Detecting and Utilising Incongruence

When I was going through the ANLP’s process to become an accredited NLP Trainer about 15 years ago, the ‘Spotting and utilising incongruity’ entry in their minimum requirements for NLP Practitioner course content mystified me a bit, because it hadn’t been identified in that way in my training.

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But when I started to look into the subject, it turns out there is a lot of useful material there that can help in leadership, persuasion, and success. This is what I found.

The Idea of Parts in NLP

‘Parts’ in NLP is the idea that sometimes we have parts of ourselves that seem to see the world differently from our conscious mind or other parts of ourselves. This is a familiar idea even if you’ve never heard of NLP; you know what someone means if they say “Part of me wants to but it would be wrong”, or “Part of me wants to stay but part of me wants to go”, or “I’m in two minds about it.”

The idea of ‘parts’ is just a metaphor, of course, but sometimes it’s a useful one. Especially when the ‘part’ seems to have different motivations to the person’s conscious mind, or makes a person behave in a way that they don’t like on the occasions when it manages to take over the controls.

Taken to an extreme, this would be what’s known as ‘multiple personality disorder’. I should point out that the original version of the six step reframe process, as documented in book Reframing for example, often referred to the part responsible for the problem behaviour. Nowadays we usually aim to communicate with the unconscious mind as a whole, because identifying and communicating with a part would tend to reinforce a separate identity. Integration is better than fragmentation.


Most of the time, we don’t encounter anything as drastic as ‘multiple personality disorder’. We’ve probably all experienced being in two minds about something though, where we want choose one alternative but on the other hand we don’t want to miss out on the benefits of the other alternative; or we don’t like one option but the other option isn’t attractive either, but we still need to make a decision.

In NLP, this is known as ‘incongruence’. The behaviour of a person who is incongruent doesn’t line up; some of it is inconsistent with the rest. Other people can spot this, often more easily than the person can. Maybe their voice tone doesn’t fit the words they are saying; maybe their body language doesn’t reflect congruence, perhaps being asymmetrical, or frequently gesturing or looking as if at two alternatives, to the left and right of them. Maybe their behaviour doesn’t fit what they are saying, or is inconsistent with what they claim to believe.

Sometimes you get serial incongruence, where the person behaves one way for a while, and then switches over to a completely inconsistent behaviour pattern. I had a client once who for about six months of the year was a real straight-edge health fanatic – not drinking, not smoking, eating healthily, exercise, yoga – and then for another six months or so flipped over into debauched party animal: booze, cigs, drugs, junk food, no exercise. And then something would happen and he’d be back on the fitness track again. That’s what serial incongruence looks like.

Incongruence and Leadership

Let’s consider the relationship between incongruence and leadership. Incongruence is the opposite of integrity. Integrity is generally agreed to be a vital quality in a leader. It’s usually defined in terms of honesty and adhering strongly to an ethical code.

However, when applied to non-human areas such as a body of data, or an ecosystem, something that has ‘integrity’ is ‘intact’, ‘whole’, or ‘not tampered with’. This was in fact the original meaning of the word (from the Latin meaning ‘untouched’).

Integrity therefore came to mean ‘ethically sound’ by metaphorical extension. As so often with metaphors applied to human subjective experience, we can discover something useful when we take the metaphor literally.

Consider a person who is grappling with an inner conflict. It may be that two of their most important values are in conflict, or that they cannot choose between alternatives that seem to be equally tempting (or equally scary). Because memory, learning and behaviour are influenced by emotional states, it could even be that what they believe and how they act change significantly depending on how they are feeling.

Can a person who has significant unresolved internal conflicts be a good leader? It’s doubtful. Such a person would find it hard to make decisions and stick to them, because whichever alternative they choose would leave part of themselves unsatisfied. In addition, when you feel ambivalent about your own decisions, it is hard to defend them against criticism.

So unresolved incongruence doesn’t make for good leadership. It leads to indecision, inconsistency, and an inability to stick to your guns – none of which are desirable characteristics in a leader. In order to build the sound internal foundation (also known as “character”) which is necessary for leadership, you need to resolve any significant internal conflicts. There’s a process for that, called ‘parts integration’, described in outline in this article.

Being congruent also means that you will be perceived as “walking your talk” – the key element in leading by example.

Identifying Incongruence

So how can you identify incongruence in yourself and others, and how can you use it?

Incongruence isn’t bad, by the way. It’s just a state that’s telling you that something is not right, and that you need something more – perhaps more information, perhaps to resolve a conflict within yourself – before you want to commit to a particular course of action.

It’s worth knowing when you are incongruent, because other people can probably tell too. Also, decisions taken in a state of incongruence often have to be changed later.

I’m pretty sure you know when you are incongruent, and when you are congruent. To discover your inner signal for incongruence, put yourself back to a time when you were told to do something at work that you weren’t happy about, but you did it anyway; or before that, if a relative gave you a present that you didn’t want but you felt you had to thank them politely for it anyway. Or if you’ve been in a relationship that you wanted to end – remember how it felt before you made the decision to end it? Notice that signal – it might be a feeling, or a word or tune that comes into your mind, or it might be an image. If you had internal dialogue in that situation, it probably included something like “yes, but…” or “no, but…”, and probably had a certain tone.

Notice whatever your incongruence signals are, and remember them so you can recognise them any time you get them in the future.

We’ve already mentioned how you can recognise incongruence in other people – a disparity between what they say and what they do, between their words and their voice tone, maybe a facial expression that seems to show lack of enthusiasm, or an unbalanced, asymmetrical posture.

Look out for signs of congruence or incongruence in the people you work with. If they are incongruent about a decision that’s been taken, or about a project you give them to do, is that something about them, or have they noticed some problem with it that you have missed? It may be worth finding out.

Where an employee, or a coaching client, or even a family member, is saying one thing and doing another, it’s best to treat both sides of the incongruence as valid, and mention them both in the same sentence, rather similar to the Agreement Frame: “You say that you want the launch to be successful, and at the same time you’ve not started any of the tasks that need to be be completed for the launch to happen. What’s going on?”

And of course you can put whatever softeners are appropriate around that. Just leave a space for them to answer, and be comfortable with the silence until they do.

Utilising Incongruence as a Pattern Interrupt

One more thing – intentional incongruence. “What?” you may be thinking – why would you ever be incongruent on purpose? The American NLP trainer Jonathan Altfeld points out that people form an impression of you very quickly, and everything you do subsequently is filtered through this impression. So when you appear incongruent in unexpected ways, it bypasses their filters and puts them into a state of mild confusion which can be very useful if you want to change their minds. That’s mild confusion – deep confusion is not useful, as it will usually result in them wanting to get you out of their office. Mild confusion is a useful state to evoke in others when they are leaning towards an unfavourable decision, because it reopens the possibility of them changing their minds.

So if someone in a business meeting has expressed a decision that you don’t want, Jonathan suggests asking, “Are you sure?” – but in a statement tonality rather than a question tonality, and at the same time gently and slowly shaking your head. Then following it up with something like, “Or might there be other possibilities you haven’t considered yet?” in a question tonality while gently nodding your head. Why not try this out in a non-critical situation and see what happens?

© 2022, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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