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by Tad James, M.S., Ph.D., Certified NLP Master Trainer Copyright © 1985, 1999, 2013

Did you ever wonder how in the world your wife or husband thinks? Have you ever asked, “how could they think that way?” Did you ever say, “What were they thinking?”

Would you like to know how someone else thinks? Say your wife, or how about your kids? Would it be helpful to learn how a client was thinking? Or what motivated him? Do you think your friends think the way you do? Might it be useful to know their hot buttons for something as simple as choosing what restaurant or what movie to go to?

Read on!! That is what NLP Strategies are all about.

Did you use a strategy today? I mean since you sat down to read this page (and it is a page J) did you use a strategy? Before beginning to teach strategies, Adriana and I will ask people, “Did you use a strategy today?”

I’m always interested, and I am especially interested in how many people will raise their hand because they think they used a strategy, and how many will not. Now, usually only a few people raise their hand, because people typically are not aware of our universal use of strategies. We use strategies for everything we do.

All of our external behaviors are controlled by internal processing strategies. So that means that people use strategies for learning, math, parenting, strategies for love, strategies for hate, communication, sales, marketing, wealth, poverty, happiness, death, sex, strategies for sports, eating, disease, creativity, relaxation, attention and fun. There are strategies for everything.

What is an NLP Strategy?

A strategy is any series of internal and external experiences which consistently produces a specific outcome. Here’s an example, when I go somewhere, I need to make a picture of where I’m going and how to get there in my mind. And I gather information verbally until I have a clear picture of the entire route that I’m going to travel. When I have enough information, I then forget about it and trust my unconscious mind.

How do you do it? Think about it. Now, that’s my strategy for driving somewhere, when I do it successfully. Yours may be different. What differences are there?

But when I don’t do it successfully, it’s usually because I haven’t gathered enough information. So, I don’t have a clear picture, and then I may even take the wrong turn or get lost.

Do you use a different strategy when you go somewhere and don’t get there? You may not have been aware of it until this moment. Think of it, what is your strategy? What do you do when you go somewhere successfully?

We Use Internal Processing Strategies for Everything We Do

You probably developed a certain strategy for doing something specific when you were young. At an early age, maybe you strung together internal and external experiences, and made (for example) a decision. Then, at some point when you knew it worked, you generalized the process that you used before in making the decision and said, either consciously or unconsciously, “OK, this is a good way to make a decision”, and you then likely used it again. Let’s say you made a picture in your mind and talked to yourself or someone else about it, until you had enough information, and that was how you made the decision. If that arrangement worked for you, then at some time you began to use it over and over again. (For more on Time Line Therapy® techniques and Training see LINK

In everything that we do, we use strategies. So, a strategy is essentially what you do in your mind in the process of doing something.

Now, you remember that NLP deals with form and not content, we’re not so much interested in the content of the thought, just the form. You might say, “Well, I thought of this”, or “I thought about that” or “I thought of flowers” or whatever you did. Rather than the content, of what you did, we want to know did you make a picture in your mind, and/or did you have a certain set of words that you said to yourself? Did you think of somebody else’s voice, and/or did you have a certain feeling or emotion? Our interest is in the context, form, and process instead of the content.

NLP Was Created As a Result Of Modeling.

The NLP system for Modeling was created to discover somebody’s belief systems, physiology, and mental strategies. In the process of NLP modeling mental strategies, they would discover a person’s internal program, which they called “strategy” or “mental syntax”. In terms of modeling, then, one important element is the internal syntax or what they do inside their head when they do what they do. What strategy do they use?

Let’s do a model together. We can see how we might make a model of a foreign language. Let’s say, French. Well, we would start by modeling three things:

First, we’d model the vocabulary – actually learning the vocabulary. You’d learn “plume” means “pen.”

Next we’d learn syntax. So, we would learn how to say sentences in French, putting certain words in certain order. Speaking about the order and sequence of words, Tony Robbins is fond of pointing out that “The dog bit Johnny” is quite different from “Johnny bit the dog.” They’re the same words and yet it has a completely different meaning. But the words are in a different order. The difference in meaning is created by the order, and sequence of the words.

