Present to Desired State model: is a problem focus built into NLP?

Like most NLP practitioners, the way I was trained to do NLP techniques was broadly: “Here’s a technique. Now, think of a suitable problem, and try this technique out on each other”. By the end of the NLP Practitioner training, I was running out of problems; a situation which became more acute by the time I was nearing the end of my second Master Practitioner course.

In some ways, this is a great way to learn the various changework techniques in NLP; it’s certainly better than just reading about them, and also a vast improvement on role play in that you are working with real people’s reactions to real problems, rather than someone pretending.

A well-organised NLP course generally runs exercises in ‘triads’ – three people, each with their own role: ‘practitioner’, ‘client’, and ‘observer’, or ‘explorer’, ‘guide’, and ‘supporter’. The advantage of doing it this way is that you experience the technique from three different perspectives; plus, to the extent that you have any problems, you get to sort them out, assuming the ‘practitioner’ has been listening to the instructions.

A downside of this approach, as Charles Faulkner and others in the NLP field have pointed out, is that it leads to a focus on problems. The instruction ‘think of a problem’ presupposes that you have one. Actually, you may have been functioning just fine. Sure, if there really is a problem, let’s get it fixed. But, as I’ve come to realise since working with Appreciative Inquiry and solution focus, solutions are not the opposite of problems. If you want to improve things, focusing on the problem may not be the best place to start. In fact, it may be counterproductive; you are more likely to get the result you want by focusing on what you want, building on existing strengths, and noticing what’s working well in the current situation and doing more of it.

Let’s look at the ‘Present to Desired state’ model. This is a mainstay of NLP, to the extent that it’s listed as part of the ANLP’s essential content knowledge for NLP Practitioner courses.  It’s a kind of very high-level structure of any NLP intervention: you start with the Present State and apply resources to get to the Desired State.

As Robert Dilts points out in The Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding, “present state” is often used synonymously with “problem state” or “symptom” – but it doesn’t have to be. Also, the resources applied in this model are generally assumed to be new and come from outside, in the form of some NLP technique that the ‘client’ didn’t know how to do for themselves.

If we view the “present state” as a “problem state”, we ignore any resources that are already there in the present state. This is a drawback of any problem-focused model, and you see it a lot in organisational change (e.g. the NHS ‘reforms’ that are about to kick off, and that have my friends in the NHS feeling rather like rabbits in headlights at the moment); the proposed solution solves the symptom but may also eradicate or concrete over anything that’s working, that’s good, and that motivates people in the present state.

How much more respectful and elegant, and how much less likely to cause knock-on systemic problems and unintended consequences, to identify existing strengths and build on them, and find what is already working well in the present state and do more of it.

I hope that we in the NLP community can move towards a more appreciative, and consequently more effective and ecological, approach to problem-solving.

The earlier article “The Case for an Appreciative Frame in Life and NLP” sets out some questions to help you identify resources in the present state.

© 2011 – 2021, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Gavin Ingham

    "By the end of the NLP Practitioner training, I was running out of problems…"

    So are we saying that all NLPers are problem free, super people then Andy?


  2. Andy Smith

    Hi Gavin,

    I think we both know the answer to that question 😉

    However, my experience of my NLP Practitioner course (16 years ago now) is that it is quite easy to run out of problems that you are consciously aware of and can identify when asked to do so – that still leaves the unconscious ones! Plus, solving problems only removes the blocks to using abilities, it doesn't confer new ones, although of course you do learn a lot of new skills in the NLP Practitioner training.

    I don't know what your experience of the Practitioner course was like – it can feel a bit super-heroic for a while as you explore your enlarged comfort zone. Eventually, depending how adventurous you are and how big the challenges you take on, you may run into barriers again – but you would never have known those challenges were there if you'd stayed in the old, smaller comfort zone.

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