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Many of the comments that follow were generated as responses to Lee Lady’s article posted on the ILink network Psychology conference. Charles Duncan statements were taken from an article originally posted in reply to Lee Lady’s article posted on the same conference and related by Jules Greenstein. Comments by Don Steiny and perhaps others are also included. The article generating these responses concerned the beginnings of NeuroLinguistic Programming [NLP] and the heightened understanding of the importance of language patterns and structure in psychological counseling. When we begin to discuss the impact of the cognitive model, we cannot underestimate the use of language, and it is our belief that the impetus for the development of much of what psychologist do with language today had its beginning is the undisciplined, but ultra creative beginnings of NLP.

In the early part of the twentieth century the American psychologist William James said that: “between stimulus and response there is a mental process”. His idea was that human beings “have instinctive reactions once, after which they are modified by experience”. James attempted to study these mental processes and felt that these mental processes were within the domain of scientific study.

In the 1920’s and 30’s, there were exciting developments in the relationship between mathematics and science. It is hard to imagine this today, but until then mathematics was considered spiritual not scientific. Logic was in the domain of philosophy, not science. There is a fascinating story of how, in the late 19th century an Indian invented complex theorems with no training in mathematics and people saw nothing strange about this. Mathematics was seen as revelations of divine order, and had been since the time of Pythagoras. The exciting development was that it was shown that mathematics was logical as shown by Russell & Whitehead in the book Principia Mathematica.

Many philosophers believed for a time thereafter that everything was logical. They called this belief ‘logical positivism’. This philosophical belief was applied to science and to psychology. The thread ran like this: Words must refer to something Therefore we needed to find the things that the words referred to and study those things. (This belief that has subsequently been pretty much abandoned by linguists and philosophers.) Philosophical problems were caused by words that did not refer to things that we could observe empirically. Words like: ‘good’ and ‘justice’.

The ramifications of this for scientists were that science should restrict itself to things that can be empirically observed. Therefore ‘things’ like James’s ‘mental processes’ were not part of the domain of the empirically observable and thus not part of the domain of scientific study.

An empirical school of psychology developed, called ‘behaviorism’, its most famous proponents being Watson and Skinner. The idea of behaviorism was that the only things that psychologists could study scientifically were things that people actually did. You could measure the stimulus and you could measure the response, but you could not observe or measure any processing that went on in between the two.

Skinner took this belief in interesting philosophical directions, and in his book “Language and Human Behavior”, he basically said that there is no such thing as language. His argument, greatly simplified, is that there is no empirical basis to claim that Chinese is somehow the same as English, when the observable inputs and outputs are so different.

Most people have trouble with that idea, because it is intuitively obvious that there is language, and though the words are different people who are speaking Chinese and people who are speaking English are really doing the same things.

Linguist Noam Chomsky then wrote a paper that demonstrated that the stimulus response model could not account for human language. In addition it can be shown that there must be some mental process going on in human language. In the case of English, no English speaker would accept the sentence:

ball bat boy hit the the the with

which is the sentence:

the boy hit the ball with the bat

with the words alphabetized.

If you think about it you can see that while what is going on in a person’s mind is not directly observable, you can make predictions about the legal orders of words and that these predictions can be empirically verified by asking a speaker of the language if sentences are good or not.

Chomsky got the idea that in our brain are sets of rules that allow us to know which sentences are good and create and understand language. We cannot directly observe these rules, but nonetheless these rules seem to exist. To speak a language, a speaker must act as thought he knows the rules. He called these rules the ‘grammar’ of the language. Linguists now strive to discover [make conscious] the grammar of a language, or to put down on paper the rules that a person is using to generate and understand language. This written representation of the internal grammar is a model of the grammar that is in our heads.

This is quite abstract, so a very contrived simple example with hope that any linguists that are reading this will not pounce, is offered. A linguist might say that in English there are ‘units of meaning’ called ‘phonemes’. There are rules that transfer these internal units of meaning into actual speech. The actual ‘realization’ of these units of meaning might change, but even though they come out differently in actual speech, how they will come out is completely predictable and thus carries no information. For example, ask yourself the question “how do we form the plural in English”. If we ask dozens of people this question and they almost always say, “add an s”.

