Robert Dilts: Dealing with Double Binds - 'No Win To No Lose'
With a long list of books and seminars to his name, as well as worldwide
training courses and the NLP training centre at the University of Santa
Cruz, Robert Dilts is an exemplary leader in the field of NLP. He has modelled
and taught the skills of leadership for over twenty years in various application
areas – business, teaching, therapy, health and personal development.
He has been a pioneer for a very long time, and through his consistent application
of himself to NLP produced remarkable resources that can be shared worldwide.
Now anyone with access to the internet can get hold of the online encyclopedia
of NLP, and there are interactive CD’s forming part of the Practitioner
and Master Practitioner trainings at NLPU in Santa Cruz. He has been thorough
and persistent and generous with his passion for NLP and his resources;
part of his contribution has been in articulating and exploring issues about
being a human, making discussable the language of spirit and community,
both inside organizations and in his worldwide seminars and trainings.
Inspired by his father’s work with patents for inventions, Dilts
has become fascinated by creativity and genius and this has been a major
thread of his work. He has produced three volumes about Strategies of Genius,
from modelling the thinking processes and cognitive strategies of Aristotle
Sherlock Holmes, Walt Disney, Mozart Einstein, Freud, Leonardo da Vinci
and Nikola Tesla. Dilts has been able to describe the structure of thinking
in these men who changed history, and present his findings in creative and
understandable techniques for changing behaviour and beliefs.
Some of his more recent work on coaching and sponsorship has been developed
with Steve Gilligan, a hypnotherapist who was a student of Milton Erickson.
Both Dilts and Gilligan studied with anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the
1970’s, some of whose thinking about epistemology lies in the roots
Bateson was interested in double binds, which are particular kinds of no-win
conflict situations, and he and his colleagues put forward a theory that
these formed the basis of both genius and psychosis. Being mentally and
emotionally trapped in double binds can lead to mental illness, or if they
are dealt with successfully and transcended, genius and creativity. Double
binds can sap creative energy, stop individuals expressing who they are
and what they do, and can lead to feelings of confusion and helplessness.
Dilts is interested in learning and creativity, and has investigated how
to transform double-binds practically using the thinking and tools of NLP.
“In my work with people from many walks of life, I have noticed that
double-binds can come up in many ways – business related, personal,
health-related and emotional. They are challenging, and difficult to address.
Yet when you get beyond them it often leads to integration, productivity
and creative solutions. Everyone gets into double binds and puts others
into them. It’s a phenomenon at the basis of people’s personal
problems and world problems. Finding ways to get out of them is one of the
most important things anyone can do, whether for themselves or as coaches,
counselors, therapists, parents, teachers, and consultants.” says
He cites examples from the business world: in a downsizing situation, managers
are caught in a no-win situation. If they don’t fire people, the company
goes downhill. If they keep people they let the company down too. So, the
managers feel bad if they do fire employees and bad if they don’t.
The situation leads to avoiding the negative, rather than seeking the positive.
Or the case of too high a workload – when you do one task it takes
time away from another; if that second task is needed for the first, either
way you are wrong.
An example from a marriage might be – to maintain the relationship
the wife mustn’t express anger or strong feelings. Yet if those feelings
aren’t expressed then there is avoidance of what is happening in the
relationship. And there may be a judgment by the husband that when the wife
feels angry she is wrong. Dilts quotes a different social example in a couple
where the wife complains that husband doesn’t care about her; he doesn’t
ask her what she thinks. The husband feels like he is being made wrong whatever
he does with his time. He is out earning money and not able to spend time
with her - there is a double bind between the personal and professional.
Gregory Bateson originally defined the double bind as “communication
in the context of an emotionally important relationship in which there is
unacknowledged contradiction between messages of different logical levels.”
(Bateson’s ‘Angels Fear’). There are various examples
of double bind situations cited in Robert’s article in the NLPU Encyclopaedia.
To more fully illustrate the principle here, a charming but clear example
of a double bind provided by Bateson is from the children’s book Mary
Poppins. The Banks’ children and their nanny, Mary Poppins visit a
cookie shop. After entering the shop, they notice a couple of nervous looking
children behind the counter. A few moments later, the children’s mother
comes from the back of the shop and asks them in a reprimanding voice, “Where
are your manners? Have you offered our visitors a cookie?” Realising
they are about to get into trouble, the children respond “Oh no, mother
we will give them a cookie right away.” The mother then says in an
angry voice “And who said you could give away our cookies?”
At this the children behind the counter became visibly distressed. The mother
goes on to humiliate them for their distress, saying “Look at you
cowering like little mice, what’s wrong with you?”
A double bind can be described in detail more technically. (Adapted from
Bateson ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’)
- Two individuals are involved in an intense personal relationship in
which one of them feels under pressure that it is vitally important to
discriminate what sort of message is being communicated so she/he can
respond appropriately. These types of relationships are typically complementary,
where one person is in a position of power – for example parent/child,
teacher/student, boss/subordinate, where the “dependent” individual
cannot survive without the others’ co-operation. They need to “please”
the other to survive.
