Exceptions to NLP Presuppositions

When and Where do the NLP Presuppositions Not Work?

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

When NLP first seduced many of us by its invitation to modeling excellence, to state management, to running your own brain, and to the exploration of the structure of subjective experience, it was the NLP Presuppositions that allured us away from our previous models of human functioning and psychology. What great principles we have in those NLP presuppositions! What empowering frames of mind!

And so they should be. John and Richard got them mostly from the three therapeutic wizards, Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. In previous articles on modeling and on the spirit of NLP, I’ve noted that it was through these NLP Presuppositions they snuck in the theory and theoretical foundations of NLP. Simultaneously they distracted people by saying that they are not a theory, just a model. I’ve also written a few articles on these NLP Presuppositions being the only facet of Perls, Satir, and Erickson which actually models them. Bandler and Grinder mostly modeled what they did, the products of their genius, the patterns that they used with others, not how they did it, their personal strategies, their supporting beliefs, etc. In the NLP Presuppositions, we have a glimpse into the attitude and spirit that drove and governed the communication wizards and which made them so creative and cutting-edge.

The NLP Presuppositions then give us a lot. In them we have the foundational principles of NLP, some of the theory of NLP condensed into short memorable sentences, the attitude and spirit for doing NLP, and the highest frames of mind that allow us to continue the adventure of discovery and modeling. Yet because the original co-founders and developers never wrote or said much about them (it has fallen into the hands of others to do that), we don’t have a fully explicated presentation of those presuppositions as principles. And that has generated some misunderstandings.

For example, recently after I wrote the article, “Who Owns NLP?“, several people said that perhaps we should apply the NLP Presupposition, “The meaning of your communication is the response you get” and assume that we are just not effectively communicating, and that if we were, there would be no lawsuits.

That got me thinking.

  • Are there any exceptions to the NLP Presuppositions?
  • Are they always and completely true for every situation?
  • Are they laws of human functioning similar to the “laws of physics” and cannot be broken?
  • Or are they general guidelines and principles that have to be contextualized and considered in interaction with each other as well as other principles?

Obviously, these “presuppositional statements are not absolutes, they are not divine commandments, they are not the final word about how the universe works, how human thinking and emoting works, nor even how neuro-linguistic states work. They are just great principles that function as wonderful guidelines for doing NLP. John and Richard and Tony Robbins spoke of them as “lies.” By that they meant that they are just good guesses, fine hypotheses, marvelous guidelines, but that they cannot be proved.

“The Meaning of Your Communication…”

This was the very first thing I ever heard about NLP. I was studying communication theories, and researching processes for facilitating more assertive communication when I came across the NLP Presupposition.

“The meaning of your communication is (or lies in) the response you get. To see what you communicated to another person, observe the responses you’re getting.”

In reading that I immediately recognized it as a great guiding principle. When people accept this principle, it completely undermines, The Blame Game. It also establishes the rules for a completely new communication game, The Evoking Game, “I evoke responses by my words, gestures, tones, etc., if I want a new response, I’ll have to change what I’ve been doing.”

In the context of working with clients, customers, students, employees, jurors, constituents, family, loved ones, friends, etc., this is a great principle. It encourages us to own our triggers and responses, and to assume that what people hear from us arises from the interactions between message sent and message received. In other words, I truly never know what I’ve “communicated.” That’s because I don’t know what the other hears. I can only begin to figure that out when I pay attention to how the other responds. The responses I get from the other indicates to me what I must have “communicated” whether that was my intention or not.

This distinguishes between our stimuli of talk, gesture, tone, posture, context, etc. and “communication.” I can know precisely what I said, how I said it, etc. All I have to do is audio and/or video record the sensory based triggers. But no cam-recorder is going to let me know what another made of my words and my non-verbals. I never know what message was inputted and processed. I never know what Meta-Programs, Values, Frames, Assumptions, Memories, Fears, Angers, etc. the other person uses to input and process my message. That’s why I have to calibrate to the other’s responses. When I do, I can pick up hints about the “communication.”

As a guideline for communication with our constituents, this leads to several enhancing results. It opens us up to the mystery of communication, the systemic nature of communicating, the importance of attentive listening, inquiring about feedback, refining messages that we send, taking the other’s filters into account, etc. This makes for better relating and understanding. It prevents us from reacting, jumping to conclusions, assuming that others use the same filters that we do, blaming when we don’t get through, etc.

But all of this only works when we have a person who is generally operating from the frame of wanting to relate, understand, do business, etc. When we have someone who has no intention of engaging in a conversation, dialogue, relationship, etc., then this principle does not work. Without the most basic agreement frame of wanting to do business together (personal or financial), the response we get may have nothing to do with us, with our messages, etc., it may reflect the different frames that we have.

If a person wants to create hurt, insult, manipulate, etc., then the response we get may tell us that the other doesn’t want an honorable exchange of ideas. It may inform us that the other wants to rattle our cage, knock us off-balance, and pry some information from that they can use against us. Couples who go through divorce often end up playing these games of hurt. Parties and governments taking rigid positions in negotiations often play zero-sum games. And in doing so, they may use all kinds of maneuvers that seem to convey good will, collaborative negotiating, etc. Yet it’s all a ploy, a seduction.

