Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Training Questions

by Richard Bolstad & Margot Hamblett.

The field of NLP began with the development of a series of precision questions (the metamodel), so it's understandable that NLP based trainers would be fascinated with questions isn't it?

Before we start, we'd like to invite you to experiment with a simple NLP demonstration which clarifies the nature of questions. Right now, I'd like you to spend a few seconds simply looking round the room and asking yourself "What's red?" Notice what things you see, and come back to reading this. Actually take the time to do that now. "What's red?"

Now; for the next few seconds, it's important that you keep your eyes either looking at this paper, or closed. First, I'd like you in a moment to close your eyes and remember what things in the room are red. Just go ahead now and close your eyes and remember "What's red?"

How good was your recall for those things? Keep your eyes on the page though, because I'd like you in a moment to close your eyes again, and this time (without looking around the room again) try to remember what things in the room are blue. Just go ahead now and close your eyes and remember "What's blue?"

So, how does your recall for those things compare with your recall for red? Finally, I'd like you in a moment to close your eyes and remember what things in the room are brown. Just go ahead now and close your eyes and try to remember "What's brown?" Again, notice what you recalled. The questions you ask yourself determine to a great extent what you see, hear and feel of the world. The questions we ask sort our experience in profound ways. What this means for you as a trainer is that when you hear a course participant ask you a question, they are telling you a lot about what they actually experience in their world. How you respond to such wonderful opportunities has a lot to do with the success of your training. Far from being an interruption to your teaching, questions give you information about what is working and what needs adjusting, and simultaneously give you an invitation to make direct interventions to alter your trainees' maps of reality.

In this article we'll show you a very simple model for assessing and "answering" questions. You'll learn the two key frames for evaluating questions, and a five step process for generating useful responses to any participant's question. Sound useful? Then read on!

A Model For Responding To Questions (Summary)

  1. Elicit the question
  2. Clarify the question
  3. Identify its place on the grid in terms of Timing/Depth
    • Why?
    • What?
    • How?
    • What if?
    • Environment
    • Behaviour
    • Capability
    • Beliefs
    • Identity
    • Spirit
  4. Respond
  5. Check result

Frame One: Timing

Have you heard that joke where the other person asks you if you know what the essence of good humour is? Then, as you start to answer they quickly interrupt and say "Timing!"

Timing is in some senses the essence of good teaching too. The whole point of designing your teaching is to ensure that participants are able to learn material in chunks that are manageable and interesting, and that they go through the most useful sequence of preframes and learning experiences to learn what you are teaching. Of course, your students don't know the rationale of this design before they complete your training, so they are quite likely to ask questions which invite you to teach in an entirely different order.

In a previous article in Anchor Point magazine (Teaching NLP; How to be Consciously Unconsciously Skilled) we discussed Bernice McCarthy's 4MAT system (McCarthy, 1987), which suggests that effective teaching moves through a cycle of four stages with each topic. These stages are represented by different learner questions: Why?, What?, How?, and What if?

McCarthy suggests that it's useful first to answer the question "Why are we learning this?" Many students will not be able to engage with the learning process until they feel they have a reason, or a motive for learning. Once this question is answered, the next step is to give the information about the topic; answering questions about "What?". Only then, when the core information has been imparted, can participants usefully move on to experiment with the subject, doing an exercise or observing a demonstration. Such interaction answers the question "How [do we use this]?" Once they have a practical experience, then participants can successfully explore questions which consider "What would happen if?" -for example "What would happen if this didn't go the way we expected?", "What would happen if I use this in a different setting?"

The challenge is that the actual human beings you teach have preferences for asking a particular one of these questions. Students who have a preference for "What if?" questions would love to start off the session by speculating about using the things you will teach in novel situations. They don't feel the need to bother themselves with the details of how you do it in "the usual" situations before experimenting with the unusual. On the other hand, people for whom the "Why?" question is significant may well interrupt your demonstration to ask "Excuse me, but why are we doing any of this?"

