• Posted: August 2014
  • By: Michael Carroll

The Swish - an NLP antique or a dynamic process for generative change?

The mid 1980’s was a creative time in NLP.  The NLP co-creators had gone their separate ways, and were now in development mode. Richard Bandler was focussing on creating submodality patterns (primarily visual) which led to his DHE work. Grinder was working on formats that engaged all representational systems which led to the development of the New Code of NLP.  One of the patterns that emerged in this period from Richard Bandler was the Swish Pattern and this is now a classic in NLP and taught in most NLP Practitioner courses.  The question I am exploring in this article is ‘in 2014, is the Swish an NLP antique and therefore a piece to be admired in the historical trajectory of NLP or is the Swish as some might argue a dynamic process for generative change?



The Swish was first published in Richard Bandler’s book ‘Using your Brain for a Change’ (Bandler 1985) where Richard Bandler described the Swish as generative and particularly useful for ‘habit control’ (page 131).  Bandler states in ‘Using Your Brain for a Change’ that the Swish, rather than substituting one behaviour for another as in previous NLP processes, helps the client create a new direction.  It’s interesting to note that one of John Grinder’s criticisms of the Classic Code is that in working at the behavioural level, you are changing people from unhappy robots to happy robots. Bandler asks of a client in the transcription of ‘Using Your Brain for Change’  “What would be the value of changing this habit? What difference would it make to you as a person?” (Page 132) This enables the client to think beyond the habit and think more generatively.

There is little doubt, that the Swish Pattern was break-through as part of the submodality revolution in the early to mid 80s. The Bandler team were on a roll with their swishing and mapping and developed a deep understanding of the systematic effect of changing submodalities. Their attention was primarily on the visual system and the kinaesthetic system was rarely touched explicitly. Given the synaesthetic nature of representation. I think explicitly restricting NLP change work to one modality is a fundamental error and many people in modern NLP are pursuing this flaw. It is important to point out that even when the Practitioner encourages to the client to pay attention to only one part of their experience the modalities will be present but below consciousness. I am suggesting bringing a full representation to consciousness (VAK) will enhance the effectiveness of change work.

As the Bandler group were focussing on submodalities in the mid 1980s, Grinder and his team were rolling out the New Code of NLP, creating change formats that engaged all systems. For Grinder, working in one system was far too linear and was of the opinion that excluding kinaesthetic submodalities is an encouragement of the mind body split. The mind body split seems to be present in so many problems it is counterproductive for the coach to encourage it. Without engaging or at least calibrating multiple representational systems, it could be argued the Swish certainly fits the ‘antique category’ and has limited use in modern day NLP.

‘Using Your Brain for a Change’ devotes twenty pages to the Swish.  Bandler outlines different applications and variations of the Swish.  Most of the NLP literature I have seen,  the Swish has been republished, new authors have in essence copied Bandler’s 1980’s text often without reference and show a limited understanding of the dynamics of the Swish and the dynamics of submodality change. The mainstream NLP literature simply republishes what is written on page 136 of ‘Using Your Brain For a Change’ which includes the following components:

• Identify context
• Create a cue picture big and bright, associated
• Outcome picture, dissociated appealing with new qualities of change
• Outcome picture shrunk to small right hand side of cue picture
• Swish from right so outcome picture takes place of what was once the cue picture

Bandler captures the above very nicely on page 132 when he says to Jack, who is a nail biter “See yourself differently if you no longer had this habit. Get that first picture of your hand coming up, and make it big and bright, . . . and in the lower right corner of that picture put a small, dark image of how you would see yourself differently if you no longer had this habit.”

The version of the classic Swish described above works in the visual system and the most distinct submodality shift is the change from an associated picture to disassociated picture. Note, this is a digital submodality shift.  Analogue submodalities such as size and brightness are also utilised in the classic swish.  This one style swish will have its limitations because not everyone has a visual trigger and not everyone will have size and brightness as dominant submodalities that determine change in their system. Again, this style of working certainly puts the Swish as a nice but antiquated pattern category.

Bandler says on page 140 (Bandler 1985) ‘The standard Swish is something that somebody can grab hold of and use and it will work more often than not, but it doesn’t demonstrate to me any understanding of the underlying pattern’ (Bandler 1985). He goes onto explain how a cook can bake a cake from a recipe book but a chef understands how the ingredients work together and can come up with a better product. Many people in NLP, it seems did not read beyond page 136 of ‘Using your Brain for a Change’ as most people are doing very standard swishes. On the other hand if you follow the logic of Bandler of going beyond the basic recipe you will find the Swish is dynamic pattern and is very useful in modern day NLP.

