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NLP Presupposition Review: Behind Every Behavior is a Positive Intention


There is a much-used concept in Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP: Behind every behaviour is a positive intention.

At first glance this might sound a little naïve, to assume that everybody is motivated by good intentions.  You might consider all the bad things that happen in the world and wonder how this concept can possibly be valid when people are committing crimes and intentionally hurting one another.

So I’d like to begin by framing that term, positive intention.  In this setting, we are considering positive intention at a very basic, human level.  When a person does something society considers ‘bad’ – which could be anything from smoking a cigarette to criminal activity – it is not about the greater good of mankind as a whole.  This is about the positive intention of the self, or self-protection to put it another way.

For example, imagine somebody pushing friends and lovers away. What could be the positive intent of such complications in relationships? In this case, the positive intent may be to protect themselves from future loss and hurt by not allowing anybody close to begin with.

How is positive intention used in coaching?

A coaching mindset that views behaviors in this way allows us to see a layer deeper into the possible reasons for the behavior.  This, in turn, affects the way a problem could be approached in a coaching relationship.

You may have seen with your own clients, or with friends and family, how one addiction is often substituted for another.  This is a classic example of a positive intention playing out in somebody’s life.

In many cases an addiction can be traced back to the positive intention to numb uncomfortable feelings.  Addiction to a stimulant can also come with the positive intention to wake up, be productive and succeed at work.  These are all perfectly reasonable desires at their root.

It is not uncommon to see people cutting one bad habit or addiction out of their life in favour of another.  For example, replacing cigarettes with overeating.  Whilst it is admirable that they have stopped smoking, they now have another problem instead of addressing the underlying issue.

Coaching Beneath the Surface

In a coaching relationship, the more helpful approach is to uncover the root cause; what is driving that positive intention to numb a pain, fill a void, or work to the point of exhaustion.

As with so many of the unconscious drivers in our lives, we can typically find a trigger in childhood.  Uncovering this with the client gives the opportunity to reframe what was driving the behaviour and instead to create a new strategy.

For example, if your client has been emotionally eating to fill a void, rather than simply encouraging them to stop overeating, which typically leads to either failure or the need for a replacement addiction, they can instead learn to work through those uncomfortable feelings which they had been numbing.

The ‘positive intention’ in this scenario had been to keep functioning in the day to day, and not emotionally break down by numbing those uncomfortable feelings with food.  The better approach would be to work on those uncomfortable feelings and reframe those childhood triggers.

Can you think of an unhelpful lesson that you learned in your own childhood?

Almost all of us can recall a time that we spoke up and were subsequently made fun of, which in some may lead to the positive intention of hesitating before we speak, perhaps holding us back in our adult relationships or career.  Or perhaps a time that we were berated for being lazy, which in some could be a trigger for overworking and burning out.

Of course, understanding what is going on for our clients psychologically is only half the job.  The other half is to facilitate the client’s own understanding, which can initiate the change in their behavior.

As with any coaching session, giving the client the time and space to explore their own triggers is where the work begins.  It can be helpful to explain the concept of the positive intention behind every behavior – not to give them a ‘get out of jail free card’ for their behavior, but to help them see their situation through a new lens.

Being able to offer new lenses, new perspectives, and more effective approaches to behavioral change is all part of the reward for coaching your clients.