Decision-making Strategies

This article is drawn from an NLP Practitioner Certification held in 2002.

A strategy in NLP is a sequence of steps, a recipe, that when followed, produces a predictable result. This is not necessarily a desirable result. Sometimes the strategy isn’t working for us, meaning we don’t like the result. That’s where modifying the strategy can be useful, though before we can begin that, we must discern, or in NLP parlance, elicit, the strategy’s steps. First, what is that “sequence of steps”? It’s a succession of mental processes, to which most of the time we pay no attention. Because NLP models behaviors, and often in terms of sensory modalities, a well-defined, and therefore easily reused strategy is stated in Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic terminology.

NLP teaches that using the three major representational systems leads to a complete strategy, having more potential for success than if Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic (VAK) is omitted. Modeling successful people, a kinesthetic experience tends to be the final step in a decision-making strategy. However they collect criteria, then data, then navigate the steps in that process, they will often culminate in a kinesthetic step in which they report a “feeling of certainty or confidence,” or having a “feeling that this is the right choice for me.”

To begin, we elicit our strategy when we made a particularly good decision. Similarly, if working with a partner, we can elicit theirs in the same way—asking a question like, “Think of a time when you made a really great decision.” Building upon other lessons, we are choosing an exemplar or a model of excellence which we can subsequently utilize. Often the experience we will model is called the “reference experience”. To elicit this experience, consider such a time. As we do, we’re going to map the steps we follow, putting them into sensory terms so we can verify how we are constructing that sequence.

“For example, and you’ll see this in our demonstration, when our subject has identified an experience where they made a great decision, we will ask them to put that in order, in sensory terms, so we can document it. We will then take a decision they now need to make and apply that same strategy. But there’s another aspect to this: improvement. We’ve talked a lot about “the difference that makes the difference,” which suggests that some differences, or actions, are coincidental, or habit, but have no real bearing on the strategy’s outcome. We can verify this by simply omitting them and verifying whether our strategy worked just as well.

Once we’ve done that, we will run through that strategy to see whether we can nonverbally confirm its efficacy. Lastly, we’ll run through the strategy with another decision entirely to see whether it translates well to other situations. This isn’t as strange as it may sound. Most of the time, we use the same Decision-making strategy globally. However in some cases, you may encounter one situation that proves to be an exception. Perhaps you use the same strategy for making decisions everywhere but at work—and at work, you use a variation. We’ll want to discover that.

That’s it for Decision-making strategy elicitation. After that, we will explore how to design and install such a strategy. We’ll talk about that after our demonstration. Who here is thinking now of a time when you made a particularly good decision, but are also facing a new decision which you’ve not yet made? Great—you, Andy!

Andy, the volunteer, comes to the front of the room.

Okay, Andy, you have a good decision in mind?

Andy said, “Um, okay, I’m hoping you can help me, but to be honest, I have a bad decision in mind. No, wait, I made a great decision—I have it—but I’m more concerned about a bad one I’ve made. And since I’m facing the same decision with another person, I’m really nervous I’ll mess it up.”

“Okay, not exactly what we set out to do, but let’s explore this. I just need to admit up-front: If this doesn’t lend itself well to what we’re doing right now, I’m going to have to ask that we work outside of this workshop. Our purpose right now is to teach elicitation and installation of effective Decision-making strategies. So bear with me, and we’ll see what we can do in this setting. I want very much to help you. Though at this moment, our focus needs to be on teaching and learning this technique. Agreed?”

Andy nodded.

“Great. So what we want to do is elicit the strategy. I don’t need the content, but it might make more sense to the rest of the group here if you offered some context. What was the decision? The good one, I mean.”

Andy said, “That’s the thing—both the good decision and the bad one, AND the one I’m going to make, are all the same thing. It’s just that once it worked great, the other really badly. And since I’m about to make the same decision again, I want to be sure I get this right. And I don’t know enough about this stuff to tell the difference. Okay—it’s choosing to take a relationship to the next level. One time I did great, and if it hadn’t been for her getting in a car accident—” he became silent and lowered his eyes. We all seemed to collectively feel a jolt and held our breath. “—if she hadn’t been taken from us, I’d still be with her today.”

