Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Positive Intentions

NLP practitioners sometimes talk about discovering The Positive Intention. For example, if a person drives a car into a tree, NLP will ask what purpose this action might possibly serve (for example, escaping a difficult domestic or work situation) and then find a less destructive way of achieving the same outcome. This approach, which was pioneered by Virginia Satir, is a clear application of the POSIWID principle.

Instead of labelling people as “stupid” or “obstinate” or “narrow-minded” or “bureaucratic”, this principle suggests we look for a way of framing the situation in which their behaviour makes sense.

Here’s an example. A colleague was running a course with sixteen students. At the end of the course, only fifteen evaluation forms could be found. The administrator got very anxious about the missing form, and insisted on a new form being produced. My colleague couldn’t see what the fuss was about, assumed that the missing form probably wouldn’t provide any additional information, and attributed the anxiety to a mindless procedural rigidity.

But let’s try and construct a different frame for the administrator. Perhaps he imagined that my colleague had destroyed one form because it had contained especially critical comments. So the concern about the missing form might have stemmed not from a bureaucratic mindset but from a lack of trust. (In any case, these two explanations are not so far apart - bureaucracies emerged historically as a solution to certain forms of corruption, and are often specifically designed to reduce reliance on personal trust.) The new form had a positive intention – it served to reassure the administrator that my colleague hadn’t acted dishonestly.

However, I have a quibble with how NLP practitioners sometimes talk about positive intentions. (The founders of NLP were very alert to small details of language that revealed habits of thought, but their followers aren’t always so careful.) The word “the” seems to imply that once you have found a frame in which the behaviour seems to make sense, you can stop your analysis because you have found the truth: The Positive Intention. But I prefer to regard this as a hypothesis rather than a truth: A Positive Intention. Sometimes when a person drives a car into a tree, it really is just an accident. As Freud said: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Some people never stop looking for alternative frames; arguably these people are the true systems thinkers.

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