NLP Four Pillars


The main principles in NLP Four Pillars are used as foundations for assessing and responding to behaviour. The first and foremost is relationship, specifically, that quality relationship of mutual trust and responsiveness known as rapport. It can be applied both to your relationship with yourself and your relationship with others.

We begin with the rapport you have with yourself. You have probably felt torn between two courses of action at some time in your life. Have you ever heard yourself say things like, ‘Part of me wants to do this, but something stops me’? The greater the degree of physical rapport you have with yourself, the greater your health and well-being, for the different parts of your body are working well with each other. The greater your mental rapport with yourself, the more you feel at peace with yourself, for the different parts of your mind are united. Rapport at the spiritual level can manifest as a sense of belonging to a larger whole, beyond individual identity, and knowing our place in creation.

There are many who have all the external trappings of success, yet are unhappy within themselves. You may have noticed that such people make others uneasy too. We seem to arrange the world in a way that reflects our internal state. So internal conflicts create external ones and the quality of the rapport we have with ourselves is often a mirror of what we achieve with others.

Whatever you do and whatever you want, being successful will involve relating to and influencing others. So the first pillar of NLP is to establish rapport with yourself and then others.

The second pillar is to know what you want. Without knowing what you want, you cannot even define what success is. In NLP this is known as setting your goal or outcome. It is a whole way of thinking. You consistently ask yourself, ‘What do I want?’ and others, ‘What do you want?’ This is very different from going in with a question like ‘What’s the problem?’ Many people start by asking this question, then apportion blame and perhaps fix the situation, but never get what they really want or help others get what they really want either.

The third pillar is known as sensory acuity. This means using your senses: looking at, listening to and feeling what is actually happening to you. Only then will you know whether you are on course for your goal. You can use this feedback to adjust what you are doing if necessary. In this culture it is thought normal not to notice this kind of information. But children notice. We can regain the curiosity and acuity we had as children.

The last pillar is behavioural flexibility. Have many choices of action. The more choices you have, the more chance of success. Keep changing what you do until you get what you want. This sounds simple, even obvious, yet how many times do we do just the opposite? A government will often continue to pursue a policy even though it is clearly not having the desired effect. It also happens in relationships – have there been times when you and your partner were arguing and you could just see that you were getting into a hole, yet somehow you just kept digging?

Logical Levels

We build relationships on different levels. The American researcher and NLP trainer Robert Dilts uses a series of what he calls neurological levels that have been widely adopted in NLP thinking. They are very useful for thinking about building rapport and personal change.

The first level is the environment (the where and when).

The environment is the place we are in and the people we are with. You have probably heard people say that they were in the ‘right place at the right time’. They are attributing their success to their environment. At this level, shared circumstances build rapport. For example, if you were to go to an evening class about Chinese Art, you would expect to meet others with a similar interest. You would have a point of contact with each other and a basic degree of rapport.

Environment: external factors or constraints
When specifically?
Who specifically?
With whom specifically?

The second level is behaviour (the what).

This is the level of our specific, conscious actions: what we do. In NLP behaviour includes thoughts as well as actions. What we do is not random; our behaviour is designed to achieve a purpose, although this may not always be clear, even to us. We may want to change our behaviour, smoking or constantly losing our temper, for example. But sometimes unwanted behaviour may be difficult to change because it is closely connected with other neurological levels.

Behavior: performance, actions and reactions
What is it specifically that you say?
What is it specifically that you do?

The third level is capability (the how).

This is the level of skill: behaviour that we have practised so often it has become consistent, automatic and often habitual. This includes thinking strategies and physical skills. We all have many basic intrinsic skills, such as walking and talking, and also consciously learnt skills, such as mathematics, sport or playing a musical instrument. When someone describes their success as a ‘one-off’ or a ‘fluke’, they are ascribing it to the level of behaviour only, they do not think it is repeatable consistently, it is not yet a capability.

Capabilities: knowledge, skills, competencies
How specifically?
How specifically do you do it?
What specifically are your capabilities?
What specifically are you (not yet) capable of?

The fourth level is beliefs and values (the why).

This is the level of what we believe is true and what is important to us. Beliefs and values direct our lives to a considerable extent, acting both as permissions and prohibitions. Are there some skills you would like to develop, but think you can’t? As long as you believe you can’t, you won’t. Is there a skill you need to learn but don’t consider important? If you don’t value it, you will never be motivated enough to acquire it. We are also capable of holding conflicting beliefs and values, resulting in actions that contradict each other over time.

Beliefs and values:
What specifically is important to you?
What specifically do you believe in?

