Mapping a person's mental processes is one of the fundamental skills you'll learn with NLP. Here's an example of how it's done.


This article relates to a Facebook group discussion where I was asked to give an example of how we can map out a client's rules at the lowest level, to get round the problems inherent in working at more abstract levels such as metaprograms or neurological levels. These are organising patterns, i.e. they are a feature of your perception, not the other person's behaviour or construction. A butterfly's wings aren't coloured, they only look that way.

Can you dissect a brain and find metaprograms, neurological levels, the soul or the mind? No. Can you find rules? Yes. Oh yes indeed. Unbelievably tiny yet perfectly formed little logic circuits, organised in an astonishingly similar way to those in your computer.

I just put the phone down to a coaching client, a technical manager. This is part of a year's coaching program for a group of high potential managers.

He's stuck at a career point and doesn't know where to go next. His career progress to date has been linear. He likes adding value to his team, helping them to solve problems. He dislikes situations where he has to deal with cross functional teams such as finance, HR, logistics. He finds that frustrating. He spends too much time in 1:1s, and he often intervenes in his team's projects, providing his technical and organisational knowledge to help them solve problems, overcome organisational obstacles etc. That's enough information to work out what's happening.

The process is as follows:

He bases his self worth on 2 things; factual knowledge and approval from his manager. In order to stay in a safe place, he intervenes if a project seems doomed and 'rescues' his team, thus creating dependency because they never need to learn for themselves. He can then win approval from his manager which reinforces the cycle. He can essentially say, "look what my team did!", knowing full well that his team's performance equates his performance, so he is really saying, "look at what I did!" without having to put the spotlight directly on himself and risk any critical feedback.

As he gets promoted, his responsibility increases, so his value based on success increases, however the risk of failure increases too. These two factors reach an equilibrium which prevents him from progressing further. He says that he doesn't know what his next role should be, what he really means is that he doesn't even want to think about it (evidence: over the last month he says he has not thought about it) because a promotion would upset the success/risk balance.

My approach in these coaching sessions is to unfold the process which the managers have created in order to keep themselves where they are. His reaction as I started this was increased stress (evidence: raising voice pitch, calibrated last month face to face, to the point of sounding like Minnie Mouse) up until the point that I provided approval (completing that part of the cycle) at which point his stress level reduced and he agreed that the process described his behaviour exactly.

So the underlying rules are as follows:

  • My 'superior' or 'guardian' provides my self worth (and judges me based on success or failure)
  • I am valued for my knowledge

The combination of these two simple rules, played out in the context of his organisational role, generates beautifully complex yet incredibly ordered patterns of behaviour which get the job done, but at great cost to him, in terms of stress, time and of course lack of career progression. Not that this is important to everyone, but at the moment he is in that position as a reaction rather than a choice.

As is always the case with people who are stuck in a cyclic pattern of behaviour (think Six Step Reframe), the problem is never the behaviour, it is the absence of feedback. This is, in my humble opinion, a major insight that I've had in teaching the 6SR and does away with the totally unnecessary parts metaphor and yes/no signals.

Value is relevant in this project because it keeps people stuck in a particular job, creating a 'glass ceiling'. The person values themselves for the skills that got them here but they must let go of that and develop new skills for the next level. The need for self worth tends to push them back into subordinate activities which in turn prevents career progression. So sales managers go to sales meetings, totally undermining the sales consultants and distracting the customer. Plus, as soon as a sales manager gets involved, the customer knows that he can ask for a bigger discount. This behaviour is damaging on so many levels, yet there are sales managers who still involve themselves in sales meetings because it's where their own sense of value comes from. One even said, "I get a kick out of it". The long term development of a business plan and sales strategy and the development of a professional sales team doesn't really compare to getting a 'kick', right now.

Someone has suggested that I am not coaching, I'm diagnosing, presenting the client with an assessment of what is 'wrong' with them. "it seems to be you (the 'expert') diagnosing the problem and reflecting your diagnosis back, which the client either agrees with or is appearing to in order to get your approval as an authority figure"

I don't believe this is the case. After a total of 64 coaching sessions with the group in the last month, I have some confidence that the approach of mapping out the client's process which generates the current behaviour gives them a valuable insight into why they do what they do. In my notes from those coaching sessions, I can see quite a few of the clients have said "You hit the nail on the head", which in my mind means that I gave a succinct definition of something they already knew, rather than telling them something that they didn't know.

My goal is to simplify a complex process that might run over weeks, months or years so that they can interact with it, for themselves, more directly. The usual scenario is that they wonder how they got "here" again and wish that their life could stop going round in circles.

Oh - and about the butterfly. The colour of a butterfly's wings is caused not by pigment but by interference patterns resulting from the arrangement of scales. The interference pattern is perceived by our visual sense as colour. If you look at a pink flower petal under a microscope, it's still pink. If you look at a butterfly wing under a microscope, it loses its colour. Colour is a perception of the observer, not a quality of the object.