The no-fault, no-blame principle of communication then applies and best fits in situations of common decency when people are truly willingly to be forthright, honorable, and working within a Win/Win framework. Step outside of that framework, and the principle becomes less useful, less effective. It worked wonders when Satir used it in Family Therapy and when Erickson used it with clients.

It even works very well for trainers, coaches, teachers, principals, mangers, employees, therapists, etc. deal with “resistant” clients. As a guideline, it enables one to first stop, re-calibrate, listen, meta-model, pace, etc. Yet even here, after half a dozen to a dozen attempts to match message sent and message received, and one party continues to not become more aligned, we can suspect that something else is probably at work. That’s when it’s valuable to check and/or create an Agreement Frame about outcome.

  • What are we seeking to accomplish?
  • What business do we have with each other?
  • What outcome are you seeking?
  • How can we work together toward that end?

This means that “The Communication Guideline” of this NLP Presupposition works best when embedded inside of several higher frames of mind.

  • An agreement frame to communicate, relate, do business.
  • An openness frame about being forthright and honest.
  • A Win/Win Frame of truly wanting the best for all, or no deal.
  • A investment frame to engage in the process of dialogue, listening, and adjusting in order to understand.
  • A respect frame that is willing to restraint anger, frustration, and upset, so as to not flame the other with emotion laden terms of insult.

The fact that there are exceptions does not create a new rule. Surely we know that. And yet, as Houston Vetter has reminded me, some people will read about an exception and then use it to fall back into the Either/Or Blame Game. So I offer this caveat: Use the NLP Presupposition communication guideline again and again and again until you have plenteous evidence that there’s something else going on in the communication exchange. And, as you do, use the other NLP presuppositions to support and back you up: There is no failure; only feedback. The variable in a system with the most flexibility will have the most governing influence in that system in the long run. All behaviors are driven by positive intentions, etc.

Back to the Wizards

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful and insightful if Bandler and Grinder had not only modeled what the three therapeutic magicians did and said, but also what they believed, valued, their resourceful states, their meta-states, etc.? NLP might have left a different legacy than what we see today, twenty-five years later.

Actually, from what I know of Perls, perhaps there was too much modeling of his attitude, and too little of Satir and Erickson! From my readings into the two latter persons, I think that their magic with people was to a great extent a function of their attitude about people: their respect, honor, collaborative attitude, willingness to invest themselves mind and heart into others, their attitude of professional honor, etc.

Recognizing these higher frames of mind, these higher levels and the states (“core” states) or meta-states that they imply tells me that the NLP principles or presuppositions make the best sense when we contextualize them. Apart from the heart of caring for people, and being willing to invest in people, and walk our own talk¾ many of the principles lost their heart, and become mere techniques. When that happens, we lose the truest “spirit” of NLP.

So, Are there Exceptions?

Yes, of course. You bet there are. Most of the time the meaning of our communication is seen in the response we get. This is especially true when we’re dealing with any context where people are genuinely open, seeking to communicate, developing some relationship, and engaged in business. Even when people get into stressful states and are feeling angry, frustrated, fearful, etc., the meaning of our communication to them will be discovered in the response that we receive. This principle works very well as a general guideline maybe 95% of the time. But it does not always work.

Sometimes we have to take other factors into account. Sometimes we have to take other contexts (external and internal) into account to guide our subsequent communicating. Sometimes when we communicate, the response we receive may mostly indicate the other person’s state of not wanting to communicate, wanting to undermine our influence, and operating from other hidden agendas. It is possible to get into a conversation with someone and find out that they are playing us as targets. This happens whenever someone is “running a scam” on us. In that rare event, the meaning of our communication is not seen in the response we receive. Sometimes the response we get is intentional and designed to anger, upset, confuse, frustrate, or manipulate us in some way.

In such a situation, seeking to continue the exchanges while assuming the best of the other would not be ecological. It might create more harm for ourselves and support the other’s toxic games. If our response keeps a manipulative game going, then it undermines our own resourcefulness. The best thing to do in that instance is to Stop Communicating. Step back, reorient to your own values and visions, and to then engage in the other in some meta-communications about what’s going on. Bateson (1972) described this as the very technique that breaks up schizophrenic communications. He also noted the nature of hurtful double-binds, when one feels so connected and dependent upon another that he or she doesn’t have the courage, confidence, or skills to question the other person’s frames.

Note: Read Dr. Houston Vetter’s article “Frame Games and Exceptions to NLP Presuppositions” for his response to this article.


Bateson, Gregory. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballatine.

Hall. L. Michael (2000). Meta-States: Managing the higher levels of your mind. Grand Jct. CO: Neuro-Semantics Publications.

Hall, L. Michael. (2000). Secrets of personal mastery: Advanced techniques for accessing your higher levels of consciousness. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.

Hall, L. Michael. (2000). Frame Games: Persuasion Elegance. NS Publications.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., cognitive psychologist, international NLP trainer, entrepreneur; prolific author and international training; developer of Meta-States and co-developer of Neuro-Semantics. (P.O. Box 9231; 81501). (970) 523-7877. www.neurosemantics.com