However, if you actually listen to the words:

cats dogs trusses

you will hear that ‘cats’ ends with an ‘s’ sound, ‘dog’ with a ‘z’ sound and truss with an ‘ez’ sound. But your intuition tells you that that distinction is unimportant. This Transformational Grammar of Chomsky became one of the components of language in counseling through NLP.

John Grinder, one of the founders of NLP, came from a poor family in Detroit. He was an exceptional student, with an exceptional capacity to learn languages. After time in the service and CIA, he left and went back to college to get a PhD in linguistics. He eventually got a job at UCSC as an associate professor (non-tenured), and made significant contributions in that field. Grinder had co-authored a book that at the time was the only generally readable textbook on Chomsky’s transformational grammar – Guide to Transformational Grammar, 1973. His knowledge of Transformational Grammar was soon to find itself applied to Psychological Counseling.

Richard Bandler, a long-haired chain-smoking gestalt therapist and graduate student approached Grinder and suggested that linguists had elegant models of the unconscious process of understanding and generating language, and that perhaps they should try making models of other unconscious processes. The idea would be to identify units of communication other than linguistic components and to work out a ‘grammar’ of communication.

This, of course did not occur in isolation. At UCSC was the philosopher/ scientist, Gregory Bateson. He and others, Jay Haley, Virginia Satir, Paul Watslawick, and others had been observing the interactions among families and had come to the conclusion that human behavior needed to be understood in terms of the total human relationships within a family or broader group in which the individual existed. They were using results and terminology from cybernetics and systems theory. Again, like linguists, they were trying to come up with a way of describing the relationship models.

Grinder and Bandler used the results obtained by this group as well as their own intuitions to come up with models of human communication that included extra-linguistic factors, like tone of voice, body posture, and other such things such as sensory modalities. From early on they achieved rather spectacular results.

It is worthy of note that the same ideas of the period that caused Grinder and Bandler to break free of the positivist view of behavior was also occurring in the scientific community. In 1970, virtually all psychology courses were behaviorist and as a result of these exploratory notions, they are now 30 some years later, all virtually cognitive. Cognitive psychology deals in mental processes and models of mental processes, and the development came from many different directions, but included a strong NLP input.

While the chronology is undoubtedly jumbled, NLP was started in about 1974. Bandler invited Grinder to observe his gestalt group in order to see whether it would be possible to develop a syntax of behavior analogous to what some linguists had earlier done for cultural anthropology. What Grinder noticed was that Bandler in his group was applying certain principles of linguistics, e.g., Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar and Count Korzybski’s General Semantics. General Semantics was defined with Count Korzybski’s book Science And Sanity. The now common phrase “The map is not the territory” was one of his central themes. Essentially, this indicates that the representation is not the fact. In linguistics, a word is not the object it describes. Ergo, words have no meaning, except as the individual has an experience or experiences that give it meaning. The words, such as ‘good’ or ‘justice’ could now have only experiential meaning, but that meaning could be extracted into a social meaning.

Bandler and Grinder decided to expand their experiment and observe groups run by Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir, and they confirmed that Perls and Satir were using the same linguistic patterns. They wrote up their findings in the book The Structure of Magic. The linguistic patterns described in this book now seem to be a core part of most programs in clinical psychology, although credit is seldom given.

Bandler and Grinder continued to offer training seminars and were joined by several young therapists and graduate students in clinical psychology, including David Gordon, Judith deLozier, Robert Dilts, and Steve Gilligan. Some of this group traveled to Phoenix to participate in Milton Erickson’s seminars and observe his work with clients. Erickson’s work gave Bandler and Grinder ideas that took them beyond what they had learned from Perls and Satir. They wrote a two-volume book titled Patterns in the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton Erickson. David Gordon and Steve Gilligan became interested in Erickson’s technique of resolving clients’ problems by telling them stories, and developed the NLP technique called “metaphor”. David Gordon wrote a book called Therapeutic Metaphor (1978).

Bandler and Grinder then became the nucleus for a group of several graduate students, therapists, and others in Santa Cruz who developed NLP in several directions, using ideas from a number of different fields. One important influence was systems theory, including the work of George Miller who Grinder had studied with at Rockefeller University. Another strong influence was Gregory Bateson, who happened to be Grinder’s neighbor and who apparently enjoyed being a mentor to young scholars.