Finally if we are modeling a language, we would also model the mouth movements. We would learn how to pronounce “plume” so you could say it with a French accent.

Now, we can take a strategy from one place and move it to another. Using NLP modeling of the mental strategies allows us to change the context.

Think about it, if I’m dealing with content, then it’s difficult to move content from one place to another. But if I’m dealing with structure, if I’m working with the “how to” regarding processing information then I can find out one person’s internal program and I can install it in someone else. Discovering this process makes it possible for you to change someone’s strategy.

In a seminar that Adriana and I taught recently a student had a buying strategy of “see it”, “feel good about it” and “buy it.” So, “I see something I want and I get a feeling right away, and I buy it”, is pretty efficient for making quick decisions, especially if you’re an helicopter pilot. She felt, however, that it was not really effective for buying because she’d see a lot of things she liked and she bought them, and then she realized she didn’t need them.

So, we decided she wanted to change the strategy.

Most NLP strategies that people have can be easily learned, changed or modified, according to whatever our goal is. NLP assumes that people have all the resources they need to succeed. For example, if someone is very decisive at home and they have trouble making decisions at work, one of the things we can do is move their decision-making strategy from home to work.

In NLP, a Strategy Is a Specific Syntax of External and Internal Experiences

This is a set of external and internal experiences which consistently produce a specific result to make it simple, a strategy is what you do in your brain and nervous system that produces a specific result.

To use a metaphor, think of baking a cake: First you’ll need to get all the ingredients together as well as a bowl, and put the ingredients in the bowl in a certain order. In the cake recipe there is an order and sequence of ingredients. So, there is also in an NLP strategy. If you put the elements of the cake recipe in the bowl in the wrong order you won’t get a cake. So also, an NLP strategy is an order and sequence of internal and external events or internal and external experiences that consistently produce a specific outcome. If you reverse the strategy, that is, if you reverse the order and sequence of the strategy, the outcome that you get may be substantially different.

So, just how do you discover someone’s strategy for something? Well, you can ask them. Just ask them, and listen to their predicates (words which indicate visual, auditory, or kinesthetic), watch their eyes (eye patterns), and make note of the order and sequence of the visual, auditory, or kinesthetic modalities as you see them.

What are the different elements that go into strategies? Well, there are only six things that you can do in your mind – what a surprise!! I bet you thought you did a lot more than six things, didn’t you? There are only six things that you can do, though. The 6 things are visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, gustatory, and self-talk – pictures, sounds, feelings, tastes, smells, and you can talk to yourself. You can do each of those things either internally or externally.

If you’re making note of the sequence of the elements in a person’s strategy, there is a shorthand notation process for NLP strategies. And they’re shown below:

V = Visual
A = Auditory
K = Kinesthetic (feelings)
O = Olfactory
G = Gustatory

In addition we can say certain things about those Representational System elements:

e = External
i = Internal
t = Tonal (At)
d = Digital
c = Constructed
r = Recalled

The shorthand NLP strategy notation that we use parallels the eye pattern chart below, directly. As you listen and watch the person you’re eliciting the strategy from, note first the major modalities – [V], [At], [K], [O], [G], [Ad]. Also make note of whether they are internal or external. For example, seeing a picture in your head is Visual Internal (or Vi), looking at a car to see if you like it is Visual External (or Ve), and may include a comparison to a remembered or created car (Vr or Vc). Talking to the salesperson, and gathering information about the purchase to find if it meets your criteria is Auditory digital (or Ad), and External. Or feeling a rug to discover if you like the feel is Kinesthetic external (or Ke), while feeling good about the purchase is Kinesthetic internal (or Ki).


Making sure that your shorthand notation for each step of the strategy includes the distinction of whether it’s internal or external, we make a superscript, “e” for external and “i” for internal. And when dealing with auditory, you want to make the differentiation between auditory digital [Ad] or auditory tonal [At]. Digital includes lists, criteria – whether it “makes sense”, whereas tonal is more concerned with whether it “sounds right”. Make a subscript of “t” for tonal or “d” for digital.

