Stepping into the other person’s shoes works at a subconscious level to reveal something of what that person is all about. And the judicious application of some conscious questions can expand the experience.
The first question is:
- What would have to be true for that person in order for them to be talking like this or acting like that?
This question is akin to the search for motivation by actors: or, indeed, police detectives. Their underlying assumption, which is a strong and useful one, is that every consistent pattern of behaviour has some sort of root cause in the mind of the other person. And the more unusual the behaviour, the more we suspect there must be a matching motive. Specific behaviours give us strong clues about what their motives might be, and that gets us closer to understanding them.
In the world of Sherlock Holmes, a suspect who glances nervously at a locked drawer will be supposed by the great detective to be concerned about something being discovered there. In everyday life, someone who begs to be trusted can generate immediate suspicion – what is their motivation for asking? In both of these examples the inference drawn may be wide of the mark, but there must always be some motivator, and finding it will always help our understanding.
The second experience-expanding question is more difficult to ask (and answer) at first, but is capable of revealing rich and valuable answers. The positive purpose question forces a flip to the positive by challenging our negative starting point:
- What positive purpose does the other person have, both for them and us, by talking and behaving in this way?
The positive purpose for them is usually easy to identify but the one for us is much more challenging. We usually start in a negative place, feeling threatened by the other person: we find their behaviour puzzling and annoying or we just don’t get on with them. So a natural reaction to the question, without the enforced positive, is something along the lines of “… because they are an evil bastard!” The “evil bastard” conclusion is natural because we need to close the motivation loop in our minds, and it’s a handy catch-all that does the job. The trouble is, it doesn’t take us very far forward – not least because it probably isn’t true. Some mental gymnastics are therefore required.
The key test for the existence of a positive purpose (in NLP this is referred to as an unconscious positive intention) is:
- If this were actually true, would it explain all the other person’s attitudes and behaviours? If not, what would it not explain?
A second iteration is then necessary to explain the missing element. This purpose need not be true but it must explain all the facts. Our natural reaction may well be that “That’s unbelievable – it just can’t be true!” However, if it does fit the facts, it will provide the crucial catalyst to move forward.
When persisted with, the positive purpose question vaporises the negative response and forces a search for constructive insights. Its effectiveness flows from the realisation that the other person, like us, is a human being – and human motivations do not generally have evil roots (there are some exceptions, but psychopaths are well beyond the scope of this book). There are many negative triggers for motivation: like defending ourselves and our friends from physical harm, and protecting our own sense of who we are. But defending ourselves actually has a positive purpose and is usually exercised in a positive way for all concerned.
Even when the search for positive purpose is difficult, it is worth persevering because of the potential improvements in relationships. As mentioned above, for this to work it’s not necessary to have strong evidence, or even a strong belief that the answer is actually valid: the results of acting as if the positive purpose is valid are sufficiently constructive to make it worthwhile giving the other person the benefit of any doubts.