Interview with David Gordon


David Gordon is one of the founders of NLP, and a trainer, practitioner and developer of NLP since the 1970's. His most recent book, written with Graham Dawes, is Expanding Your World: Modeling the Structure of Experience.  (This was a Noneuclidean Cafe Recommended Book in Issue #1.) Mr. Gordon's latest life adventure is becoming an elementary school teacher. Noneuclidean Cafe met with Mr. Gordon during lunch of a Modeling workshop he gave at the NLP Center of New York.



Non-Euclidean Cafe (NC): How did  you get started in NLP?


David Gordon (DG):  It was 1973.  I met Richard Bandleróhe was just starting a gestalt therapy group.  He invited me to join.  There were two groups goingóI was in one; Leslie [Cameron-Bandler, later Lebeau] was in that same one.  John Grinder and Judith DeLozier were in the other group.  Subsequently, Richard and John put their heads together and started working on the meta-model.  It wasnít called NLP at that time, but it was the beginning of NLP.  We started to meet at Richardís house, and explore things.  It all pretty much came down to modeling in one form or another.  We would bring in people with problems, and try to figure out what was going on with them, in their structure, and how we could interact with their structure to change them.  Or weíd bring in people who had abilities, of some kind or another. 


I donít really know quite how it coalesced, to tell the truth, but somehow it coalesced into ďwe are doing something now.Ē  At that point, most of us were quite busy doing therapy, working with people.  Richard and John were training other people in the patterns that had been developedóchange techniques, hypnosis.


In 1978, Leslie wanted to create a home for NLP.  So she talked Richard into creating DOTAR (Division of Training and Research), the first institute of NLP in Santa Cruz.  Richard and John were the Godfathers of it.  Leslie was the director.  I was the director of training.  Robert [Dilts] was the director of research.  Judith was there.  It was at DOTAR that Leslie and I and Robert, primarily, created the Practitioner training and the Master Practitioner training.  Weíd train people, and then theyíd go off and start their own training institutes, and started inviting us all over the country and all over the world to come train at their institutes.


NC:  Did you already have a background in a different school of therapy, and then move into NLP?


DG:  My initial background in doing therapy was gestalt therapy, which I learned from Richard's group.  And then that evolved into NLP.


NC:  One of the early areas you focused on was metaphor.  Storytelling.


DG: That was in about í78.  Maybe a little before then, í77.


NC: To use one of your modeling questions, When you are creating a metaphor, what are you evaluating?


DG: What does this person need?  Itís always about, "What does this person need?"  Iím not concerned with what they want.  Iím respectful of what they want, but what Iím looking for is what they need, what changeóin their perceptions, their experienceówhat is that piece of perception or experience that naturally leads to change?


NC: Can you say something more about that piece of experience, or perception?


DG: A person is an intricate and complex system.  Whatever theyíre doing now, whatever their response is now, whatever their experience now, is a manifestation of this system that operates in that context.  That system is made up of criteria, beliefs, emotions, perceptions, filters, frames, submodalitiesóall of those things are operating together simultaneously.  And so I do my best to try and find the significant place in the systemóthat is, what are those elements in the system that have the most to do with what  happens.  And I figure out what change in those points could I make that will cause a cascade of changes throughout the system, in support of whatever the desired outcome is.


NC: So, for example, if you are telling a story and picking a metaphor, the goal of the story or metaphor is not so much that the words themselves change the person, as the words create an experience in the personóthis "cascade"óand this cascade creates the change.


DG: Yes. The metaphor is a vehicle for taking this person on an experiential journey, and Iím hoping that, in the course of this experiential journey, that they will have experiences that change them.  I invariably have my idea about what experience I want them to have, what experiences I think will change them.  In practice, in the real world, sometimes they find significant changes in aspects of the metaphor I hadnít intended.  And that of course  is great.


NC: On the subject of change, one of the things I liked in your book [Expanding Your World] was at the end, where you talked about changing.  I thought you gave a very honest assessment of what  was involved in change.  Just my take, but it seems sometimes NLP over-promises.  And I liked that your book put it out there that to accomplish a change, there isnít just this one-time process or this magic word, and then the change is there.  Beyond the process, thereís an ongoing task in life. I like that frame a lot.