The fifth level is identity (the who).

Have you heard someone say something like ‘I am just not that kind of person’? That is an identity statement. Identity is your sense of yourself, your core beliefs and values that define who you are and your mission in life. Your identity is very resilient, although you can build, develop and change it.

Identity: how you think of yourself
Who are you?

Finally, the sixth level is the spiritual level.

This is your connection to others and to that which is more than your identity, however you choose to think of it. Rapport at this level is described in spiritual literature as being one with humankind, the universe or God.

Purpose: the bigger picture
What for?
Who for?
What is your mission?

When NLP was developed in the early 1970s, there was a gap in psychological thinking. The Behaviourist psychology of the time was about action and reaction, stimulus-response, the interaction between environment and behaviour. There were also many value based psychological systems, stressing beliefs, relationships and self-actualization. What was conspicuously missing was how to – the capability level. NLP stepped into this gap by providing step by step procedures to make excellence easily learnable.

Behaviour to Capability

How does behaviour become a skill? One answer is the reply given to the man carrying a violin who asked the way to the Carnegie Hall: ‘Practise:

Learning a skill goes through four stages. Think of some intentional skill that you have acquired in the course of your life – driving, riding a bicycle or reading – and see how it fits into this scheme.

You start from unconscious incompetence. In this state, not only can you not do it, you have never tried. You don’t even know that you don’t know.

Then you start to do it. At first, although it is part of your behaviour, you are not very skilled. This is the stage of conscious incompetence. You know enough to know you are not very good and it takes a lot of your conscious attention. This stage is uncomfortable, but it is also when you are learning the most.

Next you reach the stage of conscious competence. You can do it, you have reached the capability level, but it still takes a lot of your attention.

Lastly, if you persevere, you reach the stage of unconscious competence, when you do it easily without thinking. It has become streamlined and habitual, and is taken over by the unconscious part of your mind. Beyond this stage is mastery – but that is another book!

Some gifted learners can go through the middle two conscious stages extremely quickly, taking in skills at an unconscious level. NLP Four Pillars has explored this realm of accelerated learning and we will deal with it more fully later.

Language and Physiology

How do you know what neurological level you are dealing with? One way is to listen to the language people use. Here is an example of the same subject at each level: a person is learning psychology.

Environment: It is easy to learn psychology if you have supportive people round you.

Behaviour: I learned that theory.

Capability: I understand what psychology is about.

Beliefs and values: It is important to understand what motivates people.

Identity: I am a psychologist.

You can start to notice the subtle ways that people mark out the level they are on. For example, when someone says, ‘I can’t do that’, giving the stress to the first word, they are talking about their identity. By contrast, ‘I can’t do that’ is about behaviour.

These levels also have broad physiological counterparts. We react to the environment with reflexes. Behaviour is the actions and thoughts we carry out consciously. Capabilities are habitual, semi-conscious or unconscious actions. Beliefs and values connect to our autonomic nervous system, such as our heartbeat and adrenaline level. Finally, our identity at the physiological level is our immune system that protects us by distinguishing between the self and other.

And beyond identity? It may involve a balance in the autonomic nervous system between the sympathetic branch that is involved in energizing and stimulating the heart rate, respiration and blood pressure ready for action, and the parasympathetic system which relaxes the same functions. Spiritual writings often speak of acting from a place of stillness (Being), with dynamic purpose, yet having no attachment to the results of that action.

What happens when these levels are confused?

You have probably seen a child make a mistake and an adult say something like, ‘Oh, you are stupid: What is happening? Behaviour has been taken at identity level. Yet to misspell a word or get a sum wrong does not mean someone is a stupid person. The tragedy is that a child often believes it does. This is probably the most common way our self-esteem is undermined. Children are very gifted learners and tend to believe what adults tell them, particularly about their identity. A child who believes he is clumsy, for example, will begin to live out this belief as he grows by being clumsy, not just with plates, but perhaps later with words or cars.

The same pattern can repeat whatever age you are. For example, a salesman loses an order and is told what a useless human being he is by a particularly insensitive manager. Adults are less impressionable and more resilient – sometimes.

The principle here is to give and take criticism at the level of behaviour, not identity. You can still value a person’s identity while criticizing his behaviour. This also means he is likely to act on the criticism if it is valid. The positive intention of criticism is to help the person do the best he is capable of.

Have you ever got into an argument like this?

