What do ‘Process’ and ‘Content’ mean in NLP?
Process not Content: The field of NLP makes the distinction between process and content. NLP is a process (not content) model. Content models are not NLP! I have seen books marketed as NLP texts that contain content rituals under the guise of NLP techniques. Skilled NLP trainers make the distinction when teaching between process and pattern and content examples. For example, NLP does not include mysticism, Clare Graves’ values or personality profiling. Training programmes that include these classes of material are not teaching NLP when presenting them. NLP does not tell you what beliefs or values you should hold. It offers processes to change and question existing beliefs, if you choose.
“The field of NLP makes the distinction between process and content. NLP is a process (not content) model.”
Here is an example of the difference. Many people in the English speaking world have strong, cultural or familial views on how to break into a boiled egg. There is also cultural meaning if someone does it differently from their way. If you tap the top of the egg gently with a spoon and slide the spoon in the side to take the top off, then people who take a knife through the side of the egg in a single swipe are “different” and vice versa. Another strongly contested opinion is whether the egg should be big or little (round or pointed) end up in the egg cup. These views are not simply about people being “like us” or “different”. They often express the idea that those who do it like us are OK and those who do it differently do not know how to behave properly. Yet there are families at all levels of society who demonstrate all the above options.
The first two sentences in the paragraph above give process information. The example and description of this cultural phenomenon is what people actually do and then what they believe about what they and others do. This is content. Content is great in stories as it enables listeners and readers to make representations of what is going on in the story. In NLP, there are many instances where we do not want to influence the representations of someone working out their own change. They need clear instructions of how to think about their content and the freedom to create their own representations from their own content. One of the worst offences in so-called NLP training is found in a process where the outcome is to create a new resource state to facilitate a situation of the subject’s choice. The subject chooses the context and the resources and the shape and size of the enclosed space where they are going to grow the new state. It is not the trainer’s call to propose that there should be a colour to the enclosed space, let alone name one. Nor should the trainer nominate any of the states to go in the space. The most flagrantly content contaminated version specifies a colour for the space, specifies five states and plays a specific piece of music to associate with each state. This is pure content and is not NLP.
Content is the “story”; opinion, gossip or interpretation that colours much communication. Process is the instructions for handling ideas and matters in the world. As an example of the distinction between process and content, artists paint pictures. They use specific processes to apply colour to canvas to achieve the effects they want. The content of a picture may be anything from an image of a person to a tree or an abstract composition. A commissioned artwork requires the client to provide the content while the artist provides the process.
If content is the “what”, then process is the “how to”. In a discovery exercise you may be given process instructions to prepare for the upcoming experience, which is unspecified. You could be asked to open your peripheral vision as widely as you can, and up and down to include awareness of what is happening beside you, above you and at your feet. This will often quiet your internal dialogue, but just to be sure, you may be asked to stop your internal dialogue by placing your tongue against your lower teeth or the roof of your mouth. When you do these things and explore your world in the state that ensues, you will have an interesting and different experience (unspecified). If you want to try this and go for a walk, do take someone with you to keep track of time and where you go.
An example of process instructions in real life is the comments from your GPS when you are driving. You give her (mine is called Angela – that’s content) the destination (that’s content, too). She tells you how to get there from where you are; “in 500 metres, turn left” or “make a U-turn if possible”. You provide the content in the form of a destination, Angela provides the process instructions. She does not express an opinion on your choice of destination, nor does she comment on the quality of your driving. That would be content and is outside Angela’s brief as well as her capacity.
“An important area of NLP is how we use our attention.”
An important area of NLP is how we use our attention. We can discover this most simply by participating in live experiential exercises and learn to refine and harness our natural abilities. This is a totally process based activity. On the other hand, many people in the NLP community use a list of finite examples of attention and profile individuals according to their responses to items on that list, thereby limiting those people’s development.
Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP