Peter Freeth Explains Why the Presupposition ‘every behaviour has a positive intention’ Isn’t True

 Peter Freeth Explains Why the Presupposition ‘every behaviour has a positive intention’ Isn’t True 


peter smile

We have a real treat today. Peter Freeth – coach, author and business leader, is this weeks guest author. Peter has a world wide reputation, presenting at intentional conferences in Ukraine, Poland, Denmark, USA, Canada, South Africa, Ireland and the UK. Peter has taught NLP and coaching all over the world, and has been a “guest trainer” with some of the UK’s best known training companies.

Is NLP Misunderstood?

At this time of year, many people think about making a fresh start. They make New Year’s resolutions, and they think about changing homes, cars and, of course, jobs.

Sadly, what puts a lot of people off going for a new job, getting out of a rut and driving their careers forwards is fear of putting themselves up for judgement. They project their own self doubt onto the interviewer, convinced that the interviewer can see through their thin veil of confidence.

In my work as a coach and trainer, I would say that the most common manifestation of this that I come across is fear of public speaking.

A lot of what you’ll read about NLP on the Internet and in other books centres around the notion of “belief change”; that by using some magical technique to change your beliefs, you won’t have to think about your behaviour, it will all just fall into place by itself.

After one session with a NLP Practitioner – whoosh! – by changing this one belief with a magical technique, their whole life falls into place. They have the confidence to lead and the assertiveness to manage their team’s performance, and now that they believe that they are a good manager, they aggressively pursue the promotion opportunities that they had missed out on.

Sadly, this is a very optimistic set of expectations; of the client, of you as a Practitioner and of NLP itself.

Being able to uncover a belief and offer the client evidence to support the formation of new beliefs is valuable, and it will influence the client’s behaviour. However, wholesale belief change is not what NLP is about.

A phrase that I hear all too often is, “limiting belief”. This is, in my opinion, a terrible way to think about beliefs. A belief cannot be limiting, and to give the belief the active verb means that it is in control of you. Just apply the meta model – what is the belief limiting – you! But it’s your belief! That’s like opening your lunch box and sighing, “ham sandwiches again” when you make them yourself every morning!

Beliefs are not limiting. Beliefs keep you safe. They give you certainty about the world, so we shouldn’t think in terms of ‘belief change’. We should think in terms of what has to become true in order for an outcome to be achieved.

Imagine the owner of a conference and events company who is a nervous, even fearful presenter. What a job to choose! When he introduces a conference and welcomes the guests, he nervously shuffles, fumbles, sweats and can’t wait to get off stage. He feels panicky and admits that he hates getting up in front of people.


How would you approach this?

Would you perhaps anchor confidence? Or maybe set a Well Formed Outcome for a successful presentation? Or you might use some of the NLP techniques that you’ve learned to ‘reframe’ his nervousness as a useful and valid choice; one of many.

I can’t tell you what ‘would’ work in a hypothetical situation. I can, however, tell you what I did in this real life situation. What I looked for was the underlying rule that drove his behaviour. I figured that any techniques to address only his anxiety would just give him more to worry about.

You see, “every behaviour has a positive intention” isn’t true. It’s another phrase that I hear a lot, and it’s probably the most wrongly interpreted NLP presupposition of them all.

If you look up the list, you’ll see that the full statement is, “Every behaviour has a positive intention and a context in which it has value”.

Therefore, by understanding the context in which the belief has value, you will understand everything about the client’s beliefs that he or she projects onto the world. If you had to stand up in front of a crowd who were griping and groaning, booing and stamping their feed to indicate their boredom, you’d be scared too. It’s a natural reaction, and a sign that you need to get out of there right now. This situation often happens in real life, but at comedy clubs, not at corporate conferences, although, amazingly, I have seen it happen.

We should also note that the word ‘positive’ does not mean ‘good’. It merely means ‘exists’. Positive feedback means ‘do more of x to get y’, and negative feedback means do less of x to get y’. So a positive intention is just an intention to achieve something.

In exploring his role in the conference and how he saw himself in relation to the audience, I was able to reveal a belief; that his role in the conference was not important.