- The other person, in the “power position”, is expressing
two messages which conflict, and the second is likely to be expressed
- a primary negative injunction: “do not do ‘x’
or I will punish you”. Or “If you do not do ‘x’,
I will punish you.” In our example: if you don’t offer
the others a cookie you have done something wrong.
- a secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract
level, enforced by punishments or consequences which threaten survival.
This second message is commonly communicated non-verbally. In our
example: if you do offer them a cookie you have done something wrong.
- Dilts believes that a third message is key to the structure - whereby
the person in the power position (parent, teacher, boss) implies that
the dependent person is wrong, that he/she is the cause of the problem
situation. This is usually on an identity level. “What is wrong
with this relationship resides in you” “You don’t
care about me” “You are messing with me”. In our
example: your distress about being in a double bind is a sign of a
defect in your character.
- There are three other important elements of a double bind including;
- The “dependent” individual cannot comment on the messages
being expressed – whether because they are not in a position
to understand what is going on, or because they are confused, or because
they are not allowed to meta-communicate.
- There is another negative injunction prohibiting escape from the
situation – survival, love, punishment etc. Therefore they cannot
“leave the field” to reach safety with respect to the
- This is a repeated experience, not a single traumatic event, so
the double bind becomes a habitual expectation.
Double binds can create intense psychological stress, and hence their
potential for interfering with creativity. Most are at the level of beliefs,
beliefs about who we are and judgments at an identity level, which makes
them challenging to resolve. However, if you have the appropriate skills,
double binds can be transcended. Obviously, Dilts sees NLP tools and technology
as a way to provide those skills.
For example, to reduce the intensity of the relationship, we could learn
how to establish emotional independence, develop strong internal self referencing,
acquire a stronger “first-position”, anchor one’s own
resources and practice emotional honesty. To sort out contradictory messages,
we could practice becoming more aware of double messages using NLP tools,
and “thought viruses” embedded in other communication; developing
multiple perspectives, and listening out for particular language patterns,
including different logical levels would help. Sharpening one’s ability
to discriminate between messages directed to different levels of experience
(environment, behaviour, capabilities, beliefs, values and identity) can
automatically help to sort out different levels of messages. Paying attention
to small observable changes in non-verbal cues helps to identify mixed messages,
and being able to track and sort out various types of conflicts is crucial.
Being able to respond differently by “Meta-communicating” would
also reduce the power of the double bind, and give the other person involved
For example in the Mary Poppins story: with maturity, wisdom and many NLP
skills the shopkeeper’s children might have elegantly said “Mother,
we are in a double bind about giving the Banks’ children a cookie.
If we don’t offer them a cookie, and wait to ask you first, we feel
we are wrong because your voice tone implies we have been impolite. If we
do offer a cookie without waiting to ask, we feel we are wrong because your
angry voice implies we have been disobedient.”
We could also remember to separate identity from behaviour, and discover
positive intention behind the parts of the communication. Or find ways to
“leave the field of the double bind” – again taking multiple
perspectives and meta-perspectives, and becoming more cognitively and physically
flexible. By distinguishing between ongoing life events and discrete events
and checking for differences we would keep the situation manageable. Robert
Dilts together with Robert MacDonald have put together an exercise tool
specifically to help people transcend double-binds, which can be found in
the NLP Encyclopaedia.
Just as important as dealing successfully with double binds, we also need
to learn how to create win-wins for ourselves and other people, positive
or therapeutic double binds to help someone create their desired outcome
rather than anxiety. This would make the other person right no matter what
they do. Milton Erickson was a master of utilizing therapeutic double binds
to overcome resistance or induce trance. Once we have mastered the skills
to deal with double binds, that in itself leads to greater confidence.
Says Dilts “Double binds tie up our energy, leaving us nowhere to
go and paralyse our communication. Dealing with them is so related to making
cognitive leaps, reframing. We can help people to deal with problems that
seem unsolvable. This leads to increased productivity, less feeling of being
trapped, more feeling of freedom. Double binds are the opposite of freedom,
but it can go from no-win to no-lose. This can get us into a bigger way
of thinking, bigger context and bigger frame of life. We break free of old
assumptions, frames, identity, constraints”
Interestingly one of the first uses he made of NLP back when he was learning
with Grinder and Bandler was to apply it to political dialogue. His work
now includes invitations to speak to political groups, like the United Nations.
So it seems that Robert has come full circle. He states in the preface to
Volume 111 that “Genius comes from a passionate commitment to the
integration of multiple perspectives”. Long may Dilts’ own genius
continue to influence people world-wide.
Robert Dilts is presenting a seminar for PPD Learning on “Dealing
with Double Binds” in London from Saturday 28th February to Monday
1st March 2004. It is for anyone who wants to enhance these skills in themselves,
or in working with others whether as coaches, counselors, teachers, healers,
consultants and parents.
Article/interview by Sian Pope
Strategies of Genius Vol.III, Robert B Dilts Meta Publications 1995 - Buy
Angels Fear : Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson Rider 1987 - Buy
Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Gregory Bateson Chicago 1972 - Buy
NLPU Encyclopaedia – www.nlpu.com