NLP Modal Operators
In the January, 2000 issue, I pointed out that the meta-model was the foundation and origin of NLP. All the many specific methods and techniques that have been developed over the last 25 years have evolved out of asking questions based on it, and it still remains a foundational understanding for the entire field. I also discussed the value of returning to old distinctions to reexamine them to see what more can be learned from them, and gave two examples, submodalities and aligning perceptual positions.
Finally, I posed a set of questions about modal operators, one of the distinctions in the meta-model, and invited readers to respond to them. I think it is curious (but perhaps not too surprising) that despite so many people teaching modeling, and claiming to be modelers, I got only two responses. And it is much easier to answer questions than it is to figure out what questions to ask!
Here again are the questions (in italics), and my answers (not the answers). Ultimately the answer is in your own experience. The words that follow are my best attempt to point to your experience, and offer ways to think about it, organize it, and expand it. This is what I can provide now, and I hope that you find it useful. I’m sure that that this can, and will be, improved on, and I welcome suggestions for additions, reformulations, etc.
Modal Operators (MO)s
1. What are they anyway? What do they do, and how do they work?
A MO is “mode of operating,” a way of being in the world and relating to part of it, or all of it. A MO is a verb that modifies another verb, so it is always followed by another verb. “I have to work.” “I can become successful.”
Since a verb always describes an activity or process, a MO is a verb that modifies how an activity is done. A MO functions in the same way that an adverb does, and perhaps they should be called adverbs. Adverbs sometimes precede, and sometimes follow, the verb that is modified, while MOs always precede it, and this is part of the power of a MO. It sets a general orientation or global direction that is usually largely independent of content and context that follows, and it does this before we know what the activity is. A MO modulates our experience of much (or all) of what we do in very important ways. Think of any small activity, and describe it in a brief phrase, such as “looking out the window.” Next say the following sentences to yourself, and become aware of your experience of each of them, noticing how your experience changes with each sentence, particularly where your attention is goes, and how you feel:
“I want to look out the window.”
“I have to look out the window.”
“I can look out the window.”
“I choose to look out the window.”
The “mode of operating” in the first is to be pulled toward the activity, with a sense of pleasure and anticipation. The “mode of operating” in the second is to be pushed toward it, usually from behind, and usually also with some sense of not wanting to do it. (Thanks to John McWhirter for pointing out this push / pull parameter of motivation.)
The last two are somewhat different; “Can” simply directs your attention to alternate avenues of possibility. In addition to “looking out the window,” other directions get my attention. “Choose” presupposes these alternatives, focusing more on the internal experience of selecting between those avenues of possibility.
2. How many kinds, or categories of MO are there, and what would you name each kind?
I would list the four categories below: (with examples).
The first two have to do with being motivated.
a. Necessity: “should,” “must,” “have to.”
b. Desire: “wish,” “want,” “need”
The second two have to do with options that can be chosen in order to satisfy the motivation.
c. Possibility: “can,” “able to,” “capable.”
d. Choice: “choose,” “select,” “decide.”
Desire and / or necessity motivates us to change, and possibility and / or choice makes it possible. MOs of necessity and (im)possibility are the ones given most emphasis in many NLP trainings, because very frequently they are the basis for significant limitations. People often feel stuck and trapped by “have tos,” and limited by “cant’s,” and these are the most obvious kinds of limiting beliefs that people have.
MOs of desire and choice are often de-emphasized, or even ignored, but they are equally important, and they are a mirror-image to necessity and impossibility. For instance. when someone experiences a “have to,” usually it is unpleasant, and s/he wants to have other choices. Put another way, “have to” and “not possible” are equivalent to “not possible to choose other more desired alternatives.”
Since choosing between alternative possibilities, in alignment with our needs and desires, is fundamental to our survival and happiness, any limitation or reduction in these abilities will significantly limit our ability to have a good life. Every belief in our capabilities will have a MO in it, and many limitations will have either a MO of necessity or a negation of another MO.
This is the kind of difference that MOs not only describe, but also create as we talk to ourselves internally. It can be the crucial difference between someone who lives a life feeling as if they are an incapable, helpless victim of events, and one who experiences a world full of anticipation and opportunities for satisfaction of needs and desires. Working at the level of MOs, and the beliefs that they are embedded in, is usually at a considerably larger chunk size than working at the content level of a particular limitation, and because of this, the changes that are made will generalize much more widely.
