Occam's Razor in the NLP Toolbox
by Mark McKergow and Jenny Clarke
It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer -Occam.
Philosophers since recorded time began have been strugglingwith the concept of "reality" and whether it exists,either in objective form or indeed anywhere outside the thinker'sthoughts. William of Occam lived from 1290 to 1349, a period whenphilosophy was dominated by the Scholastics, whose aim was tointegrate knowledge derived from human reason with theunderstanding granted by divine (Christian) revelation. Occamused extreme rigour in his logic, arguing that many of thereceived Christian beliefs (for example, that God is One,indivisible and the Creator of all things, and that the humansoul is immortal) could not be demonstrated by reason, but onlyby revelation. His lasting contribution to philosophical thoughtis the principle that "it is vain to do with more what canbe done with fewer" - in other words, one should cut awayassumptions as if with a razor (hence Occam's Razor) and strivefor simplicity.
What has Occam to say to a modern student of NLP? Like Occam,NLP makes a virtue of distinguishing between what we can detectwith our own senses and what we deduce from a variety of sources- experience, reading, generalising, rationalising etc (as wellas the twentieth century equivalents of divine revelation, whichadd the theories of the myriad schools of psychology to the oldertheological traditions).
In their seminal book "The Structure of Magic",published in 1975, Richard Bandler and John Grinder make thepoint this way:
" ...there is an irreducibledifference between the world and our experience of it. Each of uscreates a representation of the world in which we live - that is, we create a map or model of the worldwhich we use to generate our behaviour. Ourrepresentation of the world determines to a large degree what our experience of the worldwill be, how we will perceive the world, what choice we willsee available to us as we live in the world." (page 7)
This idea is usually encapsulated inthe NLP world as "the map is not the territory".
In the 1970s, Bandler and Grinderintroduced Neuro-Linguistic Programming to the world as anactivity, a way of perceiving and doing things that producedesired results. Since those early days, interest in NLP as atopic has flourished: the number of training organisationsaccredited by the ANLP rose from 5 in 1991 to 27 at the end of1995; bookshelves are filling up with books about it, branddifferentiation is emerging and rows and court cases about itsidentity and ownership are becoming commonplace.
In adopting the noun acronym"NLP", we have lost the gerund form of the verb and NLPhas itself become a nominalisation. How much of what today passesfor NLP is truly useful in helping people to articulate andachieve their objectives? How much of it is necessary for theprocess of Neuro-Linguistic Programming?
In the very first edition on "NLP World", NLP isdefined as the study of human experience (Vol 1, No 1, page 9).It has been described by Richard Bandler as "an attitude anda methodology that leaves behind a trail of techniques". Theattitude is above all one of flexibility: an understanding thatif our map of the world is not producing the results we want,then using a different map might help. Certainly, change is inorder; the more flexible one
is the more choices of how to change are available. Themethodology is modelling: by studying and replicating behavioursused by successful people, success can be replicated. Thetechniques are particular patterns which have proved effective -often they are the first aspects of NLP which people come across.
The presuppositions of NLP, the commonly accepted principlesor axioms governing it, are summarised by Steve Andreas andCharles Faulkner in their new book (pages 35 - 37). In brief,
The map is not the territory.
Experience has a structure.
If one person can do something, anyone can learn to do it.
Mind and body are parts of the same system.
People have all the resources they need.
You cannot not communicate.
The meaning of your communication is the response you get.
Underlying every behaviour there is a positive intention.
People always make the best choices available to them at thetime.
If what you are doing isn't working, do something else.
So, these are the starting points. If we accept these as atleast useful (if not true!) by definition, then how do variousaspects of NLP sit alongside them?
In their book "Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming:The new psychology of personal excellence", Joseph O'Connorand John Seymour present NLP in a Three Minute Seminar:
" ... to be successful in life, you need only rememberthree things. Firstly, know what you want;have a clear idea of your outcome in any situation. Secondly, be alert and keep your senses open sothat you know what you are getting.Thirdly, have the flexibility to keep changing what you do until you get what you want." (p27)
This seems to us to be a useful briefdescription of a process which, if followed, leads to the outcomebeing attained by definition. Fine so far. We hear about theimportance of choice, to add choice, not to take choice away.Fine too. So what are we to make of occasions when people useNLP-talk to justify their percpetion that they have no choice.
We get this feeling when we hearfolks who hold Practitioner certificates say something like"Well, I'm very kinaesthetic, so there's no point in askingme to make pictures in my head or listen to rememberedvoices"? Yet we have rarely experienced anyone untrained inNLP who is not at least competent to some degree in allrepresentation systems. We have also been asked, when setting upan exercise in an NLP practice group for practitioners and aboveto describe what experience participants should expect,"because we don't want to do things wrong". We havefound folks with NLP practitioner certificates who hold back fromcarrying out some simple task as asking a colleague somequestions because "I haven't dealt with something at theIdentity level". Here we see NLP making skilled people lessadaptable than they were before; something is going wrong.
