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Selecting a Resource to Anchor (NLP Anchoring)

There are many, many aspects of skillful anchoring. The elicitation, the timing, the smoothness and naturalness of introducing the anchor, the skill with which the anchored state is integrated or sequenced with the target state, etc. In this article, we want to focus on only one aspect of anchoring, selecting the state to anchor.

As we have reviewed the work of trainers and prospective trainers over the years, we have often heard the integration of anchors described something like this: “Be sure that the resource state is as intense as the problem state.” “If the resource state isn’t at least as strong as the problem state, the problem state may overwhelm the resource.” Some people go even further to assign numerical intensities to states: “If the problem state is a minus 6, make sure that the resource state is at least a plus 7.” This kind of understanding leads us to focus primarily on the quantity of the state, rather than its qualities. We have often jokingly called this “the mathematical theory of states.”

Speaking in these terms is an indication of some simplistic presuppositions about states that are not useful: that states battle each other in the process of integration, and that only the raw intensity of a “positive” state can overwhelm a “negative” state. In our early days, we were often taught with similar “conflict” or “combat” metaphors, and it took us a while to realize that there are much more useful ways to think about integrating states. Since the metaphors that we use to understand our work lead us to think in certain ways, (and also prevent us from thinking in other ways), it is important to re-examine them from time to time, and improve on them when we can.

A striking counterexample often points the way toward a more useful paradigm, and in this case, the phobia procedure does it very nicely. A phobia is one of the most intense states that a person can experience. Yet the resource that resolves a phobia, dissociation, is a very low-key state that most people would not describe as intense at all!

This counterexample demonstrates that it is not the intensity or quantity of a resource state, but its particular qualities that make it useful in changing a problematic experience. A resource state for concentration on mathematics will be very internal and utilize very little proprioceptive kinaesthetics, while a resource state for skiing will be very external and will utilize exquisite distinctions and feedback in the kinaesthetic system. While neither of these resource states is particularly “intense,” each is a powerful resource for the appropriate skill. On the other hand, each of these states will not be resources at all for the other task; they will be hindrances. A skier who attempts to do mathematics in his skiing resource state will do as poorly at that as a mathematician who tries to ski using his mathematics resource state, and each may become intensely frustrated as a consequence.

For many years people have been saying that we only use 10% of our brains. We don’t know how they came up with that figure, but probably the intent was to convince people that they were capable of much more than they had previously believed. It can be useful to note that using 100% of our brain is not particularly useful–that is what happens during an epileptic seizure or electroshock treatment. The problem is not that we are using only 10%, but that we are sometimes using the wrong 10%. When doing a particular task well, we may well be using considerably less than 1% our brain, but it is the appropriate 1%. What we accomplish when we successfully anchor a resource is to find the exact missing neurology that is needed for a particular outcome.

When a person becomes stuck in an unpleasant state, it’s because he is missing some ability or skill that would enable him to cope with a situation that is important to him. Or to put it another way, he is not accessing the appropriate neurology for the task at hand. The intensity of the person’s response is due to the importance of the problem situation, not the difficulty of the situation itself. A very simple difficulty may result in a very intense response, and often a very simple and unremarkable resource ability will solve the problem. A loose wire in the ignition of a car is a very small part of the car, but it can make the difference between the car’s running or not, and it may only take a moment to tighten it and solve the car’s “problem” completely (as well as the problem of the car’s driver).

The human brain has many very different capacities and skills, and each is carried out by a certain set of neurological events. Anchoring a state is easy. Selecting an appropriate state to anchor is far more important.

Often it’s appropriate to let the client select, since the client (and the client’s unconscious mind) knows far more about the problem situation than s/he could tell you in a hundred years: “What resource would make a powerful difference for you in that situation?” “Which of your many personal abilities and skills would be really useful to you in that situation, and would transform that problem situation into one that is easy for you to deal with in a useful way?” “When in your past did you encounter a similar situation that you found it easy to deal with resourcefully?” “What would it be like if you had the ability to deal with this situation in a fully satisfactory way?”