  • ‘This house is really untidy: (environment)
  • ‘I tidied it this morning!’ (behaviour)
  • ‘Well you didn’t do it very well!’ (capability)
  • ‘I did! If you understood how difficult it was, you would be more considerate: (belief)
  • ‘Are you calling me inconsiderate?!’ (identity)

So we have an identity level crisis in short order from an environmental remark.

One man Ian knows used to get very tense over his work. He had a demanding job as a lawyer. He was forever complaining he did not know how to relax and it started to affect his health. Many people, including a doctor, told him to take a holiday. Now a change in environment might help him to relax in the short term, but it is not going to teach him how to relax, which was what he was asking. ‘How’ is capability. Solutions that only work in the short term are usually on the wrong neurological level.

Changing Levels

Knowing these levels is very useful in personal change and personal development work. Change is possible at any level. The question is, which will have the most leverage, that is, give the greatest result for the smallest effort? A change at the belief level is likely to affect skills and behaviour a great deal, a change in identity even more so. You can work from the top down or from the bottom up, all the levels relate together systemically.

A friend of mine was brought up with the belief that he was not a practical person. DIY was replaced by GSTOIFYGet Someone To Do It For You. In his home, like that of his parents, when something went wrong, you telephoned the local craftsman. Then he bought a new house which needed a lot of work done on it. In this new environment, he had a powerful resource, a stronger belief that linked to his identity: it is foolish to assume you cannot do something until you try it. He did not think he was a foolish person. Two years later, he had rewired the house, decorated every room and built a wardrobe. The old belief lost its hold completely. It was true for him just as long as he had believed it to be so. A change in environment had precipitated a change in belief, behaviour and capability.

To solve a problem at one level it usually helps to go to a different level. A problem cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created it.

NLP Four PillarsWhen you are stuck or confused, identify the level you are stuck on:

  • You may need more information from the environment.
  • You may have all the information, but not know what to do.
  • You may know what to do, but not know how to do it.
  • You may wonder whether you can do it, whether it is worthwhile and if it conflicts with any of your beliefs and values.
  • Or it may not be in keeping with your sense of self.
  • Sometimes a person can jump to a still higher level and may even have a spiritual experience, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus.


NLP uses the word rapport, as we have seen, to describe a relationship of trust and responsiveness. Rapport is essentially meeting individuals in their model of the world. We all have different upbringings, experiences and ways of being. We are all unique, with different beliefs, capabilities and identities. We all see the world differently. To gain rapport with others you need to acknowledge them and their view of the world. You do not have to agree with it, just recognize and respect it. The question is, how?

Rapport can be established (or broken) at many different levels.

Body Language

We build rapport, and therefore trust, in a face to face meeting in many ways: with our words, our body language and our voice tone.

The words are the most obvious part of any conversation, yet they are only the tip of the communication iceberg. There have been studies, following the classic work by Albert Mehrabian at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1981, of the impact of body language and voice tone on our perception of the trustworthiness of other people. These have shown that if words and body language conflict, we nearly always take the non-verbal message as the more significant, although our conscious attention is mostly on the words. Sometimes we may not know why we do not trust someone; sometimes the conflict is obvious. Would you take lessons in public speaking from someone who mumbled?

Clothes and appearance are also part of our body language. They make a statement about us to the outside world, whether we want them to or not. Our clothes and appearance contribute to the first impressions we make on others. Rapport at this level is partly a matter of credibility. Coming to a business meeting in jeans and trainers (unless you are in California!) is unlikely to gain credibility. People form first impressions quickly, usually in under ten seconds, and tend to stick with them. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

How can you use your voice and body language to show that you are paying attention to the speaker and respect their model of the world? One of the keys to good relationships is acknowledging others and giving them the attention they deserve. Such acknowledgement brings out the best in us, it is what makes us bloom. Paying attention is an act of acknowledgement which is usually taken at an identity level by the other person.

One way excellent communicators acknowledge others and gain rapport is by matching body language and voice tone with the person they are with. We all do this naturally to some extent. For example, we sit down to talk to someone who is sitting and stand if they are standing. It feels awkward to do otherwise. We observe unspoken rules of personal space and feel uncomfortable if they are breached without permission. We tend to match the amount of eye contact we have with people. It is intimidating to be stared at. On the other hand, if you are comfortable with a lot of eye contact, then you may be put off talking to someone who does not meet your gaze very often.

Matching body language to gain rapport goes further. Next time you are in a restaurant, look round at the people on adjoining tables. Whether they are talking or not, you are likely to know intuitively those who are in rapport. They will tend to have the same general body posture. They may be holding their head at the same angle. There will be a rhythm to the interaction. Couples who are in loving relationships may well be breathing in unison.

