NLP Storytelling Doug O’Brien

NLP Stories and Metaphor | Doug OBrien
NLP Storytelling Doug O’Brien

Michael : Good afternoon Doug. Firstly thank you very much for coming back yet again to talk to us this time about metaphor.

Doug : My pleasure Michael, thank you again for having me.

Michael : Excellent. Can you give us a brief introduction of who you are again, just in case anyone didn’t catch the other podcast.

Doug : Sure. I’m Doug O’Brien I’m a NLP trainer and hypnosis trainer in New York city.

Michael : How would you define metaphor?

Doug : Strictly speaking a metaphor is a simile – an analogy that is not using the word ‘like’, or ‘as’. So for an example if I were to say ‘I am a rock’ that’s a metaphor – I’m not really a rock. But if I were to say ‘I’m like a rock’ that’s a simile or analogy.

A metaphor is a stronger, if you will, representation of a situation or a person, that’s not strictly speaking, objective, it’s more subjective representation. And its useful in therapeutic situations, when I person wants a new suggestions and ideas, that are indirect to a client.

Michael : Can you give some examples – some fairly short examples of sorts of themes and sorts of mini-metaphors that you would use?

Doug : Well, gosh, you know it’s really dependant on the content and the situation. What specifically you’d want to use in what content or situation. In other words, therapeutically you might choose different suggestions and different metaphors then you would use in a business context.

But they’re useful everywhere, and everyone should use them whatever business or context they are in. So whether your business is people-helping and you’re using therapeutic metaphors, or you’re using them in business and you’re using them to enlighten your talks.

Michael : And what impact do you think stories have?

Doug : Well I believe that it gives people in a sense, permission, to think in a different way. It’s an over-used cliche at this point, but ‘thinking outside the box.’ But it is still true that most people think inside the box, if you will. In other words, a metaphor comes from a puzzle that has nine dots drawn in a shape, and you take these nine dots and you give someone the instruction to connect these dots with four straight lines. Without doubling back off the line or taking their pen off of the paper.

And most people fail because they think that the box is a parameter, that they have to stay within that. In order to solve the problem you need to go outside those dots – you need to go outside the self imposed restriction of what looks like a box. You can go way outside.

So it’s a great metaphor – to go outside those nine dots to think differently and create a response. Now the idea that Einstein once said I believe is that the same level of thinking that got you into a problem won’t get you out of the problem, you have to expand and change your way of thinking.

And metaphors allow you to do that, they allow people to do that, give them permission to do that. In fact it sorts of forces people to do that – because if you’re offering them a metaphor, in order for them to make sense of it their brain has to think in a very very different way.

Michael : So building on what you’ve already said to some extent, just give us some specific uses for metaphors – maybe for more things than thinking outside the box or even of examples of where thinking outside the box could be useful.

Doug : OK. One of my teachers, Dave Dobson recently passed away, so I’m thinking a lot about what he taught me over the years, and one of the metaphors that he used is that he’s a pebble-kicker. People would ask him ‘Dave, how do you do therapy? How do you do change work in people?’

And he said ‘Well I am a pebble kicker. I’m a guy that’s standing outside of a mountain, and I’m kicking pebbles,’ Pebbles would mostly fall down and stop and not do anything, but every now and again you’d kick one of those pebbles and it skittles, that maybe have accumulated from previous kicks of yours, and those collective pebbles start to scutter down and find some bigger rocks, and those collective rocks fall down and start to hit some bigger rocks and some boulders, and pretty soon you’ve changed the whole face of the mountain.

See, I think that is how you do therapy.

Because it’s telling people that whatever you do with a client, you’re not sure you’re going to change them – you’re not sure what you’re client is going to do with that information. It’s very disrespectful I think, to have a client, as a person doing psychology or NLP practitioner or something to say ‘I’m going to change him!’ or ‘I fixed him.’

‘I fixed him?’ I don’t think so! What you did is offered them an opportunity for them to fix or change themselves – we as therapists are pebble-kickers, we must keep kicking pebbles.

You know, Erickson told a very similar story actually. Somebody asked him the same question – ‘How do you do psychotherapy?’ ‘How do you change work with someone?’ and he said:

“Well, when I was a boy, I was always walking home with my friends, and it’s quite a distance, back then – we had to walk quite a way. And as we were walking home suddenly this horse came running by – it was a white horse – nobody from our group recognised it. And it ran into one of the farmers’ field and started drinking water out of the farmers trough.
And the farmer came running out and said:

‘Hey! Get your horse out of my trough!”

and we said

“Well that’s not our horse!”

“Well where did he come from?”

“Well we don’t know!”

And Erickson said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure it gets home properly.’

So Erickson jumped onto the horses back and he directed the horse back to the road. And basically said ‘Giddy up’. The horse headed in that direction – but giving it free range of where ever it wanted to go. Every now and then that horse would stop and start eating some daisies, or get distractions, so Erickson would pull it’s head back up and get it to put its’ attention back on the road. And after a while the horse turned left and headed down another road – and followed that, and turned right down another road – and then walked into this other farms field.

