Change Work August 2006

If ...

As much as we might like to think that we're open-minded and rational, it's virtually impossible for us to confine ourselves to the evidence, the data, the facts. As well as processing data through the filters of our values, beliefs and experiences, we presuppose a whole set of "truths" against which we make our analyses and judgements.

Our presuppositions can be implied: e.g. "I'll do my best!" presupposes that what you're going to do is difficult. Or they can be explicit and very sweeping: e.g. "People like that can't be trusted."

The field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming is based on a set of presuppositions. For me, the key one is that,

"If one person can do something, it is possible to model it and teach it to others."

Another way of expressing this is,

"Modelling successful performance leads to excellence".

At this point someone usually asks, "Does that mean I can become a world-class footballer?"  Coming from a middle-aged man showing the effects of years of good living, the idea clearly stretches credibility too far.

Now there may well be situations where physical attributes are so critical to success that it's not possible for anyone lacking those attributes to perform at the highest levels. On the other hand, who's to say that a 50 year-old who got fit and then practised 12 hours a day to develop outstanding skills couldn't play football at the top level?

In either case we're missing the point. What matters is that by modelling excellence anyone can raise their performance in any activity, even to undreamt-of levels.  They are only limited by how much effort they are prepared to invest and by the quality of the model they are using. (There may be ultimate limitations to do with age, genes or education, but we hardly ever reach them.)

A presupposition is something that we assume to be true by behaving as if it were true. Whether this one actually is true in every conceivable situation is irrelevant. Accepting the possibility is tremendously empowering. Denying the possibility closes the door to any significant change in an individual's capabilities - and in their life.

So how can you help someone to accept the possibility of changing something about themselves?  Or of adapting to a new situation?  You might receive a blank refusal even to consider it.

One approach is to employ what's known as "the As If frame". You invite someone to think about what things would be like if something "impossible" happened nonetheless.  For example, "What would it be like if you got that job?" might elicit the immediate answer, "But I won't get it".

So, follow with,

"But what if you did?"

Surprisingly, this is usually enough.  By not accepting the initial, reflex answer, you invite the other person to play the "as if" game - and they do!  (As though it's OK because they've stated the "real" position so now they're only playing.) If they don't take up the invitiation then make it again, "But what if you did?"

Once they start imagining that different outcome, they discover aspects of it that make it seem more realistic - more compatible with their map of the world. The desire to achieve it builds up and pretty soon you can move on to talking about how to get there. And this is where modelling can come in.

What we presuppose about a situation - or about life - tends to define the possible outcomes. Regardless of what's "true", act "as if" and everything becomes possible.

Reflect on what you are presupposing about yourself and the people you work with. What exciting possibilities have you already ruled out, almost without thinking?  And what have you ruled in? Are you trying to develop someone (yourself?) into a role they don't really want?  Perhaps because there doesn't seem to be an alternative?

Seeing someone in action who's really good at what they do can either inspire us to strive for excellence or confirm our belief that we can never be that good and so needn't bother trying. It all depends on whether you think and act "as if" ...