Each of these categories includes words that express various degrees of intensity – even though people often limit themselves by reducing this wide spectrum to a crude either/or digital distinction. In addition to the words used in each category, the nonverbal intonation can also indicate the degree of intensity, and is often much more significant than the words.
a. Necessity has a relatively narrow range of intensity, but there is a definite difference between “absolutely must” and “should,” or “ought to.” Since many people think they should do things that they seldom or never actually do, there are “necessities” that are less than absolute.
b. Desire has perhaps the widest range of intensity, ranging from a faint inclination to smoking lust!
c. Possibility is not a digital distinction (possible / impossible) as it is often taught, but can also vary through a wide range, from very likely (nearly certain) to very unlikely, (improbable, but still possible).
d. Choice, too, can be artificially reduced to a simple limiting either / or (and there are a few circumstances in which this is perhaps an accurate description of the situation). But usually there is a wide range of choices, a multiplicity of options, not only of what to do, but of how to do it, where to do it, when to do it, with whom to do it, and why to do it.
3. How are they linked to, or related to, each other?
(I have found two major ways, one inherent, and one that is optional.)
Choice and necessity both presuppose possibility, but desire does not. It is ridiculous to say that a person can choose or must do something that is impossible. This inherent linkage can be quite useful. For instance, sometimes a person is tortured by thinking that they should do or choose something which is actually not possible for them – at least at the moment – but they don’t realize the logical contradiction.
To work with this situation, first you can pace the “should,” or the “choose” and even strengthen it. “So you really believe that you should do X.” Then establish in their experience that it is impossible for them to do X (at least at this time, in their present state of development, finances, etc.).
After doing this preparation, you can put the two together by asking, “How is it that you think that you should do X, when you know that it is impossible?” If the preparation was done thoroughly, this is one of those times when you can almost see smoke coming out of the client’s ears, as the two beliefs collide, the contradiction becomes apparent, and the “should” (and the problem) vanishes.
However, desire does not presuppose possibility; quite often we desire something that is not possible. This fact is the source of much human misery, since we can ardently desire something that is not possible. But this is also the source of human progress, as we are motivated to seek and discover ways to do what was previously not possible.
Some kinds of linkages are not inherent, but learned.
1. In the first of these, people simply combine MOs sequentially. “I have to choose,” is quite different from “I can choose,” (a bit redundant, since choosing presupposes possibility, but it does support the person’s sense of their capability.). People often say, “I want to be able to,” or “I need to choose,” or “I might have to,” but there are many other such combinations that very few people use, such as “I can choose to have to,” “I choose to not want,” and some of these are very empowering. Of course it is one thing to recoginize this kind of possibility, and quite another to access or create an experience of it, but recognition of the possibility is a very useful first step.
With four categories of MOs, and including their negations, there are 64 possibilities for these linkages (including the somewhat repetitive “choose to choose,” and “choose to not choose,” etc.) and it is useful to systematically write them all down, and experience what they are like. Some will seem familiar and “sensible,” but the ones that seem strange, or bizarre will be the ones you can learn the most from, because they stretch your map of what is possible – even if some of them are not particularly useful. This is a great way to sensitize yourself to the impact of how you and your clients are now linking MOs, and to experience the impact of the linkages that you seldom use, or never even consider using.
2. A second (and very similar) kind of linkage is to link two MOs sequentially, in an “if-then” cause-effect chain, such as “If I want to, I can.” or “If I have to, I won’t.” Knowing how a person typically links MOs gives you very valuable information about how their experience is limited, and what kind of situations will likely be troublesome. These linkages, like most generalizations, are often uncontextualized, and easily become rather global beliefs that are applied across a lot of different content and contexts.
Again, most people do not use certain linkages very often, and many of them can be very empowering. “If I choose to, I will,” “If I have to, I desire to.” “If I want to, I don’t have to.” Because these generalizations typically apply so widely in a person’s life, this kind of change can have a powerful and widespread impact on attitude and behavior.
Of course some of these linkages are much more useful than others, but if someone uses only a few choices out of 64, that is a pretty severe limitation in what is possible for them, and exploring additional possibilities can be very empowering.
Self / Other:
In the dicussion above, we presupposed that the person appplied the MOs to him / herself. If we add another person in relationship, we can get another 64 combinations, such as, “If you want me to, I have to,” or “If I demand, you should.” The applications for couple therapy (whether or not the other member of the couple is present) should be obvious.
Although linkages of two modal operators are most frequent, a linkage of three is not uncommon, and even more are possible. “If I have to, I can choose to want to.” Here there is an even greater variety of possibilities (256) and most of us only use a few of them. With more than one other person, as in families, it even becomes even more complicated – and interesting. “If he says I have to X, but she wants Y, I can’t do Z.” (another 256 possibilities here!). You don’t have to memorize all these possibilities; with recognition that these can be very important, and a little practice to sensitize your perceptions, you can simply recognize them, and try them on to realize how a particular sequence works.
