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The 16 NLP Presuppositions Explained [List] [Examples]

The 16 NLP Presuppositions Explained [List] [Examples]

What are the NLP Presuppositions? NLP has a certain number of assumptions, or starting points. You can consider them as a number of basic principles that you automatically implement and respect when working with NLP. What are these NLP assumptions? You will find these ‘rules’ and their benefits in this article.

1. Each behavior was the best choice an individual had at that particular time

With the wisdom of today, you would often have preferred to have done something in an other way in the past. But that’s only natural, because you got that wisdom by doing it and by actually making ‘mistakes’. Another way of viewing this NLP principle is: everyone is doing their best with the tools they have available at that particular moment. This principle also has to do with the next presupposition about always having a positive intention…

2. Behind every behavior lies a positive intention

The positive intention, also referred to as ´secondary gain´, is one of the most important factors in a problem. Let’s start straightaway with an example: someone can smoke because they have the positive intention to have a social moment with a friend who also smokes at the same time. Another example: cursing seems beyond comprehension on the surface. The positive intention of this behaviour could be to feel connection or to be heard.

Instead of condemning someone, you ask: ‘What does this person intend to achieve with this behaviour? What value(s) does this person thereby want to fulfill?

What can you use this insight for? NLP uses this to find a new way to apply the positive intention. This person could then come up with new choices that could fulfil the intention of being ‘social’, without having to smoke.

Some people do not want to get rid of the drama. They are then a little attached to it. Let this person realize that you can achieve similar benefits with alternative behaviors!

This is one of the most significant reframes. For example, we use this principle in the Six Step Reframe (N Step Reframe) technique to solve internal conflicts. In addition, we look at the intention by ‘chunking’ higher into the logical levels of Dilts & Bateson. We also incorporate the principle of the positive intention into our feedback that we give to other people. Lastly, this can be applied not only to internal conflicts, but also to external conflicts (mediation and negotiation). So working with intentions is something that a NLP practitioner does a lot.

You often have a feeling of unease… A lovely thing! What is the intention of this? You must have done your best! I want you to continue with that feeling of unease (this is a shocking sentence so far. So pause for a moment and calibrate for trance signals)… Until we have found other ways for your positive intention. It is your task (the task of the client) to test various (NLP) interventions in order to re-frame the positive intention.

3. There is no such thing as failure. Only feedback exists

Life teaches us by means of our mistakes. If you make a mistake, ask yourself what you have to learn from it. Accept these lessons humbly and gratefully. This way you grow a lot more.

Everything you want to do well is worth doing poorly first.

If something upsets you, be happy with it. What is the lesson I can learn from this, what do I want to get out of it? Embrace the inevitable process of growing and becoming wiser.

You have to break down in order to be able to build up.

It is therefore important to ‘fail’. Each result / deed is an experience to which you can refer, and so it gives you valuable information for the next time.

Every wound is a womb.
– Robert Bligh

When you do weight training, you make micro tears in your muscles: this is catabolic. Why are we doing that? So that we can become anabolic. Catabolic is the down-process, anabolic is the up-process.

But if we go further with this principle, we arrive at non-duality: the down-process = the up-process. Failure = success. This applies everywhere in life: yin-yang, day-night, autumn-spring. Even the Hero’s Journey is a good example of this. Life is not a linear process.

You’re in a cocoon and you’re busting yourself out. If you don’t have an uncomfortable time, you won’t learn anything new at all. Break down, and then build up.

If someone is outperforming you in a particular skill , he probably has failed more often than you have. If someone is not as good as you, he probably didn’t have to go through the painful learning experiences as much as you did.

We could learn this principle from children: not to be ashamed of making mistakes. To get up and try again. Most adults are so scared, careful and safe, which causes them to contract and therefore fail. Most adults are committed to that, sadly…

You have failed successfully!

Make as many mistakes as possible, as early as possible in your life, and enjoy them! If you don’t make mistakes, the challenges you’re working on aren’t challenging enough. And that is a big mistake. It is important that action is taken and that you act and learn.

What’s more, go and try to ruin it! And then you notice that you won’t even succeed (to spoil it), but then at least you’ll have done the deed. Be disappointed if you haven’t failed in a certain week. Congratulate yourself if you have failed.

Go for the mistake! You only do it right when you do it wrong!

When you do it and you do it badly, you actually are doing it fantastically, because you can improve. If you don’t do anything, there is nothing to improve.

There is no success or failure.
Only learning exists.

Just don’t make the same mistake twice. Luckily that won’t happen either: your subconscious is a fantastic learner!

