Handouts for Northern School of NLP Diploma in Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy, Module 2, Feb 2007
2. Roots of NLP – Dilts & DeLozier, Bandler & Grinder, Seymour & O’Connor
3. Difference Engines – Marvin Minsky
4. Desired Outcomes as Creations – Robert Fritz
5. When the Solution is the Problem – Paul Watzlawick and others
6. Conscious Purpose – Gregory Bateson
1. Outcome Orientation
If you, as a facilitator accept the contract to work with a client to achieve their desired outcome, then what? One of the distinguishing features of the kinds of issues presented in therapy, compared to say coaching, is that the path between current state and desired outcome is rarely a straight line. Clients are likely to have multiple ill-formed desires, operating at multiple levels which are likely to change as therapy progresses. So what is an Neurolinguistic Psychotherapist to do?
NLP methodology teaches us to adopt an outcome orientation. This is not simply about setting a goal and going for it. Rather it is a flexible and dynamic approach that keeps the clients’ desired outcome(s) firmly in the therapist’s mind while guiding their choice of behaviour. In other words, the desired outcome should act as a “dynamic reference point” (Penny Tompkins) for each and every thing the therapist does and says.
Outcome orientation also means focussing on the actual outcome or result, i.e. what actually happens over different time frames:
|What the client actually does and says.
|What the client experiences in the session
|What happens outside the consulting room
|Over the long term
|Does the client maintain their outcome? 
Robert Fritz (see below) made a vital distinction between problem solving and creating. “Problem solving is taking action to have something go away – the problem. Creating is taking action to have something come into being – the creation.” Penny Tompkins and I noticed that during the back-and-forth of a session, most practitioners (of all persuasions) could not recognise the difference between a proposed remedy (solution) and a desired outcome (creation). And even when they could they didn’t know what to do with the knowledge. Consequently we devised our P.R.O model. A linguistic-based approach to facilitating a client to state their desired outcomes, not just at the beginning of a session but all the way through. (See Coaching for P.R.O’s in Coach the Coach, Feb 2006.)
Taking an outcome orientation approach doesn’t mean ignoring or undervaluing problems (the present state), quite the opposite. It means modelling the relationship between the two, and wondering how that might be a way the system keeps itself the same — even when the client consciously wants to change.
Outcome orientation is a multi-faceted skill set. To begin to understand it’s nature, I have compiled a number of extracts each of which shine some light on the jewel. In addition I recommend reading:
John McWhirter, Rapport issue 47, Spring 2000. You can download this excellent article from: sensorysystems.co.uk/dbm-remodelled-nlp-2/
One of the first books which makes explicit use of NLP’s ‘Well-Formed Outcomes Conditions’.
2. Roots of NLP
Desired outcomes have been a fundamental part of NLP from the earliest days. For example, John Grinder and Richard Bandler in The Structure of Magic II (1976) made the important point that a therapist has not only to find out what is the client’s goal or desired outcome, they also have to decide whether they are prepared to accept the contract:
First of all, we recommend that the therapist determine as one of the very first items of business with the family exactly what goal they have for themselves. This will allow the therapist to decide whether he is willing to attempt to work with the family towards those goals. (p. 128)
In The Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP (2000), www.nlpuniversitypress.com Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier define:
Outcomes (p. 903)
According to Webster’s Dictionary, an outcome is “something that follows as a result or consequence.” The term “outcome,” then, emphasizes something which is the result of particular conditions or actions. Outcomes are not always positive or desired. Sometimes our actions lead to outcomes that are neither wanted nor intended.
The notion of “[desired] outcome” has an undeniable future dimension. [Desired] outcomes relate to some imagined state of affairs which may conceivably be attained or approached at some future time. 
In NLP, the notion of a “desired outcome” is typically used as a general term meaning “what one intends to accomplish or attain.” It refers to the desired state or goal that a person or organization aspires to achieve. In short, desired outcomes are the answer to the question, “What do you want?”.
