Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) Part 2: What We Talk About When We Talk About Goals

In Neuro-linguistic(NLP) Part 1, I wrote about how NLP is based on the theory that we experience the world through an internal map of reality we have created, not reality itself. This sounds more complex than it really is. What it means is we emotionally respond to language and other signs and symbols. How and why we respond the way we do comes from our past experiences and present sensory interpretation. The following five levels summarize this; you can also look at it with the 5W’s in mind:

  • Identity (who)
  • Behaviors (what)
  • Environment (Where and when)
  • Values and beliefs (why)
  • Capabilities and skills (how)

In the following examples, think about how each individual is affected by the situations presented using the list above.

Example One: When Bill was eight years old a dog attacked him. This event continues to be an emotional trigger for Bill. Whenever his co-worker Sally talks about her pet retriever, Bill’s anxiety rises. 

What about in a more practical setting?  

Example Two: Sally, Robert, and Anne are on a team and Bill is their new manager. Bill likes to think of himself as a results-only leader, to which he attributes his past success. He has a reputation for quality work and being stubborn.
Sally, Robert, and Anne are respected in their field and enjoy working together. They are known for their attention to detail and delivering on time. The three have worked well together in the past under the direction of encouraging leaders.
The team’s new project is creating a tool that will speed up a complicated communication process between the shipping and inventory departments. After talking with managers in each department and going through a customer journey mapping process, the team devised a goal and outlined a process for developing a new tool.
In a weekly meeting with project manager Bill, Bill talks about all the things Sally, Robert, and Anne still need to do and how behind they are. A few weeks later, the project gets delayed. Bill talks with the team and spends two hours asking Sally, Robert, and Anne why they are so behind and what happened along the way that slowed down the project. Two weeks later, the project is still in development. Bill holds a meeting wherein he tells the team he has never worked with such an incompetent and lazy team. Almost as an afterthought, Bill tells the team he is looking for positions elsewhere in the company.
The team finishes the project, but both the shipping and inventory departments struggle with adopting the new tool to their process. The management team decides to scrap the tool instead of bringing a new team on board to fix the problem.


The Positive Outcome Strategy (POS)

Was the goal achieved in example two? No. In this blog post I want to talk about what makes a good goal and how we should talk about goals so they can be achieved quickly and accurately. Let’s look at a new way to talk about goals because how we talk about something has a huge effect on the outcome.

Words affect the outcome of projects we work on and the goals we set for ourselves. Take Anne, for example, who is choosing to eat healthier foods and exercise. If she tells herself and her friends that she is trying to lose weight, she may not achieve her goal or she may be unconsciously making it harder for herself.

Here’s why.

Every time she says she is trying to lose weight, she is saying that she is currently not her ideal weight and this reminds her that she isn’t at the weight she wants to be. This is not the case and that is not the goal she is intending to achieve. Let’s break down the goal Anne is trying to achieve.

Anne wants to have a toned body and feel more energized. To achieve this goal she is deciding to cut out processed foods and eat more vegetables and fruits. Instead of telling her friends (and herself) that she is trying to lose weight, she can say that she is achieving her ideal weight, or, enjoying the benefits of a daily jog and experiencing the powerful nutrients in vegetables. It’s a more positive and inviting way for her to talk about her goal, hence the name: the positive outcome strategy.


POS In Action

Robert asks Anne if she would like a piece of chocolate turtle cake. Which response would help Anne reinforce her goal?

a)    I am on a diet

b)   I am going to have to pass today

c)    I can’t eat certain foods because they are bad for me.

d)   Thanks for the offer, but I am currently working towards my ideal weight.


The best answer according to NLP is “d”. Not only is the response helping Anne achieve her goal, it is empowering. This comes from having a positive goal and understanding the intrinsic factors behind the desired outcome.


A New Kind of Goal Setting

Along with a goal being positive, there are some other attributes that make a goal stickier and easier to obtain. Consider the following:

  • Your goal should be something you want, not something your spouse or parents or boss wants. Only you can be the one to make change for yourself.  
  • Your goal should be clearly defined. If there is ambiguity, you could be racing around in circles.
  • Make sure and ask yourself: What resources are needed, what resources do I already have, and how will I obtain the resources I still need to get?
  • Has your goal been achieved by someone else before you? If so, what map or model can you follow that led that person to success? Is their success repeatable is modeled correctly? 
  • Think about what it will look like when the goal is achieved. This will help motivate you to move towards completion.
  • Remember the POS strategy – keep in mind that how we talk about goals affects their outcomes.


Redefining How We Talk About Goals

Goal Setting in Action: Let’s say someone wants to quit smoking.  Saying the words “I want to quit smoking” is not positive because when someone says this, they are triggering all their emotions associated with the word “smoking”. This could remind the person of past failures or the pleasant feelings they get from a cigarette.  Even thinking the word “smoking” could induce a nicotine craving. In order to set a goal with a positive outcome, a person needs to look at what they are really trying to achieve, which is, what smoking may have brought them in the first place: A temporary stress relief and a few minutes alone to gather their thoughts. There are healthier ways to achieve this outcome, one of these being mindful breathing exercises. The goal is then redefined from “I want to quit smoking” to “I am learning to be mindful of my breathing”.


Beyond Blame

When thinking about goals, instead of looking backwards at the past, look forward to the present moment and future ideal self. Looking backwards when a problem arises slows everyone down and is not productive as we saw in example two. The only thing that is achieved is placing blame on someone or something. Progress is halted.

When you ask someone why something didn’t work out, these are some typical response:

  1. I can’t quite put my finger on why.
  2. I did something wrong… I guess (negative feelings towards self)
  3. Someone else did something wrong (negative feelings towards another person)
  4. They make up a reason. Asking why will sometimes force someone to come up with a reason for a mistake even if they are unsure because they feel the pressure.


None of these are productive in helping achieve the goal one is trying to accomplish. Condition yourself to think about positives instead of being dragged down by doubt or negative thinking.

As an exercise, go back and look at example two and ask yourself: How you would employ these new goal-setting techniques?


Look for more on this topic in next week’s blog, NLP Part 3!


Andrew J. Wilt 
SEI Junior Consultant 
Apprenticeship Program