A Brief History of NLP Timelines

NLP timelines has become an integral model within NLP. In this article, Steve Andreas describes how he and his partner Connirae Andreas developed a NLP timeline model based on their exploration of the application of Submodalities. Chris Collingwood.

The Evolution of a Pattern

Seminar participants often ask how a particular NLP pattern evolves. Indeed, if we can track how new patterns evolve, we can help point the way to further useful discoveries and developments.

Every pattern has many antecedents, and most patterns continue to be developed and refined after the first successes.

Philosophers have thought about time for millennia, even before Heraclitus said, “You can’t step in the same river twice”, some two thousand years ago. More recently, Peter McKeller’s book ‘Imagination and Thinking’ (1957) included detailed illustrations of some of the different ways that people represent the flow of time as various kinds of lines or paths in space.

People have recognized for centuries that different people tend to be more oriented toward past, present, or future. Edward T. Hall’s book, ‘The Silent Language’ (1959) includes abundant examples – both individual and cultural – but without a hint of why these differences exist.

In the early 1980’s NLP training included the categories of “in time” and ‘through time” as aspects of a person’s relatively fixed “meta-programming” – again with no explanations of the underlying experiential structure.

The Power of Sub-modalities

The concept of submodalities had been part of NLP since the late 1970’s, but they were presented primarily as a way of enhancing experiences. Although association / dissociation was the key element in many of the more effective standard NLP patterns that had been taught for years, it was not clearly described as a submodality shift. It was only in 1983 that Richard Bandler explicitly began to reveal the structure of submodalities in general. He taught how submodality shifts could be used to change habits (swish pattern), change beliefs, and create motivation or understanding, and how submodality thresholds could be used to break locked-in patterns like compulsions, or to lock in new changes. In short, he outlined how submodalities comprise one way of understanding the underlying structure of all experience.

We were so impressed with the power and generativity of this approach that we immediately began to ask ourselves, “What else is there that we don’t yet know about”? We were convinced that submodalities had more potential than previously recognized in the field. We asked ourselves, “What would happen if we investigated the submodality structure of Meta-Program sorts? What about finding the underlying structure of time, and of being past, present, or future oriented.

Innovative Thinking

One way innovations occur is by taking two or more separate paradigms, putting them together, and finding out what emerges. That’s what we did with meta-programs and submodalities. This thinking led to the Criteria Shift pattern, and changing internal and external reference, as well as timeline work.

Putting “time orientation” with submodalities had far more potential than we guessed in advance. We discovered that different people had widely differing timelines, and that the shape of the timeline in space not only determined whether a person was ‘in time’ or ‘through time’, past, present, or future oriented, but determined many other aspects of personality as well.

We found that by changing this spatial representation of events in time, we could make profound and very pervasive and generative changes in personality and orientation – without changing the individual events located on the timeline. We combined the patterns we had learned from Richard with these additional ones we’d discovered to form the first Advanced Submodalities Training in March, 1984.

In many NLP patterns, we had noticed that location is a very powerful “driving” submodality; it is significant in timeline work, criteria change work, and belief change work, and in aligning perceptual positions. It was Robert Dilts who recently offered us an interesting way to understand this. He pointed out that all three major representational systems overlap; in location. Colour, for example, is only in the visual system, pitch is only in the auditory system, and temperature is only in the kinaesthetic. However, all sights, sounds, and feelings have some location in space. Changing the location of a representation is often more powerful because it changes all systems simultaneously. This is the basis for the powerful impact of changing the location of one’s perspective in association / dissociation, and its detailed refinement in physically aligning the three perceptual positions; Self, Observer, and Other.

At the June 1985 NANLP conference in Denver, Colorado, Steve made a three-hour presentation on timelines, entitled “Just in Time”. Among the participants were Wyatt Woodsmall, and Leslie Cameron-Bandler, who commented at the time on the usefulness of this new approach.

In his VAK interview (Fall 1991) Tad James comments, “I learned about time line from Wyatt (Woodsmall)”. When Steve first met Tad in October 1986, we had been teaching about timelines in public seminars for 2 1/2 years. At that time, Tad described to Steve his work with selecting individual traumatic experiences on the timeline, and reorienting the person on their existing timeline in regard to those experiences in order to change the person’s response to them.

NLP Timelines in a Nutshell

Often people speak of NLP timeline work as if it is one thing. However there are two very major types of timeline work, both very useful. One set of methods has to do primarily with utilizing the existing timeline. The method described above is one example. You can change a traumatic memory on the timeline by reorienting in time, or by adding in resources, etc. The “decision destroyer”, developed a few years later by Richard Bandler is another very impactful approach. These methods have in common that you don’t need to know very much about the person’s existing timeline to use them with full effectiveness.

An entirely different category of timeline work has to do with changing the structure of the Timeline itself. In doing this kind of work, you find out in detail how a client’s timeline is now structured, what he wants to have different in his life, and then reorient the timeline so as to support the kind of person he wants to be. When the structure of the timeline itself is changed, the person literally lives in a new relationship to all his experiences in time – not just the traumatic ones, or the resourceful ones, but all of them.

For instance, most people have their timeline arranged so that the future is somewhere in the same quadrant as visual construct. This allows us to creatively construct alternative futures that are rich with possibility. However, some people see their future in the visual remembered quadrant. One typical result of this is that their future representations are relatively specific and fixed, because they have to use remembered imagery to represent the future. This can result in much disappointment, since future reality seldom conforms to the inflexible and constrained expectations of visual memory.

If the past accumulation of disappointment is resolved, the person will feel better in the present, but will continue to experience that the future is rigidly fixed, because they are still seeing it in their visual memory quadrant. One man who had this kind of arrangement commented, “This makes perfect sense: “change history” was always really easy for me, but it never made my future different because that was still fixed”.

Resolving past problems is no guarantee that they won’t recur in the future. However, if the future timeline is changed to the visual construct quadrant, the person will begin to make future images that are more creative and variable, and more responsive to changes in the world around them, resulting in far more generative possibilities and far less disappointment.

Although it is quite easy to change a person’s timeline, it takes some experience to know what kinds of changes might be most worthwhile to try out, and any changes need to be tried out very tentatively, with full attention to ecology. Changing a timeline is literally reorganizing all a person’s life experiences, so it must be done with extreme care and sensitivity to be sure the resulting changes will be generative. For some examples of how to elicit an change Timelines, see our books, ‘Heart of the Mind’, ‘Change Your Mind and Keep the Change’, and Connirae’s new videotape ‘Changing Timelines’ (1992).

First Published in the VAK International NLP Newsletter Vol 10, No 1. Winter 1991-1992

© 2000 Steve and Connirae Andreas

Elicitation and multiple application of Timelines is included in the syllabus of our postgraduate qualification in NLP, the 10970NAT Graduate Certificate in Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

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