Desired outcomes are a fundamental feature of all NLP techniques, strategies and interventions. They are the main component of the desired state (the “O” in the S.C.O.R.E. Model), and are what is intended to take the place of the symptoms related to the present state. Outcomes constitute the target and the central focus of all the activity associated with any particular intervention or strategy. In fact, it has been pointed out that “if you do not want anything, then NLP is probably of no value to you.” Desired goals and outcomes are the source of motivation, and can stimulate powerful self-organizing processes that mobilize both conscious and unconscious resources.
Because of their significance, it is important that people are able to establish appropriate, meaningful, and “well-formed” outcomes. NLP has formulated a number of “Well-Formedness Conditions” for defining outcomes that help to ensure that people and organizations are able to set achievable and ecological outcomes.
Outcome Frame (p. 905)
The Outcome Frame is a fundamental feature of NLP information gathering procedures and interventions. The basic purpose of the Outcome Frame is to establish and maintain a focus on the goal or desired state during any technique or process. Establishing an Outcome Frame involves evaluating any activity or information with respect to its relevance to the achievement of a particular goal or desired state.
A lighter description of the role played by desired outcomes in NLP is given by Joseph O’Connor & John Seymour in Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming (1993) pages 10-11:
The Three Minute Seminar
If NLP were ever to be presented in a three minute seminar, it would go something like this. The presenter would walk on and say,
‘Ladies and gentlemen, to be successful in life you need only remember three things. Firstly, know what you want; have a clear idea of your outcome in any situation. Secondly, be alert and keep your senses open so that you notice what you are getting. Thirdly, have the flexibility to keep changing what you do until you get what you want.’
He would then write on the board:
The above story is a simplified description of one of the earliest outcome models adopted by NLP. Roots of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (1983) by Robert Dilts contains three essays the second of which, ‘EEG and Representational Systems’ was written in 1977. This contains a detailed description of the application of the TOTE model originally proposed by George Miller, Eugene Galanter and Karl Pribram in their book Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960) which shows the importance attached to desired outcomes by the early NLP’ers.
The following quote is from the section on The T.O.T.E. Model in the Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP (2000) by Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier (pp. 1434-1446). I highly recommend reading the whole of this section.
The TOTE, which stands for Test-Operate-Test-Exit, maintains that mental strategies are typically organized around a goal oriented feedback loop. The TOTE concept maintains that all mental and behavioral programs revolve around having a fixed goal and a variable means to achieve that goal. This model indicates that, as we think, we set goals in our mind (consciously or unconsciously) and develop a TEST for when those goals have been achieved. If a particular goal is not achieved, we OPERATE to change something or do something to get closer to our goal. When our TEST criteria have been satisfied we then EXIT on to the next step.
In summary: Have a fixed goal, a variable means of getting there and the sensory acuity to notice when you have, and have not, achieved it.
3. Difference Engines
According to Marvin Minsky (one of the Grandaddies of the Artificial Intelligence movement) the TOTE itself was preceded by a computer program called the “General Problem Solver” written in 1957 by Allen Newell, Clifford Shaw and Herbert Simon. The following extract is from Marvin Minsky, The Emotion Machine (2006) pp. 187-189:
We can interpret “having a goal” to mean that a Difference-Engine is actively working to remove those differences.
But what is a goal, and how can we have one? If you try to answer such questions in everyday words like “a goal is a thing that one wants to achieve,” you will find yourself going in circles because, then, you must ask what wantingis — and then you find you’re trying to describe this in terms of other words like motive, desire, purpose, aim, hope, aspire, yearn,and crave.
More generally, you get caught in this trap whenever you try to describe a state of mind in terms of other psychological words, because these never lead to talking about the underlying machinery. However, we can break out of that with a statement like this:
A system will seem to have a goal when it persists in applying different techniques until the present situation changes into a certain other condition.
This takes us out of the psychological realm by leading us to ask about what kind of machinery could do such things. Here is one way such a process might work:
Aim: It begins with a description of a certain possible future situation. It also can recognize some differences between the situation it now is in and that “certain other condition”.
Resourcefulness: It is also equipped with some methods that may be able to reduce those particular kinds of differences.
Persistence: If this process keeps applying those methods, then in psychological terms, we will perceive it as trying to change what it now has into what it “wants.”
The word goal has two different meanings in everyday language. A potential goal becomes an active goal when one is running a process that changes things until they fit that description.
