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Interview conducted on 27 March 1997. First published on, 10 Jan 2001.

Shaping a Training Course for Teachers
through NLP 

Interview with Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

by Judith Baker

Judy: I am interested in what processes you go through before you begin a course, how you envisage it, what you go through as the course unfolds, how you reflect on it afterwards and how that might change what you do next time.

James: Got a couple of hours?

Judy: You two went from being 'general' NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) trainers to giving a course on NLP for language teachers. When you are doing NLP training, do you have an idea of a course shape?

Penny: We apply the process of NLP to the process of course design. We start with an outcome and its an outcome for our participants: "At the end of this training, our participants will be able to x, will know y, will understand z."

James: Given that it is a skills based training, it is what participants can demonstrate that counts, so it is fairly simple to know. The challenge is to know how much of a skill they can be expected to demonstrate in the time given.

Judy: Would that be true for a course which was not assessed?

James: Yes. All of our courses are skills based. We want to know that people can use the skills on a day-to-day basis. If they choose not to, that's fine. But what we like to know is that they have the choice. And the only way we know they have the choice is when they demonstrate the skills being taught. We make the assumption that people want to learn and that they want feedback, so we give feedback on what we see and hear.

Judy: For people who are not familiar with NLP, can you give some information about the kinds of skills you are looking for?

Penny: We form the course around the four pillars of NLP: behavioural flexibility, sensory acuity, rapport, outcome orientation and the foundation stone of those four pillars is 'state management'. So the behaviours we are looking for are from them are: being able to notice themselves in relation to another, being able to notice another's behaviours and what is happening in a communication loop (that's sensory acuity). Once they notice this, do they have the behavioural flexibility to change what they are doing to get a different result; if that's what they want? To do this, they need to know what result they are aiming for, and that's an outcome. And rapport is skills based too, can they demonstrate it in relationship with another? So that's the cycle we are going for, the four pillars. The foundation stone underlying all this (a person's state of 'mindbody') governs what is going on. Their (emotional) state at any given time will determine their accuracy in sensory acuity, their willingness to demonstrate flexibility, their level of rapport and the outcome they are aiming at.

James: That's basically what we are looking for. It just becomes more and more sophisticated. People respond to finer and finer cues, and become more and more adept at joining another person's way of operating in the world and modifying their own behaviours so that both parties get what they want out of the interaction. The principles are the same if it is two people sitting down for a chat or whether it is someone standing up in front of thirty children.

Judy: So when you started to work with language teachers, did you bring that model holus bolus with you.

Penny: Yes, we did.

Judy: Did you notice any differences working with language teachers as opposed to mixed groups?

James: As a generalisation, we've found that teachers want to know ways they can use the material very early in the process. When they understand that, they are keen to get on with the exercises and learn the skills. Other groups (like business people) seem happier to get on with the exercises and then think about how they can use and apply it for themselves. What we did was to modify the way we presented the material by giving more applications; before people knew how to use it. It's interesting because that is the converse way to the way I like to learn. I had to modify my behaviour dramatically to teach not the way I like to be taught but the way that appealed to most people in the group.

Penny: It's interesting James saying that because one comment we have had from teachers is: "We've been taught what to teach but we haven't had much on how to teach it'. What we are teaching through NLP is how to teach to different learning styles. We often teach the way we like to be taught but do we have the flexibility to teach students who learn in a very different way?

James: That goes back to how we envisage a course. In addition to the content of the course and where we expect people to be at the end, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to get those ideas and messages across; the process of delivery. We will go through a whole range of possible ways people learn. To give you an example, some people like to learn a conceptual model first, others like the application first, and yet others need to have an experience first. Some people like to receive information visually, others through listening and others through the use of their bodies. So we use our language, our behaviour and our teaching aids to make sure all of those styles are covered - and there are many more.

We will also make sure that people get an opportunity to not only do it and talk about it, but also to see it being done - to role model it. NLP originally developed its whole set of processes by modelling. We believe that, on this type of course, the way a teacher mostly teaches is through role modelling, so we do lots of demonstrations and 'meta-comment' on what we are doing. We make great use of information that emerges in the moment. We take a lot of examples from the group, things that people say and do in the moment and use them to make general points. This comes into the planning but it also requires decisions in the moment.

Penny: Time is a great factor. And we have an outcome for the day. What skills will the people be demonstrating? We are assessing how people are getting the material and using it. We are determining what is happening in the group and we'II say "OK, they need more of an experience than they need debriefing so let's run this exercise now because it will make the point better than our talking appears to be doing." So we are assessing the needs of the group in the moment.

