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What Makes a Good NLPer?

© 1999 Steve Andreas

A few months ago someone asked me a very interesting question, one that I have thought about many times since then: “What is the difference between someone who uses NLP with an average degree of skill and someone who uses it with much greater skill?” I think that there are many answers to this question, and I have a few tentative ideas.

I think that someone who uses the NLP methods exceptionally well has several ways of gathering all the different skills and techniques under a single overarching framework of understanding. A universal framework provides a solid basis for gathering information and responding creatively even when a particular method or technique doesn’t work, when others might become stuck or confused.

Splitting and Joining

It has been very useful to me to think of everything I do as either “splitting” or “joining.” Splitting is the process of separating two aspects of an experience that have been joined together. For instance in the phobia process, the unpleasant feelings are separated from the visual memory of the traumatic experience. In the forgiveness process, certain ideas or meanings that the person has about forgiveness (for instance that forgiveness is for the other person, or that to forgive means to condone the harmful act) have to be split away from the experience of forgiveness before the person will be willing to forgive.

Joining is the process of putting together two elements that have been separated in the person’s experience. In any process of integrating anchors, such as “changing personal history,” two separate experiences are joined together in the same moment in time. In chaining, two separate experiences are joined in a sequence in time.

In many interventions, splitting and joining occur simultaneously. In content reframing an old meaning is split away from an experience at the same time that a new meaning is attached to it: “You have always thought of your daughter as being ‘stubborn,’ not realizing that you have taught her a well-developed ability to stand firm for what she thinks, and not let others sway her judgment and take advantage of her.”

Splitting and joining are actually one of the fundamental properties of all nerve cells, and the technical terms in psychology are “discrimination” and “generalization.” When two neurons in the retina of the eye respond differently to a visual stimulus, they are splitting — responding to some difference in brightness, color, etc. When a child responds to two different animals with the same name, “dog,” he is responding to the sameness (four legs, fur, etc.) rather than to the differences (size, color, etc.).

Every experience that we have is a complex structure built of layer upon layer of perceived sameness (joining) and difference (splitting). When we want to change an experience, we will always be changing the perception or understanding of sameness or difference, and this will result in a change in response.

If you think it would be useful to you to learn how to think in these universal terms, it can be very helpful to take an example of any NLP method you know and examine it carefully to determine at each step what is being split and what is being joined. The more you do this, the more it will become an automatic way of thinking that can guide your work.


Another overarching understanding is that all our experience is a never-ending sequence of small “events,” one leading to another in rapid succession. We don’t really have “experiences” or “problems” or “solutions,” we actually have “experiencing,” “probleming,” and “solutioning.” When someone says that they have a “problem” in a “relationship,” they are isolating one small event in a sequence, and thinking of it as if it were a fixed “thing.” When I reply that I understand that there is some aspect of their relating to this person that they don’t like, my words are an invitation to start thinking of it as a changing process, rather than as something fixed and unchanging.

When someone thinks of a “problem” they usually will have a still picture as a representation of it. Simply asking them to allow that still image to become a movie of the event can be a profound intervention, because this will recover the complete sequence of which the “problem” is only a small part. The movie will have far more information than the still picture, and often this information will be very useful in reaching a resolution. And since the moving image is already moving and changing, it is much easier to introduce additional useful changes than if it were a fixed still image.

Combining the idea of joining with sequencing, we realize that two events can be joined simultaneously, or sequentially, one following the other. Thus when we want to change someone's problematic experience to something more resourceful and useful, we have three fundamental choices about combining the “problem state” and the “resource state.” (We really should be saying “probleming” and “resourcing,” but that sounds very awkward, at least in English.) We can combine them simultaneously in a moment in time, or we can provide the resource sequentially, just before or just after the problem occurs.

Each choice will have a somewhat different result, which is hard to describe in words, but can be easily experienced. In the basic method known as “changing personal history,” we anchor a problem state and a resource state. Depending on our timing in triggering the anchors we can combine the states simultaneously, creating a state of integration, or we can create a sequence in which the resource state either precedes or follows the problem state.

If the resource follows the problem state, the person has to first experience the unpleasantness of the problem state, and then the resolution of it enabled by the resource state. Although this will usually work, it is not very elegant, and leaves the person repeatedly experiencing a brief unpleasantness. However, if the resource state precedes the difficult situation, the person will not even experience it as a problem. In fact, this is what most of us experience thousands of times a day, without even noticing. Every day we are faced with a myriad of tasks, from reaching into a pocket or purse for car keys to speaking with someone on the telephone, or reading an article such as this. As long as we have robust behavioral resources to deal with these situations, we don't think of them as problems, because we access the appropriate resource state automatically. But if we were still small children, most of these small tasks would be insurmountable problems. Building in available resources before a potential problem occurs is far more generative and enjoyable than making resources available remedially after a problem has already occurred, and of course this is why we plan ahead and have educational institutions, etc. to prepare us in advance for life’s challenges.