You will want to note down the elements as they occur in order. And, it’s OK to ask several times until you have a strategy that you are assured is correct. Make several runs. Ask again if you need to so you get it right, and you are sure that the building blocks are in their correct order.

The T.O.T.E. Model:

Bandler, Grinder and Dilts and others in the book, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Volume I, refer to a model of NLP strategies called T.O.T.E. The T.O.T.E.model was designed to represent how people process information. T.O.T.E. stands for test, operate, test, and exit.

The idea of strategies actually comes from George Miller, and Galanter, and Pribram in a book called Plans and the Structure of Behavior. They’re the ones who originally developed the concept of the T.O.T.E. model.

As the theory goes, a strategy or T.O.T.E. begins with a certain test. It’s a test that actually starts or fires off the strategy. It’s the starting point. As you look at the diagram below, follow along beginning with the word “T.O.T.E.”, where it says “input” (this is where the information comes from for the strategy), and to the right of that, you see the first test.

Adapted from Miller, Galanter & Pribram

Here’s how it works:

The information gathered provides a trigger, setting off the first test, and the strategy begins. It operates for a while and it tests again, to see if it’s complete. If it’s not complete, it goes back to a certain point, and then comes back to the test again. It continues this loop until it gets a positive outcome, then it exits. It can also exit if it gets a negative result.

The first test establishes the strategy test conditions that are carried forward to the next test. So, the first test starts the strategy and it establishes measures for the next test.

As an example, let’s look at how you know to be motivated. What’s one thing” the trigger that gets you motivated? (The first test can also be called the trigger because it’s what sets you off.) Is there usually one thing (like something you see, or hear)? Remember a time when you were especially motivated. What set you off? Do you remember the trigger? If not, pick another time. Do you remember the trigger, now? Was it something you saw, something you heard or the touch of something or someone? (It’s really important in the process of eliciting, utilizing, designing or creating new strategies to discover a specific trigger that will get the person into the strategy.)

For example, if you design the world’s greatest new strategy for a person that doesn’t have an appropriate trigger, it won’t ever get set off. So it’s important to discover the trigger that sets off the strategy.

Next is the operation. The operation accesses and gathers the data required by the strategy. The operation of a strategy, TEST-OPERATE, is going to access certain data. The data that is going to be accessed in the operation section is threefold. What do you think they should be?

The first kind of data accessed is external (remember the notations that we covered earlier?) visual external, auditory external, and kinesthetic external any external process in the process in the Operate part of the strategy will be gathering data.

The data accessed could also be internal. And if it’s internal, there are two possibilities. The two data could be either Remembering data or Creating data Memories or constructed data. So the three types are external, which is gathering and internal which could be remembered or created.

Test: Then there’s the next step. We’ve gone through TEST – OPERATE – TEST;  we’re at that point now. The second test is a comparison. It’s always going to be a comparison that allows you to know that the strategy is complete. It’s a comparison of the new data to the criteria established at the first test. So the first test will establish the criteria. The second test will compare all the known data to the criteria established in the first test. And, typically, the test will occur with a comparison in the same representational system (V, A, K, O or G).

At that point, if there is a “plus”, which means that the test is successful, there will be a match between gathered data and the criteria, and we’ll have an exit at that point. If there is no match at that point, then we’ll usually go back and continue the strategy.

Exit: Finally, the exit is going to be a decision point or a choice point, and it’s a representation of the test where the strategy will either exit at that point, or loop back and get more data.

To summarize, the functional properties of strategies are the TEST, OPERATE, TEST, and the EXIT. The first test is a trigger. The trigger feeds information forward to the second test, which compares the data to the output of the process of operation, and which (the operation) is gathering or accessing data or creating data. And then, when the test is successful, the strategy is, at that point, complete.

All our outward behavior is a result of these neurological processing patterns.

All overt behavior is controlled by these sequences of internal and external neurological representations. If a specific pattern occurs, then a specific behavior is generated. If the neurological pattern does not occur, then the behavior does not occur.

