Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Postframing: Finding The Excellence That Was There

by Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett.

When What You Do "Doesn't Work"

I use NLP because it is an excellent model of how human beings work. Notice that I didn't say, "I use NLP because NLP works". Actually NLP doesn't work; it's people who work. To claim that NLP works, regardless of the person, would violate the presuppositions of NLP. Each person is in charge of their own neurology, and no system (including NLP) ever takes that ability away from them.

So when someone tells me that what we did (using NLP in an educational, healing or therapeutic setting) didn't work, they are only telling me what I knew all along. How the NLP didn't work -that is, how the person's neurology worked in spite of NLP- is my immediate interest. If you really understand this, you'll never again have the experience of NLP "not working". Instead, you and your clients will discover more and more about how what they do works, and how to make it work in the way they want.

This article is about what you say and do after the formal NLP processes are complete. It's about using your language to change the client's experience of what happened, so that every event is a signpost pointing the way to success.

Pattern 1: Preframe for Post-testing

Firstly, remember that there is a lot you can do in NLP before the client has completed any NLP processes. How you talk and behave at this time presets expectations about results for the client. I have adopted Richard Bandler's policy of never helping someone change until they show me two things:

  1. That they really have a problem to change. I ask "When you think about it now, can you get back enough of a sense of that problem so you'd know if it changed?" Until they can, it would be risky to go on. After all, how will they know whether they've succeeded? Of course, some people say they only get the problem in a certain situation. I tend to say, with an air of conviction "Okay, lets go there now!". Once I have a pretested response from this comment, I can easier check what's different later on, in my post-test.
  2. How they do the problem. This is a standard NLP strategy elicitation. I say "Wow! That's impressive. How do you do that? How do you know it's time to start?..." These questions presuppose that the client "does" something. By answering them, the client has established that if a change process didn't work, it's because they are still "doing" the old behaviour well enough to get the problem.

Pattern 2: Preframe for Life Back Home

During the days after a change process, some clients like to overcheck the change process, looking for proof that it hasn't worked. This is like a gardener pulling up new seedlings every day to check if they've taken root yet. I shift the client's attention further on, using the preframing technique (described in Anchor Point Vol 10, number 9, September 1996). So, after a session is complete, I always caution clients that:

"A lot of people go away and only check for results with the things we were intending to change. In fact, when one aspect of your life changes, several other aspects tend to change, and it's a good idea to find out just what has happened. So over the next week I'd like you to notice what else has changed in your life as a result of this process."

The Two Ways People Can Make Sure NLP Doesn't Work

Let's assume I have gone through an NLP process with a client, and preframed it as above. And let's assume it's a process that I know has been successful when used in my neurology or someone else's neurology. After all, if my process doesn't fit these criteria, I wouldn't use it.

So that process "worked" when I or someone else used it. That means that my "unsuccessful" client did something different to what I or the other successful user did. The process can still "work", but I need to find out what my client did differently. I may have forgotten to tell them some step of the process, or I may have assumed they would do something that they didn't do.

One of my choices is always to search around for some NLP process which they already know how to do the same way a successful person does it (see my article on Utilising Personal Strengths to select NLP techniques in Anchor Point Volume 9, No 3, March 1995). This is already quite well understood in NLP ("If something doesn't work, do something else"). But here I want to talk about another choice, which is to Postframe their experience of this technique from one of failure to one of success.

To do that I first want to find out when they did something different. Did they do something different during the technique (so that it never "worked" for them), or did they do something different afterwards, so that they now don't remember how it "worked" for them. Amazingly, the second situation is more common.

Pattern 3: Help Clients Remember Success

Not noticing a change is an information filtering (metaprogram) problem that underlies much of what our clients seek help with. Generally, our clients are filtering the information in their life searching for evidence of problems. Part of the structure of depression, for example, is to go back over all the positive experiences, seeing them as impermanent, and dissociating from them so they feel unreal, phoney or even non-existent. The depressed person then goes through all the enjoyable experiences, sees them as permanent, and associates into them so they feel real. The structure of happiness involves noticing and associating into what is going well, what is enjoyable.

Martin Seligman explains about his work with depressed children (Seligman, 1995, p88) "No matter how many successes [the helper] recalls, [the depressed person] trots out why the successes were really failures. [The depressed person] is not being modest or shy, nor is [the depressed person] engaged in a random litany of complaints. At this moment, he truly believes that nothing will work out and it's because he has no talent. This is the standard thinking pattern of a depressed child. A pessimistic explanatory style is at the core of this kind of thinking. The bleak view of the future, the self, and the world stem from seeing the causes of bad events as permanent, pervasive and personal, and seeing the causes of good events in the opposite way."

Obviously, it's impossible to ever get evidence of success using only that sorting method, so I coach the client to filter for solutions. Many times I have seen a client tell me that "nothing has changed" one minute, and then report that they have actually achieved every goal they set for our time together. What causes the shift? My willingness not to assume that their memory of events is reality, but instead to ask persistently, firstly...

"So what has changed in your life (or in your experience of the situation that was a problem)? No matter how small the changes seem at first, what is different?"

and then secondly, to genuinely congratulate them - "Wow, that's great. How did you do that?"

and then thirdly, to keep asking "And what else has changed?"

These three questions come from the Ericksonian school of Solution Focused Therapy (Chevalier, 1995). In asking them, I'm coaching the client to sort for solutions. This is the key strategy in Solution Focused Therapy, a method which proponents say has 75% of clients achieve their goals in as little as four hour sessions.

