The Presuppositions of Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Kain Ramsay
Mar 17 · 9 min read

Neuro-Linguistic Programming studies the relationship between the language of an individual, their mind frame and how these things can affect our actions and behaviours.

Having its foundation based in the disciplines of linguistics and psychiatry, NLP is primarily concerned with how individuals take in and make sense out of information. NLP is the way you can understand how you work, why you do what you do, and offers insight into how you can change any unwanted behaviours you wish to change about yourself.

Whilst the concept of NLP may seem abstract at a first glance, breaking down and compartmentalising the term allows for further clarification and an insight into how the approach works. ‘Neuro’ refers to the practice’s focus on the brain; for as an approach NLP aims to study how individuals access and processes information.

Neurological studies are essential to identifying how effectively individuals access and process information as this varies from person to person because of people responding differently to various sensory modalities [1].

People are visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, and everyone has a primary lead system by which they learn from. ‘Linguistics’ is the study of both verbal and non-verbal language, and its effects on the individual and ‘programming’ focuses on how this is all combines to affect the behaviour of the individual.

In principle, NLP is the reprogramming of your neurological nervous system through the use of language to allow you to read people and communicate with them more effectively by speaking the same ‘language’ as them, regardless of which primary neurological learning system you both have.

NLP is a method for modelling excellence, and NLP presuppositions are not beliefs, laws, governing rules or regulations, but are attitudes which lead to excellence. NLP presuppositions are an unbiased and compelling set of beliefs that one can incorporate into their lives, either personally or as an NLP professional helping a client.

NLP presuppositions give form to the underlying beliefs and attitudes that competent NLP practitioners work and commonly live their lives by. Operating from one or more of these presuppositions when interacting with other people, friends, colleagues or working with clients, can be a massively empowering basis from which to facilitate change in an endless number of ways. When a practitioner presupposes something, they make an assumption that something is true and then build upon that idea. But is important to remember that NLP’s primary focus is not on whether a specific belief is true or not, but rather on how effective it is at attaining or achieving a specific desire or goal.

“Most people catch their presuppositions from family and society, similar to the way a child catches the flu. But wise people realise that presuppositions should be ‘chosen’ after carefully considering that which is true.” — Francis A. Schaeffer [2]


The following list of presuppositions (in no particular order) provides us with the core ideas (or presupposed truths) that all other NLP based practices and models are built upon:

Presupposition 1: Accept People Unconditionally

People are not their behaviours. Whilst we can reject a person’s attitude or habits, we should never dismiss a person. As an evolving science, NLP seeks to help people understand and better appreciate how their habits and self-defeating behaviours are not cast in stone but are instead choices that can be modified in time.

Presupposition 2: Evaluate Behaviour in Terms of Context and Ecology

All meaning is context dependent. It is easy to take something that’s been said out of context and interpret it differently from its original meaning. In NLP it’s crucial that we evaluate behaviour and change in terms of the context it’s situated in. We need to ask questions such as “how does this behaviour affect this situation? Would this behaviour be acceptable in a different set of circumstances/situation?” This evaluation is vital to undergo and help us understand who our clients are capable of becoming, and how these behaviours impact their life.

Presupposition 3: Resistance in a Client Signifies Mistrust

If NLP practitioners experience resistance in a client, this often stems from a lack of rapport or misunderstanding. No clients are resistant by nature, but there are rigid communicators unwilling to change. Wise communicators accept and embrace all forms of communication that are presented to them, and therefore if they detect any resistance, they must be confident enough to acknowledge this and do their best to build a rapport and interpersonal connection.

Building and maintaining rapport with people is of paramount importance. If we are not actively managing rapport, we are less likely to determine the positive outcomes we are working towards. To get better results from our communications, NLP practitioners must be open to adapting and adjusting their approach. The same actions will always produce the same results. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always have what we’ve always had!

Presupposition 4: Appreciate Other People’s Interpretation of the World

Good communication requires a grounded appreciation of someone else’s unique model of the world. All people have alternative ways of interpreting and experiencing life (different beliefs, values, filters, etc.) By understanding and respecting these differences, as opposed to jumping to assumptions or judging, we establish natural and stronger trust-based communications.

Presupposition 5: No-one Intentionally ‘Screws Up’

Behind every behaviour is a positive intention. No one sabotages themselves on purpose: everyone always strives to do their best with the resources they have available to them.

Whilst we may never fully comprehend the motives of others, it’s important to assume the positive intentions underlying and influencing their behaviour. Whilst the positive intention of behaviour, particularly a bad one, is rarely obvious, and usually difficult to decipher, it’s crucial to remember it’s there. No smoker smokes to damage their health: they smoke because the habit gives them some positive feelings about themselves. Rather than assuming the worst in people based on their behaviour, be gentle and understanding, and apply the same empathy to yourself.