James: And the way we assess the needs of the group is by the state of the group. How much energy do they have? How receptive are they? How much cognitive information are they taking in? So assessing where the group is at any moment in time will determine the form of the next activity. Will it be more reflective? Will it be more cognitive? Will it be more action based? Do we need more discussion? There's a wonderful saying, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." That could be modified for teachers to "Tell him your lesson outlines." As we have become more experienced, we have become more able to change our plans and still achieve what we want. In the beginning we thought we had to follow the plan.

Penny: At the beginning of a training, particularly a three week training, we work hard to determine the student's outcomes. Some people are here predominantly to increase their teaching skills, others for personal development. So we assess in the very beginning what people are here for and that influences what we do for the rest of the training. (Although it is impossible not to develop yourself on an NLP training!)

James: Another idea which may be helpful here is: we start with the end in mind and then we work backwards. Once we have an outcome, we ask what particular building blocks need to be in place for people to do any particular exercise or use any particular concept? Much of what we do in the beginning is designed so that people acquire the skills to build a platform from which they can launch them selves to do things they didn't even know were possible before! Students don't necessarily know that but one of the questions we continually ask ourselves is "Are the building blocks in place?" When they are, the students take off from a solid foundation on their own.

Judy: How often do you reflect on the state of the group? Is it each break time, at the end of each day?

Penny: Internally every few minutes, and to each other at each break. We have signs we are looking for: that the group is on track, learning, enthusiastic, pensive or whatever state they happen to be at a particular time and if our outcome is being met or not. If our sensory acuity is telling us that our outcomes are not being met, we will have a debrief at the break and always at the end of the day and make a decision whether to change our approach.

James: Often we use that highly skilled technique of asking "Well how are you? And are you getting what you want?" We tend to use that during the second half of the day just to check. We do lots of observations during the exercises and that is where we get most of the information about how people are, how they are integrating and how they are able to demonstrate the skills they are learning.

Judy: You first did a two week course with teachers and then a three and a half week Practitioner course. Was there any difference in course shape?

Penny: In a Practitioner course, certain subjects have to be covered for the course to be approved by the Association of NLP. In a ten day course you simply couldn't cover all those subjects. So the very nature of the material means we have to think differently about the programme. That's from a technical point of view. Our overall outcome, teaching people the skills of NLP remains the same. I am there to help people become more self aware, to understand more about how they think and how other people think differently and for them to experience that in the moment. That is what learning is. So for me the content was different but my outcome for the participants was the same.

James: While we are looking for skills as a measure of people's development and learning, that is only the surface. The general principle we want to see in operation is people learning how to learn. So people can take the skills and continue to develop themselves. They can take the building blocks of NLP and apply them to this or that area - and areas we have never heard of - and modify them and make them their own. If this happens, we know they have got a lot out of it. It happens both at a micro level (during the exercises) and also at a macro level (how people apply it in their own schools and countries). This is where we get much of our feedback. Only then we can truly assess how successful the course has been.

Judy: So it happens some time alter the course.

James: You get assessments during the course, at the end and after the course. Some of the most useful feedback comes weeks, months, sometimes years later.

Judy: Do you remember saying at the beginning of the course you were surprised at how much people wanted to talk about the experiences they were having through the exercises. Is that how it went?

Penny: Pilgrim's approach to teaching EFL uses lots of great activities about discovery, and about experiencing. I think many EFL teachers use a similar approach and they wanted the same format for learning NLP. We could cater for this - up to a point. However, when student's are examining how they think, if they do not get high quality feedback and input from the trainer (and assistants), they can think the same thing over and over. 'Personal discovery' doesn't necessarily lead in a new direction or give new insights into thinking without a framework for that discovery . We use that as one of the formats for learning, but not the only one. Does that answer your question?

Judy : Mmm. I think what I am asking about is the extent to which you changed your practice in response to feedback. I think you really did.

Penny: You know we did!

James: That's right. And I can give you an example of that. In retrospect it's blindingly obvious but at the time the obvious blinded me. In the last course, thankfully, the participants shaded our eyes so we could see the obvious. Often NLP is trained in a modular format (i.e. over a number of weekends). You can use the same basic approach each module and people are usually fine with that. Training 20 days straight, people get cheesed off with the same processes day in day out. What we had to do, we realised after a short period of time, was invent or borrow new methods of presenting the material - to give people even more variety in our delivery. The standard NLP training model is some kind of overview, some examples, some conceptual material, a demonstration, exercises to get the material in the muscle and then a debrief. And that general format gets repeated over and over. It's a great format but what we discovered was that despite the variations it becomes predictable and that inhibits learning.

