The Differences that Make the Difference

James Swingle




I was enjoying pad thai at a nearby restaurant with a good friend, when she told me about a successful change she had made.  For years, she'd battled her hair, looking for an approach that would give her loose curls.  She didn't want to straighten her hair, but  neither did she like the frizzy curls her hair naturally tends to.  I looked at the lovely curls streaming down from her head, and said it did indeed look like she had been successful.  I asked her how she accomplished it. 


She responded that for one thing, they have better chemicals these days. 


Well, yes, how much personal change will come down to that in the days to come. 


But she also had an air of personal success that suggested the change wasn't simply a matter of newly available hair products.  So I asked her what else.


And she said it wasn't just one thing.  But over the years, she had been given many good suggestions (and some not so good), and she had just kept adding more good suggestions to her routine until she had the hair she wanted.


She then said she wished she could come up with a similar collection of good suggestions for finding a loving relationship, and we brainstormed what they might be.  However, for this article, I'll leave that discussion behind, and talk about my friend's model for change.


You see, NLP tends towards a different model.  NLP likes to talk about the possibility of quick change, the difference that makes the difference, as if there is just one difference that shifts the center of gravity past the tipping point.  NLP processes are generally taught with the presupposition that doing a single process can result in the person making a lasting change.1


But, I have to say, I've been in a number of NLP workshops over the years, and I've seen a lot of participants working on the same few issues during that whole period I've known them.  After having done dozens of processes on some of their issues, they still hadn't achieved the big, lasting change they were looking for. 


Now, many NLPers have their anecdotes of "miracle" changes they've accomplished with a client or friend, after doing one process with them.2  But even given these miraculous changes, I find the overwhelming majority of intentional personal change takes place slowly, over a long period of time.  And, like my friend's hair, it is a product of many learnings along the way.


So, perhaps one of the questions we should start asking ourselves is what are the differences that make the difference.


James Prochaska, John Norcross and Carlo DiClemente present one useful framework for looking at change over time in their book Changing for Good.3  Based on an empirical study of people who've successfully changed (both those working with professionals and/or in formal change programs, and those who have changed on their own), they've identified six stages in the change process:  1. Precontemplation ("I don't have a problem—if you think I'm a couch potato that's your problem"); 2. Contemplation ("I've been thinking about getting more exercise, I want to be able to play ball with my grandkids"); 3. Preparation ("OK, I bought a bike, as I love being outdoors, and I've gotten a treadmill for the basement for rainy days and for Winter"); 4. Action ("Each morning I select an activity for the day, as well as a backup plan if I can't do my primary activity"); 5. Maintenance ("Working out is starting to be more second-nature, but I still need to keep on top of it"); and 6. Termination ("Working out is just a part of my life").  Further, they've looked at techniques and skills from a broad range of therapeutic modalities, and they've identified which specific techniques and skills tend to be the most useful during each stage.


They also found that people who successfully make lasting changes usually cycle through the stages multiple times.  That is, major changes are seldom, if ever, a one-shot deal.  Changers get well into the Action stage, or even reach the Maintenance stage, then lose the change.  At this point, they usually revert back to Contemplation, sometimes even Precontemplation, often feeling like a failure.  Though, with proper preparation for the fact it takes multiple cycles, they can move much more quickly into Preparation and back into Action after a relapse.  Given that, I'd say our clients would be well served by an honest upfront assessment of the longer path the change process—with its expected relapses—usually takes.4


So, my suggestion?  Maybe it's time to give some thought to how to best encourage slow change.  Talk about how to use NLP processes and skills to move people to the next stage of their change cycle, or even just further along in their current stage.  I know from discussions outside of workshops many NLPers do just that in their private practices—it's just NLPers don't seem to talk about how to do that when they teach. 


Yes, in our fast-paced world, we all want quick, lasting change for ourselves, and for our students and clients.  But maybe, in many cases, quick change is just not possible.  And in those cases, it's in the best interest of our students and clients to help them accept, and then achieve, the slow change that is possible.






1  This is, of course, a generalization.  Individual NLPers, in their private practices, can bring a wide range of perspectives to the practice of NLP.  However, I have found in my NLP studies, there is the tendency to teach processes as if they are intended to result in quick, lasting change, and a concomitant tendency not to focus on medium- and longer-term approaches to change.  My own experience, however, suggests that such one-process changes are very rare, in particular with the bigger of the changes people come to NLP wanting to make.  I think the distinction David Gordon made in my interview with him between "state change" and "system change" (Noneuclidean Cafe, Volume 1, Issue 2, Interview with David Gordon) is a useful model.  It's fairly easy to change someone's state with a process.  It's not so easy to change their "system" in a way that's going to make a change last in their life.  David offered that such system changes come about in two ways:  a single experience that is significantly powerful, or a series made up of multiple experiences.  At a theoretical level, my intention in this article is to suggest that the way NLP processes and change are taught is too weighted towards that one, sufficiently-effective experience.  And to therefore suggest we give more thought to how to help change that takes place over time, through a number of experiences, and through the acquisition of a range of skills and knowledge. 


2  I tend to approach such claims with a certain skepticism.  It isn't always clear that a good follow-up mechanism was in place to verify the change was both successful and lasting in the person's life.  Also, many NLPers have a penchant for storytelling over empiricism.  Not in the sense that people are lying, but in the sense that either people are telling stories with a purpose other than providing sound data—such as empowering others to change, providing permission to change quickly, taking into account the placebo effect, etc.—or that we're running into the problem of confirmation bias—that is, we tend to overvalue evidence that supports what we want to believe, and undervalue, or not take into account at all, evidence that challenges what we want to believe.


3  Prochaska, James, John Norcross and Carlo DiClemente, Changing for Good, Collins, 1995.


4  For yet another caution against emphasizing the possibility of quick change, I recommend checking out Lisa Bolton, Joel Cohen and Paul Bloom's article "Does Marketing Products as Remedies Create 'Get Out of Jail Free Cards'?" in the June, 2006 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.  To summarize the findings, when people believe an easy remedy for a problem is available, they actually become less likely to seek help for their problem.  For those who can't get hold of a copy of the journal, there's a brief summary of the article's findings on the Pew Research Center site at:



James Swingle (Noneuclidean Cafe's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief) offers business training, as well as personal growth workshops and coaching, which you can find out about at  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Aoife's Kiss, Black Ink Horror, Susurrus, Byzarium and other publications.  You can find out more about his writing at


Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.



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Article Copyright © 2006 James Swingle. All rights reserved.