• Posted in November 2014
  • Article written by Michael Carroll

NLP Strategies Another Redundant Format in NLP?

As the world of NLP rapidly evolves NLP Co Creator, John Grinder discards Classic Code NLP patterns at speed on par with a ruthless corporation shedding the jobs surplus to requirements. To that extent the classic code of NLP is like a clunky 1970s corporation with out of date procedures that do get an outcome of sorts, but not in the most efficient and elegant way. On the other hand the New Code of NLP is lean effective system with the excess patterning shed and attention primarily on state and minimalism get a generative outcome and in depth change. Where do Strategies fit in the evolution of NLP, do they still have a job to do or are they redundant in the NLP work place?

In 2007 John Grinder wrote a public statement confirming the opinion he stated on courses for many years that NLP Strategies as a means of modeling excellence are ineffective and akin to the tail wagging the dog. Many NLP Trainers either ignore this or are unaware of Grinder’s expertise and experience in this matter. In this article, I will explore the history of strategies in NLP, look at working examples, examine Grinder’s critique and explore the question - Are NLP Strategies a redundant format in NLP?

Strategies was one of the earlier developments in NLP. The formal definition of Strategy is a ‘sequence of internal representations that lead to a specific outcome’. Strategies emerged as a result of the work on representational systems.

In Structure of Magic II (Grinder and Bandler 1975) talk about the notion of the ‘primary representational system and the theory of representational systems as a 4 tuple.

The 4 Tuple is based on on Alan Turing’s computer model - explaining how we experience the world in one of 4 modalities the nervous system sorts for the modality best used to represent or re-represent external and internal data.

From a computer science perspective the system (neurology) would experience input or generate data and search for the modality most suitable to represent the data. The four modalities are Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic or Olfactory Gustatory. If two systems are present at the same time it’s known as synesthesia. In the early NLP synesthesia representations were the exception and the majority of representations were notes as one modality tuples.

John Grinder introduced the TOTE model to NLP as a means of mapping the representational sequences that we experience in different contexts of life.  In modern NLP there is a discussion as to whether representations can be correctly punctuated in a sequence due to the nature of synesthesia present in representations. It seems that all our representations have an element of synesthesia and hence very difficult to punctuate linearly.

TOTEs were originally developed by Miller, Galanter and Pribram in the 1960 work, Plans and the Structure of Behaviour, as an alternative to the Stimulus Response work of B. F. Skinner (especially after Chomsky’s devastating critique of such proposals as adequate models of human behaviour), this schema has found a home in NLP.

An example of TOTE for driving a nail and its sub routine is below.

The subroutine driving the nail is itself, of course, part of a larger TOTE such as (for example) fixing the planks which in turn is part of a larger TOTE, putting siding on a house which in turn is embedded within a larger TOTE such as finishing the outside of a building which in turn… These nesting dependencies appear to be part/whole relationships.

Source: Whispering in the Wind, Bostic and Grinder 2001

Test: The first Test is a cue or trigger that begins the strategy.  It establishes the criteria “fed forward” and is used as a standard for the second test.

Operate:  accesses data by gathering and accessing the information required by the strategy from the internal or external world to meet the criteria for the test.

Test:  is a comparison of some aspect of the accessed data with the criteria established by the first test.  If the test is satisfied the strategy exists. If the test is not satisfied the strategy loops back through the operation phase.

Exit: the strategy exits and a new test for the next strategy is established.

The strategy may recycle by:

  • Changing the outcome or redirecting the strategy.
  • Adjusting the criteria, chunking laterally or reorienting.
  • Refining or further specifying the outcome.
  • Accessing more data.
  • Intially, Grinder and Bandler saw strategies as a breakthrough for their modelling projects. Prevoiusly they had unconsciously assimilated patterns of human excellence and relied on Grinder’s unique ability to provide mapping codes for human excellence i.e transformational grammar for the Mitlon and Meta Model, Automata Theory for representional systems. With the TOTE and Strategies Grinder thought he had a model that NLP Practitoners could use to code patterns of human excellence. i.e a model for modelling. The book NLP Volume I (Dilts et el) primarily focussed on strategies and replication of behaviour through strategy installation.

