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NLP Perceptual Positions

Changing mental camera angles, switching radio stations, and walking a mile in different shoes.

There is a wonderful skill they teach in NLP that you won’t learn anywhere else, except perhaps a limited form of it in acting or creative writing schools. It’s called Perceptual Positions, the skill of adopting more points of view than your own in an experientially rich and organized way. It represents a profound contribution to the study and practical applications of the human mind.

The oldest predecessor of Perceptual Positions is a very simple idea. “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes.” In other words, you can’t really understand someone until you’ve experienced what it’s like to be in his situation. In NLP, this example would be a limited form of “2nd position” perception “as if” from another’s point of view.

The ability to see things from the point of view of another is a key skill in understanding people, and is important to communication processes in relationships, negotiation and interviewing, as well as to healthy boundaries and self-concept. But NLP is not only concerned with seeing things from other points of view e.g., visual representation but also kinesthetic, auditory, and to a lesser extent olfactory and gustatory sensory systems.

NLP pays careful attention to linguistic and semantic representations inherent in beliefs, interpreted feelings, values, thinking patterns and identity equally important components of how we experience ourselves, the world, and the people around us.

Further still, somatic aspects such as physical responses, gestures, eye movements, voice tonality, posture, movement and other behaviors all play important roles in mind-body states and the quality of experience for ourselves and for others. A Perceptual Position might contain as many of these components as the perceiver is aware of, or can imagine.

Consider walking a mile in another man’s shoes. That’s fundamentally a kinesthetic and behavioral representation. If you were actually to do it, you’d have many other perceptions, as well. What you could and couldn’t see, as you walked along in those shoes, would be pretty important. What you heard in the environment around you, in your own head, perhaps words or a song, what people said to you… these would also be important to your experience.

The state of your body while walking, your posture, and internal physical sensations might be a big part of your experience. Add to all this what you believe about what you are perceiving. If you believe certain things, will that affect what you perceive? What other perceptual filters might you have working? How do you interpret what you do perceive? Are you cautious in interpretations, or do you produce conclusions rapidly?

Now, imagining doing this as you read these words might be worthwhile, but if you were to actually walk that mile while imagining each of these perceptual distinctions, that would give you a much fuller sense of what the world was like if you walked in that other person’s shoes. Not many people are really going to walk a mile, and we needn’t be too literal here. Using NLP Perceptual Positions you could create a very rich sense of another person’s experience using only your own memory, imagination, physiology and very slight shifts in your spatial location.


Before we discuss practical uses for Perceptual Positions, let’s get an overview. There are four basic Perceptual Positions, one of which has three subtypes.

First Position: This is your own Perceptual Position as you, yourself, experience it. In NLP, we would call this a fully associated position. That is, you are fully in it and living it as if it is happening right now, which it is. In timeline work, if you imagined yourself going back to another time in your life, or forward to an imagined future, and you did so in first position, you would imagine the past or the future as if you were in that other time right now.

This is all imagination, by the way. No one imagining such things actually, factually believes they are time traveling. But your brain might be convinced enough to pop up with some very interesting insights.

Second Position: This is the Perceptual Position of an ‘other’. It’s the walking, seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, believing, etc., in another man’s shoes. But it needn’t be a man or even a human. Second position can be that of a painting or any other object, an animal, a tree, a fictional character, an archetype, a mythical being, even a mathematical principle, an idea, a piece of music, or anything from an atom to the entire Universe, so long as it is represented as ‘other’ than the ‘you’ in first position. It can even be another part of your own mind or body. (Anyone remember the old Reader’s Digest stories with titles like, “I Am Joe’s Foot”?) Second position raises some interesting philosophical questions, but we won’t go into them here.

This position can be in direct communication with First Position. That is, if you adopted Second Position, and spoke to yourself in First Position, you would address yourself as ‘you’.

Third Position: This is the position with three subtypes. Each of them is a Perceptual Position outside the first two, and outside the communication loop going on between first and second positions. From third position, you are like an interested, but not directly involved observer of the other two. It’s a useful position for gathering information and noticing relationship dynamics going on between them. In third position, if you were to refer to yourself in first or second position, you’d use third person pronouns such as “he”, “she” or “they”. The variants of this position are:

Pure Third: This is a Perceptual Position outside the first two, but with a history of having been in each of the other two positions. This position may have beliefs or assumptions about either of them.

Meta: This is a Perceptual Position outside the first two, but with a history of having been in only the first position previously, so it may only have beliefs or assumptions about first position. Regarding second position, it suspends any beliefs or assumptions.

Observer: This third position is outside the first two, but it suspends any beliefs or assumptions about both first and second positions. Sometimes I call this the “friendly visitor from outer space who has just arrived” position. A good way to get into this position is by noticing really obvious things, such as the fact that the person in first position is bipedal and has two eyes. If first and second positions are communicating with each other, you might notice that they make funny noises and respond to each other in curious ways. From there you can begin to observe more complex patterns and interactions.