Timing Your Response
We find it important to quickly assess which type of question we have been asked in terms of this time sequence. "Why?" questions need an immediate answer, because those who ask them will not begin learning until they have had them answered. In fact, we check that we've elicited as many as we can early on, by asking "So from what you've heard so far, would learning about this be useful to you?"

"What?" questions about the information only need answering to the extent that they enable people to do the exercise you intend. Any more than that is "optional material" We elicit them by asking "So what more do you need to know to make sense of this?" We also recommend books and audiotapes for true "What?" learners to explore further in their own time. Similarly, "How?" only needs to be answered to the extent that learners can complete the exercise. Before sending people off to do an exercise we ask "So what else do you need to know to do this specific exercise easily?"

We need to check carefully for questions which ask about exceptions and unusual developments of the exercise; "What if?" questions being "sneaked in" before their time. These are excellent questions, as we make a point of telling the questioner, and they will make even more sense after the exercise. In fact, most of them will be answered by doing the exercise! Our experience is that answering a lot of "What if?" questions before the exercise creates a sense of anxiety and confusion. It also lessens the state of energy and enthusiasm we have been building before the exercise. After the exercise, we actively solicit "What if?" questions with a comment such as "So what did you learn, and what questions do you have?"

So the first thing we are listening for when we hear a question is the time frame. When students are about to do a rapport exercise, breathing in time with someone, the question "How will I know when the person is breathing?" may be a "How?" question. The questions "What should I do if the person starts hyperventilating?" or "How would you use this with a person when you are making love?" are probably "What if?" questions (unless your courses are of a different kind to the ones we run). These latter questions will be more usefully answered once the participants have a sense of what simply breathing in time with someone is like.

"Why?" questions are answered immediately. "How?" and "What?" questions only "need" to be answered to the extent that they meet your goals for the current exercises, and "What if?" questions are best left until after the exercise. Keeping clear about our time frame lets us know When to answer a question.

Frame Two: Depth

As an NLP Practitioner you're probably familiar with Robert Dilts' Neurological levels model (Dilts with Bonissone, 1993, p 55-60). We think of questions as having a "depth" to them which corresponds to the levels of this model. Some questions are oriented more to the environment than to the inner needs of the questioner. These are questions that allow the person to share their knowledge and views with the group. For example, imagine someone asking you: "Didn't Milton Erickson actually say that your clients are your clients because they are out of rapport with their unconscious minds. That adds another whole dimension to what we're learning about rapport doesn't it." This question doesn't really need an "answer". We tend simply to thank the person for their added perspective or information. It's as if the person asking this type of "question" has engaged the part of their neurology that is aware of their social environment primarily. To the extent that you respond to sharing of information as a "question" it tends to create a "What if?" style of question, inviting you into a more collegial relationship of shared exploration with the speaker. Appreciating and acknowledging such sharing, in the "What if?" time of the course, is an important step in the learning cycle.

At the level of behaviour and capability, some questions are oriented towards clarifying the information and skills you are imparting. These questions tend, time-wise, to be "What?" and "How?" stage questions. For example, "When you breathe in time with someone, is it necessary to breathe in when they breathe in, or can you be doing the reverse to them?" is probably a question at this level. So is "Who first discovered this way of creating rapport?" or "Has there been research on the effects of using these rapport skills within marriage?". These questions suggest that the person has engaged the areas of their neurology that collate information and skills. Such questions can be simply answered with the information, if you have it and are at the appropriate time of the learning cycle. If we don't have the information, we can go to any combination of the three obvious sources: the questioner themselves could be directed to a book, the other people in the group could be asked for the answer, and we ourselves could agree to find out later.

A third type of question is asked at the level of beliefs, identity or spirituality. When these areas of a person's neurology are engaged, the person asks a question which indicates a deeper issue than the need for a specific byte of information. When we ask NLP Trainer Trainees what questions they fear being asked, the answers are all in this category. They don't lie awake at night wondering if someone will ask them what the four keys to anchoring are. Instead, they worry about questions like: "If NLP's so good, how come you're not a millionaire [or not in perfect health and body shape] ?" or "When you heal something with NLP, what happens to the pain you didn't deal with?". These questions indicate differences in basic values, metaprograms, or even sense of identity. "How long will these changes last?" and "Do you think this can work for someone like me?" are other examples.