    What Grinder et el in their application of strategies had not accounted for is the linear nature of the 4 tuple and that chunking behavoiour to fit the TOTE is like making the cake to fit the mould of the cake tray i.e the ingredients and end result being influenced by the structure of cake tray. In terms of modellng through strategies the genuises are expected to explain their behaviour. What seems to happen when you ask people to explain their 4 –Tuple experiences is they offer a conscious mind driven report which is a not a direct mapping of the actual cognitive processes. In terms of ‘complex’  modelling Grinder soon realised strategies are ineffectuive, see below. 

    John Grinder’s pespective on Strategies

    Here is a statement explaining a more up to date perspective from John Grinder on Strategies

    Strategies – ordered sequences of representational system access for achieving specific outcomes – are the remnants of a project I started in the mid to late 70’s. My objective was to explore the possibility that representational systems provided an adequate vocabulary for capturing some significant part of what I referred then to as the Syntax of Behaviour project (also the name of a four seminar sequence that Dilts and I did together - there are tapes of this joint effort available through Metamorphous Press).  I abandoned this project or more precisely the consideration of ordered sequences of representational system access when two things became obvious to me:

    Strategies are not a particular useful or effective leverage point for the replication of genius or the patterning of geniuses – this is likely the historical confusion between strategy elicitation and installation and NLP modelling itself. As anyone who has actually done elicitation and installation work has experienced – this is a tail wagging the dog phenomenon – that is, the careful accurate elicitation of a strategy followed by the installation of the elicited sequence does NOT replicate the patterning of the genius being modelled. The key leverage point turns out to be STATE – indeed, if the state of the genius is captured through unconscious assimilation, it typically includes the strategy (or functionally equivalent ones more congruent with the modeller’s development. The inverse is patently NOT true – that is, the installation of the carefully and accurately elicited strategy does NOT typically evoke the state in the modeller that corresponds to the state in the model – thus, failing to replicate the genius’ performance. I suspect that the popularity of the strategy elicitation and installation is in part due to the fact that it is a relatively rational and left-brain-oriented activity, is primarily an observational activity and requires little commitment on the part of the ‘wannabe’ modeller.

    I offer a significantly more radical critique of strategies: let’s begin with a strategy that has been proven extremely useful (especially in children) and is a fine contribution by Robert Dilts, its author. What Robert noticed was that an excellent speller (he is one, for example) followed an ordered sequence of representational systems as defined by the sequence of systematic eye movements. If you take a child, establish rapport and inductively walk that child through rehearsals of Visual Memory > Kinesthetic verification to the point that they can do it without your prompting them (20 minutes maximum is typical for children – adults tend to be a bit slower), their spelling performance will quickly close on 100% effectiveness (note – only for words actually seen and identified previously (an entirely distinct “strategy” is required for spelling words not seen and identified previously). I especially like Robert’s cleverness in noticing that if the visual image of the word to be spelled is really well-developed and stable, the speller should be able to spell the word backwards with ease. Insisting on this as part of the rehearsal (installation) ensures that the speller actually forms a visual image of the word to be spelled that is stable enough that the entire process works very well.