This principle, ‘Failure does not exist, only feedback exists,’ also has to do with the next principle (The meaning of your communication is the evoked response). If you don’t achieve what you want, you need to change something in your approach.

4. The meaning of the message is the response that follows

In other words, the meaning of your communication is the response you get. This means that you have to measure whether you have communicated well, by checking whether the message has got through to the other party correctly, and you are responsible for the correct transfer. If the other party misunderstood it, while you still explained it in such perfect terms according to yourself, then you still should not blame the other party. Instead, you should attribute the blame to the communication method you had chosen (and next time you test something different, see the following principle).

If your communication has not achieved what you would have liked it to achieve, then you yourself need to change something about your communication.

5. If what you do doesn’t work, test something different

This is the TOTE (Test Operate Test Exit) philosophy. You test every time (for example by inquiring whether something has worked), and if it has not produced the desired result, you test something else. This presupposes an attitude of curiosity, flexibility and willingness to experiment!

If you always do what you have always done, you will always get the results you always had.
– Tony Robbins

So test something new. And by the way, even test something new if it does work! Grinder had his best pupil take months to come up with the best way to explain the NLP communication model. When, after a lot of hard work, he finally came up with the most effective way, Grinder said: Now think of four other ways to explain the NLP communication model. Your successes become a burden that you carry on your shoulders. For example, Grinder never gives the same training twice. A new training design is constantly being devised.

This principle is used for instance in hypnosis: if you calibrate that the client reacts very well to certain hypnotic suggestions, and less so to other suggestions, then you use the suggestions that worked well more often!

6. The individual with the most flexibility wins: live with options!

People with great flexibility have the best chances of getting the result they want. This has to do with the previous assumption of NLP (If what you do doesn’t work, test something different). The people who get the most out of life are people who have options, and know that they always have options, for example about how to respond on a certain situation.

Always maintain the freedom of having options, such as having choice in how you feel. This is flexibility. Proactive people live with options. Pass this way of life on to your clients, pupils and children. For example, always give your child three options for everything. This is how the subconscious of your child learns: I have choice. When you have done your shopping, put three kinds of fruit on the table. If you are buying a pacifier for your baby, buy three and let the child know that they always have choices.

7. The map is not the territory & Perception is projection

There is a difference between the world itself and how we experience it. The way we make a model of the world is merely a reference to reality. It is not reality itself.

How we ‘represent’ (see) the world is merely our own interpretation. It is our image of reality, and we act and think accordingly. The words we use are not the same as the event or object they represent. The tragedy is that if everyone had adhered to this simple principle, there would have been no (religious) violence.

People were murdered for this in the past: putting the truth into words. If you believe that only your own model of the world is truthful, you apply it through the ego. You are the truth. Don’t look for it outside of you. Connect to it. Then all your actions and relationships will reflect unity with all the life you experience deep inside. That is love.

What you say is true. And the trick is: what he says is also true. It is not a single truth, but a multiple truth.

There is, however, an important distinction to be made: this principle becomes less fruitful when we are talking about concrete, directly observable sensory matters. For example, if you want to cross a road and see a car, then the car is indeed a product of your own neurological organisation and therefore different from reality, but it is still clever not to cross the road yet. This principle becomes more fruitful when we talk about more abstract perceptions of reality, such as: ‘The world is a bad place’ or: ‘All Greeks are lazy’.

What can you do with this insight? You can take this idea further: our model of the world has more influence on the actual world than you think. If you understand this, you are on the cause side (proactive) (instead of the effect side). Soon I will write an article about this: The world is your mirror. Perception is projection.

8. Respect the model (map / representation) of the world of an other person

Your view is your reality. That goes for everyone. Drop your prejudices and delve into the other person’s model of the world. Your model of the world is never the truth: it is always different from reality. You can read all about this in my soon to be written article about the NLP communication model.

I have the definitive model of the world. My own model is right, and you have to agree.

9. You cannot not communicate / manipulate

People can communicate on two levels: a conscious level and an unconscious level. Even if you don’t say anything, your body will tell you something. Now a new question arises: in which direction are you going to manipulate? For a better world or for a poorer world? The joke is that the latter option will sooner or later will prove to be bad for everyone.

“Don’t try to arrive too late this time.”
“That is a very skilful use of the milton model in the wrong direction.”

You cannot not manipulate. When you live, speak and breathe, you already manipulate automatically. The question is thus: how are you going to apply it? To give others and yourself more choices and options, or are you going to use it for your ego?

10. Everyone already has all the needed resources available to achieve the desired results (If someone else can do it, I can do it too!)

