Interview with Steven Leeds

Steven Leeds, M.A. in Counseling Psychology and M.A. in Secondary Education, is Co-Founder and Co-Director of the NLP Center of New York with his wife, Dr. Rachel Hott.  Mr. Leeds is a licensed NY State Mental Health Counselor, and certified Master Practitioner and Trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. 


Mr. Leeds has been teaching NLP Practitioner, Master Practitioner, Post Master Practitioner and Trainer Training, as well as the Ericksonian Hypnosis Certification Training, since 1986.  He is a founding member of the International Association of NLP and is certified by the National Board of Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists (NBCCH).


Noneuclidean Cafe spoke with Steven

Leeds at the NLP Center of New York in November, 2006.



Noneuclidean Cafe (NC):  I know you and Rachel [Editor: Rachel Hott, Ph.D.] founded the NLP Center together in the 1986.  When did you get started in NLP?

Steven Leeds (SL): We got started with NLP in a parallel way. I started studying in 1980, and then a couple of years later she came into the scene.  And we met when we were both studying.


NC:  And you had a private practice before opening the NLP Center?

SL:  I had been doing individual psychotherapy prior to opening the NLP Center.  And I was teaching in the New York City Public School system, teaching math, so I had a background in teaching even before I began NLP.  Actually, NLP was one of the courses in my Master's Degree in psychology.  I was in an external degree program, and that was a six-credit course.


NC:  That's interesting to hear.  I don't think a lot of people have been able to use NLP study towards a university degree.


SL:  Well, it was an external degree course, so I was able to select my mentors for each course.  Jack Canfield was my main advisor.  Jack Canfield, Chicken Soup for the Soul. 

NC:  Right. 

SL:  Beacon College, which was an accredited college allowed students to choose an area of study, in this case NLP, and develop coursework around it.


NC:  Chunking up a bit, what do you see as the goal or mission of the NLP Center.

SL:  There's something stated on the website, that our mission is to teach people how to heal their past, shape their future and to be more present in the moment.  I still stick with that.  I do keep coming back to the idea...  Gestalt therapy was about awareness, and so is NLP.  People become more aware of their own patterns.  And with that awareness, people have more choices.  I would definitely say we're trying to teach people to become more aware of their own patterns, and other people's patterns, so they have more choices, more flexibility.  Which, for me, is about teaching people to be healthier—in their mind, in their emotions.  And to have healthier relationships.  I think NLP often focuses on the manipulative aspects of getting people to do what you want them to do.  For me, it's getting our brain to do what we want it to do.  I also see that people don't recognize when they're stuck in a pattern, so I think it's also for people to recognize how they're limiting themselves, when they don't recognize it, and to offer people some insight into how they're created their reality.  If you recognize that, you can see how you can do it differently.


NC:  It seems one of the interesting things that NLP added to Gestalt, is that Gestalt did focus very much on that awareness, and NLP added a focus on the outcome.

SL:  Of designing an outcome, of identifying your outcome.  That's what I was starting to get to.  This is what I'm doing.  What do I want to do instead?  How do I want to feel, how do I want to act, differently.  And then designing that reality.  How am I going to make that happen? 


NC:  I'm guessing that making people aware of their individual patterns is a goal in both teaching and individual therapy.  It seems it would be a primary goal in individual therapy.  Is it a primary goal to the same extent in teaching a class?

SL:   I think that the goals are consistent. It's interesting, I don't know if I said it first, but I wouldn't use the words you just used of "making people aware." [speaking in authoritative, Germanic, voice] "I am going to make you aware of this. You vill be aware." Certainly, people come to individual therapy sometimes to change a pattern, and they do often say, "do it to me, make me better, help me relax." And in some ways, what I'm interested in is educating the person in how to do that, so they can take responsibility for their own lives. And, it's the same thing in the classes, of people learning how they can do things differently. As opposed to this doing it to people. People often say, "NLP is going to change my life." No, you change your life. You become aware of what you're doing to create your reality, to create your beliefs. And in doing so, you're basically using those tools to make a difference. The person who asks himself the questions, "What's the difference that's going to make the difference?", "How do I need to think differently, "How do I need to speak differently", etc., are doing it. That's the key element of NLP, the presupposition that there is something one can do differently. A lot of times people don't have that presupposition. They presuppose there is nothing they can do differently. It's all up to the other person or the result of conditioning that is outside of their control. People feel victimized that it's happening to them and their is nothing they can do about it. That results in a lot of blaming and/or feeling guilty. Of course, sometimes people who do feel "it's" being done to them, are often the same people who want to do "it" to others They might say to me, "do it to me, make me better, heal me." And I don't see myself as healing anyone. But I do see myself as having certain tools that I've learned, which people can learn to use to heal themselves.


NC:  It seems to me one of the values is flexibility, and as you said, the idea that things could be different.

