An NLP student in Iran contacted me recently with the following question, that I am sure has occurred to many other people when they are learning the Swish Pattern:
“To do the Swish Pattern, first we must picture a trigger. However, some triggers are abstract, that is, they don’t have a particular image to be pictured in mind. For example, the trigger that pushes you to smoke is stress, or the trigger that makes you break eye-contact is a lack of self-confidence (these are emotions). In these cases, how can we get a picture of stress or a lack of self-confidence in mind for this technique?“
I think this reflects some confusion over what constitutes a ‘trigger’ for a particular behaviour. Here’s how I addressed it in my answer:
The examples you give, ‘stress’ and ‘lack of self-confidence’, are
abstract and not visual, as you correctly say. In fact ‘stress’ is
probably a state (as in “I smoke when I’m stressed”, whereas ‘lack of
self-confidence’ is probably an abstraction – a judgement about
someone that an observer (or the person himself) has come to based on
how they feel, their behaviour etc.
I don’t think these are triggers. They are more like underlying conditions.
An event can have more than one cause – perhaps an underlying
condition or mood that’s there all the time, plus a ‘trigger’ event.
So the underlying state wouldn’t be enough on its own to trigger the
behaviour (or else the person would be smoking non-stop) – the
‘trigger’ needs to happen as well.
Similarly, in this case, the trigger event wouldn’t be enough to start
off the sequence of behaviour that involves taking out a cigarette and
lighting it – although of course the more times they do this, the
stronger the association between the trigger and the cigarette
becomes, until it’s a habit that may not need the underlying condition
to be there.
For example, when someone is stressed, they may want a cigarette with
their cup of coffee. Eventually, the stress goes away – but they still
go on smoking each time they have a coffee because it’s now become a
habit. They may decide to stop smoking – but next time they are
stressed, it will be harder for them to resist having a cigarette with
So we have a distinction between an underlying mood or condition, and
a short term ‘trigger’ event. The Swish is a good intervention for defusing a ‘trigger’ for an unwanted behavioural response, rather than for dealing with the underlying condition.
So what if the ‘trigger’ itself is a feeling – maybe a sudden spike in stress
levels, or levels of self-confidence plunging even lower than usual?
The word ‘feeling’ of course is ambiguous – there’s a difference
between feeling the texture of a carpet with our fingers, or a breeze
with our skin, and an emotional feelng.
Steve Andreas draws a very useful distinction between:
“1. Perceptual kinesthetics that register heat, cold, pressure,
movement, position, etc. These are perceptions OF events.
2. Meta-kinesthetics that evaluate what is perceived. These are
perceptions ABOUT events.” (These are emotional feelings)
Short-term emotional feelings like this are a response to something
else that the person has seen or heard or physically felt, or perhaps
some internal dialogue or a memory surfacing.
The client may not be conscious of this, so it’s worth investigating when and in what circumstances does it happen. You can also ask them to recall a
specific example and ask “What happens just before that?” – standard
elicitation of a problem strategy to discover the process that led to
that ‘meta-kinesthetic’ emotional feeling.
Whether the trigger is visual, auditory, or perceptual kinesthetic,
the client will be associated – seeing the trigger through their own
eyes, or hearing it through their own ears, or feeling it through
their own fingertips or skin. In fact you can’t really experience a
dissociated perceptual kinesthetic.
A question also came up about how to experience the ‘desired self-image’ (the second part of the Swish pattern, and the one you want to move the client’s ‘triggered’ response to) in sensory modalities other than visual.
More generally, the question is about how to experience a dissociated image (e.g. for a goal) in other sensory modalities. We can all imagine seeing a dissociated image; it may not be so obvious how to hear it, and particularly how to touch it.
Again, Steve Andreas to the rescue! In the same article he describes how
you can experience the desired self-image in all three senses:
“In the visual system, the self-image is a dissociated image of myself, showing in my posture and expression the confident ability to cope with a wide range of difficulties easily.
In the auditory system it is hearing my own voice coming from in front of me, over there, with my competence evident in the tempo, tonality, resonance, expression, choice of words, etc.
In the kinesthetic system the dissociated representation of my body is created by reaching out with my hands and touching my evolved self in front of me. I feel with my fingers the warmth, solidity, posture, movement, muscle tone, etc. that represents my competence and ease in dealing with the kinds of situations that the cues introduce.”
Steve wrote extensively about the Swish, going into forensic detail about the many ways it’s been misunderstood, so I highly recommend tracking down all of his blog articles on the subject (the blog itself doesn’t make it easy as it lacks a search facility, but I’ve googled it for you) if you have a basic understanding of the Swish and you want to refine it further.
At more of an entry-level, I’ve written a couple of articles myself:
NLP Techniques: The Swish Pattern
NLP Techniques: Key Factors That Make The Swish Pattern Work
And if you want the same material in a form you can listen to (along with a lot of other material about submodalities), you can get the relevant back episodes and transcripts of the Practical NLP Podcast for around the price of a big Starbucks latte here.