‘HOW’ is the basis of all Neurolinguistic Programming investigations, writes NLP Master Practitioner and coach Wendy Jago. Modelling how successful people do what they do can enable us to do what we do better.

MODELLING is not the same as imitation as it involves learning exactly how role models do what they do rather than what you assume they do. Preferably this will include talking to role models about what they think and feel before, during and after their performance not just in terms of content — “I imagine myself doing a crisp, straight, trot-halt-trot” — but also knowing just what that “imagining” word means for them in the specific context.

Each of us uses a combination of imaginary seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting and smelling to do our thinking, but the balance of sensory imaginings, and the order in which they occur, will be special to the individual. There are a lot of ‘hows’ even in a trot-halt-trot!

Wendy Jago: “I remember years ago hearing an interview with the eventer Lucinda Green. The interviewer had heard that Lucinda used “mental rehearsal” before every cross-country round: “could she explain how she did that?”
Lucinda said that she went somewhere private and quiet — often the loo would be the only available place at a show — close her eyes and, in her mind, go over the course from start to finish.
“She was seeing every fence, every stretch of ground between fences, assessing the angles and the degree of impulsion that would give her both accuracy and speed. And she was feeling every stride in her body, adjusting her body’s angle and weighting to what her horse was doing and to help it prepare for what was to come.
“This rehearsal enabled her to use her skills to their best advantage when she tackled the course in real life”

When I was doing my NLP training we were each asked to model someone whose skills we wanted to emulate and then to write this up. At the time I was attending a Charles de Kunffy clinic at the Training the Teachers of Tomorrow Trust, and he kindly agreed to let me interview him for this project. I asked him how he assessed each horse and rider pair when they entered the arena, working out so quickly what they needed to do to improve that day, and how by the end of their half-hour lesson he knew what goals to set for their work during the six months until his next clinic. And I wanted to know about the HOW of his thinking even more than about the WHAT. He thought for a moment, then explained exactly how he did this.

First, he registered the picture that the horse and rider were making in front of his eyes.

Then he brought up a mental picture of “how the Greats do it”, whether the “it” the rider was asking for was a specific movement like a half-pass or a more general feature of the horse’s way of going such as harmony, energy, elasticity or suppleness.

He overlaid these two images in his mind’s eye to see what the similarities and differences were, so that he could encourage the rider to do more of what was already good and show them where they needed to improve. Having helped them make useful differences that day, he would then know what homework they needed to do and so create an additional mind image of how they might be working in six months’ time. At his next clinic he could overlay what he was actually seeing with his homework goal image.

Charles was amazed to discover just HOW he was doing this thinking. He said it was like having a series of transparencies overlaid one on top of another in his mind. He had never realised this was how he did it until I asked him!

I have explained this process of modelling in detail, because it is the detail that matters. If you are able to discover how the person you want to model is going about achieving their success, you can have a go at their personal recipe yourself. Your best means of creating your model are by observation and, if this is possible, by questioning the role model, but you can also get some answers through watching the role model work, reading articles and so on.

Of course, this goes way beyond imitating the obvious. What you are aiming to do in modelling isn’t just to adopt the external features of your model — although it’s a start. Phrases we use every day without thinking already summarise this wisdom for us: you want to “step into their shoes”, “see through their eyes”, “sing from the same song-sheet”, “tune into their wave-length”, “turn up your nose at the same things”… You are aiming to “get inside their experience” and “make it your own”.

Some years ago there was a series of programmes on television called Faking it, in which someone who had no previous experience of a particular skill was helped in a very short time to become sufficiently good at it to deceive even real experts. Sailing, show-jumping and doing a drag-act are ones I still remember vividly. And one key element of the training that each person was given was thinking how a real expert in the skill thought.

Modelling is something we all learnt to do as children. I still remember how I learnt to answer the telephone when I was little, imitating my mother’s voice tone and rhythm along with the numbers. Our daughter ties her shoe-laces in a way I have never understood, because she learnt to do it by watching my husband, who makes his loops back-to-front — or at least the opposite way to the way I was taught to do it!

Modelling can also help overcome negative mindsets. My mother learnt from her mother that the best thing to do in a thunderstorm was to hide in the cupboard under the stairs — but because she didn’t want me to find them frightening she never did this when I was little, and never even showed she was afraid. By breaking that unconscious modelling she didn’t pass it on to me and I usually enjoy storms.

And I remember, too, a very successful bit of work with one of my business clients. Bright and quick-thinking, his colleagues often thought him “arrogant”, and since he was relatively young they tended to discount even his most considered and well-researched opinions.

I asked him to think closely about those colleagues whom he not only trusted and respected himself but who were also held in high esteem by others. He shut himself away for a whole weekend and thought deeply about them. Then he came back with a list of behaviours where he and they differed. They included, among others, voice tone, stance and speed of movement.

Neither of us was surprised that incorporating them into his own way of interacting with colleagues in significant work contexts led to him being taken more seriously.

So modelling involves choices. But although modelling is the start of increasing excellence, it does have limits. Not all of us have a wonderful natural singing voice, or natural balance, or quick reflexes, or an inbuilt sense of rhythm. And riding, of course, involves not just ourselves but also our equine partners. Not all people who ride are built perfectly for the job. Not all of us have access to well-balanced, forward-thinking but calm-minded horses with the physical build and ability to do the things we’d like to achieve with them.

Watch this space for my next NLP feature about how to frame your goals so they are more likely to be achievable.

© Out and About Dressage Ltd, March 2018

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