Cognitive Qualifiers

Happily, John McWhirter has described a fascinating and subtle linguistic example of how the mind can be preset to respond in a particular way that, sadly, others have not previously noticed. A “cognitive qualifier” is a “commentary” adverb appearing at the beginning of a sentence or phrase that refers to an emotional or cognitive state, such as “happily” and “sadly” in the previous sentence. A cognitive qualifier prepares the mind to respond in a specified way to whatever words follow.

To experience this effect, think of an ordinary descriptive sentence like, “The green tree is standing in the sunlight,” or “I am sitting at the desk,” and imagine saying this sentence to yourself….

Now imagine saying the exact same sentence, but preceded by the word ”sadly,” and notice how this changes your experience….

Then say the same sentence, but preceded by the word “happily,” and again pay attention to your experience….

When I do this, the “sadly” tree is a little dim and gray, and a little droopy. The “happily” tree is upright, bright and sunny, with sparkles. Cognitive qualifiers direct your mind to think of aspects of an experience that are specified by the kind of qualities used, and this will alter the submodalities.

Imagine what your life would be like if you began every sentence, and every thought, with the word “sadly” or “regrettably.” That is a very effective way to be depressed, and some people actually do this! In contrast, imagine what your life would be like if every sentence and thought were preceded by the word “happily” or “fortunately.” This would be a much better choice, and again, some people actually do this.

Understandably, you might feel incongruent about using the qualifier “happily” for some unpleasant events, but luckily there is an alternative resource. Both “sadly” and “happily” refer to emotional states, and most emotions are evaluative, dealing with pleasant or unpleasant, positive or negative. These evaluative qualifiers will sometimes be inappropriate for the content of a particular thought or sentence.

Interestingly, there is a set of cognitive/emotional states that are quite different, and that do not have negative or unpleasant aspects. Curiously, they all express a state of interest, curiosity, attention, or understanding — “interestingly,” “curiously,” “surprisingly,” “understandably,” etc. Something unpleasant can be just as interesting as something pleasant — the state of interest or fascination itself is always positive and enjoyable. You probably never heard anyone complain about being curious. “Oh I had this awful curiosity last night — it was terrible!”

Since this group of cognitive qualifiers miraculously never have negative states associated with them, they are truly universal resources, which can be used with any experience. And since a state of curiosity or interest is an excellent resource state for discovery, learning, and change, this kind of cognitive qualifier is a wonderful state to use in beginning to understand and process a difficult or challenging situation.

To experience this, think of some situation in your life that you might describe as a problem or difficulty, and make up a simple sentence that describes it, such as, “I hate it when people don’t follow through on their promises.” Say your sentence to yourself, and notice how you represent this internally….

Now say the same sentence to yourself, but preceded by the word “interestingly,” or “curiously,” or “understandably,” and pay attention to how this word changes your experience….

Most people experience subtle but profound changes, as attention is drawn away from how unpleasant the problem event is, and toward interest and curiosity about how it happens, or how it can be understood — a state of readiness and eagerness for learning. Imagine what your life would be like if every sentence and thought you had began with “Interestingly” or “Understandably.”

This can be very useful when used as a “backtrack” with a client. When a client describes a problem, you can feed back their statement, beginning with “understandably,” or some other qualifier that has to do with curiosity and learning, and watch for the nonverbal shifts that indicate that they are thinking about it in a more relaxed and useful way.

One additional important aspect of cognitive qualifiers is that they create a shared and universal world, a frame that embraces us both. It is quite different to say, “I find that interesting,” or “Do you find that interesting?” in which there is a separation or difference between us. When I say “Interestingly” this sets up a frame that embraces us both, is taken for granted, and that we both experience together, without the separation between self and other that many people often feel. This transcends rapport, because rapport presupposes the difference that the rapport bridges.

Surprisingly, with a powerful state of interest and curiosity, many “problems” simply vanish as my attention turns from how unpleasant they are to simply learning how they exist and function, and what I can do to change them. Even when a problem doesn’t vanish, it’s a much more useful place to begin to work toward understanding, and a solution.

I have often heard people say that the opposite of fear is love, but I think it is much more useful to think of the opposite as curiosity. In fear, we move away from an event; in curiosity we move toward it.

Interestingly, the idea that all of life is a school in which we have lessons to learn is a very old idea, and one that is particularly central in certain spiritual traditions. I don't know if it is true or not, but it is a very powerful reorientation for your life as a whole, one that makes life much easier and more enjoyable, both for yourself and for others.

This article originally appeared in Anchor Point, pp. 3-6, October, 1999, tweaked a bit in 2016.

©2000-16 Steve Andreas