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H.O.T. interview: Michael Breen, McKenna Breen Ltd


H.O.T.Training Solutions: The H.O.T. Conference - featured interview

For Michael Breen, management consultant and MD of McKenna Breen Ltd, Neuro-Linguistic Programming raises a number of fundamental questions about the role that training plays in the workplace today. Since 1992, when McKenna Breen Ltd was founded by Michael and well-known hypnotist Paul McKenna, he's been persuading companies not to assume training is always the solution to the problem and to look more closely at their reasons behind bringing in a trainer or consultant.

With his presentation, 'The Heart of the Matter -What are you training for?' coming up at the H.O.T. conference later this month, we asked Michael to give us a sneak preview of what he'll be talking about and to clarify just what NLP, as defined by its founder Richard Bandler, means, and how the concept can be applied to developing organisations and individuals.

TrainingZONE: Your presentation will ask 'what are you training for' - why do you think so many people have to stop and think before answering this question?

Michael Breen: The title has come about through conversations with clients over 12 years. They'd call me in and would tell me they'd identified a group of people who were demotivated, disempowered and underperforming, so they wanted motivation training. I'd been hearing this over and over again - essentially training had been chosen as a solution, perhaps prematurely. As I began to ask more questions, on many occasions it appeared that training had been proposed "because it's what we do". This led me down a number of different avenues. One of the things I looked at was the analysis and decision-making processes involved - how they chose the training methodology. By looking at it in a broader organisational context - how training is used, what they're hoping training will do - I identified an absence of any full knowledge of what training can and can't do.

As I run public training in NLP, one skills gap that comes up time and time again among delegates is the ability to target and assess accurately the nature of the problem. There's an inability to target the behavioural outputs from training - and unless you can specify at the behavioural level what differences you want expect from training, you're not ready to train.

As an example, I was asked to go in to consult in a large telecoms company on a question of empowering leadership. I managed to bring the meeting to a screeching halt within the first five minutes by saying, "what do you want these people to be able to do once this programme is done?". What was interesting was the journey of enquiry - finding out how they would know empowering leadership is happening. Having gone through the process in 45 minutes, it became apparent that they hadn't done the prerequisite work. I later found out over coffee that empowering leadership was somebody's 'great idea'.

I find myself trying to discourage training these days - to discourage too hasty a jump.

TrainingZONE: Obviously just sending someone on course doesn't work...

Michael Breen: It's important to note that training doesn't change behaviour. It can introduce people to ideas and begin the thinking process, but ultimately behaviours are created through consistent activity and reinforcement. You have to have the outputs specified; to return to my earlier example again, a company has a group of demotivated people, they put the training out to tender, they get a training programme that makes the company feel good. On one occasion, I asked a potential client how long most of the demotivated people had been there - the average was seven years. I then asked him whether they were hired that way - it takes a lot of management activity to get an entire group demotivated, disempowered and underperforming! Suddenly we started looking at the context, and established there was a series of events which made these the correct outcomes. It turned out that the sales team had been trained how to use the whole of a new system when they were only ever going to use a small part of it, hence the lack of motivation. One of things we did was talked to managers, then we went back and got an agreement about how better to use the systems. We introduced inexpensive quick interventions, which were contextual and which didn't require a huge investment in training.

TrainingZONE: How would you explain NLP to someone who hadn't come across it before?

Michael Breen: According to Richard Bandler, its founder, NLP is the study of the structure of subjective experience. There are a number of tools and models that, when you apply them in situations with humans, can generate some useful guides to what's going on, to how to change it if you want to, how to maintain the change and how to make situations and life more workable. The tools have to be operated from a certain mental attitude. What most people think of when they think of NLP are loads of techniques, but that's not it. There are thousands of methods out there, but they're not the main event.

TrainingZONE: It seems that although NLP appears a bit of a mystery, many people are at least aware of the need or their ability to change their behaviour without really understanding what NLP means. You don't need the jargon to understand it, do you?

Michael Breen: This is the key to the whole thing. In one sense, NLP started because Richard Bandler knew a bunch of interesting people and was willing to ask them lots of questions. In one sense, nothing of the output or techniques of NLP is alien to the rest of life.

It's a case of noticing patterns of what works, putting them together and understanding the principle of what's behind them. You can then take the principles and look at what would happen in novel situations and new situations.

Richard Bandler wasn't the first person to notice this, but he was probably the first person to say, I wonder what that's there for, and what function does this perform?

TrainingZONE: It seems like common sense...

Michael Breen: That's exactly my point! When we get into groups, in order to form a cohesive group, we start paying attention to the norms - noticing what to talk about and how to talk about things. Because our financial well-being depends on it, we start looking around and ignore or rationalise things which could damage our position. It's creating a cultural hypnosis and it happens in every organisation - it's not evil or wicked, it's just what happens. During the presentation I'll be talking about some of these issues, and introducing ideas and methods participants can use to think again about they way they do things.

Just because we use the word training, we're not always talking about the same activities. Training means many things. You have to draw a distinction between how we have assimilated the skills to train others and how learning happens. A method for teaching manual skills is probably going to be different from, for example, the learning requirements for financial advisers updating their knowledge of regulations. There's no one-shot approach.

TrainingZONE: There's much talk nowadays about the need to measure Return on Investment. Do you think it's a requirement that soft skills development be looked at in this way?

