Sometimes an intervention doesn’t work because something else needs to happen first. Putting on your pants before putting on underpants just doesn’t work very well, unless you just want to get attention at a party. Other times a “great” intervention might not quite fit the circumstances. You may see a nice-looking shirt in a store window, but when you try it on, you may find that it just doesn’t fit your body.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that a particular experience will be a resource for any problem or outcome, in any context. However an experience that is a wonderful resource in one situation can be a disaster in another. A “resource” experience may not fit at all, or it may be a close fit, but not close enough. Sometimes a “resource” experience is inappropriate because it’s too specific.

Recently a therapist sent me a detailed description of her work with a friend, asking me some questions about what she did. The exceptional detail in her description gave me some confidence that my responses will be relevant. (This definitely wasn’t a case of, “I tried X method but it didn’t work; what should I do?”) Her letter provided a rich opportunity to point out examples of a number of different “fine points” in NLP work. My responses are interspersed in italics.


Hi Steve:

I was using your Resolving Grief technique from Heart of the Mind on a friend recently. I had some questions regarding the process. I was wondering if I could get your take on this?

My friend expressed a loss of a friendship; it wasn’t a death, but a termination without any closure. So she had mixed feelings — anger, anxiety and sadness — since the loss of friendship wasn’t on her own terms.

Interestingly, when I had her access the presence of this person, she created an entire scenario in her head that has never happened. She said it’s the scenario she generally creates about this friend, which causes anxiety. The friend (who is in color/moving) is sitting down in a chair that my friend normally sits in during class, and she’s located 2-4 feet in front of my friend. My friend is standing and the ex-friend is to the right of her sitting in the chair. The ex-friend then says some snarky comment to my friend. My friend says she hears her ex-friend’s voice first, then sees her, and then panics.



It’s useful to disentangle your friend’s three different feelings. Her sadness is in response to the loss of the relationship, and anger indicates that there is some “unfinished business” that needs to be resolved using the forgiveness process before doing the grief process. You’ll find more detail on resolving grief than we put in Heart of the Mind in a later article.

I assume that her scenario elicits panic because she anticipates having a difficult talk with the lost friend, so she’s anxious about how that might turn out.

For those interested in such things, the sadness and anger are at the same logical level (the relationship), but the anxiety is at a higher logical level because it is in response to how she imagines the discussion of the sadness and anger with her friend might turn out (about the relationship).


I contemplated doing the phobia cure, but I wanted to see how changes in the submodalities would affect her.


Since the scenario your friend is imaging “never happened,” it’s a future forecast, in contrast to a past memory. This means the phobia method isn’t likely to work. The phobia method is great for a response elicited by a past memory. However, panic and anxiety are in response to a future event, not a past one, so different methods are appropriate for that.


I then asked her to think of someone who is no longer in her life but who she thinks fondly of.


This is an example of asking for a resource counterexample that is too specific. When you’re doing the grief process, the instruction is to “Think of someone who is no longer a part of your daily life, but when you think of them, you experience them as a resource.” This lets her choose from many different kinds of “resource” and doesn’t box her in to a specific one.

I’m nearly certain that “fondness” is an inappropriate resource for your client, because her anger hasn’t yet been resolved — fondness and anger are opposites. It might (or might not) be appropriate for her to be fond of her ex-friend after forgiving her, but it’s certainly a mismatch when she’s still angry.

For another example of the importance of choosing an appropriate counterexample resource, check out the following article. In the example in this article, even though I was careful to ask for a general outcome, “Think of someone she had hated in the past, but now felt OK about; she no longer hated him,” she chose an example of someone she now felt that “she had come to care for him and trust,” which was inappropriate for her. Here is the relevant part of the article:


“When I asked her how she felt with this image moved to this new position, she said it was somewhat better, but her feelings of anger ‘dragged along with the image,’ a strong indication that this was not an appropriate change for her. I thought there might be something about her resource experience that didn’t quite fit, and that probably if I had stopped here, or insisted that she continue, it would not have been good for her.

“So I gathered information, asking her about the person whom she had once felt anger toward, but now felt OK about. ‘What was it about that person that allowed you to let go of your anger?’ She said that she had come to care for him and trust him. I said, ‘It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to care for and trust the man you still hate, would it?’ to which she heartily agreed. This told me that we needed to find a somewhat different resource experience, someone whom she had forgiven, but still didn’t care for or trust.” For more detail about this kind of careful resource selection, read this article.


The submodalities of the image of this person were really similar to that of her ex-friend. This fond person (color/moving) was sitting to the right of her. Both were seated on a couch. And the first thing my friend noticed was, again, the voice, but this time it was laughter. The only differences I noticed was that this person was very close in distance (nearly touching) and the quality of tonality was laughter (and not snarkiness). Another difference was the position of my friend. This time she was seated next to her friend in this representation.

When the submodalities are that close in comparison what would you do to create a pleasing shift?


Since both images are of friends, it’s not surprising that they are quite similar. However, you have described two very significant differences in location; in the resource experience they are both sitting, and they are much closer (“nearly touching”). Either one of these differences by themselves could easily elicit the different sound (laughter instead of snarkiness). There is a similar example in my transcript of a shame session, in which unpleasant cackling turned to the pleasant sound of a merry-go-round in response to changing location.