However, at other times, the client has no idea what state would be useful (or he may think he knows, and choose badly!). A search in the client’s personal history may turn up no similar situation that worked well in the past, and the future “as if” frame may also come up empty-handed. In this case a capable NLP practitioner will be able to gather enough information about the process parameters and the content of the problem state to be able to predict what kind of state will be a powerful resource in a particular context, for a specific outcome (as in the example of resource states for skiing and mathematics). A detailed understanding of the strategies and component submodalities,etc., that a person uses in the problem state can provide high-quality information that allows you to predict resource states with considerable specificity. However, the intensity of the problem state is the least useful piece of information; that only tells you about the importance of it to the person.

One of Milton Erickson’s greatest skills was his ability to elicit exactly the resource state that the client needed in order to make the desired change. He was especially adept at accessing “what the client knows, but doesn’t know that she knows,” or in other words, the client’s unconscious understandings. With a woman in great pain from terminal cancer, he elicited the pain-free state that would exist if a hungry tiger actually walked in the door. “And just how much pain would you feel, if you turned and saw a hungry tiger walk slowly through that door, licking his chops, and looking at just only you?” With a woman who was paralyzed below the waist and could not consciously control her urination, he set up a situation in which she imagined sitting on the toilet when the door opened and a strange man’s face appeared.

Ultimately, of course, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The client’s non-verbal response after the selected state has been accessed and anchored into the problem context is what lets you know what it is actually a resource in any particular situation. As an exercise, we would like to offer you a description of an actual client from twenty years ago, and invite you to select a specific appropriate resource state to solve his problem.

The client’s complaint is that he doesn’t like to kiss his wife because her breath smells bad. Both he and his wife want more cuddling and kissing. Her breath simply smells bad to him, so he tends to avoid close contact. This has been a problem since they first met over a year ago; they got married in spite of it. She has tried mouthwash and tablets, etc. but it’s only temporary, and neither of them liked the medicinal odor. Most aspects of his marriage are very satisfactory, but this one problem is causing difficulties. We explored very thoroughly and carefully for “secondary gain” and found none. Presuppose that the actual smell of her breath can’t be changed. (It may have a biochemical basis; they now have a daughter whose breath has the same distinctive smell.) What kind of resource state would you choose to elicit and anchor in order to change his unpleasant response to his wife’s breath?

We strongly encourage you to pause now, and think about what you would do in this situation. What kind of resource state would you choose to anchor? Read on only after you have chosen one or more options, and you will have an opportunity to learn something about how you think, and how you could usefully add some choices.

Some people choose a state in which smell is absent, such as a stuffed-up nose, or a situation in which a chemical, such as ammonia, has overwhelmed the nose. While this would work, it is equivalent to prescribing amnesia for a rape victim’s memory of the rape, and it exemplifies an approach that is perhaps appropriately described in mathematical terms. Amnesia, or numbness, or absence of smell are all examples of subtracting experience, which has certain dangers. When experience is subtracted, the person has less information, less skills, less perceptual sensitivity, less resources. In short, they become a less capable human being, and more at the mercy of their environment. Amnesia for a rape memory deletes all the bad feelings, but also all the useful information about that event that could be used to protect the person in the future, and this makes the person more vulnerable to a repetition. Lack of smelling would make a person more vulnerable to the potentially harmful effects of spoiled food or leaking gas.

In contrast, good NLP work is always additive. We always want to add information, add skills, add perceptual sensitivity, add resources, to make the client into a more fully human being, and more able to perceive and choose and respond to events. So the task of choosing a state to anchor is at least narrowed to the question, “What experience can we add in order to change the situation?”

We have observed one trainer who always anchors positive self-esteem as a resource. While feeling good about oneself is often a valuable state, it is no more a “cure-all” than any other state, and in this case could make him feel good about not liking his wife’s breath, or good about being willing to marry her in spite of it, etc. However, her breath would still smell bad to him.

Another prominent trainer typically anchors a state of confidence. In this case, confidence is irrelevant. How could confidence have anything to do with the smell of his wife’s breath? Confidence can be a very useful resource for someone who is competent and able to do something, but is hesitant about doing it. Since many people are hesitant about doing things that they are quite able to do, anchoring confidence can often be useful. However, consider a situation in which someone is hesitant and incompetent. If you anchor in a state of confidence, they will proceed to attempt to do things that they can’t yet do. This will inevitably lead to disappointment, which is not a particularly useful result, and s/he and others may also be harmed if the incompetence results in physical danger.