Penny: Necessity maybe the mother of invention but in this case necessity was the mother of creativity. We got very creative. At night we would come up with new ways to deliver the programme and supply even more variety in our teaching styles. We have run these new approaches many times since then with great success. So we were learning too.

James: The whole philosophy of NLP encourages us to do that. We had some very able assistants. For example, we had someone who was trained in psychodrama and a number of EFL teachers. We said, "Give us some ideas for delivery from your background." We are very comfortable with drawing in ideas from any domain, things that work elsewhere and making them our own. We got some wonderful ideas from our assistants and from the people on the course.

Judy: So you felt comfortable taking on new formats and new ideas in the midst of a training?

Penny: We are teaching behavioural flexibility and I hope to heaven we are role modelling behavioural flexibility.

James: That's not to say it wasn't a challenge. It was a huge challenge, to come up with new formats and ideas overnight - for nights on end - and it was great. We have developed our skills as trainers many fold as a result.

Judy: So your belief in the importance of flexibility was a great help in changing your training behaviour.

James: There is a saying in NLP that "there are no such things as reluctant learners - only inflexible teachers." So if someone is having difficulty understanding, I have to be more flexible in the way I put over the material until I find a way that works for them. Then they will be only to happy to learn. The challenge is when you are working with a class of twenty five, how do you find twenty five different ways?

Judy: How do you do that? Do you really need to?

James: If you put it over in the ways that I have already mentioned you will reach the majority of people, and then in one to one work, we support the people who need a different different approach. To give you another example, we tell a lot of stories and anecdotes as teaching aids. We will design stories in the breaks which will aid particular individual's learning. Then we tell the story to the whole group. I'm sure everyone gets something out of it even though it is aimed at one or two individuals.

Penny: The participants are allocated into groups each of which is supported by an assistant. Because they work with them so closely the assistants get to know the participants really well. And an important part of the assistant's work is to design individual learning tasks for each participant. The nature of these tasks is to lead a participant in a direction which will support them to learn something they they particularly need to develop.

James: For example, if there was an issue about rapport skills we wouldn't ask the person to go out and practice rapport skills. We would ask them to gather certain precise information about a few people. In the act of getting the information, the participant will put their attention more on the other people than is typical. They would ask more questions, they would be more engaged. As a result they would have a higher level of rapport. In the debriefing of the task, we would ask "How did you get more rapport?" and "What did you learn?" So the unconscious learning can become conscious and thus become generalised to other contexts.

Judy: Happily you are coming back this year to do another three week course. Do you have any ideas about changes you may make in this next course?

James: The key, the most important element, is our own personal development. Penny and I have made huge levels of growth in terms of our understanding of ourselves. I believe that this helps me to increase my abilities and understand of the material so that each time it comes out it's a bit more developed than last time. I believe it is my duty to develop myself so that this happens.

Penny: Recently we've been specialising in metaphor. It started with a model for working within a person's symbolic representation of their own experience. In the last year that has expanded into how people think at different levels of thinking. So I believe that will colour what we cover this year. We have recognised that there is level of experience that doesn't often get explored. This year I would anticipate us making use of more of metaphoric and symbolic descriptions. Weaving this in to the basic NLP model. Using symbols as a tool for people to understand the material more as well as to understand themselves better.

Judy: Do you happen to have a metaphor for what that might be like?

Penny: James, have a metaphor!

James: For me, the image I have is standing in front of a huge selection of Hagen Dass ice creams. The different colours, the different flavours and the mixtures. I can have any one of them in any order and they are always available. That's how I am going into this course.

Judy: Er, what are the ice creams?

James: If I look across the ice creams, what do I notice? Well there are lots of different flavours, they are all Hagen Dass, they can all be used to sell sex, or is it the other way around? Every colour under the sun is available to me and what that represents is multiple, multiple choice and very bright, exciting rich flavours. Have you got your metaphor Penny?