I held up my hand as others began to offer condolences. While obviously appropriate, it would do nothing to help him right now. After, we could all offer comfort if he was open to receiving it.

“Okay, Andy. So—the bad one? Sorry if you want a moment first.”

“No,” he said, “the bad one was that we got married and it was horrible. Within a year, we both knew it was the wrong decision. And it’s been a few years since we got divorced. Now I have a new woman in my life and we’re getting pretty serious. I think the marriage question is coming, but I want to be sure this is like the first decision, not the second.”

“Got it, Andy. Okay. Since the first was the good decision, we’d start with that anyway. So let’s do this. Think back to that decision, that time. Move in time backward and down the timeline to where this was your NOW, your present. Obviously, your relationship with this person is going to be very rich, filled with nuance and detail, but we are suspending all of that for the exercise. In fact, all we are talking about here is your decision to marry her.

“So you’ve talked about marriage, recognized that the relationship is serious enough and that this step makes sense and is compelling to you both. But you still, before doing it, must make a decision: The discussion was thorough, you love spending time together, you work well together, solve problems well together, etc. But now you face the question…do you marry her? This question is in the present, considering what to do in your immediate future together.

“Notice what’s happening in the language there—though this happened in the past, I’m speaking in present tense. The person having the reference experience is associating fully into this decision so they can recall every bit of the process.

“Good. Now, how did you first confront that decision? Did you say something to yourself? Did your partner ask? Did you both just look at one another and know? You realize that the whole thing began by your facing that question, but how? What are the senses involved? With the training we’ve already done in the sensory modalities, please tell us what you experienced, and if it occurs to you, identify that modality. If not, we can as a group help to name it, if your information is detailed enough.”

Andy said, “I am hearing it in my mind. It’s in my own voice, so it was Auditory, and specifically Auditory Digital, me talking to myself. I then saw her face smiling back at me. I saw us standing together in a wedding ceremony and hearing her voice saying, ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’ That was a Visual step, then an Auditory step, followed by a very good feeling in myself, which is Kinesthetic. I then saw us moving in time through years, getting older, but holding hands, kissing, looking close to one another—Visual. This also was followed by a strong positive Kinesthetic experience, feeling really wonderful about being with her. Lastly, I had another Auditory Digital experience, asking myself if I could be happy with her the rest of my life, followed by my answering, ‘Yes!’. Finally, I had another Kinesthetic experience and I decided that this was right for me.”

“Okay, great, you can all see I’ve written the steps on the white board here—anything I missed?

AD -> V -> A -> K -> V -> K -> AD -> K

“Great. One more question about that “good decision”, Andy: When you mention that last step, “I had a Kinesthetic experience and I decided this was right for me,” what made you decide that? Something you said? Heard? Saw? Felt?”

“Definitely felt. That last Kinesthetic step didn’t just confirm that I felt good that I could be happy with her the rest of my life—” his voice hitched and we gave him a moment. “—I’m sorry, guys…so not only would I have been happy with her the rest of my life, but—I felt right about the decision based on that feeling. That last statement wasn’t so much a new step as it was a conclusion based on the feeling of certainty that came just before.”

“Alright, thank you, Andy. Now—the bad decision…the one which led to an outcome you didn’t like as much.”

“Yeah, after Bridget died, I spent a lot of time healing. Eventually, I met another woman and things moved real quickly. Ironically, though we were obviously adults, she put a lot of stock in her parents’ opinions and they weren’t as enthusiastic about me, being a widower. Though we’d already decided to get married. I don’t want to go through all of it, but they were at times very hostile. Polite to my face, but working aggressively to break us up, to stop the wedding, behind our backs. Sandy and I began pulling together, which I’ve always appreciated in a relationship, and facing that common ‘enemy’ if you will. That wasn’t so easy as she was really worried that they didn’t approve. But in time, I won her over and we faced them together, getting married. But it was a disaster and within a year, we knew we’d made a really big mistake. I mentioned that it ended in divorce.”