I had her take the ex-friend and replicate the exact motions, laughter, position of her fond friend who’s no longer in her life. She said it felt a little better, but that she still missed her ex-friend. She appeared sad and affected by the loss. Did I neglect to do something here? Or were the representations of the two losses just too similar?


As I’ve already mentioned, the representations are significantly different, so that’s not the problem. It would be better to start with shifting position alone, and find out what difference that process change makes. Asking her to replicate motions and laughter include changes in content, so those generally won’t be as useful. The key thing is that her anger needs to be resolved first in order for the grief process to work, so she’s still stuck in her two responses of sadness and anger. Very few people spontaneously think of forgiving as a resolution. (Many will think of expressing their anger or revenge instead.) Also very few are initially “ready” to forgive someone else. A major part of the forgiveness process is to satisfy (not “overcome”) the objections that most people have to reaching forgiveness — and some people have a lot of them!


I followed through with getting the values of that friendship, and she placed those values in an image in a location (as quotes on her wall in her bedroom.)

I then asked her to give those values form, whether abstract or vague. She wanted to use a person she knew, who she said embodies all of those qualities. What are your thoughts on that?


I think that is fine, as long as you go on to make that image more symbolic/abstract, which you do. However, proceeding with the grief resolution process won’t be very productive until the anger is first transformed into forgiveness.


Instead I asked her what form those values would take if symbolic or a visual representation. (I didn’t think it was prudent to have those values represented in a person in case this person ever left her life in the future; then there disappears the values.)


I agree. The main reason for making the values symbolic/abstract is to separate them from the image of the specific person in her past, so that they can be found in other people in her future life.


She then said the values were now inside a book she was the author of.


Her seeing the values inside a book that she is the author of is a nice metaphoric indication that your friend’s unconscious mind is participating fully. And her being the author of the book implies taking an active part in satisfying her values.


I then had her multiply the book, stack them, change each book a tad different from the previous one, and scatter them into her future, allowing each to drop at different locations. I explained how those values would be represented by friendships and experiences in her future, etc.


I realize that you may have done it, and just not mentioned it, but making the books glow is an important part of the process. When they glow, they are like lights beckoning the client, drawing her into the future (in contrast to the loss in the past). Instructing her to “change the story a little” in each book would have been a nice additional touch, preventing her from just changing the color of the cover or binding of the book, which wouldn’t be as useful. Later on you could utilize her metaphor by casually mentioning that some people are an “open book,” or that it’s useful to “close the book” on some past events.


Since she felt marginally better, but a tad underwhelmed, I asked her to play more with the submodalities.


I’m glad that you noticed that she was “underwhelmed,” so that you could go on to offer her more choices.


She made the ex-friend into a still black and white photo that was placed on the ground and any voice that emanated from her was a cartoon-like voice. In an instant all of her anger, sadness and anxiety dissipated. I even had her picture the friend sitting and saying the snarky comment, then pushing that image way back into the distance and the image that would come to the forefront was the one of the black and white still photo. Obviously this is not a visual squash, but I don’t know what to call it.


No, it’s not a visual squash; you asked her to chain two images together sequentially. The visual squash integrates two images into a simultaneous image — after finding a common outcome, or a joint outcome. (Heart of the Mind, chapter 13.)


but I had her play with rotating the images in quick succession. This alone made her crack up. She made the black and white photo really absurd, which seemed to shift her entire experience of the loss.


The kind of submodality shifts you explored with your friend (in the previous two paragraphs) to shift her experience are all fine, and got nice responses. However, without knowing her outcome/intention, so that you can satisfy it, it is really unlikely that they would be effective or lasting. In this case, her outcome is her need to resolve her anger, and none of the submodality changes you offered her accomplished that.


She said when she thinks of her friend now she can feel her presence, but the image of her face is obscured and vague, which she says she prefers because it has decreased the unpleasant feelings. Any value judgment on the fact she no longer sees the ex-friend’s face upon recalling her? She said when she tried to see the ex-friend’s face in her mind her feelings began to regress so she preferred not to.


That is a pretty clear message that she can’t “face” her friend without feeling the unpleasant feelings of anger and sadness, which are both still unresolved.


Sorry for the long email peppered with all of these questions! Though my friend seems ecstatic with the results, I’m not. LOL!


I applaud your noticing the difference between your experience and your client’s report. You did help her have a new and more satisfying response to her ex-friend. And I agree with you that those results are not complete. Using the forgiveness process will complete it — though you might have to repeat the grief resolution process after you do.


I feel like I took numerous missteps with the Resolving Grief process. I’m constantly trying to examine the feedback I receive, and the areas I went wrong, to improve what I can do in the future.


Your ability to notice when your work isn’t fully satisfying, and your willingness to ask for and receive feedback, is wonderful — and all too rare!


Anyway, if you read this entire email, I salute you! And appreciate it.


Thanks; it was a pleasure to respond.

When I sent this article to the therapist to look over for accuracy, she wrote back:

“Thanks again! This was excellent. It assuaged many of my concerns and answered so many questions. Beyond appreciative.”

via Steve Andreas’ NLP Blog

Choosing Counterexample Resources, Sequencing Interventions, and other Distinctions
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