Pattern 4: Help Clients Realise That What They Did Worked Perfectly

Some clients do something different during the original NLP technique, so that it never worked for them. It still helps to find out what else has changed, but I do need an immediate response when the client says "It didn't work." Such a client has somehow mismatched my instructions for the process, so I know that at some level they value being able to be different.

My response is quite simple. I pace the person's comment, and connect it with the word because to an explanation that puts them in charge, and suggests that being different = doing it so it works. The structure is:

"That's right, it didn't work... because you didn't do the process the way I told you. Instead you did what you've always done... and the only way to get a different result is to do it the way I told you. Do you want to get that different result?"

The most common thing that clients do that wasn't in the instructions is to sort for failure while the process is happening, usually using a critical internal voice. While they do the process, they tell themselves "This probably won't work". This is so common that I usually check for it with a client who doesn't get the result intended.

Pattern 5: Check Ecology

In NLP, one of the assumptions we make is that there is an intention for each behaviour, and so if a client doesn't change, at least part of them must have some reason for not changing. Sorting for failure is such a powerful metaprogram, that I believe it often operates independently of any other intention than it's own. It remains an important choice to deal with ecology, and the intention of sorting for failure (eg "not to be let down by getting too hopeful") is worth dealing with. This article is not intended to deny such central NLP concepts, but only to add choices to their use. Ecology is in itself a useful Postframe, and I use it eg:

"That's right it didn't work, and there may be a part of you that has a good reason why it wasn't okay yet to have it work, and if you were to know what the intention of that part was, what would it be...?" [followed by any NLP Parts Process].

These two following examples demonstrate the use of patterns 3 and 4 (the core of our model of Postframing).

A woman I'll call Jan came to see me because she was depressed. I suggested that each morning before she got out of bed, she could identify three things (however small) that she was looking forward to that day. And each night before she went to sleep, she could identify three things she was grateful for in her day. Next week she came back, and here's the postframing conversation. Jan: Well, that idea of thinking of three things I was feeling grateful for didn't work. In fact, it made me feel worse. It was so hard to do that I began to feel quite hopeless.

Richard: That's right, it didn't work, because you didn't do it the way we arranged. What you actually did, from that description, is to try and think of three things for a while, and then stop and tell yourself it was too hard. That's a sure way to feel bad, and it sound's like it really worked.

Jan: Yes. I just don't have anything much to be grateful for. [weeping]

Richard: Right, you don't, and that's the way you've been thinking about life for a long time now. And each time you think about life that way, including just then, it gets you the same result, right?

Jan: Well, yes.

Richard: So, would you be interested in doing something different; after all, you're already good at doing that one?

Jan: I suppose, but I don't know if I can.

Richard: Well, if I could just check first, "What has changed in your life over the week?"

Jan: Not much. Things were probably worse this week, because my mother was visiting.

Richard: So your mother was visiting, and you were under extra stress. I imagine things could have gotten much worse than they did. How did you manage?

Jan: Mmm. Yes, actually, last year when she came we had a huge row, but this time I just thought, "I know what the hot subjects are and I'm not going to raise one."

Richard: Wow, that's great! How did you know to do that?

Jan: I'm learning I guess. There's no point in wearing myself out.

Richard: So what else has improved over this week?

Jan: Umm. Well, the thinking of things to look forward to was actually a bit easier. And I did that okay most days.

Richard: Right! That's a major change. What was different about those days?

Jan: Now that you mention it, those days I didn't feel so bad at all. It was just yesterday that things really piled up.

Richard: So most of the week you actually felt better than usual, even though your mother was here?

Jan: Mm-hmm.

Richard: That's exciting. What else was different this week?...

A man I'll call Bob came to one of my weekend trainings. At that training I have people do a visualisation exercise. They turn around and point behind them with their arm, and then come back to the front. Next they imagine themselves going further, and notice what they would see, feel and say to themselves if their body was more flexible and they could turn around further. Then they turn around again and notice how much further they go (Bolstad, Hamblett and Dyer Huria, 1996, p 67). Unlike 99% of people who've done this with me, Bob wasn't impressed:

Bob: Well, I think I went further the first time. Didn't work for me at all.

Margot: That's right, it didn't; because you didn't do the process the way I told you. I said to imagine what it looked, felt and sounded like to go further, and you talked to yourself inside about how this probably wouldn't work for you....Right?

Bob: Hmmm. Probably. Yeah, I guess so.

Margot: And that's probably the way you've been doing a lot of other things too. You're already good at talking sceptically to yourself. If you want to get a different result in your life, then it's worth using these exercises the way we actually describe them, and only do what we describe. You just did more work than you needed to. Now lets do that one more time, the new way.


Postframing is a series of language techniques for discovering how clients have been in charge of their neurology, and presupposing their success. The techniques described here include:

  1. Before doing any change technique, have the client pre-test by demonstrating that the problem exists, and explaining their strategy for doing it.
  2. Tell people to use time between sessions to sort for other changes that happen as a result of the key changes you've made in the session.
  3. Ask repeatedly for information about what has changed between sessions, and coach clients to sort for success, and to congratulate themselves for their results.
  4. When a process doesn't work, pace the client's experience of it not working and point out that they did something else that got them the (usual for them) results they got. Then have them do the process again.
  5. Check for internal intentions which may seem in conflict with the change desired and heal using Parts Integration etc.


Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz