What does it mean to focus on ‘structure’ rather than ‘content’ in NLP?

This article was prompted by the above question from one of my readers, a trainer based in Iran.

In NLP we are told that the best way to solve a problem, whether it’s a problem that someone would bring to therapy, or the kind of problem that occurs in a work team, is to focus on the structure of the problem, rather than its content.

In practice this means that we focus on how the person or team is creating and maintaining the problem, in contrast to the more traditional and perhaps more intuitive approaches of asking ‘why’ they problem arose, or focusing on the ‘content’ of what the problem is about.

My personal view, not necessarily the ‘official NLP view’ (if there is still such a thing), is that this focus on structure rather than content is the biggest contribution that Richard Bandler and John Grinder made to human development. It’s what really distinguishes NLP from other approaches, certainly in the therapy domain and probably in others too.

If we focus on the application of NLP to personal development, which I’m guessing is most likely what you’re interested in, we can express this focus on on structure rather than content as “How you think about something is more important than what you’re thinking about”.

So, for example, if I was aiming to help someone with a fear of speaking in public, I would spend as little time as possible finding out about the ‘reality’ of the situations where the problem occurs, and instead focus on finding out what they do when they are in that situation or when they imagine themselves in that situation (of course, it might be useful to spend some time letting them talk about the ‘content’ of the situation, if they really wanted to, in order to maintain rapport with my client).

I would want to find out the cue or ‘trigger’ that starts the problem off, which could be external (maybe a sound, a name, something they see, the act of standing up to speak) or internal (a remembered sound, name, image, etc) and then what happens next in their mental processing – an imagined or remembered image, sound, or feeling, or some internal dialogue. And then what happens? And then what happens?

So we are interested in the sequence of mental representations that their mind goes through to reach the end result of having the problem response or behaviour. But we’re primarily interested in what kind of step each one is – whether it is an image, some internal dialogue, or whatever – rather than what it is an image of or the details of what they are saying to themselves.

Within each step in their ‘strategy’ for having the problem – each ‘internal representation’ as it is known in NLP – we are interested in the qualities of that internal representation. Why? Because it is the qualities of the internal representation, more than what it is a representation of, that tell our brains how much significance to give it.

So with images we pay more attention to big things than small things, things that are moving more than things that are still, and things that are close up more than things that are far away. With sounds, we pay more attention to loud sounds than quiet ones, and variable sounds than constant ones. These qualities of our internal representations, known as ‘submodalities’ in NLP, are like codes that tell our brains how much significance to give to what we see, hear and feel. You can see the evolutionary advantages of this prioritisation of attention based on submodalities – we should notice the lion that is close up and charging at us more than the still, sleeping lion that we can see in the far distance.

So, when we have elicited a client’s ‘strategy’ that results in a problem – the sequence of internal representations, each with their own sub modalities, that they go through, possibly looping round the same sequence a number of times, we effectively have their ‘recipe’ for having the problem. And just like a recipe, if we change an ingredient, we may get a different – and less problematic – result.

You could try to change the ‘recipe’ by substituting a different ingredient altogether – for example, if a client makes themselves anxious any time a loved one is a couple of minutes late to meet them by seeing a big, bright, moving image of a car crash, you could try to get them to see a calming image of ripples on a pool instead. But it probably wouldn’t work, because try as the client might to substitute the calming image, part of their mind would be going “But… CAR CRASH!!!” and bringing the scary image up again.

If, however, you change the qualities of the car crash image – maybe making it smaller, and still, and greyed out rather than colourful – you bypass the mind’s defences because you’re not asking them to change what they are thinking about. But the smaller, greyer, still image of the car crash will be less impactful than the big technicolor one – in most cases at least (you can’t say for sure because everyone’s subjective experience is different, so the only way to know for sure is to test it). You are not changing the content that the client uses to have the problem, but you are changing the structure of their internal representations. It’s a much easier way to get a result, the result in this case being a change in the outcome so it doesn’t result in a problem any more.

Richard Bandler’s book ‘Magic In Action’ includes a number of transcripts of client work where he rapidly resolves a range of client problems using essentially this method. He has a particularly subtle and clever way of doing it, where he has the client teach him how to have the problem, and by using humour and asking ‘dumb’ questions he 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 doing.

So that is why we focus on structure rather than content in NLP – it’s a much more elegant and effective way to work. See Magic In Action and Frogs Into Princes, or better still attend a reputable NLP training, to get a more in-depth understanding.

© 2014 – 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Alireza Naderi

    this is a comprehensive answer to my question!
    Dear Andy Smith, Thank you for your high attention and support.
    Alireza Naderi – Tehran – Iran

  2. Aleksandra Bradić-Martinović

    Very useful. Thank you 🙂

    Aleksandra – Belgrade – Serbia

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