How much of NLP is just paying attention? Think about it. Did you ever keep track of sensory predicates in language before doing an NLP course? More to the point, what did you pay attention to, if you paid attention to anything? I’m pretty much convinced that the nature of what you pay attention to is almost irrelevant, as long as you keep your eyes and ears open to something when you’re out there in the world.
Sometimes, patterns provide useful data. If someone consistently looks down to the right and sighs before talking about the problems they’re experiencing with their partner, and no longer does so after whatever you do when you spend time with them, that’s useful to know — though far from being proof that such problems are over. But my sense is that many of the patterns people are taught to track in NLP are irrelevant. What matters is that you’re paying attention to anything within an interaction: that itself is the start of a journey that can be beneficial.
Here’s where I get to make the same elitist generalisation that bugs me when I see NLP trainers do it: most people have next to no insight or awareness of how they conduct themselves. For many, the notion of the impression they make is simply about the clothes they’re wearing, and whatever other status-markers matter to them — the places they hang out in, the things they do in those places, whether we’re talking about spin classes at the gym with the hot new instructor, or chilling at Nando’s with your buddies over a pile of chicken bones.
Training yourself to spot patterns in interaction is a step up…but what to? That’s where things get interesting. We’re getting into the notion of self-observation, a trail that leads back to the practices of Zen and Sufi masters, and doubtless in directions I’m less familiar with. NLP initially encourages you to notice what others are doing, through tracking eye movements and language patterns and pacing and so forth. All good stuff — but the most useful aspect of all this is not the data that is gathered, but the development of the data gatherer. From being engaged with, engrossed in, interaction, you’re learning to notice how those interactions hold together. And that liberates some consciousness to recognise and utilise choice points that didn’t exist for you before.
Some years back, I worked with someone who came to me wanting to write and present better in a business context. That’s what he said, anyway. But as he outlined his situation and desires, and in the manner that he did so, I recognised that there was a key piece missing relating to his ability to communicate more generally: he talked more than he listened. A lot more. He was broadcasting pretty much the whole time, but rarely receiving the transmissions of others.
I asked him to do something simple in the next week before we met again. To listen out for patterns in the language of others, and use them back with whoever he was speaking to. I didn’t specify what kinds of patterns, partly because I didn’t want to go down the tried-and-tested route — also because I didn’t know what would be useful for him to notice. He came back a week later, and the last seven days had been a revelation. Client meetings had transformed — but more importantly he’d been of profound value to some friends who’d lost a baby, something he said he wouldn’t have been able to do previously.
That was a powerful experience, brought about by the simplest of instructions. And I followed it up by giving him some awareness exercises I’d been introduced to by Michael Neill, allegedly based on a Native American practice. The idea is to cycle through your different sensory experiences, internally and externally, with a broad focus and a narrow focus. So you switch from visual external narrow (looking at your fingertips) to kinesthetic internal broad (how your posture feels) and so on. Some of those combinations are ones you’ll be familiar with, part of your repertoire of states. Others will be novel, and as such provide new kinds of information for you.
You could look at that progression — from noticing the patterns of others, to doing an audit of your own states — as two domains. But think back to the post about the work of Maturana and Varela, and their contention that the world we live in is nothing more than a function of the operations of our nervous systems. Inside and outside are one. In observing others, we change ourselves. In observing ourselves, we change the world we live in.
‘Observing’ is too passive a word for an experience that’s an active process. And there’s no shortage of ways to begin that process. NLP offers some, but when you’ve played with a few why not explore what else is out there? Do the exercises in Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising or Quantum Psychology. Find a group doing Gurdjieff-inspired work. Check out moving meditation in the form of yoga or tai chi. Experience Feldenkrais bodywork. Live abroad for a year. Play with tantra. The more you do NLP, the more you’ll have NLPeers — and wouldn’t it be great to meet some people with other ways to experience life?