And similarly, a desired outcome becomes an actual outcome/result once it has been achieved. Notice that even if the desired outcome is not achieved, something always happens and therefore there is always an outcome, a result.
4. Desired outcomes as creations
The most cogent description of how setting and achieving a desired outcome is different to problem solving comes from Robert Fritz, a colleague of Peter Senge, in his seminal book, The Path of Least Resistance (1989). The following is an extract from pages 131 -138:
There is a profound difference between problem solving and creating. Problem solving is taking action to have something go away — the problem. Creating is taking action to have something come into being — the creation. Most of us have been raised in a tradition of problem solving and have had little real exposure to the creative process.
[In Penny Tompkins and my article Coaching for PRO’s we use different terminology but mean much the same thing as Fritz: a problem is ‘a Problem’, but what is to be taken away, avoided or reduced is called ‘a Remedy’, and what is to be created ‘a desired Outcome’- JL]
An important part of the creative process is recognising what currently exists. We do have many problems. They do need attention. But problem solving is an unsound and inadequate way of creating the civilization we want, and most often it hardly changes the difficulties that do exist. At best, problem solving can bring temporary relief from a specific situation, but it seldom leads to final success.
The path of least resistance in problem solving is to move from worse to better and then from better to worse again. This is because the actions taken are generated by the problem. If the intensity of the problem is lessened by the actions you took, there is less motivation to take further actions.
The structure is this: the problem leads to actions designed to reduce the problem. The problem is reduced. This leads to less need for other actions. This leads to fewer future actions. This leads to the problem remaining or intensifying anew.
action to solve the problem
less intensity of the problem
less action to solve the problem
the problem remaining.
The Vital Question
[Problem solving] approaches leave out the vital question of the creative process: “What do I want to create?”
The inventiveness of the creative process does not come from generating alternatives, but from generating a path from the original concept of what you want to create to the final creation of it in reality.
The creative process is filled with a variety of styles, from highly controlled ones to very uncontrolled ones. But all of these styles exist within the context of the results the creator has in mind. Within this context there is a focus of critical judgment [which is required to decide what actions to take to bring the desired creation into being — JL], not a suspension of it.
[Note the similarity with the Dreamer, Realist and Critic roles of the Disney Strategy described in Tools for Dreamers by Robert B Dilts, Todd Epstein, Robert W Dilts (1990).]
Life in the Problem Track
[Many people have] problem solving as a frame of reference. Why? Because the subject of problems and problem solving can capture your interest. It gives you a feeling of importance. Who but an important person could have an important problem? Managers are trained to think in terms of problems. The more senior the manager, the more senior the problems.
Ironically, problem solving can give you a false sense of security. You know just what you’re supposed to do: find and solve problems. If you didn’t have problems, what would you think about? How would you spend your time?
Problem solving provides an almost automatic way of organizing your focus, actions, time, and thought processes. In a sense, when you have a nice juicy problem to work on, you do not have to think. You can obsess instead. You can dwell on what is wrong. You can go over it in your mind. You can worry and fret. You have something to talk about to your colleagues and friends. It can seem as if you have no choice except to cower in the face of adversity. You can experience the romance of “the individual against the elements.” Problem solving can be very distracting while at the same time giving you the illusion that you are doing something important and needed.
After years of dedicated work on the subject, psychologist Carl Jung made this astute observation:
The following is an overview of the creative process from Creating, Robert Fritz (1991). Fritz says it is important to recognise that this is not a formula, but rather a form:
- Conceive of the general result you want to create.
- Move to a specific vision.
- Know what currently exists (Current Reality).
- Take action.
- Build momentum.
- Always have a place to go.
- Living with your creation.
Focus on the result
In the creative orientation the most powerful question you can ask yourself is, “What do I want?” At any time and in any situation — regardless of the circumstances — you can always ask and answer that question.
The question “What do I want?” is really a question about results. Perhaps a more precise way of asking that question is, “What result do I want to create?”
The question, “How do I get what I get?” is a question about process, not result. As an initial question, it is quite limiting. If you ask the question, “How do I get what I want?” before you ask, “What result do I want to create?” you are limited to the results that are directly related to what you already know how to do or can conceive of doing.