Presupposition 6: Calibrate on Behaviour, Not on Assumptions.

The only visible information we have about another person is their behaviour. Human behaviour is the only thing that helping professionals can observe; anything else would constitute presumptuous mind reading. As it’s impossible for us to read the psyche of another, it’s critical that we become competent at calibrating behaviour, i.e. noticing recurring patterns of behaviour.

Co-creator of Neuro-linguistic programming, Richard Bandler, suggested that one of the major blocks to understanding people was self-righteousness. When we think we are right about something, we stop seeking new information about that subject. Therefore, it is important not to just listen to the words your client feeds you, but to document patterned behaviour you observe objectively.

“Our biggest limit is not in what we want and cannot do; it is in what we have never considered that we can do.”- Richard Bandler [3]

Presupposition 7: The Map is Not the Territory

Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who was one of the two founders of semiotics, was the first man to create a division between words and the objects they represented. Saussure’s linguistic theory taught us that the signifier (the word) was not the same entity as the signified (the concept.) He argued that when the signifier and signified came together, they formed a “sign” that people responded to psychologically. [4]

In the same way people respond to signs rather than things, people respond to their experiences rather than reality itself. Two people can see the same event but both have two different responses to it. This is because we don’t have access to reality as it is, we do not know reality. We experience reality through our senses, our filter systems, our beliefs — our own personal ‘map’ of reality which has an agenda written into it. NLP works by changing the ‘maps’ that are not working for a client into something far more useful: you can add more data in, try laying on different meanings or enrich your internal library by drawing up new comparisons.

Presupposition 8: Own Your Mind and Your Outcomes

Thought precedes our every action, behaviour, reaction, and response. It’s easy to blame others for making you angry or for even making you do something, but what’s essential is to recognise that all actions and emotions are filtered through your neurological system first, and no one dictates your actions other than yourself.

People’s behaviours or certain situations don’t “make” you do anything, only you have control over how you respond. You must acknowledge instead that no one made you angry, but that you allowed someone to make you feel angry, and no one made you do anything, you chose to do something someone asked of you. It is only by recognising that no one controls your body and mind other than yourself that you can start taking responsibility and accountability for your actions.

If we can become more aware of our thought patterns and internal processes, we can consequently become more efficient at managing our responses and behaviours. It is only by taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions that we become empowered.

Presupposition 9: People Always Have the Resources They Need

NLP Practitioners have a goal to help their clients become more aware of their potential and assist them to work towards their own desired outcomes in life. We all have the resources and ability to achieve all the things we want in our personal lives. If it’s possible for other people, it’s also 100% possible for us.

“The greatest personal limitation is to be found not in the things you want to do and can’t, but in the things you’ve never considered doing.” — Richard Bandler

There’s no such thing as an unresourceful individual, only ways of being unresourceful, and you amend this by adjusting your mindset and tapping into your own experiences and knowledge. Another method we can apply here is the process of modelling where we elicit the strategies that another person has used to achieve their desired life outcomes. This is something we will explore further later in the course.

Presupposition 10: There is No Failure, Only Feedback

To view the world in black and white, as a system of failures and successes, is a self-limiting paradigm. We will always make mistakes throughout our lives, but to view them as failures is to define our experiences by judgements and finalities.

However, to regard our mistakes as feedback instead allows us to use a more curious and powerful learning mechanism in life. When we define our self-worth into what we’re doing and what we achieve, we hinder our learning and make the process of learning much harder.

Self-worth should not depend on definitive judgements, labels and statements. We don’t need to label our results; our results are either an opportunity to gain feedback or recognise our achievements.

In summary, presuppositions are the central beliefs that provide foundations to a system. The presuppositions of NLP are the central assumptions that have guided the ongoing development of NLP since its initial construction by Richard Bandler and John Grinder back in the 1970s.

You may have deciphered from the information above that many presuppositions overlap, and there are more which can be applied based on how one studies NLP. Whichever presuppositions you choose to embrace in life, it is best to consider them convenient beliefs rather than universal truths so that they can be easily adjusted to be of use to you and to your clients.

References and Useful Resources:

  1. Brockopp, D. (1983). What Is NLP? The American Journal of Nursing, 83(7), 1012–1014. doi:10.2307/3463336
  2. Schaeffer, Francis A. (1983). How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.
  3. Bandler, R. (2014). How to take charge of your life: The User’s Guide to NLP.
  4. Saussure, F. . (1959). Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library.
  5. Knowles, R. (1983). Building Rapport through Neuro-Linguistic Programming. The American Journal of Nursing, 83(7), 1010–1014. doi:10.2307/3463335

The Achologist is the official online publication for Achology, the Academy of Modern Applied Psychology for professional practitioners and life coaches.


Kain Ramsay

Written by

Founder of, International Training Instructor and Editor of The Alchologist Magazine



The Achologist

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