Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Preframing: Giving Your Teaching The Perfect Setting

by Richard Bolstad.

Preframing This Article

Ever watched a kid learning to walk? Watching my son, it looked so difficult. He would try to stand, waver a few seconds, and then sit down. A moment later he would be up trying again. It was as if he knew that walking would be fun, knew that all the things he wanted would be within easy reach. But it took many tries before he had the process. And no wonder. It's an amazing thing. Walking involves deliberately throwing yourself off balance, by lifting one foot up and moving it forward. Then you catch your balance again just enough to throw yourself off once more. The thing is, it's a controlled throwing off balance. The trick is to know how to choose where to be off balance. Once you can do that, the whole process is fun. You can run, you can skip, you can dance.

That's how I find teaching. It's incredible fun, because I know how to choose where I'm going, how to choose where I'm off balance in order to reach my goal. So, the question is, Where is it appropriate to be off balance in teaching? and then, How do you make it fun?.

In this article I'll discuss a new model of teaching, and contrast it with the most common mis-taken belief about teaching. I'll then introduce reframing as a key teaching activity, and explain how preframing is the most elegant way to deliver a reframe. I'll show you how to shift the focus of students' disagreement to areas that are guaranteed safe, so that even disagreement installs the basic beliefs and attitudes you need students to adopt for their success.

What Teaching Is About

Teaching is the process that makes us human. Alfred Korzybski, who first coined the term Neuro-linguistics in 1933, said that human beings are distinguished by their ability to "time-bind"; to convey the maps of their experience from generation to generation. This ability is the basis of what we call "culture", or when we get ethnocentric about it, what we call "science". Teaching is the specific process by which time-binding occurs.

To convey something of our experience to another is more than just conveying information. Information can be stored in books, on the Internet, and so on, but when a person accesses this information it becomes more than just data. So far, the part of teaching that remains uniquely human is the ability to create and convey the context in which information makes sense; the state of mind/body. Teachers are people who experience and can convey to others the state in which those others will be able to take in, process and act on information. They convey the intense curiosity and eagerness which motivates learners to begin (the "Why...?"); they convey to learners the state of relaxed attention, enthusiasm and fascination in which people can take in new information (the "What...?"); they convey the sense of confidence and focused carefulness in which their application of the information will be successful (the "How...?"); they convey the openness and inspirational creativity in which students can extend the possibilities with this new learning (the "What if...?").

Using a computer program metaphor, the teacher's task is not merely to transfer text from a book to a student; it is to deliver the application (program) which turns that text into a document, and the entire operating system (like Windows 95(?)) which creates an environment in which the program works. In a human being, this operating system involves beliefs (presuppositions), values, personality styles (called metaprograms in NLP), and the person's fundamental sense of identity and mission.

For example, in much of Asia, the meditation teacher, or guru, would traditionally be able to guide a student into a deeply relaxed, meditative state of mind (which the guru already experienced at will). The guru would then associate this state with certain other stimuli, such as a special word (mantra), visual symbol (mandala), or hand position (mudra). By using these stimuli, the student could re-enter the state whenever desired, just by sitting in the same posture, making the same hand gesture, repeating the same secret word, and visualising the same symbol. In that state the student would learn certain truths, but they would be learned far more fully than if the student had read them in, say, the Bhagavad Gita or the Dhammapada.

The Most Common Mis-taken Belief About Teaching

The student, on the other hand, quite often believes that teaching is simply a conscious process of transmitting information. They may assume that if this information could be given more quickly, they would have learned more. For example, nowadays all the sacred writings of the east are available for the beginning student to read. Does this mean more people experience the teachings of yoga or meditation? Occasionally, it does, but mostly it means that lots of people have "premature closure" about these subjects. They think they know them because they've read the book; and they've closed their mind to further learning. As Paul Watzlawick says, this is like a student musician saying "Piano playing does not exist. I have tried it several times and nothing came of it."

The fact is that piano playing, meditation, and any other learned skills are not learned merely consciously. That would be like transferring the text from computer to computer, and expecting the text to run without a program to run it. Or it would be like transferring a text from the Dos operating system and expecting it to run in Windows. All that "unconscious" backup (beliefs, values, metaprograms and types of awareness) is essential to learning.

The Role Of Teachers In Creating Meaning

When students try to pick up the information without getting the underlying state and the presuppositions that make the information work, they don't achieve their outcome (learning). Effective teaching means ensuring the students receive these backups with the information. Whenever a student demonstrates that they have not taken on board part of this fundamental "operating system" the teacher's task is to guide them through some series of internal representations (visualising or looking at something, listening to sounds, feeling feelings, doing something physically, or talking to themselves, for example) which installs the backup, the "frame" within which the information makes sense . This process is sometimes called "reframing".