Premature focus on the process will limit and inhibit your effectiveness.
What is the formula?
A common rule of thumb in life is to have a formula about how things should work, so that if you learn the formula, you will always know what to do. Unfortunately, at best this would prepare you for situations that are predictable and familiar.
From the orientation of the creative, on the other hand, the only rule of thumb about process is not to have a rule of thumb.
The process should always serve the result. And because a new result might require a completely original process, limiting yourself to preconceived notions of what processes are available can be fatal to spontaneity.
When you create, process is functional. It is best to allow processes to form organically from within the vision of the result.
How clear must the concept be?
How clear do you need to be about the result you want? Clear enough that you would recognize the result if you had it. Some people think there is a relationship between the clarity of the original concept and the ability to produce it. According to this approach, the clearer the desired result is, the stronger the message to your mind.
But in the creative process, degree of clarity is not the standard of measurement to use. As long as you would recognize the result if you created it, it is adequately clear.
From concept to vision
There is a difference between a concept and a vision. Concept comes before vision. Concept is general, vision is specific. In the conceptual period you are experimenting with ideas. You are mentally trying out various possibilities. This is the formative period. Living with it in your imagination for a period of time. Getting to know it well enough that you know what you like and what you don’t like about it.
Once you have formed the concept, the next step is to crystallize it. This is an act of focusing. Given the various ways in which the concept might manifest itself, how do you want to see it manifested? The same principle of the conceptual stage applies to the vision stage. The vision need only be clear enough that you would recognize it if you created it. But what is the essential difference between conception and vision? The difference is in focus, and focus is made possible by limitation. When you focus a concept into a vision, you are limiting many ways into a single way. All vision is concept, but not all concepts are vision.
Once you have formed your vision, you have achieved an evolutionary step in the creative process, from the general to the specific.
The vision becomes an entity
As you form your vision, you simultaneously teach it to yourself. There is a transition from concept to vision during this period. As you conceptualize, you learn. And what you learn is directly useful in creating your vision.
There is a point in the transition period when the vision takes on an identity all its own. It becomes a separate entity from you. It may be your vision, but it has a separate life.
Knowing what you want
The following principles will help you experiment with conceiving what you want to create:
- Ask yourself the question, What do I want
- Consider what you want independently of considerations of process.
- Separate what you want from questions of possibility.
The vision is an organizing principle
Vision has power, for through vision you can easily reach beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary. Vision can help you organize your actions, focus your values and clearly see what is relevant in current reality.
The inner eye of vision can see what isn’t there yet, can reach beyond present circumstances, and can see what, up to that point, has never been there. It is truly an incredible human faculty that is able to see beyond the present and the past and, from the unknown, to conceive something not hitherto in existence.
5. When the Solution is the Problem
“Now that you have broken through the wall with your head, what will you do in the neighbouring cell?”
S. J. Lec, New Unkempt Thoughts
The following draws heavily on the work of Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues at the Brief Therapy Center of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, established in 1966. The Palo Alto Group developed under Gregory Bateson’s theoretical and Don Jackson’s clinical leadership. They were in turn deeply indebted to Milton Erickson.
Watzlawick and his colleagues noticed how attempting to apply a solution/remedy to a problem can often perpetuate or exacerbate that problem or create another problem, i.e. the attempted remedy itself, becomes a problem.
The following is quoted from Change: Principles of Problem Formulation and Problem Resolution, by Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Richard Fisch (1974), pp 38-39:
We draw a clear distinction between our use of the terms difficulties and problems. When we speak about difficulties, we shall simply mean an undesirable state of affairs which either can be resolved through some common-sense action (usually of the first-order change type, [e.g. adding heat when cold]) for which no special problem solving skills are necessary, or, more frequently we shall mean an undesirable but usually quite common life situation for which there exists no known solution and which – at least for the time being – must simply be lived with. We shall talk about problems when referring to impasses, deadlocks, knots, [binds], etc., which are created and maintained through the mishandling of difficulties. There are basically three ways in which this mishandling can occur:
A. A solution is attempted by denying that a problem is a problem; action is necessary, but is not taken.
B. Change is attempted regarding a difficulty which for all practical purposes is either unchangeable (e.g. the generation gap or a certain percentage of incurable alcoholics in the general population) or non- existent; action is taken when it should not be.