It was Bateson who suggested that Bandler and Grinder go to Phoenix to study the late Milton Erickson. This resulted in the book Patterns in the Hypnotic Inductions of Milton Erickson that some believe is a major contribution to the field of linguistics as well as therapy. (Bateson was responsible for introducing a number of young scholars and therapists to Erickson, including Jay Haley.)

General Semantics and linguistic theory in general remain an important part of NLP. Neurolinguistic Programming never developed into an academic subject. Grinder was denied tenure at Santa Cruz despite the strength of his research, because in his Linguistics 101 course he was putting students into trances and doing many other outrageous things. The original developers of NLP generally did not have an academic temperament. Furthermore, at the time Bandler and Grinder had some fairly severe personal problems, including Bandler’s heavy use of cocaine.

At this point in their lives Bandler and Grinder had no academic position and were living on the edge of poverty and for a while they thought that they could turn NLP into a product which could be promoted to the general public for a lot of money. They must have had the examples of L. Ron Hubbard and Werner Erhard in mind. But of course this sort of attitude certainly didn’t endear them to the academic world.

Both cognitive psychology and NLP work with models of mental processes – William James would be proud. Yet cognitive psychology remains in denial of NLP. It is not academically acceptable and attempts to develop research grants are generally rejected. Yet NLP in many ways remains the cutting edge of cognitive psychology. They paint with a larger brush than academic scientists. Academic scientists have to exist within a paradigm of keeping their jobs at universities, publishing, and so on. NLP suffers the potential of becoming mere supposition as occurred with Freud, but then Freud generated quite an academic following despite his lack of scientific endeavor . Perhaps, NLP will gain academic recognition for its unique contributions to cognitive psychology as well.

Freud, Bandler and Grinder chose to simply let their own personal observations and descriptions be OK without constraints. They reasoned that he was exceptionally good at observing human behavior and that his observations and descriptions would generally be useful.

How then, does the NLP initiation and the ultimate emphasis on the structure and pattern of language work out. Some examples follow.


Stories are our habitation. We live in and through stories. They conjure worlds. We do not know the world other than as a story world. Stories inform life. They hold us together and keep us apart. We inhabit great stories of our culture. We live through stories. We are lived by the stories of our race and place. [Mair – 1988]

Counselors are collaborating with children and families in ways that allow counselors, children, and parents alike to be lighthearted, humorous, and creative – and yet surprisingly effective in resolving many of the presenting problems. The developments, collectively known as narrative counseling, offer some unique and helpful perspectives to the field of child and family counseling.

The term narrative implies listening to and telling or retelling stories about people and the problems in their lives. In the face of serious and sometimes potentially deadly problems, the idea of hearing or telling stories may seem a trivial pursuit. It is hard to believe that conversations can shape new realities. But they do. The bridges of meaning we build with children help healing developments flourish instead of wither and be forgotten. Language can shape events into narratives of hope.

We humans have evolved as a species to use mental narratives to organize, predict, and understand the complexities of our lived experiences. Our choices are shaped largely by the meanings we attribute to events and to the options we are considering. A problem may have personal, psychological, sociocultural, or biological roots–or, more likely, a complex mix of the above. Moreover, young people and their families may not have control over whether a certain problem is in their life. But even then, how they live with it is still within their choice. As Aldous Huxley once said, “Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you”.

A Playful Approach

It is sometimes amazing how resourceful, responsible, and effective children can be in facing problems! Externalizing language separates children from their problems and allows a lighthearted approach to what is usually considered serious business. Playfulness enters into family counseling when we narrate the relationship between a child and a problem.

When adults and children collaborate actively play is a mutual friend. It inspires children to bring their resources to bear on problems and make their own unique contributions to family therapy. Playful approaches in narrative counseling direct the focus away from the child as a problem and onto the child-problem relationship in a way that is meaningful for adults as well as intriguing, not heavy-handed or boring, for children.


“The problem is the problem, the person is not the problem” is an oft quoted maxim of narrative therapy. The linguistic practice of externalization, which separates persons from problems, is a playful way to motivate children to face and diminish difficulties.