Later in the chapter Bandler gives examples of bespoke swishes. There is an example is on page 140 (Bandler 1985) where the trigger for smoking was the smell of cigarettes. Bandler suggests building smell into the cue picture, thus creating a synaesthesia representation. He suggests in the second picture the client can see themselves satisfied they are not complused at the smell of the cigarette. Note this is a key part of the swish, that you remain within the same frame i.e. client has a different response at the trigger. What this means is the neuro linguistic programme is diverted. Again the example in this paragraph of smell and working within the same frame is very dynamic and now it seems as if the Swish pattern can be alive and well, if we work in a certain way with it going beyond the classic format.

Bandler also talks about subjectivity in submodalities using ‘narrowness and dimness’ as the driver or even tilt. This is where through precise elicitation Richard is working with the precise code of each image to maximise the experience for the client.  On my courses, I encourage people to be thorough with their elicitation of present state. If the trigger in present state is not clear, we are working with fiction, if we are working with fiction then nothing long term will hold.

On the note of fiction, I would also challenge the notion of changing ANY submodalities in the cue picture. In the above short Bandler transcript he suggests to the client to make the cue image big and bright. The intention of this Swish is to pair the qualities of the new image with the trigger in the old image. If you change ‘anything’ in the cue representation, the trigger will be experienced differently in the coaching session than it in the actual context, as consequence you are linking an outcome image which is a construct with a cue image that has been structurally changed and is now as much of a construct as it is a recall. This is what I call fiction.  I propose as in the New Code Change format that you do not change the cue image, all the submodalties remain as they are, so you are swishing to the image of how the brain represents the problem.

The New Code Change Format mentioned in the previous paragraph is a four step process for creating change using New Code NLP. The process is as follows. a/ View the context from third, locate spatially, b/ step into context, experience the VAK elements without making any adjustments (shake it off), c/play the new code game to create a high performance state (in a different space), d/ bring the state to the context space where the change is required. A key part of the New Code Change Format is not to change the context representation, as you are looking for a clean mapping of the high performance state to the context state. In the Swish the context state is the cue image, and I am proposing you maintain the submodalities in this representation to cleanly connect the outcome representation to the trigger.

Bandler primarily works in the visual system; he says this is because the visual system is best for simultaneity.  This is correct if you are working in the same system. For example visual to visual has more simultaneity than auditory to auditory or kinaesthetic to kinaesthetic. However swishing in multiple representational systems can have a similar level of simultaneity. For example you can swish from a kinaesthetic trigger to visual outcome and again moving outside the scope of the classic recipe to something much more creative and dynamic. 
In New Code NLP there is a pattern called Sanctuary, this where the client becomes sensitised to the earliest trigger point of a ‘state’ that goes across multiple contexts. The client is searching for the earliest sensation, which happens before he/she is aware the state is building. Taking this example to the nail biting example given earlier in this article, it is possible Jack’s hand raising to bite his nails came after some internal kinaesthetic shift.  In turn this earlier kinaesthetic shift may be a response to a visual or auditory cue.  If the kinaesthetic response is a pattern and occurs to different types of visual and auditory stimuli, if you swish on the kinaesthetic response you will get change across contexts. This is something Bandler missed in his developments.

INPUT            INTERNAL RESPONSE            OUTPUT
V or A                     Ki                             Ke (hand coming up)

It is important to be really clear about the trigger represented in the cue picture. In my opinion, the hand coming up to mouth (in Bandler’s example) is too late in the process,  the pattern of nail biting is well and truly running.  In the video of the month called ‘The Swish in Action’, I give an example of how to use a kinaesthetic trigger.  Given it is likely synaesthesia is present in all representations, I think it a good idea to have a VAK cue representation with the trigger dominant. By working this way the Swish can be a dynamic change pattern engaging multiple representational systems.

So the question posed in the first paragraph was ‘in 2014’, is the Swish an antique and therefore a piece to be admired in the historical trajectory of NLP or is the Swish as some might argue a dynamic process for generative change’ . The answer is YES…………if you are working with a Swish as published on page 136 of ‘Using Your Brain for a Change’ which has been copied into many manuals you are working with an ‘antique’ If however you are exploring multiple representational systems, willing to swish across modalities, being very clear about the trigger the Swish is a dynamitic pattern which has a place in modern NLP. As with many aspects of NLP it’s the operator that determines the validity and effectiveness of a pattern.

About The Author

Michael Carroll is the founder and course director of the NLP Academy and co-founder with John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair of the International Trainers Academy of NLP. He is the only NLP Master Trainer in the world certified by John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair and he works closely with them in developing and delivering high quality NLP training.

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  • I found this really useful in how it pulled together my learnings from the Practitioner course. Michael’s delivery was superb.

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