“Got it,” I said. “So let’s focus on the strategy you used to make that decision, itself. Leaving out anything that you didn’t yourself do inside your head while making that decision to get married again. First, just like before, what made you decide? Let’s go back to that time now and see it in your present. What are you thinking?”

“Sure. I’m having a discussion in my head about how this might be the best way to let go of Bridget—the loss of her—and move on. So Auditory Digital like before. Um, then I saw us joining our lives together, getting married, walking the aisle, then going home together, beginning a new life. So Visual. Now I’m starting to think about how so many people are against us. Her family. My family, who also thinks it’s too soon. Bridget’s family, who are really mad that I’d remarry only a couple years after losing Bridget.”

“Quick clarification, please, Andy. When you say ‘I’m starting to think about how so many people are against us…’ do you experience that as something you hear, see, or feel?”

“Oh, sorry, yeah. No, it’s definitely Auditory. I hear everyone’s voices telling me we shouldn’t do this. Everyone seems to oppose our being together, but we talk about it and tell each other it’s something we need to do. We keep hearing others telling us it’s a mistake and that we’re hurting people who are still grieving, but we still feel it’s something we need to do. I think it over in my head, talking to myself about it. And that clinches it. I ask Sandy and she says yes. Our great disaster began two months later.”

“Thank you, Andy. And to confirm: in this last scenario, you chose to ask Sandy to marry you, you made that decision, by thinking the decision over in your head, having an internal discussion with yourself? You didn’t stop to feel what that meant or what you felt about what was happening?”

“No, and looking back at it, that is strange. I think we were so focused on leaning against that door, keeping everybody who didn’t approve OUT, so we could so our own thing. I never really checked in with my feelings to know whether it truly felt right or not. Interesting.”

“Thank you. So I’m going to copy up the strategy I just elicited over the other strategy so you can easily see the differences. Let me know if you saw something I didn’t—sensory acuity is always important in this kind of activity!”

Strategy for poor decision: AD -> V -> A -> K -> AD

Strategy for good decision: AD -> V -> A -> K -> V -> K -> AD -> K

“Let’s walk back through the first strategy, just to make sure we have it. Andy, just play through the strategy in your mind as I read it back from my notes. But don’t play along. If I miss something, react to that. We’ll notice as we all calibrate your shifts. Okay, with Bridget, you are first “hearing it in my mind…in my own voice, talking to myself…Auditory Digital.

“Everyone see that reaction? He’s experiencing it in real time. Please note if that stops being true because I missed something or added something in that isn’t part of his strategy. Good.

“Andy, next, you saw her face smiling at you. You saw the two of you standing together in a wedding ceremony and hearing her voice saying, ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’ So a Visual, then an Auditory step, followed by a great feeling, Kinesthetic. So far, so good, according to your physiology, Andy. Am I right or no?

Andy smiled. “You’ve got it.”

“Thank you. Then you saw yourself and Bridget moving through life, getting older, but holding hands, kissing, looking close to one another—Visual. Then came a strong positive Kinesthetic experience, feeling really wonderful. Then you had another Auditory Digital experience, asking yourself if you could be happy with her the rest of your life, and you answered, ‘Yes!’. Finally, I had another Kinesthetic experience and I decided that this was right for me.”

“Are you seeing his agreement, his physiology recognizing the strategy? Good. Andy? How about your take on this? Are you experiencing this or did I get something wrong? And going through that strategy, would you still choose the same option?”

He smiled, “That’s perfect, and oh yes, I’d decide to marry her again.”

“Okay, thank you. By the way, have you ever noticed that choosing a partner isn’t terribly unlike choosing an employer? (This was a break state to clean his memory’s palate.) Great, not so much? Okay. Now, Andy. About that second decision, the next time you got married…let’s run through that the same way, to ensure I got all the steps right. Okay, first you had another internal dialog, deliberating over whether it was a good thing to remarry, Auditory Digital. In fact, this strategy looks pretty much like the other one to this point. Next, you see you two joining your lives, walking down the aisle and going home together, so a Visual step, and though the next step is Auditory as in the other strategy, this one seems very different. You’re not hearing your lover anymore, but the angry, frustrated voices of the people around you who oppose this marriage. Where that really becomes interesting is in how you two handle the subsequent steps.”

