Language - your body believes everything you say

By Sarah Frossell

Published in Rapport Magazine Summer 1999

. . . the title of a book written not, as you might imagine, by a NLP practitioner but by a remarkable woman who worked to heal a brain tumour by observing herself and her responses to the onset, development and cure of an illness with which she lived for over fifteen years.

Her conclusion: that we can both damage and heal ourselves by the way in which use language, fits perfectly with the theory underlying the discipline of NLP and is one which I intend to examine here.

Every single thing we say, all the language we use, whenever we use it, whether we are speaking to ourselves or to others, is having an effect on those people listening to it. The more research we do into the effect of language, the more we understand that we can't not affect ourselves and the people around us by what we say and how we say it. Language, whether it's your own or other people's, has a powerful physiological effect on anyone and everyone who hears it.

Bearing that in mind, my question to you is: would it be useful to you to understand more about the way it works, the way it impacts on our bodies, our physiologies, so that you can use it to better effect, understand what you are actually saying to yourself and the people around you and vary your grammatical constructions to communicate what you really want to say more effectively? If your answer to this is 'yes', then continue on from here . . . .

My perception is my reality . . .

We all spend a huge amount of time at the front end of our NLP training observing the effects of what is said and thought, watching how people respond to external and their own internal input, noticing exactly how we can become more cognisant of the responses that we and they demonstrate. The reason: most of us are internally focused most of the time. We need to practise being more externally focused; noticing how what we are saying is being received by others.

We are, in the main, aware of our own emotions, of what we want to do and how we need to influence people, where we want to go next. We are good at perceiving the World from our own position, 'first position'. We are, in general, less good at stepping into other people's shoes, at 'second positioning' them, or of standing outside a situation and seeing the whole of it, as an impartial observer from what we call 'third position'. In order to become excellent NLPers we need to learn how to do all of these things - and do them well.

To begin at the beginning . . .

So, since we are all so good at doing things from our own perspective, at seeing, hearing and feeling from first position, I'm going to suggest that you use that ability now to see, hear and particularly feel how language works on your own physiology, so that you can take that information and use it later with others more and more elegantly and creatively in the future.

And I'm also going to suggest that, as this is only an introduction to the subject, a starting point, I'm going to be very simplistic in my approach to language. I'm going to examine some straightforward linguistic constructions, which you can use as the basis for your own further experimentation and observation, bearing in mind that,

  • every person you work with brings along their own perceptual filters
  • their filters are likely to be different from yours
  • those filters will affect the way they respond to your ways of communicating with them.

Language Affects our Physiology

Everything we say or hear said has an impact on the physiology of the listener. It is this that makes it so important that we use our language as elegantly as possible.

Test it now. Say to yourself:

'I have a problem'

and notice how that impacts on you.

When I ask people on workshops to do this the majority report that they feel stuck, their body tenses up, that they feel a sensation as if their body were going down, or that they feel heavy and pressured. Does this do that to you? Or do you, perhaps, feel excited by the word 'problem'; do you feel an uplift because of the challenge it represents?

There are a number of possible reactions you might have. Start to become as clear as you can about those. And notice, as you do so, how your body posture changes and moves with the language you use.

Verb Relaxes

So how can you use language artfully to change the way you feel?

ConnieRae Andreas talks about using what we normally refer to as verb tenses as verb relaxes because the effect of using them well is to 'relax' or stretch language patterns which may have been feeling restricting. By doing this we can help loosen the constrictions we, or the people we have been talking with, may have put upon ourselves.

Let's take an example by going back to our 'problem' and seeing how by expressing it in another way we can create a different feeling around it.

Once again I suggest you do this by speaking the sentence to yourself.


'I had a problem,'

and notice how it feels now. Different from the first time? Has anything released in your feelings? Is there, as some people report, a feeling of having put it behind you?

How about:

'I am solving my problem'?


'When I have solved this problem, I'm going to have a lot of new information to work with'?

or even, if you want to move backwards and forwards even more broadly:

'When I will have solved this problem, I will have learned a lot about myself and the way I work best.'?

Now, having worked through those examples, and noticing the effect they have each had on you and your filters, generalise the learning you have got from that into working with others.

If you're coaching an individual or a group think about how devastating using the present form of the verb may be if you link it into something that had been going wrong. Consider carefully, when you are assisting people with issues, whether you have helped to free them and moved them forward from where they were into where they want to be - or whether you might sometimes have inadvertently reconnected them into past issues.

Believe me, it's an easy thing to do when you haven't sorted these issues out clearly for yourself. I recently saw an NLP trainer do a perfect piece of change work for a demonstration. Then, having completed it and helped the client shift his state, he re-anchored him in the negative by taking him back through the beginning of the process in order to explain a point to the audience! Believe me, we do need to be very careful!

The Power of Presuppositions

Everything we say presupposes something else. It's the basis of most of our learning. The surface structure of our language, the things we actually say and hear other people saying, are simplified versions of what lies underneath. As we've developed from childhood into becoming adults we've learned how to 'read' the things that are left unsaid more and more effectively.