Using Occam's Razor
Much of the "NLP syllabus" arises from thereification of examples of products of NLP's attitudes andprocesses so that they become confused with NLP as an activity.Many of the "techniques" we find out about in our earlytraining come into this category - things that have been found tobe effective in some situations, but yet are presented as if theywere "true". We then have a large number of patternswith names that can be bandied about, which seem to act to removeflexibility by having the NLPer place theirfaith/competence/attention on the technique, as opposed to theirclient/self/whoever.
Let us examine a couple of these reified process, to see howthey might be reduced by applying Occam's razor.
Eye Accessing Cues
This topic is introduced right at the beginning of the Bandlerand Grinder seminar recorded in Frogs into Princes in Chapter 1,entitled Sensory Experience. Even here, we learn that it is notquite as simple as the well- known diagrams of smiley faces witheyes at 45, 90, 135, 225, 270 and 315 degrees (approximately?)may suggest. We are warned that we may be confused by therapidity of response, so that observers may not distinguishbetween accessing and processing; between lead systems and thestrategic sequence as a whole; between people who conform togeneralisations and people who organise their experiencedifferently. Of course, it helps to be shown the kind of detailsto look for when learning the skills of sensory
acuity, the skills needed to notice whether or not we areachieving our objectives. But why not learn to calibrate eachperson's experience directly rather than introducing ageneralised model against which individuals must first becalibrated? Is this just another introduction to the land ofself-fulfilling predictions? Occam would have a fine time withthis structure. Noticing what happens in the case of eachindividual would surely suffice for him.
Just a moment - where did "VAK" come from? It isn'tin the presuppositions that distinguishing between theserepresentational systems is a useful thing to do. Sure, peoplesee things and say things and do things and feel things, and it'sprobably useful to notice if each of these is going on, and notto confuse, for example, what someone says the do from what theyactually do. But there isn't anything in the fundamentals of NLPthat says that everyone has a preferred representational system.Or indeed that VAK is of any relevance at all. It is quitepossible to operate entirely within the presuppositions and nevercome anywhere near VAK at all. Would such an operation beNeuro-Linguistic Programming? We think it would.
The use of time lines can be a useful metaphor or frame forworking with people who cannot let go of their past or who wantto explore their future. Not surprisingly, time line therapy hasbecome a separate discipline, with its own maps and set ofnominalisations and its own accreditation systems. What are theessential elements of this new discipline? We are notcertificated practitioners and so our perspective comes from theNLP training we have had over the years. However, cut to thebones with Occam's razor, it seems that what is important is toaccess real or imagined scenarios or meanings so that we can"do" or "view" what we like. When dealingwith the past, one may not be able to change facts, but we canchange the meaning we give to those facts; when dealing with thefuture, we can do something and notice the effect it has. It maynot be necessary to delineate time lines in imagined 3dimensional space and to walk the lines to achieve the desiredobjective.
"The" Logical Levels
Logical levels started life as amathematical concept, introduced by Bertrand Russell and AlfredNorth Whitehead in their Principia Mathematica (1910) to getaround paradoxes in their attempts to formulate a rigorous formalbasis for mathematics and number theory. This concept is anabstract one, and refers to distinctions between"things" and "classes of things" - the keypoint being that an item on one level cannot exist on anotherlevel. Gregory Bateson (1972) extended the idea to classes oflearning and communication, and influenced
Bandler and Grinder as well as other members of his Palo Altoresearch group (Watzlawick, Weakland andFisch, 1974). Then, Robert Dilts produced his set of"neurological levels", which will be familiar tostudents of NLP. This very useful way of examining a situationand finding guides to action has, we fear, suffered a similarfate to many other NLP patterns - it has taken on a life of itsown, has been set in concrete, and can now be used to inventlimitations and concerns rather than to generate options and shedlight on complex experiences. Many NLP practitioners now seem torefer to Dilts's model as "The Logical Levels", as ifthere were no others.
Now, the concept of neurological levels isa fine model, potentially useful and well thought-out. We haveused it ourselves many times. We are disturbed, however, that theidea has become reified into a different kind of existence -where these "levels" themselves are the objects ofinterest, rather than the experience they seek to describe. Theyare a way (and there are many, of course) of cutting up the cakeof experience into more manageable slices. Can it makeepistemological sense to talk about someone's Identity in thesame way as we talk about their Hair, or their Car, or theirToenails?
