Positive and negative (NLP)

Positive and negative (NLP)

The term "positive" is often used generally to mean "desirable" or "beneficial", and "negative" is usually used to mean "undesirable" or "bad". But in neuro-linguistic programming it also has a specific technical meaning, in the phrases "positive intent" and "stated in the positive".

In this sense, the term is used to mean "linguistically stated in the affirmatory". In other words, a goal or intent is said to be "positively" stated if it is stated by reference to a state or thing one "desires", rather than by reference to a state or thing one "wishes to avoid".

Virginia Satir originated a slightly different meaning of the phrase "positive intention". She believed that if you dug deeply enough into any dysfunctional or damaging behavior, you would eventually find that the client was in fact trying to achieve a "positive intent" through their undesirable behaviour, unconsciously ineptly and harmfully, and that the dysfunction could often be helped by finding other ways to honor that positive intention.

In a similar vein, psychiatrist R. D. Laing has argued that the symptoms of what is normally called mental illness are just comprehensible reactions to impossible demands that society and particularly family life places on some sensitive individuals.



The following statements are all positive intent or stated in the positive (regardless of whether in fact they are beneficial or damaging wishes):

Correct - stated in the positive (by reference to what is desired):
* I want a car with a 6 liter engine
* I'm hoping to retire in 5 years
* I'd like to steal/harm/take something or someone ("This is "stated in the positive" in the technical linguistic sense, and in the NLP sense, and would constitute a "positive intention", though horrifically negative in an everyday sense.")

Incorrect - stated in the negative (by reference to what is wished to be avoided, or what is not desirable):
* I don't like this office
* I hate it
* I want them to stop picking on me
* When I retire I won't have to work
* If I had money I wouldn't have to steal
"This is "stated in the negative" in the technical linguistic sense, and in the NLP sense, and would not constitute a "positive intention", though a positive wish in an everyday sense. To turn it into a positive one might ask questions such as "what would you like to be doing if you were not stealing?"

Functional significance

The significance of this comes from the psychological phenomenon of LINK TBA, in which it is observed that the human brain does not appear to process negations (in this sense) very well. It appears that the brain processes "don't want X" along the lines of "having X" then removing it. Accordingly, when one focuses on what one does not want, the brain at some level imagines the object to be avoided, more than the relational word "not", and ... what one puts ones attention on, is generally where one tends to move. The notorious quote "Don't think of a "pink elephant"!" captures this - one cannot "not" think of a pink elephant.

In cognitive terms, therefore, "not wanting to steal" (so to speak) is not the same as "being honest", and tends to keep the "negative" idea at the forefront of the mind. It also subjectively suggests a single dead-end rather than a general direction to go. This is why, whilst a wish to avoid can indeed motivate, and powerfully, it is generally not seen in NLP as being as useful as a positive intention.

Positive intent

An person's intention in performing an action is their specific purpose in doing so, the end or goal they aim at, or intend to accomplish. Whether an action is successful or unsuccessful depends at least on whether the intended result was brought about. Other consequences of someone's acting are called unintentional. Intentional behavior can also be just thoughtful and deliberate goal-directedness. The aphorism in NLP, "all human action fulfils a positive intent at some level". Often, the , if explored, will be quite surprising and revealing, and suggest new directions of thought, especially to people who habitually think in terms of negative intention:
* I don't want to take that job::Possible positive intention: "I want to be able to relax"
Possible effect: client may come to see that the job need not in fact be in conflict with relaxation, or may explore ways to remain calm at work, or that the job is detrimental and to consider a different career, or indeed other forms of relaxation outside work.

For these reasons, in NLP it is seen as more beneficial, generally, to focus on the doors that could be opened by one's decisions, than only the one door that one wishes shut metaphorically speaking. This is in line with other schools of thought that say (in various ways), what you pay attention to is what will be more likely to arise in your life.


* Bandler, R., Grinder, J. (1979) Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming. Real People Press. 149 pages. ISBN 0911226192
* Bandler, R., Grinder, J. (1975) The Structure of Magic I: A Book About Language and Therapy Science and Behavior Books. 198 pages. ISBN 0831400447
* Bandler, R., Grinder, J. (1981) Reframing: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Transformation of Meaning Real People Press. ISBN 0911226257
* Bandler, R., Andreas, S. (ed) and Andreas, C. (ed) (1985) Using Your Brain-for a Change ISBN 0911226273

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