C. An error in logical typing is committed and a Game Without End established. This may occur either by attempting a first-order change in a situation which can only be changed from the next higher logical level (e.g. the nine-dot problem) or, conversely, by attempting second-order change when a first-order change would be appropriate (e.g. when people demand changes of ‘attitude’ and are not content with changes of behaviour); action is taken at the wrong level.
Watzlawick et. al. say that the most common kinds of unproductive remedies/solutions are:
- When more of the same doesn’t work.
- Oversimplifying a complex situation (and vice versa).
- Seeing no problem when there is one (and vice versa).
- Setting grandiose, esoteric or utopian outcomes.
- Attempting to solve paradoxes at the same level of thinking.
Other examples of when remedies are the problem (Tompkins & Lawley):
- Fixing the wrong problem.
- Denial of the real problem.
- Delaying solving the problem, thereby making it worse.
- Solving the problem too quickly, thereby making it worse.
- Solving the problem but only temporarily (e.g. yo-yo dieting).
- Attempting to resolve an unsolvable problem.
- Needing to understand ‘why’ (e.g. Why Me, Why This, Why Now? by Robin Norwood)
- Assuming there is a ‘root cause’ which, when removed will solve everything.
- Self-defeating remedies (e.g. attempting to remember not to forget).
More of the Same
Watzlawick points out that one of our most cherished methods of solving problems is “more of the same”. This works well for problems that can be remedied with a first-order change, but it compounds problems that require a second-order change.
For instance if the outside temperature falls, then your heating system will have to work harder to keep the status quo. If the temperature continues to fall then more of the same will produce the desired result (of course there are limits to this, because there are always limits to everything).
However when an alcoholic drinks to relieve stress, drinking more to relieve more stress not only has serious unwanted side effects, but the body adapts to the extra alcohol (poison) and so the same amount of drink has less effect. In this case more of the same can lead to a downward spiral sometimes only limited by premature death.
Watzlawick, et al identified a four-step procedure for their kind of Brief Therapy – a maximum of 10 sessions (pp 110-113):
- A clear definition of the problem in concrete terms.
- An investigation of the solutions attempted so far.
- A clear definition of the concrete change to be achieved. [desired outcome-JL]
- The formulation and implementation of a plan to produce this change.
With reference to the first step, it is obvious that in order to be solved, a problem first of all has to be a problem. What we mean by this is that the translation of a vaguely stated problem into concrete terms permits the crucial separation of problems from pseudo-problems. In the case of the latter, elucidation produces not a solution, but a dissolution of the complaint.
This admittedly does not exclude the possibility that one will be left with a difficulty for which there exists no known cure and must be lived with. For instance, nobody in his right mind would try to find a solution to the death of a loved one, or to the scare produced by an earthquake — except perhaps some drug companies which in the product descriptions convey the utopian implication that any manifestation of emotional discomfort is pathological and can (and should) be combated by medication.
If on the other hand, a complaint is not based on a pseudo-problem, successful completion of the first step reveals the problem in as concrete terms as possible, and this is an obvious precondition in the search for its resolution.
[With reference to] the second step, a careful exploration of these attempted solutions not only shows what kind of change must not be attempted, but also reveals what maintains the situation that is to be changed and where, therefore, change has to be applied.
The third step, with its implicit demand for a concretely definable and practically reachable goal, safeguards the problem-solver himself against getting caught up in wrong solutions and compounding rather than resolving the problem. …
The therapist who introduces, or who accepts from his patient, a utopian or otherwise vague goal unwittingly ends up treating a condition which he has helped to create and which is then maintained by therapy. It should hardly surprise him that under these circumstances the treatment will be long and difficult. If the presenting complaint is typically seen as the tip of that mythical iceberg, a negative reframing is accomplished through which an existing difficulty becomes so complex and deep-seated that only complex and deep-going procedures hold any promise of producing change. …
Many people seeking help for a problem describe the desired change in seemingly meaningful but actually useless terms: they want to be happier or communicate better with their spouses, get more out of life, worry less, etc. etc. It is the very vagueness of these goals which makes their attainment impossible.
