As human beings, we tend to see the world in terms of cause and effect equations. If something we do consistently gets a certain result, we say that our action causes that result. If one event is consistently followed by another, we start believing that the first event causes the second.
This is a useful way of looking at things when applied to simple relationships between inanimate objects: you kick a football, and that causes it to fly into the back of the net. An engineer who knows the mass of the football, the speed and angle at which you kick it, and the windspeed, could pretty much predict exactly where the ball is going to end up. This is called ‘determinism
’: if you know the initial conditions, you can predict exactly what’s going to happen next. It all happens like clockwork.
This deterministic world view is not so useful when applied to living things: if you kick a gorilla, what’s the gorilla going to do? The answer is – whatever it wants to. It could ignore you and stay still, it could obligingly scoot along the ground and into the goalmouth; or, it could pick you up and throw you into the back of the net. There’s a lot going on in the gorilla’s internal processing between the initial event (your kick) and the end result.
Determinism is even less useful when applied to human beings. If everything was determined by what has happened previously, then free will would be an illusion, and our destinies would be predetermined by our situations, our upbringing, and our genes. We would definitely be placing ourselves at the ‘effect’ end of the equation.
In contrast, when you move to the ‘cause’ side of the equation, you believe ‘I can make a difference; I can make things happen; I am responsible for how I feel and for where I am’. In answer to NLP co-founder Richard Bandler’s question of “Who’s driving the bus?”, you can say “I am!”.
Putting yourself at cause is about taking responsibility – recognising that you have the ability, the ‘response ability’, to respond rather than just react to whatever life throws at you. You can make things happen; you have the power to change things; the ‘locus of control’, as psychologists call it, is within you rather than outside of you.
If you think the cause end of the equation sounds like a better, more exciting, more empowering place to be than the effect end, I agree with you. You may have noticed how many people do seem to place themselves at ‘effect’. The idea that other people are responsible for how we feel and act is even built into the English language: “He made me angry” or “She upset me”. Even inanimate objects can apparently do it: “This faulty starter motor is really winding me up!”
When people think like this, they are accepting a belief that emotions are things which just happen to us, or that other people cause in us. So they act as if they have no responsibility for what they feel. Sometimes they even believe that other people are even responsible for what they do. I had a client once who wanted help with managing his anger. If another man looked at him in a certain way, he believed that he had no choice but to hit him – a belief that had landed him in court.
So, people who place themselves at the ‘effect’ end of the equation, and from what I see this is most people, most of the time, are in effect saying “I am not responsible for what I feel or how I react; everyone else is.” They have given their power away. Somehow, those other people – or inanimate objects, in the case of cash machines that won’t pay out or outboard motors that won’t start – have caused the release of certain chemicals called neuropeptides within that person’s body which fit into the appropriate receptors in the surface of their brain cells and “cause” them to feel a certain way. That’s quite a degree of control, especially if it’s a lump of metal doing it.
It gets stranger. When you’re at ‘effect’, you’re not responsible for your own emotions, but you are responsible for everyone else’s. That means you get to feel guilty whenever someone else says “You’ve really upset me!”. Since most people don’t like feeling guilty and will go to some lengths to avoid it, that means the other person has a way of manipulating you, just by saying that you’ve made them feel bad.
We’ve all been there. A stimulus or trigger (whatever the other person, or object, did) is followed, apparently instantly, by the emotional response. This happens so quickly that it feels like one causes the other.
Now actually, as Stephen Covey points out in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
”, there’s a lot going on between the stimulus and the response. The stimulus could be what that other person does, or something they say, or the tone of voice in which they say it, or the look on their face.
In order for it to register as a stimulus at all, your mind has to interpret it as something threatening, provoking or guilt inducing, probably by matching it to the memories of previous bad experiences that it might remind you of. You have to evaluate the incoming sensory information in the light of your existing belief system. Maybe you have to tell yourself something about the stimulus that labels it as cheeky, insolent, aggressive, or inappropriate, before you get to feel the bad emotional response.
All this happens at an unconscious level, in a fraction of a second – and the more times you do it, the quicker it happens. Like anything else, you get better with practice – your brain forms new neural pathways which are widened and strengthened with every repetition, so the message to set off the response can whip along them faster and faster. You’re not consciously aware of this process. As a result, it really does feel like the stimulus is causing the next thing you’re aware of – the unresourceful emotional response.
The psychologist Viktor Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz and other concentration camps for five years. In that situation he saw the worst of humanity in the behaviour of the guards. Many of his fellow prisoners gave up, or acted as if they had abandoned all human feeling in the struggle to survive, as we would expect in such a terrible predicament.
But Frankl observed other prisoners who, despite being in the worst place in the world, were still able to find meaning in their lives and could still act with kindness and courage. What he saw of the best and worst in people in the camps inspired him to move away from Freud’s belief that the driving force of our actions is instincts and urges; instead, he came to believe that man’s deepest desire is to search for meaning and purpose. Later he wrote the great book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning
’, in which he says “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Following on from that idea, Stephen Covey says “Quality of life depends on what happens in the space between stimulus and response”. What NLP will give you is some practical ways to choose what happens between stimulus and response – and the more you exercise and develop that choice, the more your freedom to choose increases, and the more you move over to the cause side of the equation.
The other thing that’s worth noticing about cause and effect is this: when someone is at the effect end of the equation, it makes them less effective at dealing with the curveballs that life occasionally throws at us. If someone says or does something unpleasant to a person at ‘effect’, the questions that person asks to make sense of what’s happened are probably going to start with “Why?” “Why are they being so horrible to me? Why does this always happen to me?” The question “why” focuses their attention towards the past; if you believe that where you are now is caused entirely by external forces, your upbringing, and your genes, of course they are going to look for past causes in order to understand the problem.
In contrast, when you move to the ‘cause’ side of the equation, you believe ‘I can make a difference; I can make things happen; I am responsible for how I feel and for where I am’. In answer to NLP co-founder Richard Bandler’s question of “Who’s driving the bus?”, you can say “I am”.
So when you place yourself at cause, and something happens that you don’t like, what kind of questions are you likely to be asking yourself as you start to make sense of what’s happened? They are more likely to be questions like “What’s going on here? How has this come about? What can I do to change things?” or even “What do I want instead of this in the future?”
Rather than focusing on the past, that’s over with and done, the questions you ask when you are at cause focus your attention on what’s happening now, where you can actually do something to make a difference, and on what you want to change in the future. They focus on solutions rather than the details of problems, and with any challenge except the very simplest ones, they are more helpful to get to where you want to be.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that putting yourself at cause will make your life perfect; you will still encounter challenges along the way. But the more you are at cause, the more resourceful and effective you will be in meeting them.
This article can also be downloaded in audio podcast form: The Practical NLP Podcast