Some people attempt to anchor a state of neutrality. As a practical matter, it is very difficult to anchor a neutral response. At any moment we are neutral about thousands of events around us that we aren’t responding to, so that’s a very unspecific experience of not responding. Anchoring only works with a specific neurological response. In contrast, a pleasant response to something is specific, (as well as being much more enjoyable!) so it’s much easier to access a pleasant state and anchor it and it’s underlying neurology.

One possibility is to anchor one or more experiences in which the client is responding pleasantly to a smell. That is certainly an appropriate kind of resource, and often it will work, particularly if the smells that result in the pleasant and unpleasant responses are similar in quality. Since we didn’t try this in this case, we can’t say for sure whether it would have worked or not, but it is certainly an appropriate choice.

However, it is one thing to identify a resource state and anchor it; it is quite another thing to find a path or easy transition to that state. There is an old joke that neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them, and psychiatrists collect the rent. The task of NLP is to build stairways, or transitions, so that people can actually reach their desired outcomes easily (without becoming psychotic, and without paying rent to psychiatrists!).

The desired state is that the client have a pleasant response to the smell of his wife’s breath. What experience would provide a transition mechanism, so that he can easily access the specific neurology that will make it possible for him to change from his unpleasant response to a pleasant one?

Nearly everyone likes certain smells that were once unpleasant to them (and may still be unpleasant to others), usually because they became anchors for pleasant experiences at some time in the past. If you elicit and anchor the moment that the response changed, you gain access to the neurological shifts that occurred during the process of transition, rather than just the desired state. This also has the useful function of convincing the person’s conscious mind that the kind of change he wants is possible, because he can verify that it occurred in his past.

Once you ask the right question, the answer is usually obvious. We asked him to think of times when his response to a smell changed from unpleasant to pleasant, and he recalled two:

He had never liked the smell of new-mown hay, but early one bright sunny morning, driving past fields of hay, he found himself enjoying it.
He had never liked the smell of carnations (it seemed “medicinal” to him), until one evening he found himself enjoying their smell.
We anchored these two experiences separately on his arm with separate touches, and then held both these anchors while we asked him to close his eyes and imagine bending down to kiss his wife. As he did this, he reported that he saw his wife’s face with hay all around it, and she had a carnation held between her lips. (When you get this kind of cooperation from the client’s unconscious mind, you know you’re on the right track!) The re-anchoring was immediately successful, and twenty years (and several children) later the problem has not recurred.

Usually people think of anchoring states. Anchoring the process as someone makes a transition from one state to another is a very specific and powerful additional refinement. To make your future work even more elegant in this way, we encourage you to identify the specific transitional process your client needs, rather than just the target state. Even if the client only experienced it once in his life, when you find it, he’s got exactly what he needs to get there. Teaching a client how to identify and utilize these transition states provides them with a measure of fluidity and choice that is not available with static states.

But why should your clients get all the benefits of this approach?

Can you think of a time when you were furious and then suddenly burst into laughter?
How about a time when you were tired and irritable and then you woke up and were alert and in a good humour for hours?
A time when something you had considered ugly became enduringly beautiful in its own special way?
How about a time when you were “in your own world” and then broadened it to include someone else’s viewpoint?
A time when you were discouraged or bored with doing NLP and then your client’s process became intensely fascinating?
How about a time when you “weren’t in the mood” and then became gently passionate?
A time when you were complaining about life’s difficulties, and then became profoundly and tearfully grateful for simply being alive?
What other transitions would you like to be able to make in your own life now, . . . and when were you able to make them easily?
A much shorter version of this article was originally published in Anchor Point in 1988.
First Published in Anchor Point, July 2000, Vol. 14, No. 7, pp. 3-8

© 2000 Steve and Connirae Andreas

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Steve Andreas

Steve Andreas

Steve Andreas is an NLP trainer, author, publisher, modeller, and developer, with over 24 years experience in the field. With his wife Connirae Andreas he founded NLP Comprehensive in Colorado, one of the earliest NLP training institutes. Besides being certified as an NLP trainer by Bandler and Grinder, Steve has a BS in chemistry and an MA in psychology.

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