We can then make a connection between the belief that his role was not important, therefore he was not important, and all of his anxious behaviours.

First, I did a ‘conversational reframe’, which is simply a way to offer up alternative points of view and set the scene for the change process. If you were to pick apart what I said to him, you could see a number of NLP techniques within it. I appeared to ramble on a number of subjects; going to the cinema, seeing a play or pantomime, going to a conference and so on. All of these examples contained a similarity; that what happens at the very beginning determines how you feel about the whole event. He then realised that his role in the conference was potentially the most important. His role determined how the guests answered, in their own minds, the question, “Did I make a good decision to come here?”

I hadn’t tried to convince him that his role is important, he’s arrived at that conclusion all by himself.

So, now he was open to other possibilities, but he still needs hard evidence, so I used a little trick that is one of my personal favourites. I got him to focus on something that was such a minor detail, in this case his use of ‘cue cards’ rather than trying to remember everything. He had watched other conference speakers working without any notes, and assumed that their confident appearance meant that they were much ‘better’ than he was. In fact, there are other explanations. They have probably delivered the same lecture or speech hundreds of times and they know it like a child knows a nursery rhyme. That doesn’t make it good. Their confidence might actually be arrogance, a sign that they have disconnected from the audience, which is not good either.

I asked him if he thought that these confident presenters were any good, in his opinion. He said no, but the audiences always applauded.

That’s what audiences do. Nightingales sing, rivers flow, audiences applaud politely.

To be fair, he had done what we all do; taken snippets of reality and put them into a collage, the result of which was a belief that he wasn’t as good as these other presenters, and his role wasn’t important. He had made them the stars of the show and whilst they may have been what the audience were paying to see, my client was unwittingly the ‘warm up man’, and if the warm up man doesn’t warm up the audience, the main act falls flat on its face.

By the way, taking snippets of perception and making a collage from them, much like the poster to advertise a movie, is called ‘in-time representations in a between-time structure’. This is what happens when people say, “I’m always trying to lose weight”. No they’re not. But by focusing on the times that they’re conscious of trying, they don’t notice all the times that they already are losing weight. Smoking is another good example, where someone might say, “I keep trying to give up, and I manage it for a few weeks, but then I start again. I just can’t give up.” Actually, they excel at giving up, they’ve done it several times! That’s not the correct focus; instead they should forget to start again after they’ve successfully stopped!

At this point, the client had a number of different options, which meant that he was receptive to new information to support a change in belief. And now we get to my favourite trick.

Remembering everything that he had to say was a problem too. He had tried cue cards, but found that they didn’t help. I suggested that writing words on cue cards was the problem for him, because he had to stop speaking in order to read the words, and that interrupted his natural flow and allowed the self doubt and anxiety to creep in. I gave him some slips of paper to use as practice cue cards and got him to think up symbols instead of words. A clock for start and finish times, a cup for breaks, a stick man and woman for where the toilets are, a speech bubble to introduce the speakers, a question mark to let the audience know when they could ask questions, and so on. Part of his problem was that he couldn’t remember everything that he needed to say, and he had created an unrealistic expectation based on what he’d seen other presenters do.

Another perspective is that when the conference speakers deliver their habitual lectures, they are telling a story, like walking a well worn path. It all connects together, and they’re using slides and other prompts to keep themselves on track. While that audience may not have seen the presentation before, they’ve actually delivered it dozens of times.

My client’s introduction was quite disjointed; the things he needed to say were all important, but they didn’t have a flow or story. The ancient Greeks had a way of giving such disjointed items a story of their own, called the Method of Locus. This would involve an imaginary journey that begins with looking at your watch and noticing the time, stopping for a cup of coffee, going to the toilet, meeting someone and talking to them, meeting someone else and asking them questions, and so on.

I didn’t get him to try this, I just stuck to the cards because they were easier, and he was already using them. If you can attach change to something the client already does, they will have a natural, ongoing reminder of it. The thing I like about simple tricks or props is that they serve many purposes.

