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Going beyond training: An NLP coaching approach


Robbie Steinhouse looks at some barriers to learning and how NLP can help you address them.

We've all had those days when training doesn't seem to have sunk in. You've delivered excellent content, and done it well, but you have that feeling that it hasn't really 'hit home'. What can you do about that?

There are various reasons why perfectly good and necessary training interventions can fall short. I want to look at them using the NLP model of the Logical Levels, developed by Robert Dilts.

In essence the model looks at various levels of human motivation and ability. The levels are:

  • Mission – a passionate desire to contribute to something bigger than oneself
  • Identity – our sense of self, of 'who we really are'
  • Beliefs and values – the core maxims by which we live, about how the world is and how people should behave
  • Capabilities – our skills
  • Behaviours – the actual actions we perform
  • Environment – where we perform these actions

In a pure version of this model, motivation is all 'top down' – a mission inspires us to change how we see ourselves, how we perceive the world, the skills we learn and so on. In practice this is largely the case, but a certain amount of 'upward seepage' can occur: environment in particular can be a powerful determinant of many of the 'upper' levels. And blockages can occur at all levels.

Training is largely an intervention at the level of capability. But if the audience are for some reason unsuited to the material at a higher level, then it will not go in.

The levels as they relate to training

At the level of 'identity', if people feel that the material is 'not really them', they will resist it. Identity is a powerful level – wars get fought over it – and this resistance can be fierce. A good example is teaching practitioners like nurses to become managers. For many years, these people have built up their pride and professionalism around their 'hands-on' practical skills. Now they are being asked to 'be' something totally different.

In this case, the new role has to be sold to them. The students need to understand its value, how being a good manager will help other practitioners do their job better, and how they can integrate their existing skills with the new role, how their old skills are part of what will make them good at the new role. When they can see the natural fit between their old self and the new self they must become, they will be ready to learn.

"At the level of 'identity', if people feel that the material is 'not really them', they will resist it. Identity is a powerful level – wars get fought over it – and this resistance can be fierce."

Students may have 'beliefs' that demean the new role. For example, the nurses above may perceive managers as being time-wasting form-fillers, or bossy, or 'posh'. Such beliefs are best challenged in one-to-one coaching, but can be addressed as part of training. It can be explained how managers actually help practitioners by ensuring they have the right materials to work with and by providing motivation and support.

If you do get the chance to address students individually about these issues, you can ask questions that challenge them. Any limiting belief along the lines of 'All mangers are X' can be questioned by asking "All?" And asking the person to recall a manager who was not like this. They will soon come up with an example. The effect of this kind of questioning lasts longer than the moment in which it happens: the student's subconscious will be set in a new direction by it.

Practitioners will often have a set of 'values' around practicality and 'getting the job done'. They need to understand that the new role will also honour these values: actually, management gives them the opportunity to promote these values more widely. Other values may need to be reassessed, for example being against authority. However this can be done at least partially by 'reframing' the value: while becoming an authority figure, the student can keep some of their rebelliousness and use it against misused authority higher up the system – in that way they are actually protecting their practitioners against abused authority. Examples of effective authority figures who were actually rebellious individuals abound: Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Anita Roddick, Richard Branson...

It's also worthwhile looking at the Logical Levels model and considering the 'environment' in which the training is given. We are all familiar with having to teach in inappropriate venues, where there is too much noise, too much or too little heating, an odd room shape (or whatever). We need to remind ourselves that these factors do matter. What can we do in advance to minimise these effects, and to maximise positive environmental effects?

Much of the above material can be delivered as a part of the training, often as some kind of introductory 'frame', setting the tone. It can be reinforced in those one-to-one chats that often follow a session, where a particular student has a particular issue with a particular aspect of the training. In both cases, as a trainer you are acting ever more like a coach – in my view, a desirable outcome, as being coached is the best way of learning that I know.

Robbie Steinhouse is head of training at NLP School, His most recent book, 'How to Coach with NLP', is published by Prentice Hall at £14.99 (available on Amazon).

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

Read more from Jon Kennard

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