Alan Strachan, Ph. D. Santa Cruz Area Marriage and Family Therapist
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The Importance of Neuro-Linguistic Programming To Process Work

           By Alan James Strachan, Ph.D


          In River's Way Mindell writes that "Behaviorists such as Grinder and Bandler challenged me to discover the unconscious in their behaviorist's reality." (1985a, page vii) In this section I will describe some of the ways in which Mindell has incorporated the basic principles and approaches of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) into Process Work, including utilization of information channels, emphasis upon sensory-based information, methods of establishing rapport, recognition that people favor certain channels, and emphasis upon awareness as a way of distinguishing between conscious and unconscious.


  Channel Structure


           The concept of information being conveyed in discrete channels was developed as part of information theory. Bandler and Grinder applied the channel concept to psychotherapy. In The Structure of Magic, Vol. II, Bandler and Grinder write that


There are three major input channels by which we, as human beings, receive information about the world around us---vision, audition, and kinesthetics (body sensations). (The remaining two most commonly accepted sensory input channels---smell and taste---are, apparently, little utilized as ways of gaining information about the world.) (Bandler and Grinder, 1976, pages 4-5)


           Mindell appears to have followed NLP in applying the use of the word and the general concept of "channel" to psychological phenomena. Along with NLP, Process Work recognizes the visual and auditory channels and does not emphasize either smell or taste. The NLP focus on the kinesthetic channel has been differentiated by Mindell into the proprioceptive (body sensations) and kinesthetic (movement) channels. Mindell also acknowledges two composite channels which he refers to as "relationship" and "world."

           Writing about the relationship channel, Mindell observes that "Modern neurolinguistic programmers practice Freudian theory in so far as personal relationships between the individual and therapist are avoided because they create dependence." (1985a, page 40) Bandler and Grinder describe their relationship with the client as 'uptime."


           We know what outcomes we want, and we put ourselves into what we call "uptime," in which we're completely in sensory experience and have no consciousness at all. We aren't aware of our internal feelings, pictures, voices, or anything else internal. We are in sensory experience in relationship to you and noticing how you respond to us. We keep changing our behavior until you respond the way we want you to.

           Right now I know what I'm saying because I'm listening to myself externally. I know how much sense you're making of what I'm saying by your responses to it, both conscious and unconscious. I am seeing those. I'm not commenting on them internally, simply noticing them and adjusting my behavior. I have no idea what I feel like internally. I have tactile kinesthetic awareness. I can feel my hand on my jacket, for instance. It's a particular altered state. It's one trance out of many, and a useful one for leading groups. (Bandler and Grinder, 1979, page 55)


           Bandler and Grinder are attempting to stay within a strictly behaviorist stimulus-response model, one in which only the client is acknowledged to have an internal reality. Such an approach limits the range of information considered by the therapist, and therefore the range of available interventions. In this respect the NLP model is radically different from Process Work, in which the relationship channel is acknowledged and is considered critical (to varying degrees) to most if not all therapeutic encounters.

           A further difference is that Mindell, following the Jungian model, has differentiated each channel into introverted and extraverted aspects. Mindell has described this aspect of the channel system in River's Way.


  Emphasis Upon Sensory-Based Information


           Another connection between NLP and Process Work is the degree to which both emphasize the role of the therapist in gathering precise sensory-based information, both verbal and nonverbal, in the different channels. This is a central focus of Process Work, as it was in NLP, and many of the specific information-gathering approaches (such as attending to eye movements and the predicates a person uses to describe her situation) appear to be derived from NLP.


  Methods of Establishing Rapport


           In both systems the therapist utilizes the information gathered to establish rapport on both verbal and nonverbal levels with the client. In NLP this is known as "matching":


To effectively gather information or beginning a process of change it will always be important to establish rapport between yourself and your client at both the conscious and unconscious level. An invaluable technique for doing just this is to generate verbal and nonverbal behavior which matches that of your client. This called "matching." The client's subjective experience becomes one of being really understood. (Cameron-Bandler, 1978, page 64)


           This process of joining the inner world of the client is an essential aspect of Process Work. NLP provided many insights about how to match with precision, and these are an implicit part of Mindell's system.


