Taking Charge of Confusion

April 20, 2013

Mapping Submodalities

In NLP we are interested in form and not content. Just as in transformational grammar, one of the influences on NLP, the linguist was interested in the structure of language rather than the meaning of individual words. This approach revolutionised linguistics in the same way NLP revolutionised change work. NLP removed the requirement for the change agent to investigate the content of problems; in NLP we explore structure or form. Submodalities are one level of form.

So individual problems and solutions are structured inside our head in a certain way. Each type of problem will have its own unique form or set of submodalities.  Let’s explore two simple contrasting experiences; confusion and understanding. I once asked a group of people on an NLP Practitioner class to offer a description of confusion and understanding. Here are some answers.

“Usually find it’s the inability to sort out what you’re trying to achieve at the end, of what the outcome is?

“There’s no logical sequence in your thought process.”

“You get contrasting messages because you haven’t managed to sort them out”

“Understanding is when the information comes in you are able to process it and sort it, into some order that you make sense of”

Confusion and understanding is more a function of sorting information than knowing. Usually with understanding, you’ve actually managed to have the full story. And usually with confusion there’s a little bit more information to come, or you’ve got all the components, but have yet to sort them out that’s usually the structure. Whilst many people feel uncomfortable with confusion, it’s an ok place to be. In many cases it’s an indication that a breakthrough is about to occur.

When I teach NLP Practitioner classes, I often use an inductive style of learning which enables the course participants to assemble their own learnings. During the process of learning, I propose that a tolerance of ambiguity is a useful state to deal with confusion that occurs whilst the learner is assembling the components of what I am teaching. In these cases, I say the states of confusion are appropriate and if the learner seeks to understand everything consciously too soon, that person is robbing themselves of a valuable learning experience. In learning NLP, conscious understanding is inferior to unconscious competence. Give me a practitioner who can apply NLP any day, even if they don’t know the labels, over a practitioner who knows the theory but cannot actually demonstrate they have absorbed NLP.

However in everyday situations, submodalities are a useful tool for helping people structure confusion differently so they can gain some insights. Confusion is usually the step just before getting to know something. So confusion is about putting things together. If you were to elicit the submodalities of something a person was confused about and something the person understood that was similar, it is likely there would be differences in the submoadality set. The question is, if you then changed the submodalities of confusion to understanding, what would happen?

In NLP there is a process called ‘Mapping Across Submodalities’ I first came across this process in the book ‘Using Your Brain For a Change’ (Bandler 1985) The book, edited by Steve and Connirae Andreas was the first NLP book that focussed purely on submodalities.

Below is a transcript of demonstration I did a number of years ago, where a computer phobic lady overcame her fear and started to learn basic computing skills but had confusion about bullets and numbers in Word.

Submodalities of confusion

Michael: “Okay Jane”

J.P:  “I am confused at how to get bullets and numberings to work properly in Word.”

M.C:  “Okay, and what do you understand?”

J.P:  “I know how to send an email”

M.C:  “So just think about that confusion”

M.C:  “I’d like you to get a picture of it, as to how you’d represent it inside your head. So think about that now. You got it?”

J.P   “Yep.”

M.C:  “What are you looking at?”

J.P   “At my anger.”

M.C:  “How is anger represented to you?”

J.P:  “Red.”

M.C So you’ve got red anger?

M.C “So where’s that picture?”

J.P “Out in front of me.”

M.C “Are you associated or dissociated?”

J.P “I’m dissociated, I’m looking at me.”

M.C “You’re looking at you”

J.P “I’m looking at the back of my head.”

M.C “You’re looking at the back of your head”

J.P “Yeah”

M.C “What’s the size?”

J,P “Erm-medium-ish.”

M.C “Medium-ish. Is that where exactly it is, there?”

M.C “Okay. So it’s medium-ish and it’s here”

J.P “About here.”

M.C   “What about the colour?”

J.P   ” Yes it’s colour.”

M.C   “How strong is the colour?”

J.P “Yeah normal, just a normal colour – normal for me – representation of colour!”

M.C “So it’s a real colour”

J.P “It’s a real colour, yes.”

M.C “What else do you notice in it, is there any movement in that picture?”

J.P “No.”

M.C “So what other distinction do you notice about it?”

M.C “So it’s in front of you, it’s about that size has it got a frame around it?”

J.P “No.”

M.C “So is it a life-size picture?”

J.P “No it’s slightly smaller than life size”

M.C “But you see yourself in it, and it doesn’t have a frame, and it’s panoramic?”

J.P “Yes.”

M.C “What else do you notice about the picture?”

J.P “Err-the screen’s very bright.”

M.C “So it’s got a bright screen?”

Submodalities of Understanding

M.C   “Let’s go to email. You said something about email”

J.P   “I did, I said I know how to send an email”

M.C   “Okay. So let’s go and send an email, okay. Have you got a picture?”

J.P “Yes, it’s associated this time.”

M.C “Okay. So you’re in the picture – associated. What’s the size of the picture?”

J.P “It completely fills my field of vision.”

M.C “It completely fills the field of vision. Colour?”

J.P   “It’s the computer screen that is huge right here.”

M.C   “Computer screen huge to right. So on that location – right, huge to right?”

M.C   “Colour, what do you notice about the colour?”

J.P   “It’ brighter”

M.C   “Okay so it’s brighter. Has it still got that bright, real bright screen?