    Here is the problem: the claim in the spelling strategy is that the visual image of the word occurs 1st and the kinesthetic check to ensure by feelings (actually synesthesia circuitry) that the visual image is correct (or not). I challenge that sequence V and then K. I propose that what is actually going on (and this would be easy enough to verify with brain scanning equipment) is that the image and the feeling arrive simultaneously and it is an ARTIFACT that we experience them as occurring in sequence. I propose more specifically that the illusion of sequence is the consequence of the limitations of conscious attention. Although both representations are present, the limitations of the 7 + or – 2 chunks of conscious attention ensure that we will entertain only one of them at the same point in time. If this is accurate, then all the activities in NLP revolving around strategies is actually a set of studies in the consequences of the artifacts of the limitations in conscious attention. The illusion is strong and in the particular case of the spelling strategy harmless and the results of installing such a strategy is excellent and I endorse it. My point is that if we as the people creating such models fail to appreciate what is actually going on, the enterprise is at least shaky in its foundations. While I recommend that Dilts’ work with the spelling strategy be offered to children everywhere (that is, everywhere where the natural language is one where there is a significant difference between the orthography (written representations) and the auditory representation differ significantly – notice in Spanish speaking countries, spelling is NOT a part of the school curriculum as there is such a precise mapping between the sounds of Spanish and its written form, that it is unnecessary), I urge a systematic investigation of the actual or illusionary sequencing to ensure that the enterprise has some relationship with what is actually going on.

    These are the arguments that I find compelling and the invitation to explore the foundations of strategies – I am, of course, proposing that the sequence is an illusion – before making the assumption that strategies have anything to offer to the study of the patterning of genius – the appropriate focus of NLP in my opinion.
    ~ John Grinder - July 2007 | Bonny Doon, California

    So in his critique above, Grinder is saying ‘state’ is the key leverage point in modelling geniuses and if you through unconscious assimilation capture the state you also get the strategy, but this does not work the other way around. Grinder points out though for behaviours that operate best with a certain type of neurological data i.e. the visual system in spelling English words, strategies are effective to help people access the representations but argues it’s more likely the representations are simultaneous and not sequential as was originally hypothesised in the early NLP work.

    When you think of everyday activities such as getting motivated, making decisions or learning new things, most of us will have times when we did these things very well.  We also will have times when we were not so good at these activities.  For example a person may) get motivated by seeing in their mind the end result They may then say to themselves, I can do that, and that creates the feeling of motivation.

    Vi     Ai     Ki

    Now the above sequence is an arbitrary map. A person can have the internal image and the other representations at the same time, it’s just they appear linear.

    I would argue that the utilisation of strategies is an effective means of influence and persuasion. From my own work it is apparent that sequential representations occur in the way a client gathers and assesses information to buy. From my experience people have specific representational sequences for getting motivated and also de- motivated. Even as Grinder argues these sequences are more likely to be simultaneous or at least overlapping, the client experiences them as linear due to the limitations of conscious attention. From my experience the NLPer can create the context through modality manipulation to fire the strategy for another person so it congruently reaches its outcome which is the end result targeted by the first test in the sequence i.e buying, motivated etc.

    You will often find that intervening on one the vertical component is an effective way to reach a better outcome with an unresourceful or ineffective strategy. The sub-modalities for each representation is the vertical component. For example the client may have a high pitched left side internal dialogue on the auditory representation of a procrastination strategy. By changing the pitch and moving the sound to the right side of the body will most likely make a difference. Using this method of operation you have changed the outcome of the strategy, but kept the sequence of modalities the same.

    In this article,  I have presented a formal definition of an NLP strategy, provided an explanation of where strategies fit in NLP and offered the reader John Grinder’s perspective on strategies as a tool for NLP modelling, I agree with Grinder’s statement that strategies are limited in terms of modelling on the basis when you model state you capture the strategy automatically. Despite their limitations in terms of chunking and sequencing simultaneous representations I would say strategies have a place in modern day NLP, particularly in the business world of selling, negotiating and motivating.  It’s useful to take into account the systemic nature of strategies and you can impact the outcome of a strategy by doing a minimalist intervention on the vertical component of the strategy, ie the submodalities of one of the representations in the sequence. 

    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.



    • Michael’s enthusiasm for the subject is all absorbing and consuming. It is clear that he can’t give enough, sometimes too much!

      Edith Maskell
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