Perceptual Positions in NLP Explained

Nov 19, 2019

‘Empty Chair’ in Gestalt and ‘Perceptual Positions’ in NLP are powerful processes that help the coach to partner with the client empathetically.

This process is effective when the client has a problem situation of disagreement or difference of position with another leading to conflict, confrontation, dispute, etc. These can be crucial in the sense of the cost of impact, the distance between positions, emotional impact and other such factors. Generally, such differences end either in silent withdrawal of one or the other party or a violent interaction, neither serving a useful purpose.

The Perceptual Positions process allows the coach to help the client reframe the client’s mind map by placing the client in the shoes of the person in conflict with the client. Process design is through the unconscious. Its implementation needs to reach the unconscious mind as well.

There are five steps involved in this process.

Step 1: Client’s original position as First-person

The client explains the context of the disagreement, its emotional impact, and cost if unresolved.

The coach makes the client comfortable. The coach inquires into the sensations experienced by the client, what emotions these represent and what thoughts come up. It is important that the client is fully relaxed and feels safe in this role as the first person.

Questions may be

  • What sensations do you experience in your body as you reflect on this disagreement?
  • What are the emotions associated with these sensations?
  • What is the impact of this disagreement with you and why is it critical that it is resolved?
  • How committed are you?
  • Describe your mind state regarding your antagonist.
  • What is stopping you from resolution?
  • What are you willing to do?
  • What will you do when you meet the other person next?

The coach and client explore and agree on a desired outcome of understanding and awareness to resolve the disagreement, especially how critical it is to the client to achieve this desired state and what may be in the way.

The coach then briefs the client on the process and explores as described in step 2.

Step 2: Client as The Other Person

The coach brings an empty chair and requests the client to sit on it. The coach has briefed the client to be in the shoes of the other person, seeing with that person’s eyes, hearing with that person’s ears and feeling through that person.

Coach then addresses the client as the person with whom the disagreement exists. In a sense, the client is now playing the other person. The coach makes the client comfortable. Coach inquires into the sensations experienced by the client, what emotions these represent and what thoughts come up. It is important that the client is fully relaxed and feels safe in this role as the other person.

Similar questions may be asked as with the protagonist, with variations as needed based on the conversation

  • What sensations do you experience in your body as you reflect on this disagreement?
  • What the emotions associated with these sensations?
  • What is the impact of this disagreement with you and why is it critical it is resolved?
  • How committed are you?
  • Describe your mind state regarding your antagonist.
  • What is stopping you from resolution?
  • What will you do when you meet the first person next?

Step 3: Client as a fly on the wall

The coach now brings a third chair and requests the client to sit on this. The client’s role is now that of a fly on the wall having listened to both parties as a   neutral observer. The client needs to shift to an unemotional, rational, objective space in this role. It is useful to take a break, move about, and drink some water. Questions may be:

  • What did you observe?
  • What do you think would be a meeting point for the two?

Step 4: Client as an emotional state or another entity

On some occasions, it helps to bring or shift the client to another chair that represents a needed emotion to resolve the disagreement such as love, compassion, self- validation, etc. and/or an imaginary mediator who both of them respect to offer another point of view.

Step 5: Client re-framed

The coach then comes back to the client as the first person in the original chair. Coach inquires

  • What has been your learning and insights?
  • Would these help you to your desired outcome?
  • Can you visualize your desired outcome as you outlined?
  • What would you like to do now?
  • How would you like to plan what you wish to do?
  • What support do you need?

The coach appreciates client’s progress, requests the client’s feedback and closes session.

Perceptual Positions concept can be used is Systemic Coaching work with some changes. It may not be advisable to bring out individual differences in the open while working as a team since positions tend to harden because of ego. However, diverse opinions can be brought out and reframed as a team as well as individually.

For instance, while working with a group of 12 in a corporate setting, the coach can request them to take 4 separate positions such as

  • Voice of the owner
  • Voice of the employees
  • Voice of the consumer
  • Voice of the environment

and express their opinions. They can then be shifted to express other voices. This would help in shifting their stances to less rigid ones and also reframe.

In addition to work on interpersonal issues, one can also use this process, as I have done, for interpersonal dilemmas, by making client express one point of view first and then its polarity or dilemma, as it may be. This helps clarify and resolve.

Perceptual Positions process is powerful when body sensations and emotions are explored in addition to merely cognitive thoughts, observed and shared by coach with the client, sometimes sharing the coach’s own non-judgmental sensations and emotions as well. The coach must be sensitive to the client’s psychological safety and comfort and would need to consistently seek permission to explore. Coach client trust and the coach’s presence are critical to effectiveness.

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Ram Ramanathan, MCC
Ram Ramanathan, MCC

Ram

Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

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