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A Brief History of NLP Timelines
Seminar participants often ask how a particular NLP pattern evolves. If we can track how new patterns evolve, we can help point the way to further useful discoveries and developments.
Every pattern has many antecedents, and most patterns continue to be developed and refined after the first successes. Philosophers have thought about time for millennia, even before Heraclitus said, "You can't step in the same river twice", some two thousand years ago. More recently, Peter McKeller's book Imagination and Thinking (1957) included detailed illustrations of some of the different ways that people represent the flow of time as various kinds of lines or paths in space.
People have recognized for centuries that different people tend to be more oriented toward past, present, or future. Edward T. Hall's book, The Silent Language (1959) includes abundant examples--both individual and cultural --but without a hint of why these differences exist.
In the early 1980's NLP training included the categories of "in time" and "through time" as aspects of a person's relatively fixed "meta-programming," again with no explanations of the underlying experiential structure.
The concept of submodalities had been part of NLP since the late 1970's,
but they were presented primarily as a way of enhancing experiences.
Although association / dissociation was the key element in many of the
more effective standard NLP patterns that had been taught for years,
it was not clearly described as a submodality shift. It was only in
1983 that Richard Bandler explicitly began to reveal the structure of
submodalities in general. He taught how submodality shifts could be
used to change habits (swish pattern), change beliefs, and create motivation
or understanding, and how submodality thresholds could be used to break
locked-in patterns like compulsions, or to lock in new changes. In short,
he outlined how submodalities comprise a way of understanding the underlying
We were so impressed with the power and generativity of this approach that we immediately began to ask ourselves, "What else is there that we don't yet know about"? We were convinced that submodalities had more potential than previously recognized in the field. We asked ourselves, "What would happen if we investigated the submodality structure of Meta-Program sorts? What about finding the underlying structure of time, and of being past-, present-, or future-oriented.
One way innovations occur is by taking two or more separate paradigms,
putting them together, and finding out what emerges. That's what we
did with meta-programs and submodalities. This thinking led to the Criteria
Shift pattern, and changing internal and external reference, as well
as Timeline work. Putting "time orientation" with submodalities
had far more potential than we guessed in advance. We discovered that
different people had widely differing Timelines, and that the shape
of the Timeline in space not only
In many NLP patterns, we had noticed that location is a very powerful
"driving" submodality; it is significant in Timeline work,
criteria change work, and belief change work, and in aligning perceptual
positions. It was Robert Dilts who recently offered us an interesting
way to understand this. He pointed out that all three major representational
systems overlap in location. Color, for example, is only in the visual
system, pitch is only in
At the June 1985 NANLP conference in Denver, Colorado, Steve made a three-hour presentation on Timelines, entitled "Just in Time." Among the participants were Wyatt Woodsmall, and Leslie Cameron-Bandler--who commented at the time on the usefulness of this new approach.
In his VAK interview (Fall 1991) Tad James comments, "I learned
about time line from Wyatt (Woodsmall)." When Steve first met Tad
in October 1986, we had been teaching about Timelines in public seminars
for 2 1/2 years. At that time, Tad described to Steve his work with
selecting individual traumatic experiences on the Timeline, and reorienting
the person on their existing timeline in regard to those experiences
in order to change the
Often people speak of Timeline work as if it is one thing. However there are two very major types of timeline work, both very useful. One set of methods has to do primarily with utilizing the existing timeline. The method described above is one example. You can change a traumatic memory on the timeline by reorienting in time, or by adding in resources, etc. The "decision destroyer," developed a few years later by Richard Bandler is another very impactful approach. These methods have in common that you don't need to know very much about the person's existing timeline to use them with full effectiveness.
An entirely different category of Timeline work has to do with changing
the structure of the Timeline itself. In doing this kind of work, you
find out in detail how someone's Timeline is now structured, what s/he
wants to have different in their life, and then reorient the Timeline
so as to support the kind of person they want to be. When the structure
of the Timeline
For instance, most people have their Timeline arranged so that the
future is somewhere in the same quadrant as visual construct. This allows
us to creatively construct alternative futures that are rich with possibility.
However, some people see their future in the visual remembered quadrant.
One typical result of this is that their future representations are
relatively specific and fixed, because they have to use remembered imagery
Although it is quite easy to change a person's Timeline, it takes some
experience to know what kinds of changes might be most worthwhile to
try out, and any changes need to be tried out very tentatively, with
full attention to ecology. Changing a Timeline is literally reorganizing
all a person's life experiences, so it must be done with extreme care
First Published in the VAK International NLP Newsletter Vol. 10, No
©2000-08 Steve Andreas