Susan Norman suggests ways of influencing students’ behaviour from a NLP perspective

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The thought or the language to express the thought? Whichever way round it is, the language you use reflects the way you are thinking, and if you change the language you use, you can change the way you – and others – think.

Many aspects of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) incorporate a focus on the use of language. Simply by changing the language you use, you can have a profound effect on the behaviour of others.


In order to influence anyone to do anything, you need to be in rapport with them. The easiest way to be in rapport with someone is if you like each other – it’s much easier to influence friends than enemies – but even then there are ways of saying things that they are more likely to respond to.

People like people like them. At a party, for instance, when people are first introduced they search through questions until they find something of common interest to talk about – and if they don’t find it, or when they come across something which is antithetical to their own beliefs, they move on to someone else.

A large party, in fact, is a good place to practise your matching skills. The classic thing to match (or mirror) is people’s hand gestures and physical positions – body language precedes verbal language, after all. If you’ve ever ‘people watched’, you’ll know that it’s pretty easy to tell who is the leader in a group, who is trying to be accepted, who is having an affair with whom, which two are a long-time couple – and whether there’s still any affection between them. One specific thing you can watch for is whose body language matches whose. In unequal groups, the leader changes position first and the others gradually follow. In equal close partnerships, either will change their position first, and the other will fairly soon match it.

Matching at this physical level is really a fun one to try at parties – you think the other person is bound to notice, but unless you’re really unsubtle, all you’re doing is consciously doing what you would be doing unconsciously if you really were in rapport with the person. But as well as physical matching, you can also match voice tone or speed of talking (have you ever noticed how ponderously some people talk, and how some people are so fast they are really unsettling to be with?) and in terms of the type of language you use.

Just as some people prefer to learn visually (V), auditorily (A) or kinaesthetically (K), so their language can often reflect how they are thinking in one of these three ways. If you take literally the words people are using, how do you think people are thinking – V, A or K? (Answers at the bottom).

1. That doesn’t ring a bell with me.

2. I can’t grasp it at all.

3. I need a different perspective on that.

4. Suddenly it’s crystal clear.

5. We’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.

6. She knows how to push his buttons.

If you want to influence someone, you need to use language they understand – at an unconscious level. If they’re thinking visually, then you need to say things like ‘Let me paint a picture for you‘ – and then use lots of visual metaphors, and literally describe how your proposal might look. If they’re in auditory mode, then explain things word for word, speaking relatively slowly and clearly (people in this mode often need to ‘replay’ what you’ve just said in their heads, so leave pauses for them to do this) – then you’ll be ‘on the same wavelength‘ and ‘speaking the same language‘. People in kinaesthetic mode need to think in terms of a three-dimensional model, or how they feel (emotionally) about it, or to envisage what they might actually be doing – in other words they want to be ‘walked through’ your proposition in order to make it concrete.

Being able to vary your language in this way can be very useful when you’re explaining things individually to people – just listen to the sort of language they use, and then match it. If you’re talking to a class where there will be people in all three modes, then you need to vary the language you use, and make sure you use ‘neutral’ language as much as possible too.


When we label things by assigning a word to them, we fix them and to a certain extent we also fix our attitude to them. The classic example is that when we call something a ‘problem’, we tend to approach it in a certain way. If we call the same situation a ‘challenge’, we might approach it differently. In this case, you’re not just influencing other people, you’re influencing your own attitudes – a very good place to start. After all, nothing is intrinsically a problem, it’s just a set of circumstances. What one person perceives as the end of the world, another might view as an adventure; or to give an other example, an infidel is described in ‘The Devils Dictionary’ by Ambrose Bierce in 1911 as: ‘In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does‘.

How do you refer to your students? How would you feel about your new class if their previous teacher identified individuals as ‘disruptive’, ‘timid’, ‘impatient’ and ‘slow’, when another teacher might have referred to the same individuals as ‘enthusiastic’, ‘careful’, ‘keen’ and ‘thorough’. How would you treat them as a result of their prejudging, their prejudice?

If you refer to students as ‘buggers’ – even if it is ‘only’ in the staffroom and ‘only’ in jest – how easy is it then to view them as people from whom you can expect co-operation and an open attitude to learning?

Another way of unsticking labels is to move from using nouns to describe people and situations (he’s a trouble maker, I don’t get any respect around here) to describing things using verbs – ‘action words’ are easier to move than ‘things’. Someone who is ‘making trouble’ has the potential to change and do something else. A ‘trouble maker’ doesn’t. If you feel you’re not getting any ‘respect’, start looking out for the sort of behaviour you might expect to see when people are respecting you. If students just don’t have enough ‘knowledge’, what can you help them ‘know’ to address this lack – and then I might also prefer to change the word ‘lack’ into ‘what is currently lacking’?

Accentuate the positive

When seeking to influence others, or when setting goals for oneself, it is important to use positive rather than negative language. Everyone knows what they don’t want, but the more you talk about what you don’t want, the less energy you are putting into what you do want. What are the two key words when you say to yourself, ‘I mustn’t forget my umbrella‘? ‘Forget‘ and ‘umbrella‘. Even in such a simple situation, how much more likely are you to remember, if you actually say to yourself, ‘I must remember my umbrella‘?