A typical neurological pattern is the result of either one of two basic processes: Either (1) synesthesia patterns (which occur in much the same way that anchors do in that their associations are connected together in a chain where there are representational system overlaps) or (2) strategies. (A synesthesia pattern is somewhat like a very short fast strategy with only two components or steps.)


A Synesthesia pattern goes something like this: it’s kind of like I want to see how I feel about that”. Linguistically, you can spot a synesthesia pattern when somebody says, “Well, I’ve got to see if it sounds right.” A synesthesia pattern also occurs when you touch something with your eyes closed and then make a picture of it automatically.

A synesthesia pattern occurs when there are two different modalities are being accessed (like Visual – Kinesthetic) and they are closely linked, with one of them possibly outside the awareness. Some typically occurring synesthesia patterns are see-feel (mentioned above); another is, in school, if the teacher spoke to you with a harsh tone, you’d feel bad, and so now every time somebody speaks to you with that tone of voice, you feel bad, even though they don’t mean anything by that tone of voice; or an accident – let’s say you saw an accident, you see blood, and you feel nauseous; or feel angry – blame someone. Has that ever happened to you?

Or in therapy, for example, client says, with his eyes going up and to the left as you look at him, “Gee”, and then down to the left (as you look at him), “I don’t know why I feel this way.” As you observe the client across from you saying, “Gee, I don’t know why I feel this way,” you also see that he’s constructing pictures, probably of the bad things that could happen and then he’s jumping to a feeling about it. That’s a synesthesia pattern! In this case, the pictures may also be outside of his awareness.

NLP Strategy Elicitation:

Now, let’s talk about strategy elicitation: There are two ways to elicit strategies. One way is formal, the other is informal. And, if you just ask someone informally, “How do you do that?” they’ll tell you. More often than not, they’ll also tell you in a way that includes the modalities that they use in processing that information.

Many strategies will come out naturally and spontaneously as you talk and won’t have to be elicited formally. Informal strategy elicitation can be as simple as someone saying to you, “Gee, every time I see that particular sight, I get motivated.” And you say, “So, how do you know to get motivated. What is it about that sight?”

People do internally what they’re talking about.

They will demonstrate verbally and nonverbally the strategies used to access and make sense of those experiences. So, for example, as someone talks about a past decision, they will ordinarily also run through the strategy steps. They will actually go right through the steps in the strategy – like an instant replay. Have you ever watched a sports show on television and you saw an instant replay? Just like that.

Formal NLP Strategy Elicitation:

Strategies can also be elicited formally with a formal script, and your formal notation. It makes it a little easier when you have the person’s cooperation, and in the early stages of learning strategy elicitation it may be a little easier to just read the script. In formal elicitation, you can go over and over the steps of the strategy until you get it. My suggestion is to learn how to do both formal and informal elicitation so that you can do both as needed. If you’re doing formal elicitation, just follow this outline:


Can you recall a time when you were totally X’d?

Can you recall a specific time?

As you go back to that time now…

What was the very first thing that caused you to be totally X’d?

Was it something you saw (or the way someone looked at you?),
Was it something you heard (or someone’s tone of voice?), or
Was it the touch of someone or something?
What was the very first thing that caused you to be totally X’d?

After you (saw, heard, felt) that, what was the very next thing that happened as you were totally X’d?

Did you picture something in your mind?
Say something to yourself, or
Have a certain feeling or emotion?
What was the next thing that happened as you were totally X’d

After you (list previous), did you know that you totally X’d, or…

(Continue until complete.)


Let’s do that now. Bill, can we talk? How are you doing? “Great”. Can you recall a time when you were particularly motivated?


Can you recall a time when you were totally motivated?

Thinking … “Yes”.

Can you recall a specific time? (He nods.)

As you go back to that time now …

What was the very first thing that happened that caused you to be totally motivated? (without pausing) Was it something you saw or the way someone looked at you? Was it something you heard or someone’s tone of voice? Or, was it the touch of someone or something? What was the very first thing that caused you to be totally motivated?

“It was something I saw”.

Good. After you saw what you saw, what was the very next thing that happened as you were totally motivated? Did you picture something in your mind? Did you say something to yourself, or have a certain feeling or emotion? What was the next thing that happened as you were totally motivated?