Awareness of the Channels


           A fourth parallel is the fact that although information is being processed in all channels simultaneously, people have different degrees of awareness of the separate channels.  Bandler and Grinder write:


How many here now see clearly that they are visually oriented people? How many people see that? How many people here feel that they are really kinesthetically oriented people in their process? Who tell themselves that they are auditory? Actually all of you are doing all of the things we're talking about, all the time. The only question is, which portion of the complex internal process do you bring into awareness? All channels are processing information all the time, but only part of that will be in consciousness. (1979, page 34)


           People tend to be aware of or favor certain channels over the others. In NLP this favoritism is referred to as the person's lead system and their representational system. In Process Work Mindell refers to it as the main and unoccupied channels.


The Importance of the Lesser-Used Channels


           Both NLP and Process Work maintain that experiences which occur in lesser-used channels tend to be quite powerful. Bandler and Grinder describe this phenomenon as follows:


If you use guided fantasy with your clients, there are some clients you use it with automatically and it works fine. Other people you wouldn't even try it with. What's the criterion you use to decide that, do you know? If they can visualize easily, you use visual guided fantasy, right? We're suggesting that you reverse that. Because for people who do not normally visualize in consciousness, visual guided fantasy will be a mind-blowing, profound change experience. For those who visualize all the time, it will be far less useful. (1979, page 44)


           In the same fashion Mindell writes that


The main and unoccupied channels are important for the process worker for if he can determine which channel is a primary one and which the unoccupied or secondary, then the main channel can be use to integrate irrational secondary processes. An unoccupied channel will bring the client the most powerful and uncontrolled experience. (1985a, page 24)


  Conscious and Unconscious


           Finally, in both systems there is an emphasis on awareness as the key to distinguishing between conscious and unconscious. Bandler and Grinder advise people not to


...get caught by the words 'conscious' and 'unconscious.' They are not real. They are just a way of describing events that is useful in the context called therapeutic change. 'Conscious' is defined as whatever you are aware of at a moment in time. 'Unconscious' is everything else. (1979, page 37)


           Mindell makes the same distinction when he writes that "...consciousness refers only to those processes of which you are completely aware....unconsciousness refers to all other types of signal processes." (1985a, page 13)





           At the beginning of this section I quoted Mindell saying that Bandler and Grinder challenged him to discover the unconscious in their behaviorist's reality. The behaviorist reality of Bandler and Grinder focuses with precision upon a wide range of verbal and nonverbal cues. Attending to these clues enables the therapist to construct an accurate model of the client's (often unconscious) inner world. Ideally the therapist is then able to enter that world to facilitate change.

           Mindell's greatest debt to NLP is derived from the range and precision with which Bandler and Grinder attended to the client's signals and the use of the channel concept as a means of categorizing the signals. This approach has been critical to the development of Process Work.

           The way in which Mindell has developed signal awareness and the channel structure differs considerably from the NLP model. For example, the inclusion of relationship and world channels makes Mindell's model a more encompassing one, so that Process Work operates from different premises and allows a greater range of interventions. Consequently the way in which a Process-Oriented Therapist interacts with a client could---and likely would---differ in many ways from a Neuro-Linguistic Programmer. Since my purpose here is to describe what Mindell appears to have derived from NLP, it is beyond the scope of this section to emphasize the differences between the two systems in greater detail.






Bandler, R.,  & Grinder, J.  (1976).  The structure of magic, Vol. II.  Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.


Bandler, R., & Grinder, J.  (1979).  Frogs Into princes.  Moab, UT: Real People Press.


Mindell, A.  (1985a).  River’s way: The process science of the dreambody.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


(This article was originally published in The Dreaming Body: A Case Study Of The Relationship Between Chronic Body Symptoms And Childhood Dreams According To Process Work. Ph.D. Dissertation for the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, 1992)