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14 Aug, 2008

NLP – Communication: Understanding Language

Posted by: The Coaching Academy In: NLP Articles

Language as we know is a very important aspect of the coaching process. As coaches, we listen out for the language used by our clients as this can provide a very important and significant indication of how they may be feeling and thinking. The language that the coach uses whilst coaching is also extremely important.

One area of linguistics that springs to mind for many of us is NLP – Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP is a linguistics technique that is now used and recognised by many people and is viewed by some as a powerful technique for maximising potential. This technique was developed in the 1970s’ by two people, Richard Bandler and John Grinder; however many of the concepts and approaches used are rooted in earlier research and work carried out by people such as Milton Erickson, Carl Jung, Noam Chomsky. The term ‘neuro-linguistic’ had been introduced by Alfred Korzybski and was printed in his book Science and Sanity in 1933.
Milton Erickson

Milton Erickson was an American born in 1901. He was colour blind, tone deaf, dyslexic and had a heart problem. He did not learn to speak until the age of four and because of his breathing and hearing difficulties had an unusual vocal pattern. Erickson had to spend some time in an iron lung as a child and during this time, he observed the way in which his family and friends responded to each other consciously and unconsciously. Following on from what he learnt he would construct remarks that he said to people to get them to do a ‘double take’ or produce a delayed response. During this time, he greatly improved his observation and language skills.

As Erickson’s health improved, he was able to live his life outside the iron lung. He taught himself how to walk by watching his baby sister as she took her first steps.

Later he studied medicine and psychology. His early life experiences had made him extremely perceptive when it came to the influence of language and behaviour. Erickson became interested in hypnosis and developed his understanding and skill in this area in later years.

Erickson’s work influenced thinking on the use of language that still prevail today. Some of his ideas on the use of language, we use and practice today in coaching although many of us are probably not aware that these are based on Erickson’s work.

His approach was low key and unobtrusive. He makes use of indirect language, suggestion and utilisation of the client’s own patterns of speaking, breathing and moving in order to bring about change. Of course, as coaches, we may not advocate all of his uses of language.

One method that we are familiar with in coaching that has roots in the theory of Erickson is matching and mirroring where as a coach you match the tone, body language etc. of the client to help with building rapport. A coach can also use this matching and mirroring subtly to slow an individual’s pace of speech if they are speaking particularly fast by slowing their own speech down, which will subconsciously encourage the client to match and mirror the coach and therefore slow their speech down.

Another term we are familiar with in coaching that was introduced by Erickson is ‘Reframing’. Reframing encourages the client to become aware of their negative feelings, pictures or self-talk and when they have reached this stage of awareness they can work on replacing their negativity with more positive responses.

Erickson developed a model, which is widely known as the Milton-Model. Features of this model are its use of generalisation, ambiguity, indirect language and suggestion. As non-directive coaches, we are able to relate to this view, as being non-specific in communication allows the client to use their imagination, which can lead to creative thought and accessing of the unconscious mind. The use of suggestion can also lead to change in a non-directive manner.

Let me explain this a little further. When in the options phase of a coaching session how often do we encourage our clients to think of all the options? We encourage them to think beyond the obvious options by saying things such as ‘Think of an option, even if it seems silly’.

Milton Erickson’s work has influenced some of the techniques that we use in coaching areas such as the use of pre-suppositions and reframing.

Pre-suppositions as a questioning technique are extremely important. This questioning technique is important as the question itself suggests that there is a possible action to be taken, inherent belief etc. For example asking the question ‘what did you learn from that experience?’ suggests that there was something to be learnt. We often call this the slide past. Presuppositions encourage the client to think creatively and consider options that they have not considered before. This is extremely powerful for the client and is one of the most significant outcomes from a coaching programme.

Another use of language that can be utilised when asking questions is the use of incisive questions. A typical incisive question could be ‘if you knew you could do that what would you do?’ The first part of the question encourages the client to consider their response to the question as though they do not have the limiting belief. The second part of the question invites the client to think about what action they would take. In essence, this type of question would focus the client on the positive aspects rather than the negative aspects. It would change the client’s current thinking.

Of course, there is more that I could say about the work of Milton Erickson but I am sure that you can see how it has influenced some of the techniques that we use in coaching.

1 Response to "NLP – Communication: Understanding Language"

1 | Annette Ecuyere

May 13th, 2009 at 12:33 pm


Imust admit I did not Erickson’s story and found it useful as a background for the techniques – certainly gives it some credit. I have done a very basic training course on NLP and found it a very powerful and useful tool with the young people i work with.

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