For example, when I teach Hypnotherapy, I teach certain specific techniques for communicating with a client's unconscious mind. A student in this course will occasionally ask me "What do you mean by the term "unconscious mind"? Unconscious means out to it, like in a coma. Either my mind is working, in which case I'm conscious, or it isn't, in which case I'm unconscious. I don't see how you can communicate with what is unconscious."

When I hear this question, I'm aware that something of the backup for learning hypnotherapy, the operating system, is missing. This backup includes certain beliefs about what is possible, and the opportunity to notice certain internal events. Amongst hundreds of choices, I might say "Until I mention it now, you weren't conscious of the speed you were breathing, and the depth you were breathing to. But you can be conscious of that now, right? Infact, now that you're conscious of it, you can change the speed and breathe slower, or faster, shallower or deeper. Check it out now. You can run your breathing with your conscious mind. Of course, if you do, then it's hard to get much else done. So being conscious of breathing may be useful for an athlete, but not necessary at some other times... So how were you deciding which speed to breathe at when you weren't conscious of it? That action of your brain that decided that is what I'm calling your unconscious mind. Now, when I play some classical music here, your breathing rate will tend to slow down, without you thinking about it consciously. That's what I mean by communicating with your unconscious mind. The music communicates with the part of your neurology which is deciding how fast you'll breathe. So, in the same way, would it be useful to you to be able to communicate with the part of your mind which chooses what to memorise, or chooses how quickly you heal?"

This is a "reframe". It changes the meaning of "conscious" and "unconscious". The student said ""Unconscious" means non-functioning". I said "To me "unconscious" just means not being consciously thought about as it happens." The new meaning, as I note at the end, allows for lots of new learnings, new actions the person could develop skill with. To convey this new meaning fully, I took the person through a sequence of internal representations (noticing their breathing, varying it's speed and depth, imagining how this was happening before they thought of it, etc).

Preframing Is More Elegant Than Reframing

Of course, the student may dispute my reframe. Because they already thought through their own conclusion ("Unconscious" means non-functioning") , they may find a way to fit my explanation into their map of the world. For example by saying "Well, when I'm not aware of my breathing, I'm not deciding how to breathe. It's happening automatically just like water flows down hill. The water doesn't have a "mind" that decides "now I'll flow down here." It just happens."

Once again, this student frame doesn't support my hypnotherapy text very well. If I reply, we may well end up trading reframes for some time, and other students will begin to try on the alternatives. The group may then believe that the hypnotherapy model is "confusing", and consequently doubt their ability to use it.

Of course, these are students who have chosen to study hypnotherapy. Their goal is to be able to use it as I use it. How could I more effectively assist them to meet that goal? For me, one central solution is to anticipate the objection and say my reframe before anyone expresses a contrary model. In that case, it is my experience that the contrary model will never even occur to the students. Because my model is plausible ("it could be true") they will accept it as an operating system, and move on from there. I will have preframed their understanding.

Choosing The Focus For Mismatching

There is a way I can maximise the acceptance of my preframe. After stating it, I can focus attention on a particular issue that occurs once a person accepts the preframe. For example, particular issues that occur once we have accepted the reframe that "There is an unconscious mind that can be communicated with." include:

Unless I'm teaching salespeople, all these issues are ones I'm quite happy for students to have different opinions about. As far as I can tell, their opinion about these issues will not affect their ability to learn and use hypnotherapy.

In raising such an issue immediately after my preframe, I'm offering people who enjoy disagreeing, people who like challenging my model, something to disagree with. Some people (in NLP terms, "mismatchers") sort their experiences by identifying mainly what is different, what doesn't fit, what they can disagree with. This is a perfectly useful skill, and essential to certain professional groups (such as lawyers and accountants, though they may disagree with me about that). Teachers often dread mismatchers, because they can take up group time by disputing essential points, rally others around them, and so on. I find that their energy is stimulating and valuable to the group. And I like to help them use that energy in a way that meets their own and the group's goals.

By discussing the issue I've chosen, the group is accepting the key preframe, because without that, what they're saying wouldn't make sense. You can't discuss whether salespeople should learn how to communicate with the unconscious, without deepening the belief that communication with the unconscious is possible.... Or can you? Maybe it doesn't change the depth of your belief at all. You decide.

From "Disaster" to Perfection

When I'm running a new course, I aim first of all to identify the essential operating beliefs or attitudes behind the course content. In hypnotherapy, for example, this includes the notion that you have an unconscious mind, and we can communicate with it. Next, I plan a preframing experience or statement to install this essential frame. Thirdly, I identify a non-essential issue which comes up as a result of presupposing this essential frame. In the course, I introduce the preframing experience as soon as possible after introducing the topic, and immediately follow this by raising the non-essential issue and inviting group response.