Consider the following sentence:

'Unfortunately, John had failed to notice the cloud build up on the mountain behind his house that morning.'

A number of things are presupposed here, that:

  • someone called John exists
  • he has a house
  • there is a mountain behind it
  • he can see
  • he usually notices the weather behind the house
  • the cloud build up is in some way a significant part of what is going to follow
  • etc. etc.

It's rare for us to consider all this consciously. Normally we just accept that we have understood the deeper structure of the sentences we hear. When you think about it, this is the stuff which makes good comedians so funny. It's not what they say, it's more what they don't say . . .

Developing the way you use underlying presuppositions will help you to master the art of NLPing, as well as enhancing your influencing skills in general. I spend a good deal of my time running training workshops and believe that by using presuppositions effectively, I can speed up my clients' learning quite markedly.

Let's just think about a few basic constructions - I hear these all the time as I go about my daily business and feel sure that if more people were aware of how they worked on our thinking we could change the tenor and culture of many of our workplaces very quickly indeed!

Ponder on the following:

If you can do this, you'll be one of very few people to have succeeded.

as opposed to:

When you can do this, you'll be one of very few people to have succeeded.

'If' is, of course, crucial when you want to allow or encourage people to make their own choices. And that is a different and more useful use of it than the way it has been used in the first sentence.

What about the word 'try'?

I have huge debates with primary school teachers about this one. They all use 'try' with what I can only describe as great abandon because they want to allow their pupils the space to find different ways of doing things, to fail comfortably. The problem with the word 'try' is that it will always presuppose failure. Trying to do something is very different from actually doing it. And research suggests that every time we tell someone to 'try' their brain processing will flip instantly into the left hemisphere, which is where we all 'try out' new sequences before our right hemispheres sort out the pattern for us and allow us to work it through in a whole-brain way. In other words, using 'try' is likely to slow up rather than accelerate the learning process.

My advice. Cut the word 'try' out of your vocabulary - or use a typical Tad James construction 'Try in vain not to . . .'

The Difference that Makes the Difference . . .

A word very commonly used in education of all types - and in industry is 'difficult'.

The majority of people sort by sameness and like to succeed. If you tell them something is likely to be difficult, they'll move away from it. The last thing they want to do is set themselves up for failure. And believe me, substituting the word 'challenging' is transparent. They know perfectly well that that means the task is difficult, darned near impossible. They will tackle only things that are presented as easy or that they feel are attainable.

Five to ten percent of the population sort by differences. These people love to engage in the tasks that other people resist. Why, they ask themselves, would I choose to spend time doing what ninety percent of the population can already do? How does that differentiate me from the crowd? Words like 'difficult', 'hard', 'challenging' are grist to their mill.

The lesson. Be aware of who you're talking to and adapt your language accordingly.

Don't Think That This Will Be Fun . . .

We Brits are exceptionally negative as a nation. Our language reflects that negativity. The famous command not to think about pink elephants does inevitably bring up the very image we want to negate simply because of the way in which language works on the brain. We have to create a positive image or statement before we can negate it. And it is that image or statement that the brain picks up first and works on.

Have you ever told yourself not to forget your keys? Or a child not to fall off a wall? What happens? Yes, you're right. It always happens. What you've been doing is commanding people to do just what it is you'd rather they avoid.

But Me No Buts . . .

And what about 'but' in the context of, let's say a performance review session. Yes you agree, a really good year's work. This and that target has been achieved BUT what's needed now is X.

The word but, and other words like 'however' and 'nevertheless', knock out everything that goes before them: a useful thing to know at times and usually to be avoided if you wish to avoid demotivating people.

You might choose to substitute the word 'and' in the same sentence and notice the difference.

Using it . . .

So how can you use this brief tranche of information as a real starting point for your increasingly elegant handling of language?

Well, you might learn, as one of my clients did, how to utilise it all in groups to move people forward into learning faster and more effectively. She was 'instructing' a class of new accountancy recruits to Arthur Andersen, had recognised the fact that while her teaching was, in general, exceptionally good, she had a tendency to cut people off at the knees with her language patterns. She re-invented these to say things like:

'For some of you this will be really difficult, but, providing you trust me and do all the exercises that I set you during the next two weeks, I guarantee that you will have found the whole subject really easy when you get to the end of it and look back over all that you've learned.'

The first clause, up to 'but', was intended for those who sorted by difference. She knew that the word 'difficult' would transport them instantly to the very places they enjoyed, while the rest, who by this time would be trembling with trepidation, would find themselves wiping out their fears as soon as they heard the 'but' and could attach to her promises of a future where MAFM became easy and comfortable!

How did she do it? She played with her language just as you can. Experiment. Use all your NLP skills to master it. Look at, feel and above all tune into the language you are hearing and using. I guarantee that when you link it to clear outcomes for your clients, everything will work more effectively.