SL:  And those things could be how my thoughts are different, how my pictures are different, how my internal dialog is different, how my movements could be different.  Great actors take on thoughts and movements and voices that are different from their own. To do that takes great flexibility. They have to be aware of their own patterns, and they have to be aware of a distinct set of alternative patterns. Being able to play this other character is a skill. It's modeling. Which I think would be a good exercise for anyone. To stay in another character. To take on a very different set of patterns. This teaches flexibility. You get to contrast the patterns you usually use with some very different patterns and expand your own repertoire . When we do modeling, we often ask people to take on a whole different personality, so they can experience a real shift in behavior as well as in their belief systems.


NC:  I'm going to chunk down a bit.  When you're teaching, what criteria do you use to tell you that people are getting from the class what you'd like them to be getting?

SL:  Certainly one thing is, when I'm pointing out some behavior that they're doing that's not working, and contrasting it with a different behavior, and I see them demonstrating that new behavior.  It's certainly great to hear someone say "this is transformative, my life is different, this is great."  Using superlatives.  But if I do see them moving or speaking in a different way, that's more...  Let's say they say they want to be less anxious, more centered than they are, and I then see them demonstrating that change in their behavior.  That's one way of knowing.  Or having people report to me that in a particular situation where they had been anxious, or they had been nervous, or frustrated, they were actually in a positive, confident state, and they were more focused on getting the job done.  So a lot of time it's getting people reporting that they are no longer doing the old behavior they used to do, or that they are doing something they wanted to do, in a more effective way.  It could be working with, say a social phobia, and they report that they went to a party and they enjoyed themselves, just had a good time.  That they're going up to people without thinking about those things that used to get them to be afraid to approach someone.


NC:  Do you feel you can often tell when a person will experience the desired change after you do a process with them, or do you find it's a bit more unknown immediately after, and it's a nice surprise when they get the change they were looking for?

SL:  I'm always delighted and surprised even when I expect the change.  I'm not complacent, I don't think, oh sure, it's going to happen.  I always enjoy and get excited for people when they make a change.  But yes, at the same time, I think I'm less surprised then I used to be.  When I finish a piece of work with someone, there's a certain level of congruence, or not, that they're demonstrating.  When I ask them to think about the future situation, and I can see and hear in their look and their voice that they're confident.  Let's say the goal is to be relaxed and funny, whereas before they were overly serious and tense.  They can demonstrate that they are as relaxed and funny when they imagine themselves in that future situation.  So it's not just what they say.  They can say, [changes to weak, uneven voice, his shoulders caving in around his chest] "Yeah, I'm confident about it."  Or they can say, [adopts firm, steady tone, with upright posture] "Yes, I'm confident about it."  It's in the quality there.  Like when someone is not completely truthful, they're not completely congruent; there's something I won't trust.  This is a vague area here. It's not vague for me in practice, but in describing it.  Some people, it's so profound.  You see shifts in their breathing, shifts in their tone and their voice.  And when they put themselves into the future situation they still have it.  There's also, the other thing, the attitude that there is a difference that's going to make a difference.  When someone says to me, "What if this doesn't work?"  I may ask them back, so what if it doesn't work?  How do you want to be?  How do you want to approach that?  Or sometimes they ask, what if this doesn't last? They're feeling really good at the end of the session, and they ask what if this doesn't last?  I say, it's not going to last.  And what are you going to do when it doesn't last?    How do  you want to be with that?  How do you want to respond?  Instead of having the person think they have to hold onto this, because the more they hold  on the harder it becomes.  I'm not always centered, I'm not always resourceful.  But when I lose that state, there's a sense of, okay, how do I get back?  How do I get back into that state?  So it's never lost, it just needs to be found.  You might say the resource was misplaced, it wasn't lost.  Where did I place it?  That's a very different attitude.  How am I going to make it work?  How am I going to get back into it?  That presupposes you can get back.  It's an active attitude.  It's very different than, why didn't it work?  That's not a very NLP frame of mind, looking for what went wrong, instead of how can I make it right. 


NC:  I like that last comment.  I know, personally, the biggest factor a lot of times, is if I stay proactive, well, then almost by definition it never goes into a state of failure.  It might be going better or worse at any given moment, but you're still in it, making the change.  Whereas it becomes a very pas...  Well, past and passive, if you say, oh, it didn't work.  I do think at times some people do NLP a bit of a disservice when they present it as, do a process, get a change.

SL:  Focusing more on the technique, than the attitude.  The magic is in the whole process, which includes the attitude, not just in the technique.


NC:  How do you balance giving the people this sense of possibility, that this change can happen, and that it doesn't have to take forever, with them feeling it's just this one-shot thing, that they have the change, and they don't have to work at it any more?  How do you balance the ongoing, proactive, aspect of change, with the presupposition that change is possible now?

