If you’ve attended any NLP training or read any other books, you’ve probably come across the idea of ‘calibration’.
In the early 2000s, I attended a short NLP course where the trainer had us work in pairs, standing a few metres apart whilst holding up one of two coins to see if we could tell which was which.
We would then move further apart to find out how far away we could stand and still tell which coin was being shown. We were all delighted to discover that we could tell the difference between a 1p and a 2p from across the other side of a hotel conference room.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used that skill in a coaching session, or when developing leaders in business.
Oh, wait, I can. None.
The trainer lists the following as useful things to notice from your client:
- Blink rate
- Breathing rate
- Heart rate
- Facial circulation patterns
- Pupil dilation
- Nostril dilation
- Eyebrow movement
- Lower lip swelling with blood
You might be thinking to yourself, “Wow, that seems like a lot of hard work. How can I pay attention to all of that and still listen to what the client is telling me, and think about where I’m going with my questions, and keep an eye on the clock, and, and, and…”
You would be right to have these concerns, because this is not calibration. Let’s look in the dictionary:
1. mark (a gauge or instrument) with a standard scale of readings
2. correlate the readings of (an instrument) with those of a standard in order to check the instrument's accuracy
3. adjust (experimental results) to take external factors into account or to allow comparison with other data
How do you know that your tape measure or ruler is measuring accurately? Of course, that’s a trick question. You know that it isn’t accurate. A better question would be, how do you know that your tape measure is accurate enough for your needs?
Tools such as tape measures are calibrated in the factory by comparing them to a reference, and that reference is in turn calibrated. You can follow a chain of measurements all the way back to the standard metre which sits in a secure storage facility in France. Each time a measurement is compared, an error is introduced. Is that measure significant? If you’re using your tape measure to measure your room for a new carpet, it could have an error margin of perhaps 2 or 3mm and make no difference to the fitting of the carpet. However, if a professional carpet fitter measures your room, he or she will round up their measurements. Are they trying to con you into buying more carpet than you need? No, they are making an allowance for the inaccuracies of their tape measure, your room and the carpet factory.
What defines a metre or a second or a litre? Only two things; a consistent way of measuring such things, and an agreement amongst the people using the measure.
To calibrate to your client, you need a fixed point of reference, which cannot be you, because you’re not the standard for the perfect human. Your client’s pulse is 93 bpm. So what? Is that normal?
You can only calibrate a person to themselves because there is no other reference for their ‘normal’. Do this by testing when their responses change in relation to their environment. When do they feel this way? When does it start? When does it stop? Are there any exceptions?
To calibrate as a Master Practitioner, you will ask referencing questions which enable you to establish how your client’s perceptions change from one situation to another.
Imagine that your client is talking about how they feel at work. If you think, “Oh dear, that sounds awful for them” then you are making a judgement, and a judgement is based on a comparison, and then you have to ask yourself what or who you are comparing them to. If you are imagining how you would feel in their shoes then you are making yourself the point of reference, and your judgement and therefore your response is based on the difference between what the client is telling you about their situation and how you would feel in their situation. In order to know how you would feel, you will recall a specific situation which you’ve been in which seems similar and compare to that.
In other words, you’re coaching or modelling yourself, not your client.
Calibrating to your client means that you’re asking them to give you points of reference that are in their map, not yours.
Imagine that we’re talking about a literal map. Your client says that it’s 5 miles from where they live to where they want to go. Is 5 miles a lot? Is that a long journey? Is it going to be a problem?
A simple calibration question in this instance is simply to ask them, “What does that mean to you?”, though that only gives you a judgement, not a point of reference. You would therefore follow up with, “What would you consider to be a short journey?”, and, “What would you consider to be a long journey?”
Now let’s imagine that your client is telling you how they feel about their work. We might ask them to describe a typical day, but also their best and worst days. We might ask about their days off, their weekends. It’s like a dot-to-dot puzzle that you probably enjoyed as a child. When you have enough points of reference, a picture emerges, and the most critical point to remember is that this picture is their picture, untainted by your experiences and expectations.
When you calibrate by asking your client to tell you about two contrasting experiences, you might hear that time is passing for an enjoyable experience, and time seems to stand still at work. Duh, of course. Isn’t that true for everyone? First, no. Second, it doesn’t matter what other people experience. We’re interested in what this client experiences, why, and how their memory of a day at work differs from the reality of a day at work. They describe a still image, but they must have experienced a moving image. They describe time standing still, but time must have passed. Why are they distorting their experience? How does this serve them?
