Neuro-linguistic Programming Series: Using Logical Levels of Change as a coaching tool Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) in a nutshell can be described as an approach to communication

Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) in a nutshell can be described as an approach to communication and personal development and was created in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder (Tosey & Mathison, 2007; Kyriacou, 2009).  It further embodies the discourse of self-improvement and attends to healthy functioning instead of pathology.


NLP writing and practice was influenced from a wide array of fields such as gestalt therapy, person-centered counselling, transformational grammar, behavioural psychology, cybernetics, Palo Alto School of brief therapy, Eriksonian hypnotherapy and cybernetic epistemology of Gregory Bateson (Tosey, Mathison & Mitchelli, 2005 & Kyriacou, 2009).  Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir were also inspirational to both Bandler and Grinder (founders and principal authors of NLP), due to their reputation for excellence (Tosey, Mathison & Mitchelli, 2005 & Kyriacou, 2009).  Today NLP is not viewed as a uniform field, as Grinder has turned his focus towards the “new code NLP”.


The relationship between NLP and academia has been tenuous and somewhat strained, in part as a result of the anti-theoretical stance of its founders stating that, “We have no idea about the ‘real’ nature of things, and we’re not particularly interested in what’s ‘true’. The function of modeling is to arrive at descriptions which are useful,” (Bandler & Grinder, 1979, p.7).

“NLP assumes that people act according to the way they understand and represent the world, not according to the way the world is.”

According to Tosey, Mathison and Mitchelli (2005), NLP’s content may appear highly eclectic, but it will not be fruitful to attempt to reconcile the contents of its models and frameworks.  It rather presents as a methodology as opposed to a research method and offers a more specific analysis of subjective experience than is available from other phenomenological methods.  NLP assumes that people act according to the way they understand and represent the world, not according to the way the world is, which is aptly recapitulated in Korzybski’s(1958) dictum, “the map is not the territory”.  As such, it supports the constructivist principle that people create their own reality – focusing on form rather than content.The purpose of this article is to explore one of the models offered by NLP, namely the Logical Levels of Change, proposed by Robert Dilts.  According to Dilts, his model is based on Bateson’s five orders of learning.  He recaps them as follows (Bateson, 1972):

  • Zero learning is characterised by specificity of response, which, right or wrong, is not subject to correction;
  • Learning I is change in specificity of response by correction of errors of choice within a set of alternatives;
  • Learning II is change in the process of Learning I, e.g., a corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choice is made, or it is a change in how the sequence of experiences is punctuated;
  • Learning III is change in the process of Learning II, e.g., a corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made; and
  • Learning IV would be change in Learning III, but probably does not occur in any adult living organism.

Robert Dilts’ (Dilts & Epstein, 1995), model of neurological levels indicates a useful methodology in changing world views.  However, Dilts purports that the model is based on systemic theory – which in itself is a fundamental flaw.  The flaw resides in the name “logical” and the structure – that there are different levels involved.  To clarify this point further it should be noted that in systems theory, a system (Ackoff, 1994, pp. 18-25) is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts, because every part of a system has properties that it loses when separated from the system, and every system has some properties that none of its parts do.

Ackoff (1994) further expands on this definition, stating that a system is a set of two or more elements that satisfies the following three conditions:

  1. ​The behaviour of each element has an effect on the behavior of the whole;
  2. The behaviour of the elements and their effects on the whole are interdependent; and
  3. However, subgroups of the elements are formed, each has an effect on the behavior of the whole and none has an independent effect on it.

The environment of a system consists of those things that can affect the properties and performance of that system, but over which it has no control. In systems theory information flows back and forth across the boundary between the system and its environment. Dilts’ logical levels model places parts of the system in a control or dominator hierarchy. This is anti-systemic.  Furthermore, Dilts’ placement of the environment in his hierarchy makes no sense in terms of systems theory (Woodsmall, 2009).


Nonetheless, that being said, Dilts’ model presents as a useful organising principle or a list of factors to consider in a change context.  It provides a convenient diagram and set of alternatives for intervention.  It is simple and seemingly straight forward and is associated with a set of questions that makes it easy to recognise (Woodsmall, 2009). It invokes Bateson and gives an ostensible impression of being both scientific and cybernetic.

Herewith a brief introduction and explanation of Dilts’ six levels model (Kyriacou, 2009):

  1. Environment
  2. Behaviour
  3. Capability
  4. Belief
  5. Identity
  6. Spirit

The model is presented as a hierarchical network and denotes that change at a higher level has more far-reaching consequences for the person in that it is likely to affect an increasingly wide range of beliefs, capabilities and behaviours (Tosey, Mathison & Mitchelli, 2005; Kyriacou, 2009).

NLP suggests that significant change to one’s map of the world may be new views of cause and meaning, which suggests that the individual re-configures the causal relationships between the parts of their map.  As such, it is consistent with transformative learning (change of understanding about the world) and also corresponds to the belief level in Dilts’ model (Dilts & Epstein, 1995).

The following is an illustration of the logical levels:

Dilts presents the model as a pyramid; each level is a category or set containing the level directly below.  In addition a higher level cannot develop without the immediate level below and a change at any level will impact on those above and below.  However, a higher level change tends to have more effect on the lower levels than vice versa.  When all the levels are supported by the level above, this means the levels are aligned (Woodsmall, 2009).