Fourth Position: This is a Perceptual Position which is a synthesis of all the others, a sense of being the whole system. From this position you can see the genesis and effects of all the other positions and their interactions, and notice large patterns which transcend individual identities, parts and relationships.

There are additional Perceptual Positions of another type which I call “projected Perceptual Positions.” I’ll say more about them later.

Setting-Up Spatial Anchors

The first step in using Perceptual Positions effectively is to make arrangements to anchor them in clearly separate spaces. This is usually done using what NLP calls “Spatial Anchors” that is, we use the metaphor of separate physical locations for each of the Perceptual Positions and create strong associations (or conditioned responses) to them. These locations can be just a step or two away from each other, or they can be as simple as sitting in different chairs. They can even be further apart, such as being located in different rooms in a building, depending on what’s practical and what makes sense for the interaction of the different Perceptual Positions.

The most important thing here is that each position is strongly “anchored” that is, each must be set up as fully associated, strong and unique. When I work with clients using Perceptual Positions, I usually ask the client first to pick the locations for the positions, then step into each and develop it in as many sensory representation modes as possible, before we deal with any content specific to the problem or goal at hand.

Once each position is established, we test the position by stepping out of it, “breaking state” (shaking off the physiology and directing attention to something entirely different, such as remembering one’s phone number backwards), then stepping back into the position and re-accessing it. When the position is well anchored, stepping back into it will immediately produce the full state for that position. If the person steps back into the position and says, “…uhhhh…. um…. yeah… I think… ok, yeah, I’ve got it,” the position needs to be strengthened and tested again. Weak anchors will produce weak or mixed results later when using the position, so we pay careful attention to getting each anchor strong and cleanly separated from the others.

Using Perceptual Positions

The number of possible uses for Perceptual Positions is unlimited, so we’ll pick just a simple example of gaining perspectives on a fictional personal relationship problem.

Let’s suppose your name is Chris and you are having some problems with your boss, Jim.

To begin, first set up your spatial anchors. Take your time with this step, getting a full visual, auditory, kinesthetic, somatic, belief systems, perceptual filters, etc., representation of what it’s like to be in that position. Don’t get into any of the content you want to address yet.

Just establish the Perceptual Positions:

1st Position: Chris (you)2nd Position: Jim3rd Position: Meta4th Position: The full context and larger system — company, families, environment, customers, etc.

For each position, once you have accessed it, step out of it and “break state,” that is, distract yourself until you’re fully out of the state you were just in. Turn around, take a sip of water, remember your phone number backwards, see little pink bunnies hopping around the room, look out the window, notice colors and shapes, imagine a band playing, etc. Then step back into the position and test it, it should be immediately and fully available to you. If it isn’t, keep adding perceptions to it, stepping out, breaking state, then testing it until you have it well anchored.

…then, you are ready to begin exploring. Let’s start with you. Step into:

1st position: (In the context of your relationship with Jim, see what you see, hear what you hear, feel what you feel.) “Well, here’s the thing. Jim’s being a perfect jerk. He tells me he wants a report, then after I’ve spent days on it, he doesn’t want it anymore and instead wants to know why I wasn’t doing something else. He’s driving me nuts!” [Note: this level of description is pretty general. The more specific, the better. What did Jim actually say, verbatim? What did you see? What exactly does it mean to feel like you’re being driven nuts? Where do you feel it? etc.]

Break State. Then step into

2nd position: (“you” are now Jim in the context of your relationship with Chris. Assume Jim’s posture, movements, gestures and tonality. See what you see, hear what you hear, feel what you feel.) “I was expecting a draft from Chris, not a full blown report. I had no idea he was going to go off and spend three days on it. Frankly, there are other, more important things I need him to do.” [Note: the first time going into 2nd position with content can be a bit difficult or tricky. The objective is not to mind-read Jim, but to experience what it’s like to be in his shoes. Some things can be logically inferred from perceptual experience, and some things are the result of previous observation on your part (in 1st position). But other things, which have no basis in logic or perception, belong to the imagination of Chris and should be moved over to 1st position so he owns them. An experienced guide is helpful in keeping such things well sorted.]

Break State. Step into

3rd position: “From here, I can see that (you) and Jim aren’t getting specific enough about their agreed upon goals and assignments and they will both benefit from making sure that tasks are understood before they are undertaken. Jim likes to be ‘nice’ and may not want to be seen as attempting to micro-manage, so he’s not being specific enough in telling you what he wants. You, on the other hand, want Jim to think he’s smart and competent and can read between the lines, so he’s not asking for specifics about things he’s unsure of.” [Note: 3rd position/meta knows what’s going on in your mind, but it has to be more cautious in its observations and interpretations of Jim’s behaviors.]

Break State. Mapping Across

Brains will do an interesting thing if you ask them to. They will take an anchored resource (such as a learning, a behavior, a capability, a belief or value, a sense of identity, a global context, etc.) from one state into another and incorporate it into the second state in a newly organized way. This process is called “mapping across” — that is, you copy or move a resource from one representational map (or perceptual position/spatial anchor) to another.

Interestingly, our brains “map across” all the time on their own — which is how we create associations between ideas and experiences. But until NLP came along, no one ever thought of doing it on purpose in a specifically calibrated way.