Altering Presuppositions

Another way of describing these neurologically deeper level questions is to consider them questions which contain presuppositions which need to be altered in order to effectively answer them. They are of the same order as the famous "How long have you been beating your spouse?" question. Your reply needs to deal with the underlying assumptions. Often these questions are "Why?" or "What if?" questions, though they may be disguised as "How?" or "What?" questions (eg "What stops the change reversing itself?" is pretty close to the "What if?" question "What if the change reverses itself?")

To deal with the underlying assumptions, it helps to be clear about how people get their assumptions. An assumption or presupposition is simply a set of internal representations that is already installed, so that we take it for granted. To ask "How long have you been beating your spouse?", I need to have an internal representation of the spouse-beating, already installed in my mind. To change a presupposition, we want most of all to simply install a new set of internal representations. If this process is effective, the person's thinking will be changed in such a way that they simply would not ask their old question.

There are several well recognised ways, in NLP terms, to change presuppositions (see, especially in terms of questions, O'Connor and Seymour, 1994, p 166-181). Many of these have in common the concept of taking someone through a sequence of internal representations (what non-NLPers call "an experience"). Here are some examples of ways to do this:

Demonstrate, in answering the question, the reality of the opposite presupposition: For example, one of the skills we teach in our Transforming Communication seminar is reflective listening. Often a participant has had bad experiences with this process being used ineptly. They say something along the lines of "Don't people get annoyed with you restating what they've already said?" The following conversation goes a little like this:

Q: "Don't people get annoyed with you restating what they've already said?"
T: "Because it doesn't add anything?"
Q: "Yeah. I had a friend who drove me nuts saying "So you feel..." all the time."
T: "And it was a sort of obvious clich(?); a format he was using; you mean?"
Q: "Right. It really turned me off as soon as I heard those words!"
T: "So you want to make sure what you do is natural, rather than clich(?)d."
Q: "Yeah."
T: "So how am I doing now? Do you notice that I've been using this process for the last few sentences?"
Q: "Well I.... Oh yeah.... Wow, that's weird. I guess it's different when you..."
T: "Know how to do it casually?"
Q: "Right!"

Refer the person back to a previous demonstration of the new presupposition: For example, one of the questions Trainers say they fear is when someone with a counselling background asks them, "So with these NLP change processes, what happens to all the pain that's left inside the person from the original experience?" This question has such different presuppositions to NLP that many of our Trainer trainees go "Huh?" That can be a useful response too; and here's one more. At the start of our trainings we use a process where people move their arm around and see how far they can point behind them before it gets tight. They then imagine turning further easily and feel what that would feel like, check what they'd see if they went round further etc. Then, they turn round again, and discover that they've now gone much further.

If a question comes up later about where the pain goes, we can simply say "Well, remember back in that pointing exercise we did... When you turned around the second time, where did the stiffness go?" We can add an explanation for their conscious mind (eg "The stiffness, or the pain, doesn't exist somewhere out there; it's created by your internal representations as you do things.") but without the experience of the pointing exercise to recall, this is far less convincing. Why? Because the experience creates a series of internal representations to link the new presupposition to.

Set the person a "task" to perform a demonstration of the desired presupposition, either in the teaching session or later: An example would be if someone asked us "How long does an anchor last?". One of our choices is to say "You know how sometimes you have a song that really reminds you of the wonderful time you were having when it was first released. Remember that song now....The whole feeling of that time comes back when you hear that song.... Well, let me ask you; will that still work a year after the song was released? Will you still get back the feeling?... What about five years after?... Ten years?... Fifty years?"

As another example, if someone asks "How can this change be installed "at the unconscious level"? What does that mean." we might say "Just fold your arms for a moment.... And now look and see which arm is on top. Okay; now fold them the other way, with the other arm on top." As they try to do this we'll add "Notice that you're not even quite sure how to do it. Arm folding, a seemingly simple activity, which you may even have thought you could do "consciously", is really an automatic process. So will this be."