If you want to gain rapport with someone, match some aspects of their body language. Adopt a similar posture. Give the same amount of eye contact. Match the speed and general frequency of hand gestures.

The intention behind body matching is to share, and understand to a small extent, the other person’s experience of the world. Body matching is a powerful way of entering another person’s world because how we use our body influences our emotional state and how we think. Matching is not mimicry, however. Exact copying is not respectful. People quickly notice it and think you are mocking them. Body matching is more like dancing. Dancers do not copy, but complement each other. Their movements express their relationship.

If you doubt the power of rapport by matching body language, try this experiment. Pick a conversation where nothing is at stake and where you feel comfortable about experimenting, then match your companion’s body language. Adopt roughly the same body posture and match the frequency and size of their gestures. Notice how well the communication flows. Then mismatch. Change your body language to something quite different. Now notice how well the communication flows. It is likely to change drastically.

Mismatching is the opposite of matching. It is also a useful skill. Do you want a way to extricate yourself from a conversation without appearing rude? Mismatch body language. Looking away or increasing the rate of head nodding are some ways.

Mismatching is disengaging, but it need not invalidate the other person. When Ian was at university, one student he knew liked to give parties, but also liked to go to bed around 3 a.m. So he mismatched in a very obvious way. His parties always finished at about 2 am, when he would bring out the vacuum cleaner and under the pretence of cleaning up would vacuum people out of the front door. His parties became famous for the way they finished and lots of people would come for the sheer novelty of the ending.


We can also establish rapport with others by matching their voice tone. Again, we do this to some extent without thinking. When your companion is soft spoken, it is natural to moderate your own voice. Voice matching is not mimicry, more like two instruments harmonizing. The easiest way to experiment is to match the volume and the speed of the other person’s voice.

Voice matching is a good way of responding to someone who is angry with you. An angry person, whether justified or not, demands your attention. Anger is energy, so it is essential you match the energy and urgency of the person’s voice.

Match at slightly below their level of volume and speed, not at the same level, or you may escalate into a shouting match. Now, by gradually lowering your own voice, you can lead them into calmer waters. A calm, placating voice tone from the beginning will rarely work because it does not acknowledge the anger and is often interpreted as patronizing.

Matching voice tone is the main way you have of establishing rapport on the telephone. When you want to end a telephone conversation without appearing rude (a very useful skill), mismatch voice tone. Talk faster and louder, while saying the appropriate words of farewell. The caller gets both a verbal and non-verbal message.

Matching body language and voice tone to gain rapport is a good example of NLP Four Pillars taking a pattern that people do naturally, refining it and making it a learnable skill. It is a natural by-product of interest in, and attention on, another person. You can use it consciously to gain rapport, though there are two caveats when you do.

First, you may feel awkward. This is because you are now aware of what you do naturally anyway. You are gaining choice about where and how much you do it. Secondly, body matching will feel and look hollow and contrived if you use it in an attempt to influence people you have no interest in and do not really want to talk to. Why bother? Just walk away. Be selective about who you body match. Professionals in contact with people who are physically or mentally ill may use body matching to gain rapport and thus take on some of the unhealthy patterns of the people they treat. This can be a major factor in burn-out and illness in the caring professions. One way round this is to use crossover matching. This is to match another person’s body language with a different type of movement, for example tapping your foot in time to their speech rhythm.


Your words can also establish rapport. First, using the same technical vocabulary, where appropriate, is one way of establishing professional credibility. Secondly, people will often mark out words and phrases that are important to them. Using the same words or phrases in your reply shows them you hear and respect their meaning.

Often we paraphrase what people tell us. But although a paraphrase may have the same meaning to us, it may not to them. For example, a person might say, ‘I just can’t make contact with my boss: A reply like ‘Oh, you mean you can’t communicate with her?’ does not acknowledge the important words, and the person may disagree and say of course they can communicate, but they cannot make contact. Sometimes this is very confusing if you do not realize what is happening. NLP Four Pillars takes the words people say very literally and respects their precise meaning for the speaker.

NLP Four Pillars

Body and voice matching creates rapport at the behaviour level. If you can consistently create rapport, then you have the capability to do it. But body matching is not sufficient for rapport if you mismatch values. Rapport built through beliefs and values is strong.

Shared beliefs and values establish rapport; political and religious groups are obvious examples. You do not have to share them, simply acknowledge and respect them. Building rapport at this level also means respecting the culture you find yourself in. It may be a foreign culture, a different business culture or a new family culture.