“I made a picture in my mind”.

Great. After you made a picture in your mind, did you know that you were totally motivated or did you say something to yourself, or have a certain feeling or emotion?

“I said something to myself”.

Good, after you made a picture in your mind, and said something to yourself, did you know that you were totally motivated or did you say something to yourself, or have a certain feeling or emotion? What was the next thing that happened as you were totally motivated?

“Well, I was just motivated, that’s all.”

Good, so you felt motivated?

“Yes, that’s right.”

Now, we know that Bill’s motivation strategy is

Now, we can also elicit the submodalities of each of the major parts of this strategy, and I am not going to do a complete elicitation of submodalities now. When you are doing it, you may want to get out our chart of possible submodalities. So, Bill, what was it about what you saw that caused you to be motivated?

“What do you mean?”

In what you saw, what was the important thing that made it motivating to you? Was the color important?

“No, not really.”

Was the size?

“Yes, well, if it had been smaller, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been as motivated.”

So size was important. Was how close you were to it important?

“I don’t think so. Just so I could see.”

Now when you made the picture inside that you made when you were motivated, was that picture a memory or did you make it up in your head?

“I made-up a picture of me doing something new.”

Was that picture near or far?

“It was really close-up.”

And could you see yourself in the picture or were you looking through your own eyes?

“I was looking through my own eyes.”

And what did you say to yourself?

“I said, ‘Wow’.”

Thank-you, Bill.


Informal Elicitation:

After you’ve mastered formal strategy elicitation, you can move on to informal elicitation. You could elicit someone’s decision making strategy just by saying, “Hey, I love your shirt, how did you decide to buy it?” and then just listen and watch. Listen to the predicates, and watch the eye patterns and the other nonverbal cues. Since strategies can be elicited either informally or formally, if you do nothing else except just talk to the person, they will tell you exactly how they do whatever they do, and all you have to do is just watch them and listen to them. In business many times, its a little easier to discover somebody’s strategy without doing it formally, so we’re going to also cover several ways of doing strategy elicitation without being particularly formal or overt about it.

The next type of strategy elicitation is elicitation from eye patterns. You could just walk up to somebody and you could go, “Wow, I really love your watch! How did you decide to buy it?” and what they will do is, they’ll move their eyes in a certain direction as they remember it.

(This is how they look when you’re facing them.)

Not Every Movement A Strategy in NLP:

The first thing to remember when eliciting NLP strategies from eye patterns is that not every eye movement you see is a strategy. Some people are going to process the information you just asked them before they begin accessing their strategy. They may, for example, repeat to themselves exactly what you said, “Oh, he just said ‘beautiful watch’, how did I get it? And then they’ll run their strategy for you with their eyes. Some people will immediately understand what you said and jump directly into the strategy, moving their eyes in a certain direction as they access their NLP strategies.

Most people will move their eyes in a recognizable pattern as they access their strategy or as they replay the information in their head. The question is, do they move their eyes so that you can see them adequately? And that’s where your sensory acuity becomes very, very important. That’s where your sensory acuity makes a major difference. My suggestion is that you make sure that you’ve gotten really well-grounded in the eye patterns, and that you learn them very well. Having done that, you can just relax and let the information come to you. Just watch their eye patterns and then note them on a piece of paper – one of the things I do is carry a little piece of paper with me, and write down the order and sequence of their eye patterns as I get them, so I’ll remember them – and note them, using the notation format above.

I suggest that as with any strategy elicitation, you also test the strategy elicitation from eye patterns wherever possible, questioning them over and over again, until you’re sure you’ve got it. It’s OK to check several times because the major question in the elicitation of strategies from eye patterns is, “Where does the accessing the information end and the strategy begin?” So you may have to elicit the same strategy in a couple of different situations, or a couple of different contexts in order to discover how they did it.

NLP Strategies from eye patterns are extremely powerful. Later we’ll put it all together when we show how to utilize those strategies in designing embedded commands.

Continue NLP Strategies, Part 2

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