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Do Not Think of a Pink Elephant, or: Where One Puts One's Attention...


by Roger W. Vaisey

NLP (short for Now lets Play or Neuro Linguistic Programming) is a fascinating set of distinctions for understanding human behavior and building models of excellence and mastery in any field of human endeavor.

One of the basic presuppositions of the model is that everyone lives in their own inner world and that we all build maps of the world out there, beyond our perception, in order to make sense of our surroundings and to live our daily lives. It makes the powerful insight that we do not share the same reality although we think we do.

NLP is about many things and one of the things it is, is an understanding of differences in where we place our attention.
Imagine walking in a wood. You might think anybody who walks in that wood would have the same experience. There would be trees, birds, fresh air, greenery and any body there would experience that is a similar way. Yet that is not so.

Consider the differences between a poet walking through the wood – or a forester. Or a pair of lovers, or a mother pushing a pram with a crying baby, or 10 year olds playing on their bikes, or a ornithologist watching birds, or a composer like Beethoven who walked through the Vienna woods humming to himself and writing notes in a note book, or a policeman keeping an eye out for trouble, or a homeless person wondering where they could spend the night, or an old couple talking on a bench talking about their grandchildren or a developer who is wondering if the wood would be a good place to build some new houses, or a road builder planning to drive a road through the wood. This applies to anything and anywhere.

What we see, don’t see, choose to place our attention on, choose not to place our attention on will profoundly influence our inner experience.

Remember when you were going to buy something, like a car, a computer, or a dishwasher, or a bicycle. Do you remember that in the days before buying and sometime after, you kept seeing the product being driven (a car like a Ford or a Honda) or being used by friends (a computer or dishwasher.) These products were always there, it was just that we never noticed them; we never put our attention there.

So where we place our attention creates our reality. The sober truth is that we all live in our own reality and are always directing our attention in different ways.

Therefore a crowd of people wandering around in an airport waiting for different flights might be thought to be having the same experience. Not so like the experience of the wood, some people might be smokers and are worried where they can have their next cigarette. Some might have children and are wondering how to keep their kids quiet and entertained. Some might be business people thinking of their upcoming meetings at the end of their flights, whereas others are going on holiday and are looking forward to a week’s relaxation and fun. Others might be airline staff like pilots, thinking of the bad weather they will have to fly through, or the cabin crew thinking of a cabin full of demanding passengers upset because of a potentially turbulent flight.

We are always choosing where to put our attention.

If I say do not think of a pink elephant, or a black cat, in order not to think of these things one has to think of them in order to make sense of the sentence. Another way to put this point is that what ever we say or mention is the message we give ourselves.

We are all great experts in knowing what we don’t want and letting ourselves know that by repeatedly saying and thinking about that. “I don’t want to feel upset anymore every time my mother, wife, husband, son, daughter contradicts me.” “I don’t want feel those feeling of anger towards my boss/mother in law, neighbor next door etc.” We might wonder why we then continue to feel upset and angry. That is where our attention is. That is what we continue to create in our lives.

Imagine having the belief that the world is a dangerous and frightening place. If we have that belief then we will notice all the disasters, the murders, the abuse, economic collapse, war, disaster etc. If we have the belief that the world is a beautiful place then we will notice all the beautiful things that are every where like a baby on a bus laughing, or bunch of flowers in a flower shop, or the colors of the dress of a passing woman.

This why endless articles, programs, discussions and presentations about bad things tends to become self-fulfilling prophesies. “The economy is about to collapse.” “ Recession is here” “prepare for the next terrorist attack” “the war on terror”. These act like viruses or thought viruses, as they are known in NLP because people hear them and then in their internal reality they quickly multiply like real viruses in terms of negative thoughts and imaginations. And because mind and body can be thought of as one entity negative depressing thoughts immediately cause us to feel bad.

We read everywhere that a major recession is upon the whole world. It is certainly true that the globalized economy has some big faults with it, and the media daily puts out gloom and doom. This quickly becomes the thing that millions of people focus on and of course this feeds into the general negative situation.

NLP has modeled a powerful communication technique, which is to pace peoples experience first. Like saying yes the situation is bad and then adding what is called a lead which you could give a suggestion like “And what can be done about this?” or ” how could we go about making a positive change with this situation?” A question like that gets people’s attention by firstly acknowledging their fears and then leads them to think of what actually might be some solutions for a positive resolution of the situation.

The human brain is infinitely resourceful if provided with the right stimulus.

It is certainly resourceful for many people creating hopeless and depressive futures. Yes some people are very creative at doing such things as imagining a number of disastrous futures and picking the worst one and then assuming that that is the one that will definitely happen and then having feelings about that such as fear and anxiety. It is actually much easier than one might think to use such an inventive imagination to also imagine powerful and desirous futures that could be the focus of attention that would allow us to notice what could be possible in our lives even if the world economic situation is not as beneficial as we were lead to believe it was not so long ago.

When companies go into crises usually about loosing money or not making enough they do one, two, or three things. Often all three. They dismiss the boss, they reorganize everything or/and they sack a lot of their staff. Sometimes it works usually it doesn’t.

The business world easily gets obsessed with such phrases as “Where’s the problem?” “Problem solving, trouble shooting and crises and conflict management.” The attention is firmly placed on what’s wrong and that helps to perpetuate that. If one chooses to put ones attention on what’s right, what works well and how could we make things better then the attention alone will help create more positive possibilities.

There is definitely a danger of living in what is called a “fool’s paradise.” This is the situation where you think or hope everything is good, working well and everything is “fine”. And then something suddenly happens and disaster strikes. History is full of such situations. The recent financial situation seemed to suddenly appear almost like a Tsunami wave that came out of nowhere. Or the seemingly sudden attacks of Hitler’s armies in 1939 and 40, or the sudden terrorist attacks on and after Sept 11 2001. Everything is fine and then suddenly it isn’t.

I believe it is possible to choose to place ones attention on a situation, or a company, or a country, in a way that doesn’t pre-label or frame your attention to be in a certain way, like what is the problem, what is wrong here or what is the danger? A powerful and very helpful choice of perspective could be “What is going on here?” Like looking at all the people in the wood or the airport and asking that question – “What is going on here?” “What is happening here?” it is like taking a distant perspective to see all the different ways people might be experiencing the world. From this perspective or choice of attention, many things become clearer without the pre-judged or pre-created label. Then a much fuller dare I say more truer (not that one can ever know the truth) perspective emerges from which future plans and actions can be taken.

If NLP is about creating models of excellence taken from where ever it exists, in the behavior and attitudes of human beings, then the idea of where one chooses to place ones attention and developing the ability to consciously choose this becomes one of the major elements of what the nebulous word “wisdom” might mean. And certainly in today’s complex and fast changing world it is one of the most important parts of what it means to be a successful, powerful and effective leader, especially in the business and corporate world.
Originally published on www.inexcellence.com

If you have any questions or comments about these articles, you can always email Roger at ObscureMyEmail
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