Tell a metaphor which creates a vicarious demonstration: Sometimes the easiest way to give an experience of a new presupposition is to tell a metaphor, and let the questioner create the internal representations as they listen to a story about someone (or something) else. A common question we get is along the lines of "What do you do about things like Compulsive disorders when they're hereditary?" Rather than argue head on with this presupposition of inherited problems we might say "It's as if my friend comes to me and shows me his digital watch. He says "This watch is broken. It's always showing the same time." I look at it and see that the watch is flashing 12:00, so I say "Yes, that's right. But there are buttons on the side that you can press to change that." And he says "No, no, you don't understand; this didn't just happen today. This watch has been broken ever since I bought it!" And very gently I explain, "Yes. Well if I can just show you these buttons on the side...." And he interrupts me to say, "No, no, no. You don't realise how serious it is. This watch came from the factory like this. It's from a long line of watches they've been producing just like this!" And once again I gently explain, "Yes; and if you know where the buttons are, you can change that." Human beings are not broken. They just may not be set the way they want to be. Some people are stuck flashing "Compulsion" all their life; and they come from a long line... This training is about learning where the buttons are."

Give the person a question which causes them to generate their own new internal representations: Such questions include what NLP calls Sleight of Mouth patterns such as "What's the larger question of which this is a part?" or "What's your purpose in asking this question?" (questions which chunk up to a more generalised perspective). Such questions also include metamodel comments which chunk down, such as "Has there ever been a time when you didn't....?" or "How specifically?"

A Model For Responding To Questions

By now maybe you've recognised that you already use these methods and others for responding to questions. You may also be wondering "That's all very well; but how do I generate these intriguing ways of responding to each question. So far, we've noted that questions have a time frame, in terms of the 4MAT cycle, and that they have a depth, in terms of neurological levels. We've considered some examples of responses to questions which are based on presuppositional differences (deep level questions).

We have a five step process which we go through each time a question is asked. Though here we are considering this process as applied to teaching, identical strategies work to respond to questions in individual change work. The steps are:

  1. Elicit the question
  2. Clarify the question
  3. Place it in terms of timing and depth
  4. Respond
  5. Calibrate and Check the result

1. Elicit The Question

Firstly, remember that, far from being an interruption to your teaching, questions give you information about what is working and what needs adjusting, and simultaneously give you an invitation to make direct interventions to alter your trainees' maps of reality. Eliciting questions is a valuable art in itself. Like most NLP trainers, we have an area of the "stage" (front of the room) where we go to ask for questions. Even in Japan, where questions are less a part of the learning culture, within a few days we need only stand in that spot to generate questions. Notice that, in the discussion of the 4MAT above, most of the examples of our invitations to provide questions are themselves open questions. When we don't want to elicit questions, but merely to check if someone is not happy, then we ask "Are there any questions?" (a yes/no closed question).But to elicit questions we say "What questions do you have about X?" (open question). If there is no immediate response, we assume this is because people are not fully "warmed up" to their questions, and ask them first to turn to the person beside them and tell that person what questions they might have. This rehearses them through the process of asking their questions.

2. Clarify The Question

The most important thing to know about how to respond to questions is that we usually don't assume we have understood the question as first stated. We use three skills (Described fully in our book Transforming Communication, p 93-135) to clarify the question. These skills are:

An example of the use of reflective listening is given in the section on Altering Presuppositions above ("Demonstrate, in the teaching session, the reality of the opposite presupposition..."). This skill in itself frequently reframes the person's question so fully that they change their presupposition, or enables the person to clarify for themselves the answer to their question. At that point we can simply answer "Yes; that's probably just the answer I would have come up with too!" As we clarify the question using these skills, we are gathering information about where the question fits in terms of timing and depth. The reflective listening process allows us to take all the time we need to decide how to respond. Here's another example of this clarification stage in action, followed by the response and a final check that the questioner is satisfied:

Questioner (just before doing an anchoring exercise): "Can this anchoring process work for anyone; even if their brain is maybe damaged in some way?"
Trainer: "Can you say a bit more about that?"
Q: "Well, I know that when I was a teenager I did a lot of drugs, so ah..."
T: "You're not sure if it will work for you after that?"
Q: nods
T: "So can I check first; how have things worked for you so far?"
Q: "Oh fine. I just got worried when you said about brain synapses and stuff, because I think mine are pretty screwed."
T: "Well, let me tell you about an interesting experiment. What they've done is they've taken Planaria, which are little flat-worms, and put them on a metal plate. And they flash a light and send a mild electric current through the plate. So the flat worms wince a bit (this is may not be such an ethical experiment for flat-worm lovers, by the way). And then after a couple of times, they just flash the light, and the flat worms jump as if they got an electric shock. And that reaction is then anchored as their normal response. Now I figure that what this really means is that to use anchoring successfully, we only need the response potential of a flat-worm. So I'm pretty certain that anyone who could organise themselves to get here today for this course has got a lot more going for them than that. We don't accept flat-worms on the seminar, in fact. "
Q: laughs and nods, then leans back in the chair.
T: "So how's that?"
Q: "Like switching on a light!"
T: "Okay; lets jump to it!"

Notice that in this example, the initial question could have provoked an answer about using anchoring with people who've had brain damage from motor vehicle accidents, or have been dismissed as a "What if" question not worth responding to until after the exercise. The clarifying process made it clear that this was a deeper Beliefs level issue (a presuppositional question) which needed dealing with before the "How?" based exercise would be successful.

3. Place The Question In Terms Of Timing And Depth

4. Respond

These steps have been discussed in previous sections. Many presuppositional issues are so predictable that it pays to develop preframes for them and to have standard replies ready for the questions. Reading this article, you'll probably have been adding to your supply of such preframes and answers. In general terms, when we hear a presuppositional question, we ask ourselves "What sets of internal representations (eg memories, beliefs and ways of sorting experience) must have been installed to lead this person to ask this question?" and "What different set of internal representations do I have installed that result in this question not occurring?" We then design a "reply" to install the new set of internal representations. It's important to realise that when you answer one person's question, everyone else was also listening. Comments which you include in your reply for the benefit of a third person will tend to be accepted by them far more easily than direct suggestions.

5. Calibrate And Check Verbally For The Result

When someone has their question answered, they tend to nod, and to sever connection with the trainer in other non-verbal ways (contrary to what the questioner in the example described, they tend to look like their flight attendant call button is now off). Calibrating that response is useful. You can check that verbally with a question such as "So does that answer your question." This is particularly useful when your reply, as in the example above, was a longer, metaphorical one.


Questions are a wonderful opportunity to assist someone to change. As a trainer, you can easily and elegantly respond to them by using a five step process:

  1. Elicit questions by asking an open question: "What questions do you have about X?"
  2. Clarify the question using invitations ("Tell me more."), open questions ("How would that be a problem?"), and reflective listening ("So what you're saying is...")
  3. Place the question, firstly in terms of the 4MAT cycle, as A) "Why are we doing this?" B) "What are the facts?" C) "How do we do this exercise?" Or D) "What would happen if...?". Then place the question in terms of depth as A) Sharing views and information socially -at the environmental level, B) Asking for facts -at the behaviour and capability level, and C) Asking questions which involve the presuppositions of the training -at the beliefs, identity or spiritual level.
  4. Respond. "Why?" questions need an immediate response. "What?" and "How?" questions are responded to based on your training design, and "What if?" questions are left until after the exercise. Sharing can just be acknowledged, and factual questions replied to with information. With deeper questions there are a number of ways to install more useful presuppositions. These include demonstrating the new presupposition as you answer, or in an exercise immediately afterward, referring to a demonstration already in the person's experience, using metaphor, and getting the person to discover their own presupposition by asking questions which chunk up or down.
  5. Calibrate the person's nod and movement out of the interaction, and check verbally ("So does that answer your question?")


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