When Ecology Does Not Count

Checking the Ecology of The Ecology Check

Meta-States in NLP Patterns Series

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Ecology, the search to make sure that a process, intervention, way of thinking or feeling, or an action or response truly fits into the full context of a person’s way of life, values, history, relationships, health, etc., represents a central focus in NLP. And so it should. As a systemic evaluation, it enables us to step back and think about all of the embedded systems that we live in. It also teaches us a new orientation, one of looking for goodness of fit.

Typically we “run an ecology check” in our patterns, processes, interventions, and methodology by asking “the ecology question.” This boils down to a very simple question that can be asked in a variety of ways.

  • Does this serve you well?
  • Does this way of thinking, feeling, responding, etc. enhance your life?
  • Does it empower you or make you feel dis-empowered?
  • Are there any parts or facets within you that would object to this?
  • How would this fit into your life at work, at home, with your career goals, with your gifts and talents, etc.?
  • As you think about taking this resource with you tomorrow, how does that feel?

Such questions, obviously, evoke a larger sense regarding a specific process. It enables us to think about other factors, influences, and dynamics that we may need to consider to make a new resourceful pattern last. Frequently, “checking for ecology” flushes out hidden factors and agendas that would otherwise sabotage the success and effectiveness of an intervention.

Accordingly, we could even assert that a good part of the very spirit of NLP comprises this question and orientation. So we ask about new patterns and processes:

  • Is it ecological?
  • What about ecological concerns?
  • Is the ecology built into this pattern?

From here, we take the next step by using the ecological question as our criteria, value, or highest frame and we do so in order to quality check the pattern. This has led to one of the worst indictments that we can bring against a new process. “It’s not ecological.” In fact, this can become the NLP curse to defeat any process that we don’t like!

How Ecological is the “Ecology Question?”

Now it would seem that anything that addresses and looks at “the inter-relationships of organisms in the environment, or the totality or patterns of relations” would, by definition, always be ecological.

But what if the set of inter-relationships themselves sicken and make things toxic? What if the organism has a toxic relationship to its environment? What if the system under consideration itself is dysfunctional, hurtful, destructive, and unsane1? What then?

The founders of NLP, taking much of their original modeling from Virginia Satir and Family Systems, recognized that systems themselves can become quite destructive and sick. Frequently, the “problems” we experience arise due to some unsanity that’s incorporated within the system itself. Many of the stories that Virginia told about the families she worked with involved people who wanted her to help them become better adjusted to a sick system. They wanted the rebel or the scapegoat to just roll over and accept their labels so that they system could get back to an equilibrium. The abusive person just wanted his or her victim to get back to their normal non-assertiveness. That’s all. In such contexts, Virginia seemed always to take a hands on and un-ecological approach as she did things that (at first) made the symptoms worse and the system even more unbalanced. She first sought to deframe the system. This, of course, led to confusion, disorientation, and reactivity. The death throes of a system!

In systems theory and thinking, a vicious cycle or loop describes a system caught up in a closed-loop where its way of responding makes things worse, which then evokes more responsiveness from the system making it even worse, etc. Brief Psychotherapy describes this as “the attempted Solution is the problem.” Their prescription? Do anything that’s different!

In one family, her nagging evokes his silence and withdrawal. So she nags at him louder and longer. So he withdraws even further, getting angry and frustrated as he does. This pushes her buttons of feeling unloved and discounted, so she pursues him with even more words. This invalidates and insults him, so he gets even more angry as he pushes harder to get away.

Now imagine “checking the ecology” with this gal.

“You know, nagging doesn’t work, so imagine stepping into the resource states of being ‘loving,’ and ‘soft’ and gentle and just asking for what you want from your husband. Good. Now wouldn’t that enhance your life? Wouldn’t that be more ecological?”

“No! Not at all. He would then not listen to me at all and take advantage of being soft and kind. No way. I’m not going to do that! Are you crazy?”

Systemic processes, like a reinforcing cycle just described, leads us to experience the system as if it “has a mind and life of its own.” Here linear thinking about cause-and-effect only leads to more problematic influence on the problem as the individuals become more blaming, accusatory, finger-pointing, etc. Yet it also lies within the nature of systems to seek a homoeostatic balance. This balancing dynamic gives the system its energy to seek to return to its “norm”– even if that norm may work destructively in the lives of some of its members.