For example, the symbolic cue cards gave my client:

  • A reason for his past difficulty (reading words)
  • Something to do with his hands
  • A reminder of what to say
  • Something new to try (the symbols)
  • A magic token, like Dumbo’s magic feather, Popeye’s spinach or any other ‘placebo’
  • Something to focus on
  • Something to take his mind off the problem
  • An activity that presupposes change
  • A rehearsal activity

Any intervention, any technique, has multiple ways of working, and one of the worst things that happens at NLP Practitioner training is that the students are told what each technique is for. They’re presented as keys which only open one door, one way, and their coaching sessions simply become a routine of trying all the keys until they find the right one. Mapping out the context of the issue first is absolutely vital to success for the client.

For example, a swish is a technique that you can do in dozens of different ways. You can wave your hands, imagine rubber bands flinging images around, turn a page, start a new sentence half way through another. That’s a linguistic swish, by the way, where you start by pacing the client’s current experience and then introduce a pattern interrupt and redirection half way through. The mistake I’ve seen every NLP trainer make is to make the outcome something desirable, and this is dangerous, because all you’re doing is replacing lack of choice A with lack of choice B, and who’s to say it’s the right outcome anyway? When you do a swish, what you need to aim for is just to break the pattern and open up choice. Now, it’s all very well me saying this, and just because you’re reading these words right now doesn’t mean that bananas will ever evolve intelligence by themselves, which is why the swish is such a powerful tool and should really be used in every coaching session at least once.

So the more ‘mileage’ you can get out of everything you do, the more effective you’ll be.

I had my client practice his introduction a few times, during which he relied less and less on his cue cards. As he did this, I asked him about what he was doing, how he was feeling and, most importantly, what differences he was noticing. We ended the session with him genuinely looking forward to trying out his new cue cards.

Did this “work”?

If you mean, “Was the client able to present at conferences more comfortably, without anxiety?”, then the answer is yes. But a technique, or a whole coaching process, is only the beginning, and you must never underestimate the amount of work that your client must still do in order to achieve what they want. In many cases, you are asking them to break the habits of a lifetime, and accept a different possibility for the most difficult belief of all; that things will always be the same.

A few years after the coaching session, I met up with the client again. He’s now the Managing Director of the UK branch of a large global conference organiser, and he told me something that surprised even me – that the coaching session had changed his life. It had enabled him to seize new opportunities, and it improved his overall sense of confidence and self worth, because he was no longer afraid of something that he’d been telling himself for years was a silly, irrational fear.

He was even able to do something that, previously, he would never have attempted. He gave a speech at his own wedding, still using the visual mnemonic cards, and actually enjoyed it.

peter smile

Learn More about Peter Here:  Peter Freeth has almost 30 years experience in business, with first hand experience in technology, sales, management and team development. He has worked with major global corporations including HP, British Telecom, Parker Hannifin, Babcock, Mizuho, VW Audi, Barclays, Santander, Mercer and Google and delivered impressive results including doubling sales conversions, increasing profitability by 700% and accelerating the career development of 83% of Babcock’s future leaders.

Peter first encountered NLP in 1993 while working in the Telecoms industry and has been studying, developing and teaching it ever since. Over the past 20 years, Peter’s experience and work has expanded into the field of coaching and more general public and corporate training in such areas as sales and leadership.

Peter has written 9 books on various business and management subjects as well as countless magazine articles. He has presented at intentional conferences in Ukraine, Poland, Denmark, USA, Canada, South Africa, Ireland and the UK and is an expert in the field of developing high performing cultures in business.

Peter has taught NLP and coaching all over the world, and has been a “guest trainer” with some of the UK’s best known training companies. Today, Peter’s focus is on executive coaching and business performance consulting through his company, Revelation.

Learn more about peters new book here: Genius At Work

Chris Delaney NLP Life Coach, Hypnotherapist and Career Advisor is available for booking for One to One Private Sessions, Group Training Sessions  and Public Speaking Events

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Chris Delaney NLP Life Coach, Hypnotherapist and Career Advisor is available for booking for One to One Private Sessions, Group Training Sessions  and Public Speaking Events

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