In a family, blame and shame about a problem tend to have a silencing and immobilizing effect. Moreover, when persons think of a problem as an integral part of their character or the nature of their relationships, it is difficult for them to change, as it seems so “close to home”. Separating the problem from the person in an externalizing conversation relieves the pressure of blame and defensiveness. No longer defined as inherently being the problem, a young person can have a relationship with the externalized problem. This practice lets a person or group of persons enter into a more reflective and critical position vis-à-vis the problem. With some distance established between self and problem, family members can consider the effects of the problem on their lives and bring their own resources to bear in revising their relationship with it. In the space between person and problem, responsibility, choice, and personal agency tend to expand.

This practice also tends to create a lighter atmosphere wherein children are invited to be inventive in dealing with their problem, instead of being so immobilized by blame, guilt, or shame that their parents are required to carry the full burden of problem-solving. Externalizing conversation “frees persons to take a lighter, more effective and less stressed approach to ‘deadly serious’ problems”.

Soiling was one of the first problems to be externalized by Michael White in Narrative Counseling. In a straightforward externalization, encopresis was renamed “Sneaky Poo”. Encopresis is a medical diagnostic term; in itself there is nothing wrong with it. However, the grammar that we use in speaking with and about young people has certain effects. To say that “Tom is encopretic” is to imply something about his identity. To say that “Tom’s problem is that he soils his pants” is accurate, but it may be adding shame to an already humiliating situation. To say that “Sneaky Poo has been stinking up Tom’s life by sneaking out in his pants” is a more gamesome way to describe Tom’s relationship with the problem of soiling. It is more likely to invite Tom’s participation in the discussion of his problem. It can also evoke a more sportive stance for Tom vis-à-vis the problem, as we can now talk about how “Tom can outsneak Sneaky Poo and stop it from sneaking out on him.” Tom no longer has to be a different kind of person from the one he understands himself to be. In fact, revising his relation with such a problem as “Sneaky Poo” may very well confirm him as being just the right kind of person for the job at hand–“outsneaking Sneaky Poo.”

Standing as an alternative to the diagnosis and treatment of pathology, the focus in an externalizing conversation is on expanding choice and possibility in the relationship between persons and problems.

In contrast to the common cultural and professional practice of identifying the person as the problem or the problem as within the person, this work depicts the problem as external to the person. It does so not in the conviction that the problem is objectively separate, but as a linguistic counter-practice that makes more freeing constructions available. [Roth and Epston]

When they enter counseling overwhelmed by a problem, members of the family may expect that the clinician will discover further underlying conflicts in their minds or relationships. Counselors take an active role in shaping the attributions that are used to describe young persons and families and to explain their problematic situations, and when a counselor listens to, accepts, and then furthers the investigation of a pathological description of a child, the child’s identity may suffer.

When a problem is externalized, the attitude of young people in counseling usually shifts. When they realize that the problem, instead of them, is going to be put on the spot or under scrutiny they enthusiastically join in the conversation. Relief shows on their faces. Their eyes light up, as if to say, “Yeah, that’s it, that’s how I look at it. It’s not my fault.” They are then in a position to acknowledge that the “problem” happens to be making them and others miserable and to discuss matters with, at times, remarkable candor.

Although in one sense it is a serious pursuit, we find this practice to be inherently playful and appealing to children. Jenna, a nine-year-old once wrote in relation to a mask she had made of “The Trickster Fear”: ‘You’re no longer nothing . . . being nothing made it hard to know you. Once you’re named, you can be known and conquered!”.

Externalization And Children’s Identity Formation

Aside from their understandable opposition to being blamed or shamed, perhaps children are showing common sense in resisting being defined by descriptions that imply that their identities are limited or fixed. Even adults do not find rigid negative descriptions of themselves particularly motivating toward change. Why shouldn’t children resist a fixed adult-imposed definition or a normative characterization? After all, identity remains exploratory and relatively fluid well into adolescence.

Viewing the child as facing, rather than being, a problem is a helpful start to preserving the fluidity of identity formation. Externalization seems a natural fit for many children. It is compatible with the way they typically approach difficulties in the dynamic learning environment of play. In play, along with hats, costumes, and accents, multiple perspectives and roles are tried on during “dress up” and other games. This fluidity allows the child to explore variations of attitude, identity and behavior – to try out the emotional flavor of the moment or day. In fact, when a child’s play is repetitive, ritualistic, or confined in its range of roles and behaviors, we may wonder about abuse or other severe interruptions to developing identity.