DG:  I agree with you.  *pauses, then laughs*  There wasnít a question there, right?


NC:  Yeah, there wasnít.  I guess I was trying to lead into...  asking you to expound on that idea of how change occurs. Something happens in a therapeutic setting.  Something happens when someone hears a metaphor.  But then, what happens so that the person goes out and takes the change into their life?


DG:  From my experience, change takes place in two ways.  The person has an experience that is strong enough to re-organize their thinking, or if you like, to re-organize their system.  Or, they have enough experiences that they eventually groove themselves into a changed system.  So, the issue isnít change.  The issue is that you have a perfect system.  There might be a problem, but the system is complete.  It works to get whatever the current outcome is.  Where change comes from, is from introducing into that system something different.  And if you introduce something different into the system, the system must change.  It must change.  So, the issues are, how do you actually introduce something into the system.  And thatís not as easy as you might think, because systems are self-perpetuating, are self-vigilant.  In general, things that donít fit with the system get distorted or deleted, so that the system isnít threatened, so that it doesnít have to change.  So what you are doing working with somebody is trying to introduce something, some new little tidbit of experience, some little change into the system.  And to me, what that  means is trying to introduce an experience.  It isnít about introducing information.  Information doesnít affect the system in and of itself.  It has to be information that is tied to experience.  For instance, somebody doesnít believe they are a good person.  You can say to that person, "Oh, youíre really a good person, youíre great, in fact, youíre wonderful."  Just because they hear you say that doesnít mean it is experienced.  It just  stays as information.  As unembodied information.  Maybe thatís the way to talk about it.  It needs to be embodied information.  As long as it is unembodied, it doesnít go anywhere.  "Oh, youíre just saying that.  I could never be that way.  Oh, my parents didnít raise me to be like that."  Theyíll have all these reasons to keep it from being a palpable experience for them.  And so, the art, as well as the goal, of working with people in therapy, is to give them, to create for them, the opportunity to embody the ideas they need to have.  I refer to that as a reference experience:  an experience that is capable of changing the system. 


Metaphors are one way of doing that.  When you tell a metaphorótrue of all communication, by the wayóyou are taking a person on a trip with words, you are giving them an experience with words.  Thatís what words are foróto create experience in others.  And in ourselves, too.  I think thatís a very important thing to keep in mind, when you are telling a story.  Youíre creating experiences in them.  And what you are after is creating experiences that are not only new to them, but are the experiences they need to change them in the way they are looking for.  But no matter what the therapeutic approach is, whether it is a talking therapy, or a body therapy, or NLP and its techniques, in each case what is going on in that therapeutic interaction, is providing the client with new reference experiences that are intended to transform the system that they operate under in their problem context.  Sometimes that therapeutic experience can be so strong, so profound, that it immediately grooves itself into the person, that it stays, and sometimes not.  Sometimes it needs repetitionóit needs to be grooved in again and again and again.  Change is more gradual.  In general, that is what I think is happening with change.  The whole point of NLP techniques is to create a therapeutic experience that is so compelling that it changes a person then and there.  Thatís the idea.


NC:  Do you find it usually does change the person then and there?


DG:  No, I donít.


NC:  I donít either.


DG:  I used to.  But those were in the early days, when we set things up so we could believe that.  *laughs*  Well, think about it.  Youíre starting from a mťtier of, we only need to see a person once to change them.  OK.  So the client comes in.  I work with him.  I can get anybody to change their state, in the moment.  Thatís no problem.  I can get anyone to change their state.  But what I discovered was, we didnít change the system.  You have some wonderful experience, at the end of which you say, ďWow, things are different for me.Ē  And so I say, ďGreat, it worked.  Bye.Ē  And you go away.  So what I donít have to see, and donít have to deal with, is that an hour later, or the next day, or next week, youíre back in the same hole you were in before, when you came in.  Right?

NC:  Yeah, thatís my experience.