Of course, when it's my first time running a course, I often don't anticipate all the challenges that will occur to students. But every time a disagreement with the fundamentals of the course is raised, I note the student's belief, and design a preframe to dissolve it in any future course. I ask myself:

  1. "What could I have said or done before they spoke, that would presuppose the opposite of their objection, and that they would agree with?"
  2. "What issues are raised once they accept my preframe, and that I can accept virtually any conclusion about?"

By the third time I've run the course, it's very rare for someone to challenge a fundamental frame of the course. Infact, by then, all challenges tend to confirm the fundamentals! What might seem like problem responses are actually the feedback I need to design a totally involving learning experience.

Some Examples of Preframes

Which preframes I need will vary depending on the group (ie depending on their particular frames at the start of the course). For example, if I was teaching a group of psychotherapists about NLP, I may like to alter their belief that NLP is not "real" psychotherapy. I might say "Of course, NLP was originally developed by studying the psychotherapy of Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. That means that all the fundamental notions of NLP were already around in the work of those psychotherapists. Originally, NLP was thought of as being a "meta-model", a model of a model, for the various kinds of psychotherapy. Some people would still say that NLP isn't really a new form of psychotherapy at all; it's just a dramatic application of Ericksonian therapy with Satir's questioning style and some of Perls attitudes. But I think there are some really unique new models within NLP."

At times, the preframe doesn't need stating because it's presupposed so well by the issue I've chosen. For example, I have so far always succeeded with this comment, which I deliver to people new to NLP: "In NLP we sometimes say that we have a ten minute phobia cure. But obviously that's not true. It takes at least twenty minutes to build rapport and set the scene so that process will work. I think there's a risk in us making that "ten Minute" claim, and it always pays to book in a full session." The preframe that the phobia process takes one session is presupposed by the issue of whether we should claim it takes ten minutes or thirty.

When I'm teaching win-win conflict resolution, I usually say something like: "Everyone knows that there's a better way to sort out conflicts. Sayings such as "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." are based on this attitude I call win-win. But it's all very well to have the theory. The question is "How do you do it? What are the steps?" How do you get your kids, or your boss, to do it with you? That's what I want to discuss next."

Some preframes are so simple that you can apply them in a lot of situations. For example, whenever you're teaching a powerful skill which you want people to believe in, you can say "When you're using a powerful skill like ...X... there are ethical issues about where to use it. When would it not be appropriate to use this?"

Another standard preframe is one I use for groups who already have "premature closure", who already think they've learned the skill I'm about to teach, and who (like Paul Watzlawick's piano player) are already convinced it won't work. I say "I'm sure many of you have experienced people who've half-learned this skill and gone out misusing it in the world. You know what that's like! Without some of the key points we'll practise here, it's downright dangerous! Used without full understanding, this skill can cause more problems than it's worth. Who's experienced that?" (If no-one has "experienced that", there's no problem, by the way. If some people have, they've accepted by discussing it that "those people" needed to learn more precisely how to do it. What they tell me then gives me the key additional points to re-make when I'm teaching it, to allow for their concern).

One common experience is to be in a group where people share a belief system that they think is incompatible with my topic. If I'm teaching a group of fundamentalist Christians NLP, for example, I preframe from their position. When we are about to learn rapport skills, I say "Building rapport by matching the other person's behaviour is a very old idea. The Apostle Paul told the Romans "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." But some of modern psychology has tended to veer away from this for fear of "getting too involved". So the question is, "Is it still okay to use this process?"" In this case I'm setting up an issue for discussion where I do care about the result, and the result is fairly predictable.

Time To Play!

So now may be a useful time to start experimenting with your preframes. Remember, the process goes:

  1. Identify all the crucial presuppositions and underlying attitudes you want installed to ensure your students can learn the skills or information you teach.
  2. For each one, design a statement or experience which demonstrates this fundamental frame. You may state this explicitly, or emphatically presuppose it.
  3. Identify an issue which only occurs once this frame is accepted, and which is non-essential (you don't mind which opinion students develop about it).
  4. Near the beginning of introducing the topic, state your preframe and immediately follow it by raising the non-essential issue for consideration.
  5. In the course of teaching, as any other objections are raised, identify the preframe needed to counter them, so you can redesign your beginning next time, to incorporate the new preframe. You may like to collect your best preframes and share them around. You may also like to model them and use your own style of successful preframe repeatedly. Teaching is what being human is all about. And being human was meant to be fun, right? The only question is how do we make sure we get the fun we deserve every time.

Copyright: Richard Bolstad.

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