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NLP Gems – [5] Behind every behaviour there is a positive intention.

This core presupposition of NLP seems to provoke many a strong reaction in people on their first introduction to presuppositions of NLP. Of all the NLP presuppositions, this one is perhaps the most frequently misunderstood and many people object to this statement.

As used in NLP, “Behind every behaviour there is a positive intention” is not meant to be understood as “rose tinted sunglasses” hopefulness, or a “fluffy” pop-psychology tendency to discover only good in everything, or a blindly optimistic attitude, or (to some) exasperatingly cheerful state of mind or point of view.

It does not release a person from responsibility for upsetting or wrong behaviour.  It’s in effect about whom or what the intention is, and it does not place any value on the quality or usefulness of the behaviour.

So, Is It True?  Perhaps this is a good time to qualify where presuppositions and “truth” fit in the NLP context. NLP does not declare itself to be any more than a model, it’s like a map, a guide or a menu, and it doesn’t claim to be truth or to represent truth in any conclusive way.  You don’t even have to believe in its presuppositions.

Take science for example, it has no way of proving that, if I throw a ball through an open window, it will fall to the ground. Science might assert, instead, that out of the thousands of occasions that balls have been thrown out of windows, they have always fallen to the ground. This study ties in with a large category of other phenomena and observations – so it is thus logical to expect that any ball I toss through an open the window will fall to the ground. Consequently it is reasonable or logical to expect, or assume that it will happen every time.  There is no claim to unquestionable truth.

NLP presuppositions may be presumed as correct in the same provisional spirit or attitude. Perhaps they are or are not true, but for the purposes of an NLP exercise it is useful to work as though they are true for the context.

So how is all behaviour useful?

The NLP presupposition “Behind every behaviour there is a positive intention,” provides us with a way to intervene in challenging behaviours so they can be changed without destroying any advantage they were intended to give.

In this ingenious way we are able to sidestep one of the greatest obstacles to personal change, namely the fear of losing something valuable which the present problems or limitations seek to preserve.

NLP provides one of the gentlest human approaches to change purely because it recognizes the sheer value and importance of preserving the positive intentions behind the behaviours while making changes, irrespective of how unacceptable the behaviour may be.  Hence positive intentions are preserved and we are free to change the behaviours without the fear of loss. In this sense people repeatedly come across powerful new prospects that would have been perceived as incongruent and undoable before. Most people hate to face their own fear, they don’t like it when they quake, perspire and feel physically ill before they stand up and speak to a room full of strangers.   In this situation the fear response not seem to fit the situation – but the fear of (potential) public humiliation, can quite understandably be a valid response to deep-seated protection mechanism – logical if you have a fear of public speaking – silly if you don’t.  What if fear had a positive intent, what would that make it? This protection mechanism oddly enough tells us when things are unsafe, this way once we become aware, we can choose and react to avoid danger.

Fear is a complex internal communication, resulting in an increased awareness or perception of “danger ahead”. In the right circumstances it is an extremely high priority communication requiring a higher level of attention. That is why it is often so intense!. The experience may be unpleasant, but no-one wishes to lose the ability to send and receive these emotional messages. Experiencing a fear response and leaving a bad neighbourhood could save your life in some parts of the world.

Sometimes  people would like to respond to such emotional messages such as fear in a more resourceful way, so we need to be very aware that many of these messages have value.

What about “crazy” or irrational fears where no “functional” danger exists? This is often severely debilitating and can even paradoxically endanger someone. Here we need to consider how a person’s internal patterning works. The positive intention may be far different from most people expect – in this instance we will need to start at some a point where we don’t know what the positive intention is, Yet!

Here we are able explore areas that we would not otherwise have access to or knowledge of. This way we are able to bypass the perspective that irrational fear means there is something broken or there is something wrong.  By taking on this presupposition we can avoid the terrible mistake of blindly and simply suppressing a symptom without considering the useful resources behind any behaviour. Now, we can discover what our behaviours endeavour to do for us or just tell us. This way we can then choose behaviours or communications that empower. Basically we get to retain the positive intention and give rise to a new useful behaviour.

What if you can’t find the positive intention?

Often, intentions form from layers of patterns, hidden behind a maze of thoughts leading to thoughts about thoughts.  Lets use an example.

Edie’s ex-line manager ignored her skill and talents, and only spoke to her when she wanted someone to do some “dirty” work. Edie soon discovered the unconscious positive intention of her publically despising her manager, was that she enabled her to leave after being in the same organisation for over 17 years. If it wasn’t for her lack of respect, Edie would never have had the motivation and hunger to finish her executive MBA course, or even a chance to move to the big “people orientated” company. One in which for the first time in Edie’s career, she feels and is, valued and respected.

Have you ever heard about “purposefully ignoring someone”.

It’s in there somewhere, it works for me.

For a great lesson in positive intention watch this very entertaining TED presentation by Ernesto Sirolli

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