Experiencing NLP: Cognitive Qualifiers

by Steve Andreas

Happily, John McWhirter has described a fascinating and subtle linguistic example of how the mind can be preset to respond in a particular way that, sadly, others have not previously noticed. A “cognitive qualifier” is a “commentary” adverb appearing at the beginning of a sentence or phrase that refers to an emotional or cognitive state, such as “happily” or “sadly” in the previous sentence. A cognitive qualifier prepares the mind to respond in a specified way to whatever words follow.

To experience this effect, think of an ordinary descriptive sentence like, “The green tree is standing in the sunlight,” or “I am sitting at the desk,” and imagine saying this sentence to yourself.

Now imagine saying the exact same sentence, but preceded by the word “sadly,” and notice how this changes your experience.

Then say the same sentence, but preceded by the word “happily,” and again pay attention to your experience.

Cognitive qualifiers direct your mind to think of aspects of an experience that are specified by the kind of qualifier used.

Imagine what your life would be like if you began every sentence, and every thought, with the word “sadly” or “regrettably.” That is a very effective way to be depressed, and some people actually do this! In contrast, imagine what your life would be like if every sentence and thought were preceded by the word “happily” or “fortunately.” This would be a much better choice, and again, some people actually do this.

Understandably, you might feel incongruent about using the qualifier “happily” for some unpleasant events, but luckily there is an alternative resource. Both “sadly” and “happily” refer to emotional states, and most emotions are evaluative, dealing with pleasant or unpleasant, positive or negative. These evaluative qualifiers will sometimes seem inappropriate for the content of a particular thought or sentence.

Interestingly, there is a set of cognitive/emotional states that is quite different, and that do not have negative or unpleasant aspects. Curiously, they all center around a state of interest, curiosity, attention, or understanding: “interestingly,” “curiously,” “surprisingly,” “understandably,” etc. Something unpleasant can be just as interesting as something pleasant –the state of interest or fascination itself is always positive and enjoyable. You probably never heard anyone complain about being curious. “Oh I had this awful curiosity last night–it was terrible!”

Since these cognitive qualifiers miraculously never have negative states associated with them, they are truly universal resources, which can be used with any experience. And since a state of curiosity or interest is an excellent resource state for learning and change, this kind of cognitive qualifier is a wonderful state to use in beginning to understand and process a difficulty.

For example, think of some experience in your life that you might describe as a problem or difficulty, and make up a simple sentence that describes it, such as, “I hate it when people don’t follow through on their promises.” Say this sentence to yourself, and notice how you represent this internally.

Now say the same sentence to yourself, but preceded by the word “interestingly,” or “curiously,” or “understandably,” and pay attention to how this word changes your experience.

Most people experience subtle but profound changes as attention is drawn away from how unpleasant the problem event is and toward interest and curiosity about how it happens, or how it can be understood–a state of readiness and eagerness for learning. Imagine what your life would be like if every sentence and thought you had began with “Interestingly” or “Understandably.”

This can be very useful when used as a “backtrack” with a client. When a client describes a problem, you can feed back their statement, beginning with “understandably,” or some other qualifier that has to do with curiosity and learning, and watch for the nonverbal shifts that indicate that they are thinking about it in a more relaxed and useful way.

John McWhirter has also pointed out that a very important aspect of these cognitive qualifiers is that they create a shared and universal world, a frame that embraces us both. It is quite different to say “I find that interesting,” or “Do you find that interesting?” in which there is an apparent separation or difference between us. When I say “Interestingly,” this sets up a frame that simply exists and is taken for granted, and that we both experience together, without the separation between self and other that many people often feel. This transcends rapport, because rapport presupposes the difference that the rapport bridges.

Surprisingly, with a powerful state of interest and curiosity, many “problems” simply vanish as my attention turns from how unpleasant they are to simply learning how they exist and function, and what I can do to change them. Even when they don’t vanish, it is a much more useful place to begin to work toward understanding and a solution.

Interestingly, the idea that all of life is a school in which we have lessons to learn is a very old idea, and one that is particularly central in certain spiritual traditions, Buddhism in particular. I have no idea if it is true or not, but it is a very powerful reorientation for your life as a whole, one that makes life much easier and more enjoyable, both for yourself and for others.

Steve Andreas, with his wife Connirae, has been learning, teaching, and developing patterns in NLP since 1977. Steve is the author of a number of NLP articles and books, including Heart of the Mind, and has produced many videotapes and audiotaped demonstrations of specific NLP patterns for personal change.