Presuppositions in Language (2): Possibility or Necessity

How to Spot Presuppositions of Possibility or Necessity

The tip off for presuppositions of possibility or necessity is the presence of ‘modal operators’. Modal operators are words like should, shouldn’t, ought, got to, have to, must – modal operators of necessity – or can, can’t, could, couldn’t, which are modal operators of possibility.

Take a look at this example: Sooner or later, Sarah needs to realise that she can close the deal.

There are two modal operators in that sentence – ‘needs to’ which is a modal operator of necessity – it must happen; and ‘can’, which implies possibility. You could just say to Sarah, “Sarah, you can close the deal” to which she could easily say, “No I can’t”.

If you say, “When are you going to realise that you can close the deal?”, her attention will be shifted to the question of when she’s going to realise and she’ll be more likely to accept that it’s possible.

The great thing about presuppositions of possibility or necessity is that when you hear someone use those modal operators, they are giving you clues as to their beliefs about the rules they operate by – what they must do, what they mustn’t do, what they should do even if they aren’t doing it, and what they think is possible or impossible.

These rules are important, because they guide the person’s behaviour. Very often the beliefs about what they should do, what they must do, what they can’t do, turn out to be false and limiting, and just holding them back. Whole schools of therapy have grown up around getting people to recognise and rethink their musts, shoulds, ought’s, and can’ts. When you can hear those presuppositions in what someone is saying, you can subtly use more empowering presuppositions just in conversation to help them expand the limits of their mental maps.

How to Use Presuppositions of Possibility and Necessity

When you hear a lot of shoulds, can’ts, got to’s, and musts, that’s usually a person who is experiencing themselves as being at the ‘effect’ end of things rather than ‘at cause’ – and one of the ways they keep that going is by the presuppositions in what they say, and what they say to themselves in their internal dialogue.

The great hypnotherapist Milton Erickson used a lot of presuppositions of possibility and necessity with clients like this, saying things like, “Sooner or later, one has to let go” or, “Everyone can learn”, or even “We can’t not change over time.” These might sound like banal sayings or truisms, but the presuppositions embedded within them create a sense of possibility and also motivation to change.

If you want to use a presupposition of possibility in a question, the format “How can we…?” or “How could we…?” is very useful to get people thinking and coming up with ideas. It presupposes that whatever comes after that question opening is in fact possible. You can even use a presupposition of necessity in order to open up a sense of possibility: “What do we need to do to gain a share of this market?” presupposes that it’s possible to gain a share of the market, and will displace attention on to what we need to do rather than on is it possible at all.

Your Assignment (Should You Choose to Accept It)

I’m not saying you have to accept the assigment (or am I?) but you could.

  1. When do you hear yourself using words like can’t, should, ought to, and must in your internal self-talk?
  2. Notice what presuppositions these words are evidence of.
  3. For each presupposition, does it empower you or hold you back?
  4. For each presupposition that’s not benefiting you, what presupposition would you prefer to have instead? How would that change your self-talk?
NLP language patterns book

Want to know all about NLP language patterns? This is the book you need: Practical NLP 2: Language (available in paperback or Kindle ebook format)

© 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.