Michael Breen: There are several aspects to this issue. Firstly, as I mentioned before, once you have outputs, you can find connection points to ROI - it makes it easier.

Secondly, there are some aspects or elements of the outputs we would like from training that are not amenable to direct measurement but indirect measurement. To take customer service in the hotel industry as an example, the way you measure impact will need to include some longer-term measures, such as mystery shoppers or customer satisfaction questionnaires. They may be soft skills, and difficult to measure directly and immediately, but their influence is at a later point. Simply because it's soft, it doesn't mean it won't have an impact. It's less scientific but can be qualified - you're dealing with human beings, not baked beans. You have to look at qualitative not quantitative data.

Using industry research case studies can be helpful when choosing a methodology for your training methods.

TrainingZONE: There's been much talk about the trend towards self-managed learning - is this a good thing? Does it mean companies will be able to withdraw their input into training to any extent?

Michael Breen: Self-managed learning is another of those big labels which needs a particular strategy of approach. What the intention is and how a particular company uses the method are two different questions. For example, as many readers will be aware, focus groups are a tool that can produce any answer you want - it's the same with self-managed learning. In my view, when humans have their basic needs covered, they have a natural curiosity, and their own interests guide them. Self-directed learning at a high level is a part of human nature, but how it's applied in companies is a different question. You have to establish what you want it to do first.

TrainingZONE: What's the link between NLP and Psychology?

Michael Breen: As Richard Bandler says, "Psychology is about - we're interested in what things are doing". We don't care what the theory is - pragmatic is the key, not theoretical. It's all about working from experience - both Richard and I would say it's not a science, it's an art.

Another element is to treat humans as if they're human - their nature doesn't change from area to area. People seem to think behaviour changes when people are performing a management role or sales role or when they're at home. We look at what people do - what's the same, and what's different - in a management context, sales context, relationship context, certain things remain the same. You can learn from each of the different situations.

TrainingZONE: What about the idea that NLP can be used to manipulate others?

Michael Breen: That's a really strange way of thinking. When someone says, isn't this manipulative, it's due in part to our strange response to efficacy. If someone is unaware of what they're doing, but does it well, that's fine, but if they're aware of it, that's manipulative. What I usually ask them is have you ever been on a date? Did you modify your behaviour in any way? It's a question of how humans behave - we all have intentions towards other people, and tend to either negotiate or create a situation where what we want to have happen is the same as what they want, it's a part of the world. Selfish people are out there, but they don't need NLP to be selfish!

In terms of how I teach on the business practitioner session, the most important factor in persuasion or influence is your intention, because it will influence your behaviours, both conscious and unconscious. Unconscious behaviours do influence- if you're badly intended it comes through.

TrainingZONE: What's the gain to training professionals of using NLP for themselves or within their training delivery?

Michael Breen: This may sound strange, but I don't advocate the general use of NLP. Working on the business side, I ask people to figure out what they'd like to be able to do differently, to focus in on what they want. Once they've done this, they can use the NLP tools to find out how. I believe strongly in an application-driven approach, not techniques, and learning to use thinking to create applications.

TrainingZONE: Is there any role for developing NLP online, aside from publishing tools or promoting it?

Michael Breen: People do indeed download tools, but our view is that words are not experiences in themselves. Some people have read too many books, and as a result have a fixed idea of what NLP is which prevents them from discovering how to use it. In terms of teaching methodology, we take people through experiences - rather than say, here's the way it should be. Richard Bandlers' and my applications are different - what we do in taking people through experiences is to give them a basis for them to generalise on. It's not a religious approach, working from principles, it's an art form.

TrainingZONE: What's the link between NLP and hypnosis?

Michael Breen: Hypnosis is one of the topics Richard Bandler got interested in early on. However, the psychiatrists he spoke to told him hypnosis is bad and it doesn't exist. Naturally he wanted to know why!

He made a connection with Milton Erickson, who's a world-renowned hypnotist and who takes a different approach. Richard Bandler applied his own tools and skills and looked at a few specific areas of Erickson's work - his use of language, the strong patterns around how he would communicate - and noted strong parallels to patterns of persuasive communication. Some people would prefer it if NLP hadn't become involved with hypnosis, but it's been a fruitful area to find out how people respond and learn from communication.

TrainingZONE: A topical question - what do you think politicians could learn from NLP - if they haven't already?

Michael Breen: Many politicians in the US, and certain politicians in this country, have incorporated some ideas into their process, but it hasn't been used in its most extensive form. On the business courses I run, I do use sections of speeches where effective political speakers 'clean up the floor' when they use certain methods. The work of Robert Cialdini, who's well-known for his work on influence (see an earlier feature on TrainingZONE), can be set in the context of political world - time after time, you can find examples in political campaigns - the principle of liking, responses to symbols of authority, reciprocity...

I'm collaborating with Robert Cialdini at a conference in June. He is interested in theory and principles, but we've found common ground.

TrainingZONE: Finally, aside from the forthcoming HOT conference, what are your plans for the near future?

Michael Breen:On the corporate side, I'm working on a pragmatics of consulting, rather than the theory. The work is in the prototype stage and we're looking to make an academic connection. On the public side, we're currently discussing a TV series through the link with Paul McKenna which will look at how we believe and how we comply with instructions.

Michael Breen spoke at the Innovation Day of the H.O.T. Conference at the NEC on 26 June 2001. For more information on McKenna Breen, see or telephone 020 77046604.


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