The subconscious is so intelligent! It has all the information within itself. For example, you had already shown particular skills in a different context, and you hadn’t thought of using them in a new context.

Modelling successful acts leads to excellence.

This presupposition is in direct contradiction with the ‘Dutch’ (I am Dutch) statement: ‘You either have it or you do not have it’. If you adhere to this statement, it will lead you to submit to your current situation. Adopting the NLP assumption leads to a healthy attitude of experimentation and interest in another person’s behaviour and abilities.

NLP is an attitude based on curiosity.
– Richard Bandler

This principle also says that being able to do so is a matter of structure. If you know the structure, you could take over an ability. Every human ability is transferable, as we are all human beings and therefore have roughly the same hardware. With the necessary willingness, effort and dedication, you can structure your own subjective experience in the same way as the model you want to match.

11. There are no incapable people, only incapable states (states of mind / moods)

With the right state (and the right action) you can get ahead. Additionally, a person’s behaviour is not who the person is. Accept the person, not necessarily the behavior.

12. Resistance on the part of the person you’re dealing with is a sign of a lack of rapport and flexibility

‘Resistance’ is a sign of a lack of rapport.

With rapport everything is possible, without rapport nothing is possible.

There are no clients with resistance, there are only inflexible communicators. Effective communicators accept and use all the communication they are presented with. This is called utilization, which is perfect when dealing with ‘resistance’.

In addition, the next principle about context and ecology says a lot about resistance….

13. Behaviour and change should be evaluated in their context and ecology

If we want to change behaviour, we always check the ecology. Resistance from a client is a sign of a lack of ecology. Does what you do or have done fit in with the norms and values of the person being coached? Is that what he or she wants? The first and most powerful step to change (read: new options) is to actually want it. Ecology also means: is this okay for other areas and other people in my life?

By complementing this with the feedback model (article coming soon), we can ensure that we do not confuse a person’s behaviour with a person’s skills or identity.

People are not their behavior: accept the person, work on the behavior.

14. The body is the mind

This can have the following meaning: when you have a fit body, you automatically have a fit mind and vice versa. This principle can also mean that the body provides the answers directly. For example, the body can indicate someone’s timeline, by leaning, turning or gesturing (with a certain hand), in a certain direction. So calibrate on the behaviour/body. This will provide the most valuable information.

When you are talking to someone, know that the words are only a small part of the communication. More important is the feeling: read between the lines, focus on unconscious signals in a person’s voice and body language. This is also very closely related to the next principle: work with structure, not content.

15. Work with structure, not content

The content is as it is. You can’t change anything about what happened to it. However, you can have an influence on how you deal with it: the structure of your experience. NLP is being conducted at that level.

Content is:

  • What is being said.
  • What has happened.
  • What is seen, heard or felt (in a representation).

Structure/process is:

  • How it is said.
  • How it is experienced.
  • The submodalities of a representation

16. The past is not equal to the future

This presupposition is the last one mentioned here, but it is at least as important as all other presuppositions: the past is not the same as the future.

We are always new.

Something that had a certain usefulness in the past is frequently no longer useful at all in new contexts. Yet it happens sometimes that people ‘generalise’ past behaviour or beliefs into the future. That is completely unnecessary. In every new situation you have the option to do something different from what you have done in the past. Consider your client as already healed.

Nobody is broken.

Die to the old…. Which once served a useful purpose. New things can grow…

Everything changes all the time. You are free. You can do whatever you want.

Exercise: Looking at an issue or at a limiting thought from the perspective of the NLP assumptions

Place the NLP assumptions as cards on the floor, and stand on each card while you have your issue in mind. This way you always view your issue from the perspective of one of the NLP principles. Note and share all the new perspectives (reframes) that result from this. If you don’t have much time, you can just use your 3 favorite presuppositions.

Exercise: discussion about the NLP Presuppositions

Have a discussion about a certain principle of NLP. Two people are defending the principle and two people are challenging it. Pay attention to (the lack of) specific information: ask for examples and ask deeper. Do this at least once with someone who is not doing an NLP course.

Exercise: discussion in the wild

Have a discussion with someone who has not yet done anything with NLP. Have a discussion about one of the assumptions of NLP.

Exercise: what is your positive intention?

Choose a behavior of yourself that you are not satisfied with. Check for yourself what the positive intention of that behavior could be.

Exercise: what is the other person’s positive intention?

  • Consider a behavior of another person that you are having a hard time with.
  • Determine what the positive intention of the other could be.
  • Determine how you could respond to that positive intention, so that you can improve communication with this person.
  • Decide whether or not you want to execute the idea that you have come op with.