I then reviewed the steps of this strategy with Andy to verify he still wound up at the same decision, though he seemed agitated, saying that he still made the choice that way, but was equally unhappy with the end result.

“Andy, are you noticing the point at which these two strategies differ? Any thoughts on that?

“Yeah, the first four steps are the same. But it looks like where they start to differ, and stay different, results in too little information. And if you look at steps 5, I close out the bad decision by just talking to myself about it, almost like talking myself INTO it. And I cut off any new information. But in the successful decision strategy, I kept getting more info at that point. I’m thinking about what you talked about earlier, before I came up here—how Kinesthetic experiences can seem like a check on the decision—checking in with how you FEEL about it…So if I look at that, where the bad decision finished up with my talking to myself, the better strategy continued with visualization and an Auditory Dialog. BUT after each is a Kinesthetic step! So there’s a pretty big difference after all. I wonder…”

“Excellent. I agree with you! So if in place of that last Auditory Dialog, we replaced it with

V -> K -> AD -> K, I’m hearing you say that you suspect that might have improved your decision-making prior to deciding to marry your second wife. Would you agree?”


“Let’s test that. Let’s go back to the issue with your families and friends opposing the marriage. I noticed that in the first scenario, you didn’t seem to notice other’s advice or opinions. You were focused on one another and others came along for the ride.”

“I completely agree.”

“So let’s run back through that second scenario with a few additions. You are at the point where you begin to notice others’ opinions, an Auditory experience. But now when you decide on your feelings, you feel strongly that this woman is still right for you. You then, instead of talking with yourself about it, visualize your future together, having a Visual experience of your life together, going forward. Now, you pause to feel what that’s like and it feels good…Next, you have another internal dialog with yourself, another Auditory Digital experience, asking whether you could be happy with her the rest of your life, followed by my answering, ‘Yes!’. Finally, I had another Kinesthetic experience, confirming that this is right for you.

“Does that seem correct? One other thing: Is the ecology okay? Meaning, if we make this shift, is the rest of you okay with it? Does this slip into place as a great strategy for you, alongside, fitting neatly into position, with other strategies?”

Andy nods, smiling, and the observers all acknowledge that they believe him.

“Okay, so now we have a strategy and we’ve confirmed that we can modify existing strategies to more closely follow it. Now let’s go through the current process you’re following. You said you have a new lady in your life and you’re thinking about popping the question again. Let’s verify that we use the right, full, robust strategy you’ve found to work for you. So you’re hearing it in your mind, in your own voice, talking to yourself: Auditory Digital. Asking “Is this the time, should I marry her? You then see her face smiling at you, as you’re standing together in a wedding ceremony and hearing her voice saying, ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’ That was a Visual step, Auditory step, followed by a very good feeling, which is Kinesthetic. You then see the two of you “moving in time through years, getting older, but holding hands, kissing, looking close to one another—Visual.” This again is followed by a strong positive Kinesthetic experience, feeling great about being with her. Lastly, you have another Auditory Digital experience, asking whether you could be happy with her the rest of your life, followed by your answering, ‘Yes!’. Finally, you have another Kinesthetic experience and decide that this is right for you.

“How is this feeling? Let it sink in, work with your mind…how do you feel?

“Like marrying Carmen will be fulfilling, and we’ll be very happy!”

“Nice. So that feels like a robust, satisfying decision? You’re not at all concerned that you may have overlooked anything, are you? You know this is right for you.”

“Yes I do! Thanks!”

“Okay, that’s with a single repetition. As we rehearse that strategy, we strengthen the neurological connection and make it more familiar and comfortable with every trial. Let’s run through two more instances, then future pace it to ensure you are happy with your newly applied strategy.”

Copyright © 2012 Chris Gingolph

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