For the child, externalization is like playing a game of ‘pretend’. Implicitly, or sometimes even explicitly, we are saying to the child, “Let’s pretend the problem is outside yourself and we’ll play with it from there.” “‘Pretend’ often confuses the adult but it is the child’s real and serious world, the stage upon which any identity is possible and secret thoughts can be safely revealed.”

As counselors, we have been especially trained in the use of words. But practicing the language of externalizing conversations is for us, as for many others, not so much about learning a technique as about developing a particular way of seeing things.

We do not see externalizing as a technical operation or as a method. It is a language practice that shows, invites, and evokes generative and respectful ways of thinking about and being with people struggling to develop the kinds of relationships they would prefer to have with the problems that discomfort them. [Roth and Epston]

When focusing attention on values, hopes, and preferences, rather than on pathology, counselors often find ourselves less fatigued by the weight of the difficulties encountered. Since they can now put the problem in the spotlight, they can be more forthright in our questions and comments. As well as allowing the counselor to connect with children “where they live”, the externalizing narrative practice stimulates our creativity as well.

This approach is distinct from most open, unstructured play therapy, in that the counselor collaborates closely with children in play that is actively focused on facing a problem. Children’s sense of effectiveness as agents of change clearly increases when they experiment with possibilities in relationship to an externalized problem. In counseling with families the play is mainly with words, using humor wherever possible! But an externalizing conversation is easily enhanced with other forms of expression favored by children, such as play and expressive arts therapy.


Another method of externalization occurs within the Systems Theory of Circular Questioning. Circular questioning is the centerpiece of a group of family counselors known as the Milan Group. Their experiences with families of people with schizophrenia led them to question and discard structural approaches and to incorporate systems theory, which draws heavily on the work of Gregory Bateson who we met earlier, into their work. For Bateson, mental processes are a form of cybernetic feedback, and ‘mind’ consists of components connected in circular patterns. For people such as Karl Tomm, circularity means “the capacity of the therapist to conduct his [sic] investigation on the basis of feedback from the family in response to the information he solicits about relationships”. Tomm also regards circularity as “a bridge connecting systemic hypothesizing and neutrality by means of the therapists’ activity”.

Systemic counselors attempt to understand the system and to facilitate therapeutic change. To achieve these goals, they use two types of Circular Questions: descriptive and reflexive. They use the former to elicit information to help them understand how the ‘problem’ is systemically connected, while they use the latter to attempt to precipitate a change in that particular system. In general, using circular questioning in therapeutic intervention not only demonstrates respect for the autonomy of the system, but also provides more possibilities for transformation than does offering opinions, prescriptions, directives, or instructions. In family counseling, the method has three key aspects: circularity, neutrality, and hypothesizing.

In circularity, the usual rule for groups that “Each person speaks only for him or herself”, is broken by asking each family member in turn about particular aspects of relationship between two or more of the other family members. For example, the counselor asks a teenager, “Who intervenes more in the arguments between your parents, your grandfather or your grandmother?”. Similarly, persons not present and hypothetical situations are also talked about – such as: “If one of the children were never to leave home and never to marry, which of you would probably be best for your father? And which for your mother?”.

It is also important that many of the contributions made by individual persons are now examined carefully to detect their possible communicative function. Let us assume that the mother begins to cry. While counselors might traditionally ask something like: “How do you feel?”, “What are you experiencing now?” or “What is going on inside of you?”, the circular question directed at the son could be, for example: “how do you think your father feels when he sees your mother crying like that?”.

The circularity results from asking questions in such a way that the family can make new connections and think in new ways about certain events and acts. This requires shifting person-positions from first-person actor to third-person observer. For example, when a mother describes her son’s perception of his father, the father faces a new image of himself. Instead of asking the son linear questions, such as “Do you love your father?” the therapists ask the mother circular questions, such as “How does your son show his love for his father?”