Exercise: coaching someone towards his / her positive intention

Have a conversation with someone (who doesn’t do NLP). You discuss the behaviour of the other person that he / she is not satisfied with and which he wants to change but he has not yet been successful. Identify with him what the positive intention of that behavior could be. It is important that the other person finds the answer: you have a coaching role.

What is your vision about these principles of NLP? Or pick one and write about it in the reactions.

About The Author


Hello! Thanks for reading my articles. Happiness is my big subject. My intention is to make happiness as simple and clear as posssible. By the way, excuse my English. I am not a native English speaker since I live in Amsterdam. Much appreciated if you use the comments to make suggestions on my grammar. See ya in another blogpost!


  1. Siraj Dowla

    Very Informative – Thank you Rubin

    • Dr. Murldhar Krishnarao Adettiwar

      Dear Rubin,
      I am from India. While studying and reading your blog, I experienced much reality in the
      scope of improvement if we adhered to the NLPs. there is lot of scope for thinking positive and doing positive.
      everyone of us is a product of presupposed thoughts and experience, your blog can clear all doubts and enhance presupposition in positive way and help to change the life which is the way to peace and perfection.

      I appreciate the thought of universal wellbeing. and wish all the best for future blogs.

      Dr, Murlidhar Adettiwar,
      PhD. PGA, LLB, MBA. MD.

      • Rubin

        Thank you for your kind message.

  2. Angelica Chandrasekeran

    Good job! You’re English is faultless. !
    I like that you want to make happiness simple. I just got into NLP for the second time in 16 yrs and I find it somewhat like eastern psychology. I read western psychology for my first degree, but after after living the eastern psychological principles, I too am on a mission to make the knowledge and techniques available to people.
    Unfortunately I am not moved to write as well as you do. For now I’ll just teach to who ever wants to learn.
    But it is a gift to be able to explain in written word.

    • Alex Domingo

      Really… that’s what you focus on after reading all of this?..your English is flawless? ..shame yours isn’t

  3. Hugh MacCamley

    “How we ‘represent’ (see) the world is merely our own interpretation. It is our image of reality, and we act and think accordingly. The words we use are not the same as the event or object they represent. The tragedy is that if everyone had adhered to this simple principle, there would have been no (religious) violence.” has arrived on Earth.

    That is a rather narrow naive view of how violence has originated on Earth.

    We have violence because frequently there are people we know to be megalomaniacs and sociopaths who want to impose their dysfunctional wills on us for no purpose other than their own personal satisfaction. Not everyone has good intentions or is inherently good. There are people who are seriously psychologically damaged and disorientated.
    Moreover, violence has been imposed on us by non-religious groups in abundance. The Huns and the Mongols from the East inflicted immense slaughter across Asia and Europe in their own times. Were these all inherently well-intentioned; just looking to get it right with the best wisdom of the day available to them. This is patently absurd to suggest so. In the twentieth century we had the godless atheistic régimes of the USSR, Communist China, National Socialist Germany and Socialist fascist Italy inflicting their left wing brand of bigotry on various parts of the world. In fact, China still persists. These Marxist countries have slaughtered more inhabitants of the Earth in a century than all the others put together over the rest of history.
    Man is not inherently good and well-intentioned – he is frequently a variable factor and is capable of the utmost gratuitous barbarism for self-gain, self-promotion and self-preservation. The History of man is not on the side of your unsubstantiated assumptions. In fact, as a global idea NLP is quite dangerous and reckless to believe this, just as it is to think violence only came from religious ides. This is just not true. Fortunately , we work with clients as individuals which is where our hope lies with humanity and that there are enough people who prefer to live according to good moral values and ethical behaviours that the self-evident destructive side of human nature has not been allowed to overcome them.

  4. Kaneng Rwang-Pam

    I have studied and currently practice NLP and one of the best parts I incorporate in my personal and professional lives as a trainer and management consultant are the presuppositions. And you have really simplified them in a refreshing way.

    Thank you!

  5. Farhat fatima

    Hello Ruben,

    I have been writing an article on communication, while researching I found this and believe me it helped to understand better.
    Everything in this article is just so apt and written with in depth information.
    Thank you so much for making this so simple to understand with real examples. I am taking two learnings from here, “I have got the information I was looking for” and “It kind of refreshed my NLP sessions” four years ago which I must continue to study and learn.
    I am so grateful to you once again.
    More Power to you

    Love from India
    HopeGrowthSerenity 🍀


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Who is Happy Rubin?

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Dear reader, thank you so much for dropping by on this curious happiness blog. I want to inspire you to get the best out of your life. Being happy and following your heart are my subjects.

Have fun with reading!