One of the things NLP teaches is that details are important. Details have always been important, of course, but they are often overlooked. A TV show I saw recently had a couple of detectives enter a mosque to talk to the Imam. He has them leave their shoes in the entryway. We see them remove their shoes, and we watch the female detective use her shawl to cover her head. We watch them have their chat with the Imam, and then we watch them leave the mosque without stopping to put their shoes back on before hitting the cold and frozen streets. Although I was watching this show by myself, I actually laughed out loud. Think about the number of people who had to overlook that detail for our heroes to end up back outside without their shoes: the actors, the director, the film editor, and whoever else might have been on the set when that scene was shot. It would have been easy to simply fade to black before our detectives left the building, but the camera follows them as they stride purposefully out the door without stopping for their shoes. Details….

One of the challenges for those learning NLP is the number of details typically presented as essential to understanding subjective experience. NLP is usually defined as the study of the structure of subjective experience. That implies paying attention to a variety of details—and to the details required to correlate those details with other details. That is, of course, no different from any other complex subject. The problem is that most people tend to expect communication to be easy and “automatic.” After all, they’ve been communicating since childhood and perceive their communication skills as being excellent. For this reason, when something doesn’t go right, it is often easy and automatic to blame the other person.

Since its inception in the late 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the main complaints about NLP have been (a) that it doesn’t work and (b) that it works too well. The “it doesn’t work” group consists primarily of those who have been unwilling or unable to correlate the details that require correlation. The “it works too well” group consists primarily of those who have observed the way NLP seems almost “magical” in the way it produces results. There are also those, of course, who say, “It doesn’t work, and it’s manipulative,” which seems to be a strange combination of the two views: “It doesn’t work, and it works too well.”

Research during the early days of NLP led to the “it doesn’t work” concept. A number of early studies focused on eye-accessing cues with the hope of proving the meanings of eye-accessing cues by matching them to sense-based predicates. The problems with these studies were caused by a number of pesky details. Those watching for eye-accessing cues and listening for predicates had too little training for the task. One of the studies, for example, used graduate students who had only two weeks’ training as observers. An even more glaring oversight was that those who had designed the studies had failed to notice that eye-accessing cues are a process of the unconscious mind, while language is primarily a conscious process. Real eye-accessing cues happen below the level of conscious awareness, while language is more of a conscious process. Although there is some overlap, eye-accessing cues are a right-brain function, whereas language is primarily a left-brain function. If you tell me something that leads me to feel bad, I might give you a kinesthetic eye-access while saying, “I see what you mean.” Early researchers would have marked that in the “it doesn’t work” column. (If eye-accessing cues are new to you, see for an overview and brief video.)

Successes with such early NLP techniques as “The Fast Phobia Cure” led to the “it works too well” concept. If NLP can eliminate phobias and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in less than an hour, what happens to all that unused insurance income for psychotherapists? Another factor was that some of the early practitioners were specializing in questionable applications, such as “speedy seduction” techniques and “sleight-of-mouth” sales presentations. The differences between failing to understand why and how NLP works and being able to use it well—even when one’s motives aren’t all that pure—are based on paying attention to significant details. Note that “significant” presupposes that some details are more important than others. A long time ago in a workshop far, far, away, Richard Bandler emphasized the importance of nonverbal details and added, “I’m not talking about getting up close and squinting. I’m talking about the big things.” The “big things” he had in mind are easily observable when you know which details are significant.

In any endeavor, the details mark the difference between excellence and “run-of-the mill.” A long time ago, I went shopping for a conversion van with my father, who was an architect accustomed to paying attention to detail. In checking one brand-new, very expensive van, my father said, “Look at this. The doors don’t even fit….” I looked more closely, and—sure enough—the door and its frame were out of alignment. If the door and the frame were misaligned, what other details had been overlooked in building the vehicle? In building construction, contractors can save money by using “butt joints” instead of mitered joints. Butt joints look cheap. When well-done, mitered joints provide a “finished” appearance. They take a bit more time to do, and even a bit more time to do well, but they show attention to detail. Whatever your area of expertise, you can doubtless think of a number of examples that mark the differences between mediocre and excellent.

Can you imagine what life would be like if everyone paid as close attention to the details of communication as experts pay to construction, product design, computer programming, and any of the products or services that we use every day? When you study NLP, you learn to pay attention to the details that make a difference. In our NLP trainings, Debra and I focus on what we call The Big Three of NLP: Anchoring (a form of stimulus-response conditioning), Submodalities (the details of the sensory modalities, such as the size and brightness of a visual image), and the Advanced Language Patterns (the significant details of how language actually works). The “Big Three” are going on in all communication all the time, of course. The question is the degree to which you are aware of them. TV advertising, for example, is becoming increasingly sophisticated about using the “Big Three” to sell products and services. Unless you know how a commercial is using anchoring, submodalities, and hypnotic language patterns, you may find yourself being unduly influenced by what you see.

Most of NLP—and most of what it takes to be “excellent” in any endeavor—is being aware of the details that make a difference. I think so. In some cases, of course, the significant detail will be speed or cost. In some cases, doing something quickly will be more important than doing it well. In some cases, keeping the cost low will be the most important factor. The most important thing, however, is knowing which details are important at any given time for your purpose. Because you can make the best choice only when you really understand all the details, it is worth knowing how to recognize the differences that make a difference.

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