The farmer came to round it up and went:

“Hey, what are you doing with my horse? How did you know where to bring him?”

And Erickson said “I didn’t know where to bring him, but I knew that the horse knew. And all I had to do was keep it’s attention on the road.”

And he looked at the people that were listening to him, wondering what the hell he meant. and he said:

“I think that’s how you do psychotherapy.”

Michael : Ok, a different sort of question. In NLP, emotion states, or physical/emotional states are very important, when you tell stories or metaphors, do you tend to build in different states? And different sequences of states?

Doug : That’s a great question. Do I do that? In certain circumstances. For example when I do these seminars across the country to help people quit smoking or to loose wait. For situations we’re in, I absolutely do that. That is my goal, is top chain states together.

So I’ll start a story, and I’ll start on one side of the room, to spatially anchor the story and the state that that place elicits on one side of the room. It might be a state for frustration, because the person that has tried to quit smoking or tried to loose weight often has the feeling of frustration, it’s common to the people that are listening to the stories.

So I’ll tell a story about that, and anchor that on, say, the right side of the room. And then I’ll tell another story, that has maybe, nothing to do with the first story. This kind of open-loop idea. But it elicits, a state again, that is of curiosity, lets say – and then I’ll anchor that in this next place, across, closer to the centre of the room, from the original anchor.

Then I’ll anchor a third state, and I’ll start wandering – walk over to the third place. It’s a little further to the left for them. And I’ll tell a story about when I felt determined, and I felt absolutely determined to make something happen.

Then I’ll tell a fourth story and I’ll walk to the far left side of the room, where I get into a flow state, and make things happen. And if it feels really good I’ll make it a recursive thing where I – the more that I do the better it feels – or the better it feels, the more that i do. And I start a story like that.

And then I’ll start suggesting that they might want to exercise, for example. so I’ll walk over to the right side of the room and I’ll start talking to them about exercising, and about how sometimes there’s a feel of frustration and then I’ll sort of go through a scenario that might be a suggestion and rehearse within their mind, what they’re going to be doing – starting from frustration going to a place of curiosity – going to a place of determination – and a place of ‘Wow, they’re working out every day!’

I’ve move across the room to these anchored spots based on those previous stories that I’ve told.

What I’m trying to accomplish is that the feelings, these states, that I’ve attempted to engender and illicit from the crowd by telling those stories in the first place, are now anchored to those spots on the floor. So now if I go back and start to talk about exercise and weight loss, and I start talking about the idea of ‘oh gosh, diets don’t work’ and ‘I’ve been here before and it’s been so frustrating’ and telling a story that they’ve had experience with. and it’s also been frustrating.

So they’re feeling that feeling of frustration, when I’m talking about this or that, and I step into the next step which is a feeling of curiosity and shift my own tonality and I shift my body and I’m standing in a different spot, congruent with that state of curiosity – so hopefully everyone in the audience is also getting that too – that feeling, that shift, to a state of curiosity.

And I’ll be talking about maybe next week, tomorrow, whatever, it might be that they might get curious about what form of exercise they might like to do, whether it’s whistling, or swimming or dancing, or anything – drumming – anything which moves the body. So maybe they’ll say ‘huh, you know what? I’m going to do that?’

Then they’ll go on from explaining what they might do tomorrow – I’ll walk to the next place on the floor and determination is there – yet again shifting my physiology as to sort of model that state of determination – changing my tonality for that as well, which I earlier used when I told my third story, about determination.

And then finally, get to that forth place. Where we’re in this, recursive, flow state, where every time I do it I feel good so I so more of it and I’m talking about that flow of exercising everyday and gosh it feels so good to move. You body wants to move! your body was made to move! And the more that you move and I’m in that forth space on the floor where they’re really responding to that state.

Then I might even go back and do that a couple of more times, so they really get that chain – every time they feel frustrated we go to curious – every time they’re curious we go to determined – Every time they feel determined they go into that flow state. So it becomes a chain that goes from ultimately – one direction, from frustration straight through to flow.

Michael : So in the future when they become frustrated, they’ll automatically go through that chain?

Doug : Odds are much better.

Michael : Odd are much better.

What other things do you do, if you’re sitting down specifically designing a metaphor – you come up with a possibility of doing sequencing of states – is there anything else that you might think about as you design the metaphor?

Doug : Again it depends on the context. If I’m doing a business consultation, for example recently I did a couple for a company here in New York city, and it was about customer service, and typical things and they typically get these trainings over the years, so I wanted to be a little bit different – so I sat down and thought ‘well what does a person in customer service come up against on a regular basis?’

And I had known some of these people for a while so I was able to question them and find out what they did come up against in real life – and again I wanted them to think outside the box because one of the things that Dave Dawson taught me is that if the metaphor that you come up with is obvious then the person doesn’t really have to think about it – they just go ‘Oh yeah, I know what you mean!’ It’s like taking advice. And advice is cheap. Therapy should cost good money.