From the psychological point of view there seems to be five levels that one works with most often:


  1. The basic level is your environment, your external constraints.
  2. You operate in that environment through your behavior.
  3. Your behavior is guided by your mental maps and your strategies, which define your capabilities.
  4. These capabilities are organised by belief systems.
  5. Beliefs are organised by identity (Dilts, 1990).​

As such, when coaching a person who is experiencing a challenge, you may explore whether the difficulty is coming from the external context, or perhaps the individual doesn’t have the required sort of behaviour, alternatively the person may lack the belief or have a conflicting belief that acts as an obstacle to the outcome.  Finally, is there interference at the level of identity?  These become very important distinctions for anyone working in the areas of learning, communication or change (Dilts, 1990).  Think of an example like postponing a specific task, because you believe you are not capable of doing it.  This example can be viewed as being on the behaviour level – What does the person do (behaviour)? and the intervention can be aimed at the capability level – What skills, abilities and competencies does the person require to do the task?  Alternatively, the intervention can be pitched on the belief level – What is important to the individual?; How do they see themselves?; What would facilitate the accomplishment of their ultimate goal in life?  The latter being the most challenging intervention from the perspective of the coach.

Change becomes more difficult and requires more skill and time as the logical level increases.  From an efficiency point of view it is best to solve the problem at the lowest level possible, which requires the easiest intervention.  If the required progress is not achieved, one would shift one level higher and address the problem at that level and evaluate whether the desired change has occurred (Kyriacou, 2009).

It is also important to take note that a higher level of change may be necessary in order to effect a lower level change, but it does not automatically create the change.  One of the most powerful uses of the logical levels model is in seeking solutions to problems.  “Einstein’s notion that a problem cannot be solved on the level in which it was created” is a key driver of Dilts’ model (Cheal, 2007).

The following paragraphs provide a guideline to identify the logical levels (Cheal, 2007; Kyriacou, 2009; Dilts & De Lozier, 2000):

Spirituality – Whom do I serve and for what purpose?

The spirituality level connects you with the ‘bigger picture’ – where you question your own purpose, ethics, mission or meaning in life.  It focuses on the questions about existence and purpose.  This level tends to run everything that lies below and is left fairly open to interpretation.  It relates to how the individual experiences it on a personal level.


Identity – Who am I and do I reflect that in the way I live?

If values are viewed as policies for the self, the identity level is your evaluation of your ability to implement such policies.  One may have pre-installed filters that may become a network of filters, providing a way to prove over and over, how the specific self-belief is true.

The rest of the NLP levels, besides the value level, are all about choosing your behaviour and suggests a separation between the person and the actions.  The work within the coaching context for example, is situated around synchronising the individual’s behaviour with his/her values.  This facilitates a new programme or network for success, which replaces the old programme or map that was not supporting optimal performance, initially.


Values & Beliefs – Why do I make these changes?

Values can be thought of as important to us, almost fundamental policies for the self that define who we are.  Things become important to us when we believe they can facilitate the accomplishment of our ultimate goal in life.  Being individualistic, values cannot be affected by applying a one size fits all approach.  Values describe what you expect of yourself and how you describe yourself as a person, while your behaviour is what you do.  As such, values and beliefs drive us and influence or lower levels of capability, behaviour and provide us with the internal permission to change.

When an individual’s values are in conflict, internal challenges may emerge.  As such, guilt kicks in when our core values are challenged or even entirely absorbed by our destructive patterns.  Instead of then viewing guilt as an indictment of character, it should rather be viewed as a testimony of character. For example, when addressing or challenging feelings of guilt (which are linked with values), one can ask the coachee to mention five things they feel guilty about and in turn translate this into five good things about themselves (their values).  Guilt generally presents as an indication that a person is breaking their own rules, or not living up to their standards of conduct.  As with physical pain, guilt, tells you when you are moving in the wrong direction and as such may be viewed as a form of pain that tells you when your behaviour is out of sync with your values.

Beliefs are included at this level as you believe in your values and you value your beliefs.  Furthermore, beliefs are present at all levels.  One has beliefs about the environment, your behaviour, your values, beliefs about beliefs, about identity and about spirituality.  As such, beliefs have an impact on all the logical levels.  Beliefs may be unhealthy or irrational and limiting to us, but we may still be unable to let go of them.  Possibly because limiting beliefs existed since we were very young and continued to strengthen over the course of our lives due to self-reinforcing experiences.


Capabilities & Skills – How do I make these changes?

This level refers to the skills and abilities that we currently possess to achieve the changes we want.  The required skills that we have not yet learned must also be considered at this level, in order to make the needed changes.  The requirement is that we practice these skills repetitively in order to gain competence and mastery with them.


Behaviour – What do I need to change?

This level refers to what you think about, as well as your actions.  We often have a deeply ingrained problem network such as depression or anxiety and that may be the phenomenon we spend the most time thinking about – every time the problem network is activated.  As such, we will have to install, learn and practice solution-oriented behaviours and attitudes.


Environment – Where do I need change?

The environment is where we are surrounded by people, places and things that support our behaviour and habits.  We have built these external networks and / triggers, which can often keep us stuck in our problems and may need to be removed or altered if individuals wish to change some aspect of themselves or their lives.


If an individual is faced with a specific problem/challenge and the coach is able to establish the level where it is situated, a lasting solution will tend to be found a level or two above.  For example, if someone behaves inappropriately in a certain environment, one could change the environment, but the inappropriate behaviour remains.  One could suggest an alternative behaviour, but even there is a short term change and the behaviour is likely to return, if something hasn’t changed in the person’s capability. The individual has to have the knowledge of HOW to change, not merely WHAT to change.  Alternatively the individual can practice a skill without effect, but once the person begins to gain confidence and belief in themselves, the skill is more likely to become more lasting (Internet of the mind, 2008).


Although Dilts’ Logical Levels may be theoretically flawed –in stating its foundation in systemic theory – it can be viewed as a profoundly useful guide when addressing the change process in both humans and organisational systems.​



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