Here the problem lies in the system itself. The set of inter-relationships (ways of relating, beliefs, rules, values, understandings, etc.) has formatted and programmed the people to so respond. Seeking an “ecological” pattern or technique from within the system to “help” that system would only mean supporting and validating the status quo. In this case, checking for ecology makes things worse. Ecology within an unsane system perpetuates the unsanity.

Here also we now need to distinguish not only ecology asked from within or outside of a system, but also short-term ecology and long-term ecology.

A Good Word for Un-Ecological Responses

Sometimes the most ecological response (in the long run) is an un-ecological one (In the short term). Thinking systemically about systems in this way reminds us that the way we talk about something is just a way of talking. It is a map, not the territory. Our words and language patterns only attempt to map out the reality and is not the reality. So when we come to the limits of our language, we often have to check out our language itself if we want to speak with precision. Sometimes we even have to create a new language to map out a new and more sane approach to something. This is especially true when we want to map out systemic processes (the very heart of Korzybski’s approach). And sure, enough, when we think about the term “ecology,” we have a nominalization, a thing-ified verb. So what is the hidden verb lurking underneath the nominalized action?

“Studying (ology) the whole habitat or environment (Greek, oikos, house).”

To scientifically study and understand a whole environment, we often have to step back and go meta so that we can see system (i.e. family) as it is embedded in the next larger system, system (i.e. subculture of extended family), as it is embedded in the next larger system, system (i.e. a given culture), etc.

We do this very thing when we ask the ecology question repeatedly of ever larger meta-frames and the meta-phenomena that comprise them:

  • How does this new way of responding to your boss fit it with your job description and role at work? Do you find it enhancing your career goals and objectives? Does it make you a more valued employee?
  • How does this new response pattern fit in with your beliefs about your skills and abilities? Does it empower you in becoming more effective?
  • How does this behavior fit in with your sense of who you are? Does it enhance your personal identity?
  • How does this assertive communicating fit with your values? Does it enrich and fulfill your beliefs about what’s important?
  • How does this new resource fit into the entire work and corporate culture? Does it enhance things?
  • Etc.

This means that merely asking the ecology question is not enough. We have to ask it repeatedly and reflexively so that we ask it of as many of the relevant higher systems that it could be embedded within. Every level and meta-state structure needs to be checked. And we have to be careful not to ask it in a final way when inside of a sick or limited system.

When Does the Ecology Question Not Count?

It does not count when we only ask it within a system without stepping back to obtain a larger, system-wide perspective. To do that may only reinforce a dysfunctional system and make things a lot worse.

Ecology in that context does not count when we need to use such processes as Provocative Therapy. It does not count when you need to use a Pattern Interrupt, merciless tease a person out of incorporated non-sense, or when we need to exaggerate the thinking that created the problem so that it blows out, as in the Threshold Pattern.

It does not count when we have a sick and toxic limiting belief system. Ask a fear-ridden agoraphobic if an intervention of “going for it” ferociously is “ecological” for him or her! “Of course, it is not!” they will tell you. And inside their system of thinking-feeling, inside their neuro-linguistic, it is not ecological. Not at all. And yet, jarring them out of that self-reinforcing self-organizing system may be the most ecological thing– in the long run– that we can do.

When you do a belief change pattern– you do the ecology up front. You ask, “What do you believe that you wish you did not believe? What ideas, thoughts, or understandings have somehow been confirmed and validated so that, at some level, you’ve turned them into beliefs, but you know they limit you, sabotage you, and make life harder, meaner, and smaller? What would you rather believe?”

Such ecology questions set the initial frame for the belief change– from a limiting and dis-empowering belief to an empowering belief. Later, when you “run the pattern” and walk the old belief into “the museum of old beliefs” (the Dilts’ model), or jam the old limiting belief into “the submodalities of doubt” (the Bandler model), or disconfirm it with a strong and mighty Meta-No until it deframes (the Hall/ Bodenhamer model of Meta-Yes-ing)– the ecology inside the system does not count. At that point in the process, you don’t worry about objecting parts. Why? Because the old parts will, of course, object!

After all, you know the parts and relationships and comfort of the old limiting belief system will fight like hell against the new beliefs. Those old programs (in the form of the thoughts-and-beliefs of the old paradigm and all the experiences that the person has used and created to reinforce it) will not want to be de-commissioned. These parts will furiously object! Ah, the death throw screams again!