In the above example, 3rd position had some interesting insights into the communication dynamics taking place between you and Jim. If we left that insight in 3rd position, your brain would still know about it, but he would not internalize it in as useful or powerful a way as he would if he mapped it across. So let’s see how he might do that.

Step into

4th position: [addressing 3rd position]: “How could you give that insight to yourself in a way he could most easily and positively use it? You might send him some words, or a picture, or a feeling, or a symbol… whatever would be easiest for him to understand. Keep it simple.”

Break State. Step into

3rd position: “Hmm… I think some words might help him. ‘Get clear, check, and reap the rewards.’” [Note: Now you will take those words directly over to 1st position without breaking state first. Once there, take a moment in 1st position to receive the words and notice your response.]

1st position: [Receiving words from 3rd position, allowing them to integrate, and noticing any thoughts or responses.] “Yes. ‘Get clear, check, and reap the rewards.’ I can see that will help things a lot.”

From here, you could imagine some specific future situations, in a fully associated way, (“as if” you were actually there in the future,) in which this new behavior resource could improve your relationship with Jim, and your job on the whole. You could then move to 2nd position, see what it looked like from there, move to 3rd again, etc., until you felt that the process was complete.

Using A Guide

As you can imagine, reading through an example like this and actually doing it are two very different experiences. For exploring purposes, using Perceptual Positions can be a fascinating and useful exercise for just about anyone. But for complex, real life issues, it helps to have an experienced NLP guide.

A guide serves various functions:

A guide is a constant 3rd/4th position to the process and can ask relevant questions in real time as the process goes along.

Guides help elicit and unpack the explorer’s language descriptions of problems, contexts, etc., making them specific and well formed.

A guide helps keep the Perceptual Positions clean and well sorted. If the explorer begins mixing language, representations or states between positions, a qualified guide will observe it and move the appropriate representations to their logical place. Keeping Perceptual Positions clean is enormously important to the success of using them.

In real life, explorers often encounter unexpected conflicts, ecology issues and stuck points which an expert guide knows how to handle.

Experienced guides can integrate multiple NLP processes into the overall use of Perceptual Positions. Since many NLP processes use Perceptual Positions, flexibility and knowing when to depart from a standard process are critical to serious change work and progress.

Other Perceptual Positions

As mentioned earlier, there are other Perceptual Positions which are more complex, involving projected and received identity dynamics between positions.

The classic NLP Meta Model violation of “mind reading” is an example of a projected 1st Position, perceived by the projector as a 2nd position. That is, one’s own 1st position thoughts, feelings or perceptions are unknowingly projected onto an ‘other’ person, then perceived as if they are coming from that person while, at the same time, the 1st position identity believes he knows the internal reality of the ‘other’. Confusing? Yes, it is! Not only for the person projecting, but for the other person, as well. Essentially, this dynamic is a form of self/other confusion; or, in classical NLP terms, confusion of Perceptual Positions.

Another variant is the reverse of mind-reading — the adoption of traits projected on oneself by someone else or adopted “Zelig” style. Many self-esteem, “co-dependence”, and self-confidence problems are directly tied to this form of self/other confusion.

Finally, what classical psychology calls “transference” is aptly named, and is understood in NLP Perceptual Position theory as not only the transference of thoughts and emotions about one person to another, but the pre-transference confusion of 2nd position perception between two others.

These projected Perceptual Positions are the subject of continuing research.

The History of Perceptual Positions

Today’s NLP theory of Perceptual Positions was originally formulated by John Grinder and Judith DeLozier in 1987. It extended earlier concepts of referential index and Gregory Bateson’s concepts of double and triple description. 3rd position was influenced by Milton Erickson’s hypnotherapeutic concept of disassociation (as distinct from dissociation). Further developments and refinement of theory and applications were made by Robert Dilts and Todd Epstein in the early and mid 1990s.

The importance of Perceptual Positions in NLP, its practical uses, and the prevalence of the model have made it one of the most successfully used fundamentals in the pantheon of applied NLP.

The Future of Perceptual Positions

David Grove, a psychotherapist in New Zealand, is a leading developer of self-organized systems theory and cognitive linguistics. He originated the concept of “Clean Language” — a transformational therapy using symbols and metaphors in such a way to maximize client-generated self-modeling while minimizing inadvertent suggestion and content contamination by the therapist. James Lawley and Penny Tompkins wrote a book, “Metaphors in Mind”, describing Grove’s theory and methodology.

Grove recently innovated a concept he calls “Clean Space”, an extension of his “clean” methodology to the metaphor of space, or spatial anchors. In Clean Space, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th positions are not predetermined, but are created on the fly entirely by the client, after minimal explanation, as the client models his or her own maps and metaphors of processes and content which present themselves in the context of a problem or goal.

In the “Clean Space” model, Perceptual Positions might be thought of as properties of spatial metaphors created solely by the client, rather than as key targets of exploration. This model, if expanded and developed, could be the logical next extension of the fundamental idea of Perceptual Positions.

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