How to loosen up a problem in the process of identifying it – Richard Bandler’s “Magic In Action”

Magic In Action NLP co-founder Richard Bandler used the process of problem elicitation as a way of loosening up the client’s strategy for having the problem – see the transcripts of client sessions in his book ‘Magic In Action‘, which I would say is essential reading for any therapist.

“I constantly joke with clients about their problems in order to cure them of seriousness, which is what locks the model down. You get serious, you get stuck. Humor is the fastest way to reverse this process. As soon as you can laugh about something, you can change it.” – Richard Bandler

The object is to loosen up the client’s model of the world, not to ‘cure’ the problem – although the client may let go of the problem during the process.

This is my take on what he’s doing in the transcripts – I think of it as the “Teach Me How To Do It” process for want of a better name. In a nutshell, he’s finding out (or ‘eliciting’ in NLP-speak) each step of their ‘strategy’ for having the problem (the mostly automatic series of steps they go through in their head in order to make the problem happen) and scrambling the strategy to give the client an exit route at each step – at the same time!

NLP buffs will appreciate the little bits of jargon that I’ve used, everyone else can safely ignore them (or look them up).

  1. Let the client describe the problem, at the same time establishing rapport and introducing humour. Use meta-model questions as needed to get when and where they run the problem.Their description will give you indications of their belief systems around the problem (modal operators, cause and effect patterns, complex equivalences). Note: Rapport and pacing is key to this process. If you get too funny too fast, the client  will think you are not taking them seriously.
  2. Ask “If I had to fill in for you for a day, so one of the parts of my job would be to have the problem, what do I have to do? You’re the expert – teach me how to do it… What’s the first thing I have to do?”Note: This has two useful effects:a) the client was expecting you, the ‘expert’, to tell them what to do (and perhaps sit in judgement on their failings) – now they are cast in the empowering role of the expert, and you are merely the pupilb) it gives the client some distance from the problem – now it’s happening to you, not them.
  3. Elicit each step of the strategy, but ‘play dumb’. Mess up the submodalities of each step, like this:Client: “You’ve got to tell yourself  ‘Oh my God, he’s had an accident on the way over'”You: “OK… No, I must be doing it wrong, I’m still not feeling anxious. Will it still work if I’m talking to myself in a quiet, calm voice?”Client: “No! You’ve got to say that to yourself in a loud, panicky voice!”You: “OK – so if I want to have this problem correctly, I have to avoid at all costs using a quiet, calm inner voice…”

    When you play around with the submodalities, you are giving the client alternative ways out of the strategy at each step. 

    When you ask “Will it still work if I…?” the client has to try out the new version on themselves in order to answer the question.

    If you were just to say “Try saying it to yourself in a quiet, calm voice” they might reject the suggestion without trying it first.

  4. Keep eliciting until you have the whole of the strategy (i.e. you can reproduce the problem in yourself, as long as you use the client’s submodalities for each step). Check if the client can still do the problem, and what has changed.If you can make the client laugh, you know you are getting somewhere.

By the end of this process you have the client’s strategy for having the problem, and their ‘map’ of the problem has loosened up somewhat, maybe completely. At the very least this will make any later interventions easier.

Notice how the process elicits the problem strategy and scrambles it at the same time. It illustrates the thin line between elicitation and installation.

This process would fit into any therapy or coaching session that focuses on problem-solving (as opposed to solution-focused or Appreciative Inquiry approaches, which are going to be focusing on what’s working well). With a bit of imagination you could probably use it in other areas such as management consulting.

Why not leave a comment below and let us know how you got on with using this approach?

© 2011 – 2019, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Peter

    Terrific explanation of how the solution is in the description of the challenge.

  2. ali bramall

    A great process. 'If you think that sometime in the future you'll be able to look back on this and laugh about it…… why wait!'

  3. Structure vs Content in NLP

    […] is scrambling their strategy for having the problem even as they are teaching it to him – see this article for my take on what he’s […]

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