Typically, most of us cannot be “reasoned” into a new emotional belief. “Logic” has a hard time winning the day as the only tool to bring to bear on an old “illogical” belief. The old belief works like an attractor in a self-organizing system. It finds lots of “reasons” and “explanations” and “historical precedents” that “proves” itself validate. What else would you expect.

Now we can deframe. By using the questions of the Meta-Model, we can de-construct the old ideas. We can use outframing maneuvers like bringing the person’s awareness to the fact that the beliefs are not real, but only mental maps (the “Model of the World” Mind-Line). Or, in a much kinder/gentler way we can use a form of analogous reframing and laterally shift to another subject, and speak to the old beliefs in terms of some isomorphic metaphor.

There’s lots of things we can do to change beliefs more gracefully, gently, and elegantly. But when we use a direct, heads-on Belief Change Pattern, we typically enter the Lions Den and can expect a lot of agonizing roaring in the background– the death blows to an old system.

At that point, let the old parts rant and rave. Let them rage … in vain. The system was sick and toxic– you know what you want to believe. You know what would serve you much better. You see it modeled in others. So go ahead, click the mouse to Uninstall the old program. That will clear up space so that you can Install the new belief. You’ve already done the ecology work. In belief change work, you do that first, not in the midst of the belief change.

“But this is just ramming something down someone’s throat!”
“But that violates ecology!”
“You mean that you are experiencing some discomfort as an old system of ineffective responses is being shakened to its core?”
“That sounds ecological– in the long run.”

This, of course, does not prevent you from taking the time and trouble to obtain the positive intent behind every part of the old belief system and building it into the new. Sure you can do it that way. It makes it harder, less elegant. But it is a choice. Yet if you have co-created with the person a well-formed new empowering belief which the person finds compelling, you will have already done this.

Ecology and Excuses

All of this also applies when we deal with excuses. While many “reasons,” “understandings,” and “explanations” are legitimate or at least have some legitimate facets, we all know that there are also such critters as just plain stupid and idiotic excuses that are totally useless. As we have been using the Excuse Blow-Out Pattern developed in Neuro-Semantics, we have found that what stops a lot of people from just getting out thee and doing marvelous and magical things are a lot of stupid excuses.

“Well, I don’t feel like doing it right now.”
“But what if I make a mistake.”
“But I don’t know enough yet.”

Now often times, if you ask about the ecology within the system of thinking and feeling that created the ridiculous excuse– there will be all kinds of parts warning you against “just doing it.”

Likewise as we have been using the Mind-to-Muscle Pattern for installing great ideas and concepts, principles from experts in a given field– principles that have already been proven very ecological over the long-term, some people have been afraid of installing the principles for fear of “violating ecology.” I always suggest that we run the pattern sandwiched between two ecology checks: first we pick great principles that have been tested and that we will again check the ecology afterwards.

“You mean we’re not allowed to check the ecology during any of the steps?”
“I would recommend that you do not.”
“You mean we can’t?”
“Of course, you can. That’s not the point.”
“Well, isn’t it always right and good to check the ecology?”
“No, it isn’t.”

And that’s the point.


Ultimately we do need to remember that ecology is not a “thing” at all, but a process. It involves studying, exploring, and examining not only an immediate symptom and the immediate system, but also all of the other relevant systems that it’s embedded within. Sometimes we do that at the end of a process; sometimes at the beginning. When we do it at the beginning– and have clearly defined a desired outcome that a person has checked out as a bright and compelling goal, then “ecology” may not make any different when you use some techniques.

End Note

1 “Unsane” is the term that Korzybski used to describe a poor orientation to the world, a map that may not have broken with reality entirely (insane), but a limited and unresourceful map that leads to a poor adjustment and ineffectiveness. Korzybski took this term from psychiatrist P.S. Graven.


Bandler, Richard and Grinder, John. (1975). The structure of magic, Volume I: A book about language and therapy. Palo Alto CA: Science & Behavior Books.

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

Korzybski, Alfred. (1933/ 1994). Science and sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics, (5th. ed.). Concord, CA: International Society For General Semantics.

Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bobby G. (1997). Mind-lines: Lines for changing minds. Grand Jct. CO: E.T. Publications.

Hall, L. Michael. (1998). Secrets of magic: Communicational excellence for the 21st. Century. Wales, United Kingdom: Anglo-American Books.