The strongest rapport comes from acknowledging the person’s identity.

When a person feels acknowledged at this level, they are open to be influenced.

One person we know has difficulty with his relationships because he is always afraid he is missing something even better. He is charming at parties, but while he is talking to you his eyes are flickering round the room to see if there is anyone else who might be even more interesting. If you have ever tried to have a conversation with a person like this you will know how difficult it is to concentrate on what you are saying. Your thoughts become scrambled, you may get annoyed and start to doubt whether what you are saying is at all interesting. You do not feel acknowledged. This person tends to end up alone at parties. He has lost many real relationships for imaginary ones.

Pacing and Leading

Matching body language, voice tonality and words, and respecting beliefs and values are examples of what NLP calls pacing. Pacing is having the flexibility to meet another person in their model of the world, rather than making them come to yours. Imagine walking with a companion, adjusting your own pace to stay with them, rather than insisting they keep up with you. You do not lose your own sense of self or your own values and beliefs in the process. Pacing is not being a psychological cushion – bearing the imprint of the last person to sit on you! In fact you need a strong sense of self to pace others well.

Pacing establishes a bridge. Once you have that, you can lead another person to other possibilities. By matching body language with an angry or upset person, for example, you acknowledge what is important for him, so he no longer needs to insist on the validity of his experience and becomes more available. You then lead him to a calmer state by moderating your voice and changing your posture. You cannot lead without first pacing and gaining rapport.

When Joseph taught the guitar, he met a new student, a little girl of five years old. Her father had brought her for a trial lesson. Although she wanted to learn, she was clearly in awe and very shy. She said hardly a word. All he could do was match her breathing, and the general speed and frequency of her movements as he spoke to her. Gradually he started breathing a little slower. Her breathing calmed and she started to talk a little. Then he used her own words about the guitar and what she wanted to learn, and spoke at the same volume. Gradually her voice became stronger. She opened out. The lesson was a success, when it had looked as if it would be hard going at the start.


What would it mean to pace and lead yourself – to be in rapport with yourself? The state of rapport between mind and body is called congruence in NLP. Congruence means that you are all of a piece, your body language, tonality and words carry the same message. Your beliefs and values line up with your actions. You ‘walk your talk’. How many body therapists have poor posture? How many doctors do you know who smoke? There are psychiatrists who are difficult to tell apart from their patients!

However, ,congruence is not perfection. When the gods have a message to deliver, they sometimes choose strange messengers. Congruence is not that all of you is playing exactly the same tune, but all your parts are at least following the same score. If you prefer a visual example, a picture that is all the same colour is not a picture at all. It’s a background. You need many different colours to make a complete and interesting picture, including some colours that might look strange on their own. Our weaknesses are our best teachers, pointing us to the most productive ways to learn and change. We can use them to tune the orchestra and refresh the palette, creating richer, fuller symphonies and pictures.

Multiple Descriptions

Pacing, as we have seen, is meeting others in their model of the world. This does not mean you lose your own point of view. Central to NLP is an appreciation of the value of having different views of the same event. This is called having a multiple description. NLP distinguishes three main points of view (developed mainly by John Grinder from the work of Gregory Bateson):

First position is your own reality. Think of a time when you were intensely aware of what you thought and believed, regardless of other people. You have just experienced being in first position, regardless of exactly what you thought about.

Second position is taking another person’s point of view. You think, ‘How would this appear to them?’ Matching body language helps in taking second position. Because communication is an interactive process, the more you can understand how the other person is thinking and feeling, the better you can communicate to get what you both want from the interaction.

Third position is the ability to take an outside, detached point of view and appreciate the relationship between you and the other. This is an important skill, especially if you are stuck.

Having these three views in a situation is called a triple description. All three positions are important and the best communicators move easily between each. A person stuck in first position will be an egotistical dinosaur, blindly trampling the feelings of others. Someone habitually in second position will be too easily influenced, putting others’ needs above their own, a martyr neglecting their own needs and well-being. Someone too much in third position will be detached from life, rather than engaging in it fully.

To be able to act wisely you need all perspectives of NLP Four Pillars. They are different, and it is this difference that adds richness and choice. Excitement and creativity come from difference. Sameness leads to boredom and mediocrity. Multiple description is like looking at all the different coloured dots arranged in different ways in a stereogram, so the three-dimensional image can emerge. Being able to take multiple perspectives is also part of that general flexibility of response of successful people. The world is always richer than any one view of it. And because this is so, we all take different parts of it and combine them to create our distinctive world. Exactly how we do this is central to NLP Four Pillars.

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