4. What kind of motivation is indicated by each MO?
Necessity and desire are the clearest. Desire always pulls us toward the object of desire. Necessity apparently pushes us toward something, but more often it actually pushes us away from what will happen if we don’t do it. Of course, much motivation includes both these aspects, but it is useful to separate them in order to think about them. The MOs that a client uses can alert us to what they are noticing, and what they are deleting in their experience.
Possibility and choice do not indicate any particular motivation. One can choose possible activities out of either desire or necessity, or both. On the other hand, if we had no needs or desires, possibility and choice would be totally irrelevant, so there is always some motivation presupposed or implied when we think about possibility and choice.
5. How can each kind of MO be understood as indicating a specific kind of incongruence?
All the MOs express what might be called a counterfactual state of affairs. They all indicate a situation that does not (at the moment) exist, but that could exist in the future (or could not actually exist, but can nevertheless be imagined as happening in the future) so this is one form of sequential incongruence.
If you have to, it means that you haven’t yet. (If you had already done it. you wouldn’t have to.) Even in the past tense, “I had to” expresses the situation at the moment of having to, not the subsequent action. In a repetitive action that one has to do, like breathing, what one has to do is to take the next breath, not the previous one.
Likewise if you desire something, you don’t have it yet. (If you had it already, you could enjoy it, but not desire it.)
If something is possible, that means that it is potential, but not actual. Some of us used to joke about the “human potential movement,” that it was all potential, and very little movement (and some of it wasn’t very human, either!). “I can do it” is quite different from “I have done it.” Of course, having done something is a powerful basis for assuming that I can do it in the future – and this is why it can be so useful to install a change in the past, so that it is experienced as having already happened.
At the moment of choosing, the activity that is chosen has not yet happened. (Even choosing between things, rather than activities, implies some kind of activity in relation to them.) In choice there is always an additional incongruity in that we are drawn (or pushed) toward two or more alternatives. In choosing one, the one that is not chosen is lost, and whatever needs or desires this alternative might have satisfied have to go unsatisfied, at least temporarily.
6. What kind of incongruence is indicated by a person when they use one kind of MO verbally and express a different one nonverbally?
These indicate a simultaneous incongruence between the conscious (verbal) words and the unconscious (nonverbal). If a person says, “I can do that,” in a whining voice and slumped shoulders, it is pretty likely that they don’t actually believe it, and will not actually do it. As with all NLP work, the nonverbal is often a much better indicator of the unconscious aspects of behavior, and what is actually going on. As John Grinder used to say, “All words are to be taken as unsubstantiated rumor unless confirmed by nonverbal behavior.” The verbal MO may or may not be a reliable indicator of the actual MO being experienced. Being sensitive to the nonverbal indicators of the MO gives much more reliable information about the client’s experience.
There is a useful exercise we have used for years that sensitizes trainees to both verbal and nonverbal MOs. In groups of 3, one person says a sentence using one kind of MO (or its negation) verbally, while expressing a different kind of MO (or its negaition) nonverbally. One of the others in the trio identifies the verbal MO, and the other the nonverbal MO – and later each of the others identifies both.
7. How it can be useful to change a person’s experience by suggesting replacing one modal operator with another, and why is it useful?
A MO, like accessing cues, is both a result of internal processing, and also a way to elicit it. Asking a person to say, “I won’t” rather than “I can’t,” was one of Fritz Perls, favorite ways to get people to take more responsibility for the implicit choices that they made, and feel more empowered by recognizing their ability to choose.
Sometimes changing a MO brings about a congruent change in attitude immediately. More often a client will experience incongruence. But even then it can be a very useful experiment that offers at least a glimpse of an alternate way of living in the world. The client can try it out, and find out what it would be like if it were true for him / her. The objections that arise will provide valuable information about what other aspects of the person’s beliefs need some attention in order to make the change appropriate and lasting.
8. What MO is operating in an experience of complete and total congruence?
This is my favorite, and it is a trick question. Think of a situation in your life when you experienced total congruence about doing something. When you are totally congruent, it is POSSIBLE to, you WANT to, you CHOOSE to, and paradoxically, you also HAVE to, so the answer is all of them (or perhaps none of them). Or to put it another way, which has a rather mystic flavour, it is not a mode of operating, (which always indicates at least some bias and incongruence), it is just operating, pure and simple, unmodulated by a mode.
9. What else can you predict about a person’s experience when they use a MO?
I asked this open-ended question in the hope of learning something new. But with only two responses, I don’t have much to report. When education isn’t a two-way street, it’s likely to become a dead-end street. One of my favorite quotations recently is that: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Given the presentation above, what else can you predict now?
First Published in Anchor Point, January 2001, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp.19-26
© 2000 Steve Andreas
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