all have a personality, which my dictionary defines as, "the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual's distinctive character", and if there's only a finite number of characteristics then we're bound to fall into groups of similar "type", aren't we?

This may be true and, on the face of it, fairly harmless - if it weren't for the unspoken and unrecognised presupposition that this "type" is an accident of birth and fixed for life.

I like to use the analogy of the PC on your desk (or the Mac if you're a creative "type"!) and say that if your brain is the combination of processor and hard drive, then your mind is the software.  And just as the computer has software operating at different levels - applications on top that you directly manipulate, with an operating system underneath that you're not usually aware of - so the mind has a conscious part that you're in charge of and an unconscious "operating system" that runs by itself.

When you learn a new skill it's like getting a new application on your PC.  Just like installing new software, new knowledge enables you to do new things.  What you don't see on your PC though is how that new software fits itself into the existing operating system, linking to other applications and information and generally bedding in. 

Similarly, consolidating a new skill involves practice, generating the unconscious elements like "muscle memory" and gradually locking more and more of the new capability into the unconscious mind, your operating system.  Eventually you develop "unconscious competence".

(Driving a car is a great example of this.  Your first time behind the wheel involves so many simultaneous processes it's right on the limit of what you can actually do consciously.  Very quickly though, the mechanics of driving become unconscious and your attention is freed to think about other things, such as where you're going - or what's on the radio.)

With your PC, it's generally advisable not to tinker with the operating system - just to upgrade whenever Bill Gates wants you to, completely erasing what was there and replacing it with an unfamiliar, apparently untested new version.  (Not that this bothers me of course!)

Most people tend to regard their mental operating system in a similar light, i.e. you don't (actually can't) alter anything.  It's about "the kind of person you are" so, unlike the PC, there's no upgrade available.

Well, in fact you can re-write the little pieces of "software" that you run unconsciously and habitually.  It's just the same as learning a new skill: first you do it consciously and imperfectly and then, through repetition, you perfect it and lock it into your unconscious mind.  Afterwards, it runs whenever it's triggered and you (the conscious you) forget all about it.

So let's imagine that you tend to respond angrily in certain situations where you would really like to be able to keep calm and allow yourself to think before responding.  The question is, how do you "do" this anger?

If you were to think through a particular instance when you felt angry, focusing your attention on what you were thinking rather than what other people were doing, you might find something like the following sequence:

> Hear words

> Create image

> Self talk, "That means ..."

> Create image of meaning

> Feel angry

> Display anger

What if you stop at the self-talk step?  Substitute, "That's not what I expected/wanted.  I wonder what he/she means.  I'll ask!"  Then ask for clarification and elaboration.

Curiosity replaces anger. You are dissociated and so more resourceful.

Running through an imagined version of events where you follow the new sequence overwrites your old, habitual pattern.  Doing this repeatedly establishes a new program that your unconscious mind runs when appropriate and, every time it does, the experience strengthens it.

And that's all there is to it!  In computer-speak, you can install a "patch" that fixes a mental bug.  What's more, it'll be backward compatible and exclusively licensed to you!