All experienced parents know that it’s totally counterproductive to say to a young child, ‘Don’t go near the water.‘ It is much more effective to say something like, ‘Come and see if you can balance on this rail here. I’ll hold your hand if you like.’

Children aren’t necessarily being naughty when they ‘disobey’ your negative instructions. It’s just that they have to work out for themselves what you do want, and by that time there might well have been an automatic response to the actual words you’ve said. How, for example, might you rephrase the following by saying to children what you do want them to do? (Suggested answers at the bottom of the page)

1. Don’t fidget.

2. Don’t look.

3. Don’t talk.

4. Don’t be late.

5. Don’t try too hard.

Be precise

One aspect of helping yourself and others think more clearly is to be precise in your use of language. If someone says ‘I don’t understand‘, it’s worth checking what exactly they don’t understand before launching into a rerun of everything you’ve just told them, i.e. ask them for the missing information. People are always(!) exaggerating by using words such as ‘always’, ‘never’, etc – Nobody loves me. I never know what’s going on. I’m always late. Start by challenging yourself when you catch yourself thinking in this way and realize that most of these generalisations are actually only temporary phenomena. Is there nobody in the whole world who loves you, or are you just feeling a bit unloved at the moment? And how come we never(!) use these expressions about something good?

Be precise when using comparisons too. How much ‘better’ do you want your class to be? Where are they now? How much improvement will satisfy you? How much more money do you want – if you’re precise about what you want it for, it may not be beyond your means.

Many people know to avoid ‘I can’t‘, but it’s not enough just to leave it out of your vocabulary altogether. Replace it (and suggest students replace it) with something more constructive such as: ‘I can’t yet‘ or ‘I need more time‘ or ‘I need more practice‘ or ‘I need some help‘.

Metaphor and story

In order to get messages through to people, a less direct approach can often be effective – which is where metaphor and story come into their own (particularly if you don’t bludgeon them with ‘the moral of this story’ at the end). People remember a story or a colourful metaphor much more easily and for much longer than they remember bald facts – and if you can make up rhymes and set them to music, it’s more memorable still.

The final thing to say about language, though, is that it works in both directions. Often, one of the most effective things you can do if you want to influence others – and influencing, of course, includes teaching – is to listen to them. What is it that they want? What are their opinions, suggestions, needs and aspirations? Those people who are considered the most wise are frequently actually just very good listeners!

Answers: 1 Keep still, 2 Close your eyes, 3 Keep quiet, 4 Be on time/be here by… 5 Take it easy/relax

Brer Rabbit and the Bramble Patch

For once, Brer Rabbit had been caught by Brer Fox. He was stuck fast to a sort of doll Brer Fox had made out of straw and tar and Brer Fox was very, very pleased with himself.

‘Well, I reckon I’ve got you this time,’ said Brer Fox. ‘You’re looking very stuck up, if I might say so.’ And he laughed and laughed until he almost split his sides. When he could talk again, he said, ‘Now you just wait there while I go out and light a fire ready for my Brer Rabbit barbecue!’

Brer Rabbit thought hard and he thought quickly and he said, in a thoughtful sort of voice, ‘Well, if I’ve got to go, I think I’d rather go tasting of delicious barbecue sauce than be thrown into that bramble patch over there. Please, please don’t throw me into that bramble patch.’

Brer Fox was quite surprised. He had expected Brer Rabbit to be terrified at the thought of being cooked on a fire.

‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘It’s a lot of trouble to light a fire. Maybe I’ll just hang you from that tree over there.’

‘You hang me up as high as you please,’ said Brer Rabbit, ‘but please, please don’t throw me into that bramble patch.’

‘Shucks,’ said Brer Fox. ‘I don’t seem to have any rope with me. I guess I’ll just have to drown you.’

‘Yep, fine,’ said Brer Rabbit. ‘Drown me as deep as you like. But please, please don’t throw me into that bramble patch.’

‘Sorry. There doesn’t seem to be any water round here,’ said Brer Fox. ‘There ain’t nothing for it but to skin you alive.’

‘Yes. Skin me alive. Scratch my eyes out. Pull off my ears. Anything. But please, please don’t throw me into that bramble patch.’

Well Brer Fox wanted to hurt Brer Rabbit just as much as he possibly could, so he picked him up by his hind legs and swung him once, twice, three times round his head, and then threw him right into the thickest part of the bramble patch. And then he waited for the howls of pain.

And he waited.

But there were no howls of pain.

And just when he thought Brer Rabbit must be good and dead for sure, he suddenly heard a cry from the hillside. ‘Yoo hoo. Brer Fox. Over here.’

There was Brer Rabbit sitting on the hillside as bold as bold could be, and Brer Fox understood that he’d been well and truly tricked.

‘I was born and raised in that bramble patch, Brer Fox,’ said Brer Rabbit. ‘Born and raised in that bramble patch.’

From ‘Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby’ (rewritten), one of the ‘Uncle Remus Stories’ by Joel Chandler Harris

Susan Norman is Co-Director of SEAL (Society for Effective Affective Learning) and author of more than 30 books on teaching and learning, the most recent being In Your Hands – NLP for teaching and learning (with Jane Revell); Transforming Learning – Introducing SEAL Approaches (with Eva Hoffman); Stepping Stones – First Lessons in Accelerated Learning for use with children aged 7-11, and the Inspiring Teaching series of Accelerated Learning materials for staff development.