We know that the client’s memory will be distorted compared to their real time experience of work. How do we know this?
Firstly, because the foundational premise of NLP is that all experience is distorted in some way – that’s what makes it subjective.
Secondly, we must continually ask ourselves the question, “Why are they telling me this?” Why tell you about this day? Why not another day? What makes this day so special? This day is being marked out simply because they are telling you about it. They did not pick a day at random.
When we calibrate, we are working only within the client’s map of reality and we are orienting ourselves to that rather than using ourselves as a point of reference. Your reality is irrelevant, unless it’s you you’re trying to model or change.
I’m not going to list calibration questions for you to repeat like a parrot, because the principle is what’s important. If you watch any of the coaching demonstration videos on my YouTube channel at genius.li/youtube then you will see examples, at the start of each conversation and then again when anything changes. Each time the map changes, you’ll see me reorient to it. Some coaches might call this ‘checking in’ but in the spirit of modelling, what exactly does it mean to ‘check in’? Having recognised a change in the client’s map, evidenced by a change in their perceptions and responses, you go back to the beginning and identify points of reference in their map.
One of the most common questions that I head from NLP trainers and coaches is “How will you know when”. For example, a client might say, “I want to be more confident”, and the coach asks, “How will you know when you’re more confident?”
Let’s break down what’s happening here. When the client says “want” they are referring to what they perceive is currently missing, and they can only know what is missing through a comparison – either they had it in the past, or they have seen someone else with it. When that’s a shiny new car, the comparison is obvious. When it’s an intangible quality such as confidence, that is of course a judgement based on a comparison. I can see that person doing what I stop myself from doing, they must have confidence, and I must be lacking confidence. This is also very likely to be a phrase that they have heard from someone else. Imagine the effect when a parent says to their child, “You’re just not confident enough”. This gives the child, and then the adult, an explanation for why they don’t do the things that other people do.
When the coach then responds with the magic “How will you know?” question, they are creating a sales pitch. The question is designed to have the client imagine a goal, to visualise a time in the future when they have confidence. This gives the coach a ‘product’ to sell to the client, but it’s counter productive. When the coach asks the client to imagine a time in the future when they have confidence, the coach is saying, “Confidence is a thing which can be possessed and you do not have it”.
Wow. The coach, through that innocent question, actually reinforced the current state.
The word “have” is interesting too. It pretends to be a verb but it isn’t a verb. As you will discover in the next part of the book, it is not a verb but a statement of possession. You have confidence. Great. How did you get it? Where did it come from? What steps would you take to get some more of it? Where can someone else get it from?
Until we answer those questions, there is no solution.
By the way, confidence means “with trust” (con fide, Latin). It’s not something that you can have or possess. It’s something that someone else shows in you. If you want confidence, act in a way that gets other people to trust you.
When you ask a calibration question, your client will recover a memory, and that memory will set off a chain reaction of events. They will respond, physically. They will replay conversations. They will see something in their mind’s eye. They will respond emotionally. All of this is visible to you, because these sensory events are designed to produce motor output, which means that you will observe the effect of that motor output in the client’s body. You don’t have to study their eyebrows or ‘facial circulation patterns’. No, I don’t know what that is either.
If the state change isn’t ludicrously, blindingly obvious, you’re asking the wrong question. When we calibrate, we look for clear, unambiguous state changes. If you’re studying your client’s neck closely enough to see their pulse, you’re missing everything else that they’re doing, and when you make your calibration questions clear and purposeful, they will scream the answer with every muscle in their body.
I’m probably making it sound like calibration questions are some kind of amazing linguistic trickery. That’s really not the case. If the client is talking about problems in their main relationship, I might ask, “Tell me about a typical event that you’re not happy with”. Then I might ask, “Tell me about an event that you were happy with”, or, “Tell me about a different relationship that you’ve been in”. What you’re always doing is creating contrast.
Modelling a high performer is no different. “Tell me about a presentation you’ve given that went really well”, “Tell me about a presentation that went not so well”, “Tell me about the best presenter you’ve ever seen”.
Make the difference so great that the change in responses is obvious and calibration will always be easy.