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Sleight of Mouth

By Roger Ellerton Phd, ISP, CMC, Renewal Technologies Inc.

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All of our thoughts and actions are undertaken within a frame of reference (of which we may or may not be conscious). Sometimes these frames lock us into very restrictive thinking that limits the choices we have in life. Using reframes, we can assist ourselves and others to get a different perspective on a problem and potentially other possible solutions. Reframing by itself seldom resolves the problem. Reframing offers the potential of "softening up" the problem so that its resolution is more plausible. A very powerful set of reframing patterns, called Sleight of Mouth, was developed by Robert Dilts through modeling the verbal patterns of people such as Karl Marx, Milton Erickson, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus and Mohandas Gandhi. For more information, please see the book Sleight of Mouth by Robert Dilts.

Taken out of context or viewed from certain perspectives, some Sleight of Mouth responses may seem very harsh or callous. And this is not the intention. All reframing and Sleight of Mouth patterns should support your client to expand their model of the world so that other possibilities can be considered. The value of any Sleight of Mouth response should be viewed in terms of whether or not it helped the client.

Dilts identified 14 different Sleight of Mouth patterns. For a particular intervention, you would not use all 14, but rather a sub-set that best supports your client. As you review the different patterns, you may discover that you have used each of them at one time or another. And it is useful be comfortable generating a response using any of the 14 patterns, as this will give you flexibility in responding to your client and not be locked into one or two favourites.


Beliefs define the relationship between values and their causes, indicators and consequences. Beliefs are typically expressed in the form of a "complex equivalence" (A "equals", "is", "is equivalent to" or "means" B) or a "cause-effect" (A "causes (because)", "makes", "leads to", "produces", "results in" B). "Complex equivalence" and "cause-effect" language structures will be described in more detail in a later article.

Sleight of Mouth patterns work well for belief change. To use Sleight of Mouth patterns the client's belief must be expressed in terms of a complex equivalence or cause-effect assertion. The statement, "I don't believe in reorganizing business units," does not reveal the full belief and gives us little to work with. To ascertain the person's full belief, you could ask questions such as: "What does reorganizing a business unit mean to you?" "What are the consequences of a business reorganization?" "What will a business reorganization lead to?" If your client responds with a complex equivalence or cause effect, then you have something to work with.

Sleight of Mouth Patterns

To illustrate the Sleight of Mouth patterns, let us assume your client says, "The reorganization of this unit is irresponsible because it will lead to lay-offs." This represents a legitimate viewpoint that can limit your client's options. There are two parts to this response: A because B. In the following patterns, we can focus on either A or B or both. I will give only one example and many others are possible.

1. Intention: What could be the positive intention? E.g. safety

Response: I very much admire and support your desire for safety.

2. Redefine: Use words that are similar but may infer something different. e.g. replace "irresponsible" with "careless" and "lay-offs" with "unable to adjust"

Response: I agree we need to be careful how this is undertaken so that people can adjust to the new environment.

3. Consequences: Focus a consequence that leads to challenging the belief. E.g. irresponsible - take responsibility

Response: Recognizing our respective responsibilities is a key step in mitigating those possibilities.

4. Chunk down: Look at a specific element that challenges the belief.

Response: I am not sure how proposing an organization chart that clearly describes staff roles and responsibilities is irresponsible.

5. Chunk Up: Generalize in order to change the relationship defined by the belief.

Response: Any change can have unforeseen consequences.

6. Counter Example: Find an exception that challenges the generalization defined by the belief.

Response: It is hard for me to see business reorganization as irresponsible when the last reorganization saved the company from insolvency.

7. Analogy: Use an analogy or metaphor that challenges the generalization defined by the belief.

Response: Good gardeners are always finding ways to re-energize the soil so that plants have the nutrients and resources to grow strong and healthy.

8. Apply to Self: Use key aspects of the belief to challenge the belief.

Response: Couldn't it also be irresponsible and lead to lay-offs if we do not do something different to resolve our current problems?

9. Another Outcome: Propose a different outcome that challenges the relevancy of the belief.

Response: Maybe the issue is not so much whether we reorganize, but whether we are doing the right things to maintain our jobs.

10. Hierarchy of Criteria: Re-assess the belief based on a more important criterion.

Response: Knowing how to act responsibly is more important than not taking any action.

11. Change Frame Size: Re-evaluate the implication of the belief in the context of a longer (or shorter) time frame, a larger number of people (or from an individual point of view) or a bigger or smaller perspective.

Response: Highly successful organizations have been restructuring to meet changing needs for centuries. Those that do not eventual disappear or get absorbed by other organizations.

12. Meta Frame: Challenge the basis for the belief. E.g. formulate a belief as to the origin of the belief.

Response: Is it possible that your belief about reorganization assumes that you know the 'right' way and those who do not share your view are negatively intended?

13. Model of the World: Look at the belief from a different perspective (model of the world).

Response: Are you aware that some people see a reorganization as an opportunity to learn new skills and assume more challenging duties?

14. Reality Strategy: Re-assess the belief based on the fact that beliefs are based on specific perceptions.

Response: What particular aspects of the reorganization do you feel fearful about it?

I trust you will find these patterns useful in assisting those around you to expand their view of the world so they can become more resourceful in addressing the issues that confront them.

And NLP is Much more than that!

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Author: Roger Ellerton is a certified NLP trainer, certified management consultant and the founder and managing partner of Renewal Technologies. The above article is an extract from his book Live Your Dreams Let Reality Catch Up: NLP and Common Sense for Coaches, Managers and You.

Copyright © 2004, Renewal Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.

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