Penny: I do. I have a metaphor of a farmer sowing seeds and it is important to attend to the soil There can be many different types of soil . However, each one is going to perhaps need some extra nutrients. You need to know what the soil is and what it may need or not. And once the soil is ready for planting seeds, recognising that some of those seeds are going to sprout at different times and some may come up during the training. However, I can't know what is going to happen to all those seeds. I do know that I prepared the soil and I do know that I have fed and watered them and that they will come up in their own time. So that's my metaphor for this training. It is as much about preparing the soil as it is about planting the seeds and nurturing the plants.

James: You asked about reflecting on the course. One of the things that might be useful for your readers to know is that we have a different set of evaluation criteria for preparing the course, for during the course and for reflecting after the course. So in broad brush strokes, before the course we believe that this will be the greatest course we have ever given and that each participant will have a life transforming experience. Now that doesn't always happen! And that's OK. Afterwards we ask: what did they get out of it? what did we get out of it? what did they learn? what did we learn? And as a result, what can we apply in the future? During the training we withhold any feedback to ourselves about how it might be improved next time. We support each other by talking about what is working, what we would like to see more of from each other. At the end of the day, we will look at what we have learned that we can apply tomorrow or later in the course. Everything we do has a desired outcome and every actual outcome is feedback. Feedback is the gold dust of learning. So we seek a lot of feedback from the assistants, the participants and from ourselves.

Judy: Now that we are talking about feedback, this may be a good moment to talk about feedback to participants because I think you have a rather particular model for giving feedback.

Penny: There is a focus on what people are doing well, pointing out what works, what they do right, because what you direct attention toward people will do more of. So we spend a lot of time looking for improvement. This is generative NLP. With that generative intention we can present feedback in such a way that it easy to take on.

James: One of the questions that we will ask ourselves is, "Has the person we have given feedback to left the interaction empowered? Do they feel more empowered than when we started?" This is not the same as saying all we do is praise people. Our way of giving developmental feedback is by finding moments when people do things well and encouraging them to do more of it. Even if they do it for a fraction of a second we encourage them to do it for a fraction of a second more. People get feedback about their unconscious competence.

Judy: Could you say more about how you encourage participants to give feedback to each other?

Penny: Many of the exercises are designed for three people, two participants working together and the third person observing. Observing provides for another level of learning. The observer has the opportunity to feedback to the person operating the exercise. They can get very involved in their own learning process by observing another and giving feedback.

James: Another word for feedback is coaching. We encourage participants to coach each other. A particular method of feedback we use is borrowed from Robert Dilts. It requires a fish bowl which contains lots of coloured pieces of paper with fish photocopied onto them. We encourage participants to write on the back of a fish something they have appreciated about somebody else and to give it to them. There doesn't have to be a reason for it. It can be 'unreasonable' feedback. In other words, I give it just because I liked something, or just because it worked for me. I don't know why. I just wanted to write this. At first, some participants think this is strange. But as the fish start swimming, people realise the effect when they receive a fish and then the fish really begin to multiply. Our only problem becomes how to photocopy enough fish to keep up with the demand!

Penny: We hear from participants months later who have just sat down and reviewed their fish. They say the fish bring the training and the learnings back to life. Fish can fly!

James: There is a whole metaphor and story about these fish. They are called 'unearned fish'. People get them just because you want to give them.

Penny: This story is told at the beginning to sets up the generative idea and our approach to training.

Judy: Would you just like to say what the story is behind the unearned fish?

James: OK, here is one short version of the Parable of the Porpoises. In watching how porpoises learnt new behaviours researchers didn't understand why one porpoise seemed to learn faster than others. The researchers tried swapping around the trainers and they found that the porpoises that learned quicker were being trained by a particular trainer, yet they couldn't see what he was doing that was different to the other trainers. But one day, Gregory Bateson, the man who was conducting the experiment, followed this particular trainer and noticed that he was breaking the rules of the experiment by secretly feeding his porpoise outside the training times. When asked about this he said "How do you expect them to trust me if I don't have a relationship with them. And how can I have a relationship with them when I only give them fish when they follow the rules?" And out of that came the idea that unearned fish build relationships and make it much easier for porpoises - and people - to learn.

Judy: Anything you want to add to that?

Penny: Just that I love teaching teachers. One of the things that is so motivating is the direct influence it has on their students and their students' students. One thing I know about teaching NLP is that it has a very positive effect for a large number of people.

© Judy Baker, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley.

Judith Baker
Judith Baker has trained teachers in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey and most European countries in ELT and NLP. She is co-author with Mario Rinvolucri of Unlocking Self-expression through NLP, a book of language activities drawn from NLP, which is published by Delta Publishing.  
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