Training Metaphors: Priming the Unconscious Mind

December 14, 2011

Priming the Unconscious

I am currently teaching a Master Practitioner course and members of the group have commented on how quickly they are assimilating the information with what seems to them to be very little conscious effort compared to their ‘regular’ learning style. This feedback is not uncommon in my courses.  If a trainer layers information offering different ‘touch points’ with the content it seems that the information is absorbed at a much deeper level. At the NLP Academy Trainers Training I work on with John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair, we teach an eight step presentation format that enables trainers to share material that fully engages both the conscious and unconscious of the learner. A fundamental feature of the presentation is metaphor which enables the learner to experience the teaching points within a story. As the title would suggest, metaphor and parallel messages is the subject of this article.

Metaphor comes in all shapes and sizes ranging from short anecdotes and idioms to longer pieces that consist of stories woven together that include multiple messages nested within the story. The general idea of metaphor is to offer the unconscious mind of the learner an alternative way to experience the content. To that extent the metaphor runs parallel with the formal content thus offering overlapping processing for the conscious and unconscious mind.

One enormous advantage of a story is the ability to communicate with precision to the unconscious mind of the listener. Stories therefore are ideal for teaching content in a learning environment. The ideally composed and delivered story bypasses the critical and analytical nature of the conscious mind. The response of the conscious mind is varied and can include boredom, distraction, interest, curiosity, confusion to name a few.  The learner does not however make the explicit connections between the story presented and their present context i.e.  the learning situation.

If the story is told effectively, the conscious mind is preoccupied with its thinking processes, the unconscious easily deciphers the verbal puzzle within the story and is able to identify all and only the relevant elements from the story ”“ that fit with their learning in the current context. In this sense, a well constructed and well-delivered story can serve as a means of delivering the key components of any learning material that is experienced below the surface of conscious processing. You could call it subliminal learning.  The advantage of this style of training is when the learner is later exposed to the material in a format that involves more explicit conscious mind processes there is sense of familiarity with what is being taught.

John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair say “of all of the forms of verbal communication, the story is the one most suited to our neurology as humans. We are built to accept and retain information in story form. The question we tackle [in seminars] is how to compose compelling stories and how to deliver these stories effectively. If you present some set of facts in multiple forms, including a story which incorporates all of the facts, the story form will be the most effective for the receivers of the information.”

NLP skills sets utilised in story telling

NLP provides people with a series of tools and techniques that facilitate effective communication. To that extent an NLP trainer will fully utilise all of the relevant NLP tools in story telling. Below are some pointers to the NLP processes.


”“ the ability for the trainer to detect and work with the states of different individuals and the collective states present in the audience.  When telling a story, it is important that the trainer has full awareness of the feedback loop between the audience and the trainer. The trainer then directs the story so that it fits with non verbal cues observed in the audience.  Some stories hit the spot beautifully and others don’t, it depends on the audience, the story and the style of communication. Effective calibration enables the trainer to be flexible and where necessary change story, speed of the story, mark out different parts of the story to match what the audience requires for the story to be effective.

Verbal adroitness

”“ a talent for quickness and flexibility in verbal productions, especially in the application of logical levels, chunking the messages up and down different logical levels based on the calibration loop. In that sense the trainer is able to shift the direction or content of the story to incorporate some non-verbal and verbal messages received from the audience.  A highly skilled trainer will have the skill to interact within metaphors that feature in comments and questions from the audience. This style of interactive metaphor is an excellent way for personalising key teaching points. With interactive metaphor the trainer is meeting the learner is his/her own story and thus maintaining a deep rapport whilst purposely layering key messages.

Voice variability

Voice variability is an important skill. We know in NLP, non verbal communication constitutes to a high percentage of how the message is understood.  As a public speaker, it is important to develop your voice variability and voice projection. NLP trainers use analogue marking for capturing and anchoring states and for embedded commands in metaphors. To maximise the effectiveness of the story the trainer will ensure the voice is projected (without shouting), speed and pauses with purpose, pitch is varied, pitch adding resonance to the presentation, and key messages are analogically marked out.

Use of multiple representational systems

Representational systems are one of NLP’s significant contributions to the world, particularly the world of learning. As an NLP trainer, it is vital to work in multiple representational systems ranging from your non-verbal to verbal communication and experiences you set up for the class. For the story to be experienced at sensory level the trainer weaves a blend of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic predicates throughout the story, painting verbal pictures and orchestrating a lyrically rich experience for the learner.

State elicitation through story telling

Stories are a great way to elicit states in an audience. The trainer designs the metaphor in such a way that the states and messages within the story are isomorphic to the state the trainer would like to elicit in the audience. So if an upbeat story is told where the characters are motivated the audience will go into state of motivation. The trainer can elicit states of calm, openness, curiosity in the audience to ensure they are in an optimal state for learning. The more effective the trainer is with the skills above i.e. calibration, verbal adroitness, voice variability, use of multiple representational systems the more successful the trainer will be at state elicitation.

Embedding teaching points through nested metaphors

Nested metaphors are an excellent way to embed teaching points. This is where a trainer will nest stories within each other offering the ultimate distraction for the conscious mind whilst the unconscious is connecting to the teaching point within each story or part of an unfolding story. To nest metaphors a trainer opens a story and without finishing the story leads to another story and then another story. At the end of the teaching session the trainer closes the stories in reverse order.

Spatial anchoring of stories

An NLP trainer can use the space to spatially anchor the key messages and teaching points within the story. Each story/message has space, tone and physiology associated and anchored to state. Once the anchors are set, the trainer will stand in the space of the anchors and use the appropriate tonality and physiology associated with the anchor to fire the state in the audience. When done artfully the unconscious access the key messages of the anchor further deepening and adding to the learning experience

To summarise, metaphors are a powerful vehicle for conveying the teaching points of training sessions. In that sense metaphors are effective to prime the unconscious mind for the ‘official’ content of session.  Saying it another way, with metaphor you provide parallel messages for the learning material. The NLP communication processes of calibration, multiple representational systems, verbal adroitness and use of logical levels, voice variability enhance the quality of the experience of the listener and enabling them to freely access relevant learning states.

I was driving past the newly painted building, and was impressed at how that building stands out as being different amongst the other buildings on that part of the street. Many people have commented to me on how good the building now looks. Only me and the people who did the actual work know the depth of the preparation and priming, the passers by don’t need to know, they just have the experience of a high quality work for many years ahead.  Telephone 020 8686 9952
Reference: Whispering in the Wind,  John Grinder & Carmen Bostic St Clair

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