If pressed for an answer as to what specifically would have to happen (or stop happening) so that they would then be happier, or communicate better, etc. they are very often at a loss. This bewilderment is not primarily due to the fact that they have simply not yet found an answer to their problem, but rather that they are asking the wrong question in the first place.
This brings us to step four. The first three steps are necessarily preliminaries that in most cases can be accomplished rather quickly; the actual process of change takes place in the fourth.
[For more on this topic see our When the Remedy is the Problem.]
For every complicated problem there is a solution that is simple, direct, understandable …
H. L. Mencken 
6. Conscious Purpose
To conclude, and as a reminder that conscious goals are only part of a wider system, I quote from the prescient words of Gregory Bateson taken from a lecture given in 1968 and reproduced in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) pages 433-434:
Consider the state of medicine today. Medicine [is a] science, whose structure is essentially that of a bag of tricks. Within this science there is extraordinarily little knowledge of the sorts of things I am talking about; that is of the body as a systemically cybernetically organized self-corrective system. Its internal interdependencies are minimally understood. What has happened is that purpose has determined what will come under the inspection of consciousness or medical science.
If you allow purpose to organise that which comes under your conscious inspection, what you will get is a bag of tricks — some of them very valuable tricks. It is an extraordinary achievement that these tricks have been discovered; all that I don’t argue. But we still do not know two-penn’orth, really, about the total network system. [Walter] Cannon wrote a book on The Wisdom of the Body , but nobody has written a book on the wisdom of medical science, because wisdom is precisely the thing that it lacks. Wisdom I take to be the knowledge of the larger interactive system — that system which, if disturbed, is likely to generate exponential curves of change.
Consciousness operates in the same way as medicine in its sampling of the events and processes of the body and of what goes on in the total mind. It is organised in terms of purpose. It is a short-cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want; not to act with maximum wisdom in order to live, but to follow the shortest, logical or causal path to get what you next want, which may be dinner; it may be a Beethoven sonata; it may be sex. Above all, it may be money or power.
What worries me is the addition of modern technology to the old system. Today the purposes of consciousness are implemented by more and more effective machinery, transportation systems, airplanes, weaponry, medicine, pesticides, [and psychotherapeutic techniques -JL] and so forth. Conscious purpose is now empowered to upset the balances of the body, of society, and of the biological world around us. A pathology — a loss of balance — is threatened.
On the one hand, we have the systemic nature of the individual human being, the systemic of the culture in which he lives, and the systemic nature of the biological, ecological system around him; and, on the other hand, the curious twist in the systemic nature of the individual man whereby consciousness is, almost of necessity, blinded to the systemic nature of the man himself. Purposive consciousness pulls out, from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure. If you follow the “common-sense” dictates of consciousness you become, effectively, greedy and unwise — again I use “wisdom” as a word for recognition of and guidance by a knowledge of a total systemic creature.
Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished. We may say that the biological systems — the individual, the culture, and the ecology — are partly living sustainers of their component cells or organisms. But the systems are none the less punishing of any species unwise enough to quarrel with its ecology. Call the systemic forces “God” if you will.
1. I read some recent research in Medscape reporting that 50% of people starting a regular exercise programme quit within nine months and 50% of those remaining quit in the next nine months, i.e. only one in four people exercised regularly for more than 18 months.
[This idea of multiple timeframes became our 3-box model, see It’s about time.]
2. I have edited the first two paragraphs to clarify the distinction between an outcome (which following Webster’s definition is a result); and a ’desired outcome’ which is a future goal. My guess is that the early NLP’ers deliberately played on the ambiguity of the word outcome and confusion has resulted ever since!
3. There are many variation of the “well-formedness conditions”. My first introduction in 1991 was from Julian Russell and his PACER model. The version he taught maintained that a well-formed outcome is:
- Stated in the Positive.
- Achievement focussed: Has sensory specific evidence for success.
- Appropriately Contextualised.
- Ecological for everyone effected by it and preserves any positive by-products of the current way of behaving.
Involves Resources that you can initiate and are within your power or control.
4. Quoted in Panic Nation by Stanley Feldman and Vincent Marks, 2005, p. 139.