It seems to us that many recent developments in NLP are addingto the potential confusion. Recent papers on"meta-states", for example (Hall, 1995, 1996) put us inmind of the philosophers of the middle ages, inventing ever morecomplicated hypotheses to outwit each other and explain the sameworldly phenonena. A recent offer to attend a training covering"Meta-Strategy for Directionalisation" seems to leanthe same way. It was against philosophy such as this that Occamfirst came to prominence. He pointed out that to construct a morecomplicated explanation for a phenomenon is an exercise invanity. The much more difficult enterprise, he contended, was tocreate a simpler model to account for the same phenomena.We have chosen these specific examples from amongst many, toillustrate our point - our criteria being that they are recentand they exemplify for us the complications that can be made frompostulating particular relationships amongst a number ofnominalisations. While we are sure that these are sincereendeavours, representing work which is effective for theirauthors, the sheer complexity of the language and models makesthem less likely to be useful in a general way to lots of people.
In our early studies of NLP we noticed and enjoyed the ways inwhich more traditional forms of therapy were held up to questionon the grounds that they had replaced references to processeswith nominalisations. A client coming along with a diagnosis of"depression" is then asked about how they do beingdepressed, or what they'd rather be doing instead. Now we findNLP proceeding down the same route, with more modernnominalistions and more complex models which require (surprisesurprise!) more and more training. And the field of NLP becomesmore mysterious, as we seek the words of the Great Ones about thenumber of submodalities which can dance on the head of ananchor.....
What is Left?
There are of course many good things about NLP, especially itsattitude and its presuppositions. To practise sensory acuity is agood way of taking yourself outside your own map and theories ofwhat is going on and making yourself concentrate on the outsidemanifestations of the world, not the inner world. In their bookShifting Contexts, O'Hanlon and Wilk make a distinction between"facts" and "meanings" (page 15). Videodescriptions apply to the facts that can be observed with thesenses, to universal agreement. Thus, we might say "She iswrinkling her brow" as a video description. To claim thatshe is angry, puzzled, curious, short sighted or experiencing anunpleasant smell etc is to introduce interpretation and give theaction meaning. As NLPers know, reframing can uncover as manyinterpretations as there are observers.
In the discussion of anchoring above, we refer to the tool oflanguage. Used with precision, this can do all sorts of things tohelp us identify and achieve our desires. The"linguistic" elements of NLP are particularly useful inshowing us how to achieve the precision needed. The specificdetails of an individuals map of the world can be uncovered usingthe meta-model. At the other end of the spectrum, the vaguenessof the Milton model enables us to make an effect without anyparticular understanding of content. Given the tools of language,it is enough to have the ability to be aware of what is happeningand the adaptability to change our thinking and/or behaviour.
Where next for NLP?
There are many futures for NLP. We would like to put in a wordfor a simple one. Using language and sensory acuity to helppeople model what works for them. Not what works for thepeople that contributed to some modelling project, written upneatly and passed down for the Next Generation to digest andinflict on others. Some people (for example Bill O'Hanlon, thefounding editor of the NLP Newsletter, and Steve de Shazer,leading minimalist and developer of Solution Focussed therapy)have already set off down this road, working within our NLPpresuppositions, and seem to be finding ways of working and beingwithout the aid (or indeed the worry) of meta-states, or VAKs, ormeta-strategies. This seems to be at the heart of what William ofOccam would have had in mind if he had been around today.
We are concerned about another future: that where the latestedition of the DSM could contain a condition called"NLPer", defined as
"Compulsive training attendee, talks in polysyllabicwords about arcane processes, doesn't use these processes otherthan to infect other "NLPers" (they call this"training"). Uses the word "meta" a lot,sometimes in two or even threes. Strong focus on accreditationand committees (in the UK in particular) - liable to demonstratetheir competence by waving pieces of paper. Talks a lot aboutrespecting everyone's opinions, in an edgy and disrespectful way.Seems unable to take a joke."
We return to O'Connor and Seymour's Three Minute Seminar:Outcome, acuity, flexibility. For us, this is Neuro-LinguisticProgramming; the rest is no more than examples of howothers have used it.
Andreas, S. and Faulkner, C. NLP: The New Technology ofAchievement.
Positive Paperbacks,Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London 1996.
Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. The Structure of Magic. Scienceand Behavior Books inc. 1975.
Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. Frogs into Princes. Eden GroveEditions, 1979.
Bateson, G. Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ballantine Books,1972.
Hall, M. The New Domain of Meta-States in the History of NLP,NLP World Vol 2, No 3 (1995)
Hall, M. Meta-States as correlated to "Core" states,NLP World Vol 3, No 1 (1996)
O'Hanlon, W. and Wilk, J. ShiftingContexts. Guilford Press, 1987.
O'Connor, J. and Seymour, J. IntroducingNeuro-Linguistic Programming. Mandala, 1990.
Russell, B. and Whitehead, A.N. PrincipiaMathematica. 1910.
Walzlawick, P., Weakland, J.H., and Fisch,R Change: Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. Norton, 1974
"Occam's Razor in the NLP Toolbox", NLP World 3,No 3, pp 47 - 56 (1996)
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