This article was originally written by Michael Hall - gently edited by The Coaching Room
You have heard the argument— NLP doesn’t deal with content, only structure or process. You may have said that as you start a coaching conversation. But is that true? Do we not deal with content at all? This is a misunderstanding and it can be a serious one. The misunderstanding comes from some of the first NLP books where John and Richard repeatedly focused on process or structure over content. A truer statement is that we mostly deal with structure rather than content. The misunderstanding is thinking that no content counts. It does! We just do not solely or only deal with content. In fact, we mostly deal with structure rather than content.
Actually, you and I need content to ground a conversation and to understand a client! Without content, we really don’t know what they’re talking about and without that we really cannot run an ecology check. If we turn everything into structure as John Grinder would have us do and use formulations like, “I want to yellow...” for example, or “I want to attain more X.” then there’s no way to know if what they are talking about is ecological or not. Sure, you can ask, “Is that ecological?” and they may say yes. But how do you know?
What if yellow is sex with lots of women?
What if X is people indebted to me so that I can get political favours from them?
What if yellow is junk food, fatty meats, three-hours of sleep, extortion of money, etc.?
If you use a non-content term symbol like yellow or X for the content as you read in some of the early NLP books, there is no way for you to know whether the subject is truly ecological or not. Further, if the subject is not specific, you won’t know. And without knowing, you won’t know if it is sensory-based and therefore grounded in reality or not. These are significant problems.
What if someone is thinking about confidence when she says, “I want to be more X.” You can certainly ask some process questions about that, “How much X do you feel now?” “How much more X do you want to feel?” “Is X good for you?” “Would it bring out your best?” “Would it enhance you as a person?” “When do you want to reach this goal of more X?” Yet without knowing what the confidence is about, you won’t be able to help the person ground it and then develop it adequately.
We need content! Not a lot of it, but some. I would guess 20 to 30% of the information that we need is content and 70 to 80% is structure or process. I heard a coaching session once where a lady was having problems as a mother. She wanted her child to be “more responsible.” My thoughts began picturing a teenager or a young adult. But the coach never asked. He never asked about what the responsibility was about. Later it turned out that the child was not one child, but two, two twin girls, age five who were very competitive and wanting mom’s attention and when they didn’t get it, they fought with each other. That’s a very different picture and a very different coaching conversation.
‘So, okay,” you say, “we need content, but how much? How much is enough and how much is too much?” Well, those are not easy questions, but in Meta-Coaching and NLP we do have a general answer. Get enough details so that you can representationally track from the person’s words to a movie in your mind. Can you see and hear what the person is saying? I cannot see or hear “more responsibility” ... I need more information. So also with “confidence.” I need to have a picture of the object of the confidence and when I see that, then I can ask about competence. “Can you do that?” “To what degree?”
Now you don’t need every detail of the movie, but you do need enough so that you have a sense of what the person is talking about. “I want a better relationship with my teenage son.” Okay, I can see you and I can imagine a boy who is of teenage years, but “relationship” — hmmm. What would I see you doing and saying? What would I see your son doing or saying? I need that information. Is “relationship” (nominalisation for relating) spending time together playing basketball? Is the relating talking about what’s happening at school? Is it talking through choice of friends, music, or activities?
Content makes things real. Structure gets to the processes by which we make things real. Someone procrastinating has a process for doing that—a process of thinking, feeling, speaking, acting, etc. and it is not about everything, it is about specific things in specific contexts. What does he put off? When and where does he put it off? What fears, hopes, apprehensions, understandings, etc. are influencing the putting off?
So the bottom line is this— get content to ground the conversation and make it real, then focus on structure to get to the processes that construct the experience. Then you will have the best of both worlds— a grounding in the everyday world and the leverage point in the person’s neuro-semantic world. To your best coaching!