Neutrality, the second aspect of Circular Questioning, protects counselors from being forcibly incorporated into a family’s system. Normally, neutrality implies a lack of bias or involvement. In the case of Circular Questioning, Systemic counselors expect to be drawn into the conflicting patterns of the family, so they match this expectation in unexpected ways: they intervene by joining the family’s system of knowledge in order to help change the very same patterns of meaning and action that have brought the family to counseling. Counselors using Circular Questioning work in teams to take the side of the entire family and not the side of any one particular family member. They do this by asking each other circular questions in the family’s presence. For example, one counselor might ask another, “What do you think is the biggest challenge this family faces together?” Besides performing a person-shift, this question indicates to family members that they have to work together and that the counselor sees them as a unit.

The third aspect of Circular Questioning, hypothesizing, is used to guide the family to make connections among elements of the stories told by family members and the actions associated with those stories. Counselors create a flurry of hypotheses, all of which suggest different patterns of connections. They may hypothesize that a person being treated for depression has been and will go through periods of being ‘not depressed’. Instead of asking that person, “Why are you depressed?” they might ask, “When you are not depressed, what do you enjoy the most about not being depressed?” In searching for systemic connections, the counselors may ask the group, “Who is most affected by X’s depression?” They might also give a positive connotation to a symptom. For example, they may praise the depressed person’s behavior, hypothesizing that this depression is what holds the family together. From this point, they hypothesize that when the depressed person is ready to let others share the burden of holding the family together, s/he might find it easier not to be depressed.

Once a team of counselors joins a family system to explore how persons, actions, and ideas are inter(in)dependent, they use circular questioning to help the family become aware of how they engage with their “problems” by thinking and acting in certain patterns, and to guide them in creating alternate patterns. Rejecting the notion that problems are “caused” by meanings inside a person’s head, counselors use circular questioning to help people conceive of things like “family problems” as socially constructed achievements. Ultimately, circular questioning helps counselors probe for the ways families describe their relationships; in essence, it helps counselors discover a ‘grammar’ of meaning and action within relationships in order to transform painful patterns of interaction.


This technique is about improving the human thought stream: that constant monologue that goes on mentally as we name events, judge experiences, compare ourselves with others, and comment on just about everything.

While some of what happens to us in life is out of our control, the majority of what happens depends directly on what we do – that is, our behavior. Clearly, if we do the “right” things, good things will come to us. So why don’t we always do the right things? Why does someone who wants to lose weight take another bite? Why does someone who is struggling to make ends meet make an unnecessary purchase?

The answer lies in the fact that behavior depends upon our beliefs about a given thing. If a child believes, consciously or unconsciously, that s/he is “never going to be good in school,” or that s/he is “going to be heavy all of her life,” then the individual will acts out those beliefs with whatever behavior makes them come true.

We get our beliefs from the programming, often language, we receive from the world around us.

How do we take back control of our programming and control of our lives? The answer is Self-Instruction. Self-instructional procedures have been applied to a broad range of childhood disorders, but are seen as particularly effective with children with impulsive behaviors.

Once a child understands the processes at work, s/he will never again allow others to tell him/her (nor will s/he tell him/herself!) that, “I’m too young,” or “I’m just not smart enough,” or “I can never remember names,” or any other untrue nonsense that s/he has been telling him/herself for years.

Children must learn what to say when you talk to your-self and what never to say when you talk to yourself, even as a joke.

By hearing enough examples of good self-instruction, a child can literally condition him/herself to catch those words – spoken by him/herself or others – that contain negative and untrue beliefs. After listening to enough positive self-instruction, not only will s/he stop using negative self-talk, but s/he will automatically begin to erase and replace the old negative programs with new, powerful and effective positive programs.

After hearing enough samples of good self instruction, the child will become accustomed to how the sentences are structured and the types of beliefs that they are designed to convey. After as little as three weeks, the child should begin to internalize these speech patterns just as s/he might begin to pick up figures of speech from hanging around a new group of people.

The best part of all is that repeatedly listening to, speaking, and thinking positive self instruction causes the language to embed itself into the child’s system of beliefs. For this reason, self-instruction has been used to train and build confidence in such performance-demanding arenas as commercial airline pilot training and professional sports. Managers and salespeople were quick to recognize the benefits of using self-instruction, and it is simple enough that it can be used by parents and teachers to build self-esteem and self-management in small children.