DG:  Yeah.  So it took me some years of getting feedback in various forms to realize whatís going on.  We set up a self-fulfilling system that was working great for us.  Which is not to say it never works that way.  Iíve had my miracle cures.  But those are few and far between.  I just had to find out that NLP techniques are not in and of themselves magical.


NC:  Knowing that, what do you add to that, to focus more on changing the system instead of the state?


DG.  Well, first of all, a willingness to take the time to understand who this person is.  Who is this person in general, and in this problemówhatís going on with them?  How do they work?  Then also recognizing  the need to stay in contact with this person until I know things have changed.  Itís not just a state changeótheyíve changed.


NC:  Thanks, that was a great answer, and also personally useful.  In the time we have left, I wanted to turn to modeling.  Let me start with one of your own modeling questions:  When you model, whatís important to you?


DG:  Figuring out how this works.  ďThisĒ being whatever the ability is.


NC:  Is a model some Platonic form, that really exists outside the person, and can be looked at totally as the model, or does it only really exist in experience, so thereís this transition thing we useóthe Arrayóthat we use to get the experience from one person to the other.  *pauses*  I guess I donít know what category to place the model itself in.  Is it something in itself, or is just a way to convey the experience from one person to another.


DG:  You know what, I would like to think that there are Platonic forms.  *pauses*  But actually I donít.


NC:  *laughs*  Sorry, thatís exactly where I keep coming to.


DG: I think that, just as you said, the models exist only as forms that are created between two individuals, I donít think it has an existence or reality outside of experience.  And thatís why thereís no bottom to a model, why thereís no ultimate form or description to get to.  Now, pleading the Platonic case, is that there might well be those Platonic forms, but the nature of human experience makes it inconceivable to me that we could ever know them.  Those forms might exist out there, but to be known, they have to be known by someone.  And youíre someone, but youíre a different someone than I  am.  In your knowing of that Platonic model, itís going to be fed through Jim, Jimís experience of it.  Davidís experience of them may be subtly different. And so, itís going to always be just out of reach.  Varela said, ďEverything said is said by someone.Ē  And that is, I think, quite a profound statement.  Particularly providing you look beyond just the surface words of it.  Itís not about talking.  Anything that is expressed, perceived, experienced, is expressed, perceived, experienced by an expresser, a perceiver, an experiencer. 


NC:  Thanks.  Two more questions.  Do you have in mind a social component to modeling?  Does modeling promote social change?


DG:  Modeling definitely could.  I tried to describe this in the keynote address I gave to the Canadian NLP Conference.  [link to keynote address]  Have you read that?


NC:  I have, but a while ago.


DG:  Read that keynote address.  I definitely go into that notion.  I do think that modeling has the potential to play a transformative role in society.  The presuppositions modeling comes with are not the presuppositions that are operating out on the street.  If you have a society that is built around the notion that everybody is a resource of experience, that experience has structure, that if you want to learn or be able to do something, you canóthat changes the whole game in society, I think.  Right now thatís not the case.  Basically people go around, "Iím stuck with who I am, and what I can do."  And there are a lot of things that come out of this socially.  Education, for one, would be approached in a entirely different fashion if we used the modeling presuppositions.


NC:  Yeah, itís hard to picture some of the current practices, like tracking, for example, going on if we had a more flexible views of what people could become.


DG:  Oh yeah.  Kids are treated like cattle.  You know, they weigh them several times a year to make sure they are gaining wait.  And we stand there and stick them with the right hormones, and if we do, they should be gaining weight on a certain trajectory.   And in the modeling world, that would seem to be inconceivable.


NC:  Final question.  Is there anything you wanted to add that my questions havenít let to?


DG:  No.  Actually, I like an interview simply because I have zero agenda, and so Iím just waiting for the question, and to find out where do I go with that question. And when Iím done, Iím done.  I have zero agenda.  The couple of times Iíve been interviewed where that wasnít the case, I hated it.  I hate having an agenda.


NC:  Well, thank you for your time.  That was great.


DG:  Youíre welcome.


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