SL:  Sometimes, when I do work with someone, we can identify a distinction, that they didn't have before, and that's it.  They do have the change.  And other times, it's a piece.  They've gotten a piece, like a piece of a puzzle, and there are many more pieces.  They might have an idea of where they want to be, and probably being open to that happening, and having a number of ways of making that happen, and trying out different ways.  So if one way isn't working, they can try out something else.  The NLP attitude is, How else can I think about this?  How else can I look at this?  How else can I hold this?  And that's a process that can lead to effective change, and is not attached to "it didn't work."  We work.  I like the attitude that our current behaviors work, that they are an accomplishment.  When we feel guilty about something, that's something we learned how to do.  And we can learn how to do something different.  I think that attitude, and for the people with that attitude, that attitude is transforming.  I believe Bandler and Grinder had the attitude, okay, someone has a phobia.  How can they change it?  They believed it was possible, they tried out different things, and they came up with a particular formula that allowed people to do that.  But it doesn't work for everybody.  So if we're doing the phobia technique, what am I missing here?  What else do I need to do?  I enjoy the exploration.  When I took NLP initially, it was as an explorer.  Exploring consciousness, exploring how people think.    It's fascinating.  And how people change, how they communicate.  I think that some people are looking at NLP as a quick fix, as a destination.  For some people, if I had a pill, that's fine.  I don't need to be an explorer.  I'll pop the pill, I'll be cured, and then I'll be on to something else.  But there's no awareness about that.  There's nothing about enjoying the path.  So I think there's something about NLP being a path as opposed to a destination.  I think some people think, if I make this change, my life will be transformed.  There was a quote I've mentioned in training, I think it was Bill O'Hanlon, that the purpose, he was referring to hypnosis, I believe, or  psychotherapy, that the purpose was to go from doing the same damn thing over and over again, to doing one damn thing after another.  So, it's not getting rid of the damn things, because they're always there, but having a way of handling the challenges, of dealing with challenges.  Or even as seeing things as challenges, as opposed to problems.  This comes into framing things.  People talk about a midlife crisis.  Well, if you think of it as a midlife challenge, then when it happens, what do you need to meet this challenge?  We don't necessarily get to choose our challenges.  But this is my challenge, what am I going to do about it? Instead of feeling bad, complaining, asking why did this happen to me.  Maybe initially that's the response, but after a while, you say, this is the challenge, how am I going to respond to it?  That's very much an attitude, not a technique.  It's also an example of a framing.


NC:  And since we're getting into framing, I know one of the topics we've discussed is framing and public discourse, framing and politics.  There was a shift in the House and Senate in the last election.  Do you think there's a shift in frames that's helping with that?

SL:  There was an article recently in the New York Times about politics and frames.  By the author of Don't Think of an Elephant


NC:  Lakoff.

SL:  Yes, George Lakoff.  And he spoke about how President Bush used the term "stay the course."  And the frame was one of strength.  A strong person stays the course.  And he doesn't flip-flop back and forth.  That was a frame: I'm strong, they're flip-floppers.  But then he couldn't get out of it, and it became inflexibility, rigidness.  In terms of frames, the Republicans seem to set the frames.  For example, the word liberal can be said in so many ways.  [speaks with Rush-Limbaughesque disdain]  "Oh, he's a liberal."  Where it has a negative connotation.  And any word can be spoken, combined with a tone of voice, that makes it derogatory.  There's a book out, Conservatize Me.  [Editor: by John Moe]  The author became a conservative for 30 days.  He read conservative stuff, talked with conservative people.  And in doing it, he wondered if he was going to become more entrenched in his liberal values, or switch, and become more conservative.  What he found was, he discovered some new territory.  By taking on this new frame, he realized that there were many types of conservatives.  He learned, he was opened to many new attitudes.  And he realized that most of what goes on in terms of conversation in politics is just people describing their point of view, describing their model of the world.  And what NLP is about is genuinely listening and being curious about this other model of the world.  How another person thinks and acts and behaves.  In politics, there's a lack of that curiosity.  There's a lack of holding differences.  And what he found is that, by holding differences, and he didn't argue for a month, he listened, he paid attention, and in paying attention it expanded his map.  If you look on TV and radio, you don't have people listening to each other.  You have two people arguing a point.  And one of his points was, even if you win an argument, even if you make a point, a few minutes later the person recoups, and they come back to their attitude.  In communication, whether it's a husband and wife, or boss and employee, or Republican and Democrat in Senate, are they listening?  I think that should be a standard by which people judge the people they're electing.  If a representative is not a good listener, they're not going to be likely to follow a middle ground, which we need.  You can have activists on the Right and activists on the Left, but if you're going to find something that includes everyone's attitude, you need good listeners.  And that means a willingness to suspend, or put aside, your own model of the world, and take on another model.  That's what NLP teaches.  For me, that's what it's all about.  To look at how I can think of myself or the world or other people in a new way.  To be open to that.  There's an openness, a receptivity, to taking on a new map.  And if you don't know your own map, it's hard to distinguish between your own map and someone else's.  And when people are good communicators, they usually pick up when they're with someone who discounts their map.  When I'm with someone who isn't really listening to me, I'm not very interested in continuing too talk.  Why talk if they're not listening?  Unless I can get them to listen.


NC:  I know you have a session coming up soon, so we'll start wrapping up.  Any advice you have for people just starting out in NLP, putting together their own class offerings, and building their own therapy or coaching practices?

SL:  It's an ongoing process.  You're going to to learn, you're going to learn a lot, and you don't have to know everything.  Just stick with it.


NC:  If you could go back in time to when you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself?

SL:  If I could really go back, the advice I would give him is "Based on how my life has turned out, you obviously do not need my advice."

NC:  Thanks, Steve.


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