What he said is if the metaphor is a little bit more obscure – I don’t think he used that word – but a little further afield, not so obvious, then the person really has to chew on it, think about it – and those inner wheels keep turning.

So I wanted it to be a little stranger, or less obvious of a metaphor. So I started thinking, if I was in that situation, if I was in customer service, I make these calls – I hear a problem but I wasn’t really able to solve it for them for another couple of weeks – that was the situation that they were running into – what would that be like?

And I thought to myself ‘Ok, what would be another person, what would be another situation where people would be in situations like that?’

So I thought maybe a waiter in a restaurant, maybe a bartender where people wanted a certain scotch that wasn’t available a lot. Some sort of situation – I was first thinking which people, and then I thought further afield – I thought ‘What about animals? What sort of animal might be in that situation?’ Maybe a cow that was watching a particular type of hay, or clover, but it was only March and the clover hadn’t grown yet, and he was frustrated.

And then I thought even further afield. What if it was an object? What if it was an inanimate object that I was going to give a little life to, maybe it was a bicycle that wanted new wheels. Maybe it was a car, that wanted new seat covers, or as frustrated that it needed a new paint job.

So I started to find some stories that would make the metaphor less obvious to the listener, so they would have to keep thinking ‘What was that story about bicycles all about? We’re talking about customer service!” So they’d be thinking about it, more and more and more.

Because when you do that, the unconscious mind really does have to keep turning and wondering, where as if it’s totally obvious it’ll go ‘Yeah. Yeah, I know what you mean.’ and you might as well be giving them advice. What’s the difference?

The conscious mind can say yes or no.

Michael : How did you learn to tell metaphors or make up metaphors?

Doug : Part of it is my heritage, I think. A little Irish there. But it’s also, I learned it from people. I learned it from Dave Dawson. I learned it by reading Milton Ericksons’ stories, I learned it by taking seminars from David Gordan who wrote the book on therapeutic metaphor after studying with Erickson. I wanted to learn about it so I read about it, I tried, and wrote ones.

I was a musician, back in the day, and this might be a metaphor, I don’t know – I’ll let you decide. Back in my youth I was a musician, I was a music major in college. and I learned back then that if you wanted to get good at something, wanting it wasn’t enough, you actually had to sit down and practice. And curiously, the more you practiced the better you got. A pretty curious phenomenon, but it appears to be true that the more you practice the better you get.

So I applied that from time to time in my life, outside of music, in say metaphors. So I listened to, I listen to storytellers, like Garrison Keillor who does a radio show over here called the Prairie Home companion, where every week he just gets up there and tells a story, maybe from five minutes to half an hour, where he’s just telling fictional stories about a place in the Midwest called Lake Wobegon – and started to listen to his stories, and how he captured the audiences attention, not just with his stories, but also with how how he told them, the infliction that he used, the pacing that he gave.

And I listened to Erickson tapes and videos, I watched the first ten seminars with Dave Dawson and other various people. Tony Robins was my first NLP trainer, a masterful story teller. Richard Bandler, masterful story teller.

So I listened, and I tried myself. I thought ‘Let me do that.’. And it’s interesting because when you first start doing it it’s a little uncomfortable as well it should be, because you’re doing it for the first time – but just like driving a car or riding a bicycle, the first time you did it it was difficult, and you get better – and the more that you do it the better you get.

Michael : Before I ask you to give your contact details. Is there anything that you’d like to add about the whole subject of metaphor and story telling?

Doug : Nothing really except I would like to reiterate that it’s not just therapy. The best people in every line of work I think, tell stories. They really do, because it enlivens what they’re talking about.

So whether it’s in business, in management, anywhere. Coaching – stories capture people imagination, and that’s what’s going to be the thing that enlivens anything that you’re talking about. And will make it fascinating and interesting for people to listen.

Michael : Is there anything that you’d like to plug that you’re doing at the moment?

Doug: Well I think I may have mentioned this before, but my website Ericksonian Info – Online Resource about Milton Erickson Hypnosis and Psychotherapyis a real source of pride for me, I think it’s a wonderful source of information on ericksonian hypnosis and various related subject area. We’re got contributors like Steven Gilligan there, and David Gordon, and Robert Gilts, and even outside of NLP and hypnosis, people like Dan Newman.

Ericksonian Info – Online Resource about Milton Erickson Hypnosis and Psychotherapy is the site that I’d like to plug, and also the more commercial site Neuro Linguistic Programming and Ericksonian Hypnotherapy – Douglas O’Brien and Associateswhere you can find out about seminars that I’ll be teaching, things like that.

Michael: And if somebody wants to contact you what’s the best way of doing it?

Doug: Well email is fantastic, they can do just that works very well. and within the united states they can also call toll free on the telephone 877dobrien and that translates to 3627436

Michael: Excellent thank you very much indeed.

Doug : It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

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