J.P “Yes.”

M.C “ It’s got the bright screen. Okay. What about the frame?”

J.P “The frame is almost the frame of the computer screen.”

M.C “ So it’s got a frame around it with the computer screen, yeah?”

J.P   “Yes.”

M.C   “And what’s happening inside your head, you got any submodalities inside your head,
or any kinaesthetic submodalities?”

J.P   “Erm-no because it’s natural to know.”

M.C   “Okay, so it’s natural. And what about self-talk?”

J.P “No there isn’t any.”

M.C “ No self-talk.”

Map across

M.C   “So let’s explore and see which one is the difference that makes the difference”

M.C “So let’s get the confusion back”

J.P   “Yep.”

M.C   “You got it. Hold it there.  So I’d like you to step into that picture, associate to it” okay?

J.P “Mm, hmm.”

M.C   “What happens?”

J.P   “It’s quite difficult actually, I’m back out already.”

M.C “Okay, so go in and stay there for a little while”

M.C “What happens to the feeling inside your head when you do that, and what happens
to the confusion?”

J.P “I keep coming out again. It’s really difficult to stay in.”

M.C   “So just give it another go”

J.P   “The computer screen takes on the same look as the other one.”

M.C   “She steps into it, that changes the computer screen to the other one. Okay”

M.C   “Now tell me what happens to the confusion”

J.P “It changes”

M.C   “OK, put it back as it was for a while”

J.P   “It’s not the same”

M.C   “Associate to it again and let it completely fill your vision”

M.C “Bring the screen up to the right, make it brighter, make sure it’s framed, natural
colour and hold it there. What happens now?”

J.P   “It just seems like the same as the other picture really.”

M.C   “Same as the other picture. What happens inside your head?”

J.P   “There is no red” [This is crucial statement]

M.C   “And what happens to the self-talk?” [This will be explained later]

J.P   “It’s not there.”

M.C “And what happens to the confusion?”

J.P “It’s not there.”

M.C   “It’s not there. Okay, hold that there”

M.C “So what do you have to do now to get more understanding on the bullet points?”

J.P “Okay. Change the way that I’m looking at it”


M.C “Okay, and what happens when you access that old picture?”

M.C   “So when I said, you now go and make a picture inside your head…”

J.P “Yes.”

M.C “about one, two, three numbers, what happens?”

J.P   “I’m really good at it.”

M.C   “Okay”

J.P   “I can do it”

M.C “You can do it”

J.P   “Yeah.”

Future Pace

M.C “So imagine now you are clicking on that screen, that thing on the top on the screen,  which will be up here some place, yeah?”

M.C   “And then get the bullets, and get the numbers. So that’s what she has to do. Get one more piece. Is she more resourceful in getting that one more piece?”

M.C “How’s it going?”

J.P “Good.”

M.C “Very good”


When I asked about the red anger mentioned at the beginning of this transcript, Jane described it as a feeling in her head. She said it was like a square weightless bowl of blood that isn’t moving until you shake it. There was also an internal voice on the problem state. The voice had a whispering volume, low tone which she experienced in stereo.  I did not include the submodalities from the auditory and kinaesthetic systems in the above transcript because there were no correlating submodalities in the resource representation. What is key here is that when she changed the visual submodalities of the problem state to the resource state, in the new representation the kinaesthetic and auditory submodalties changed.

As mentioned earlier, in such situations client’s will have two sets of submodalities. The submodalities are the code for the representations. The process of looking for the differences is called contrastive analysis. At my Practitioner classes, I have the learners change each submodality one by one to notice the effect each change has. After they change the submodality the practitioner asks the client to put it back as it was. This process teaches people about the ‘driver submodality’. The ‘Driver’ submodality is the one which has the most leverage in the system. Often when you change the driver all the other submodalities change as well. In Jane’s case the driver was the association/disassociation. For her when she stepped into the second image the other submodalities changed and the red feeling disappeared.

In Jane’s case there were a number of different submodalities, though this is not always the case.
Sometimes there might only be one that’s different. In Jane’s case there was the association, one representation was associated the other dissociated. Associated is when you are in the picture looking at the screen, as if you are there. Disassociated is where you see yourself in the picture as if looking at a video or photograph.  Jane had a frame around her picture in her representation and also the location of the object was different. The size of the main objects were different as was the colour level.

The process

1. Elicit submodalities of X
Separator state

2.  Elicit submodalities of Y
Separator state

3. Contrastive analysis: notice the submodalities that are different for each state.

4.  Map across. Client accesses representation of X and changes the submodalities (structure) one by one to submodalities of Y based on the contrastive analysis. This process is called mapping across where you get the content of X and map it to the structure of Y

5. Condition your work

6. Test your work

The above process can be used to map any contrasting experiences. You can map unmotivated to motivated, anxiety to calm, uptight to open. It’s useful if you select experiences that are similar, so in Jane’s case both her confusion and understanding were related to computing. This is useful little technique for rapid change with simple things. Remember the driver can be in any system. If you would like to receive a full submodality sheet with all the submodalities for all three systems e-mail info@nlpacademy.co.uk and we will email you one.

I like to think of NLP processes as a system. Like all systems if you change one component you change the relationships within the system with that component and the system reorganises. The key to effective NLP is establishing which element within the system has most leverage.

Bandler, R (1985), Using your Brain For Change’ edited by Andreas , A,. and Andreas, C., Real People Press

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