Clarity through Curiosity

Tale of the Day:
Sometimes all that’s needed is the right kind of listening

Last month I taught the Meta Model in the Real World NLP Practitioner Training in Winter Park, CO. For those of you unfamiliar with the Meta Model, in a nutshell the Meta Model is all about being curious and gathering detailed information about someone else’s experience, rather than simply filling in the gaps ourselves and assuming we know what the other person is talking about. For example, When someone tells you “I just went on vacation,” you get a certain image in your mind. Then when they say, “It was great, I just wish I’d brought another down parka,” you may be wondering what the heck they’re talking about. Likely as not you didn’t start off by picturing a vacation place cold enough to require even a single down parka, much less two, but it turns out their vacation was climbing Mount Everest. Information gathering is key before beginning any personal change process so that we make sure we don’t try to “fix” something that wasn’t ever broken.

For example, I had a client come and see me and the first thing he said was, “I want to get my acupuncture business going, but I can’t get motivated to start it.” At this point I could have asked no more and simply jumped right in using one of a number of NLP change processes to give him the motivation he lacked. Instead, I started by being curious about this other person’s unique experience, and I asked questions to gather more information about him rather than assuming I already understood.

“What stops you from being motivated?” I asked.

He told me he already had another full-time business that he ran, and a family with three kids with whom he wanted to spend more time. He also had travel goals he wanted to accomplish, a daily health and fitness plan that was important to him… The more I listened, the more I realized this was not an unmotivated person. If I hadn’t asked these questions, I might have pictured him sitting around on the couch all day watching TV, but in fact he was doing all sorts of things that were important to him. He simply didn’t have the time to do everything he wanted to do. This wasn’t about motivation, it was about prioritization.

“It sounds like you have a lot you’re already doing,” I said, “And stepping into your shoes, I’m starting to feel pretty unmotivated myself. If I were living your life I don’t think I’d want to add a whole new business into the mix, unless I let go of something else. But as I listen to you, it sounds like everything else you’re doing in your life is really important to you. So I’m wondering, what would happen if you simply decided to wait 6 months to even think about starting that acupuncture business? What would happen if you wrote a note in your calendar six months out that says, “Check in about acupuncture business.” Then you could forget about it for six months, knowing that 6 months from now you’ll see that note and be able to decide then whether it’s the right time to start it, or whether it still makes sense to postpone it another 6 months.”

“Oh, man,” he said, “I feel relieved already!” We were talking on the phone, and I could hear the relief in his voice. “I’ve had this anxious knot in my chest for the last couple months,” he added. “When you offered that suggestion the knot just relaxed and melted away. I feel great! You’re right. Everything else in my life is more important to me right now, and as much as I’d love to start that new acupuncture business, now’s just not the right time. Thank you so much!”

That was all we did. If I had rushed on to an NLP change process to give him motivation, it would have either failed due to not being a good match for his actual problem, or worse it might have succeeded, adding much more conflict and stress into his life by taking time away from his wife and kids as well as his other business and his personal goals.

Sign up for a session with Mark at or call 303-810-9611 for a free 15-minute consult.

Tool of the Day:
Helping others gain clarity by listening with curiosity

The next time you encounter a friend who has a problem, pause before trying to challenge it (“That’s not true, people love you”) or fix it (“Well, what I do is this…”). First, see what happens when you simply listen with curiosity and empathy while asking clarifying, information-gathering questions such as:

“What happened…?” “When exactly…?” “Where…?” “Who specifically was there…?” “How did it happen…?” “How did he make you angry…?” “How do you know productivity is down…?” “Who is producing what and how are they doing it…?” “What stops you from already getting what you want…?” “What would happen if you did do it…?” “According to whom…? Who said it was impossible to heal…?” “Always…? Are there any times when it’s different…?”

Most people like sharing their experience, and will feel good when you ask more details about it rather than assuming you already know what they’re talking about. Let’s say a friend says, “All men are total jerks!” Instead of challenging the statement or offering a solution, see what happens when you ask clarifying, information-gathering questions like, “What men are jerks…? Was someone a jerk to you today…? Who…? How was he a jerk…?” When I ask these questions to get a clear picture of someone else’s experience, not only does it show them I’m interested in what they have to say, but it starts to clarify the picture for them also. They have to see a clearer picture in order to answer the questions. So just listening, and asking the right questions, is in itself a powerful intervention. The other person will begin to make more distinctions, such as who specifically was a jerk to them, and how. This clearer picture is something they can begin to do something about, whereas, “All men are jerks,” is a problem that no one can solve.

I hope you play with this and let me know what you discover.

A bit more about asking clarifying, information-gathering questions:

The right kind of information gathering ensures that we don’t work toward solving something that isn’t actually a problem, or give someone a “solution” they think they want, but which may actually make their life worse. While gathering this information, it’s important to do it from a place of connection and curiosity about the other person’s experience. This may seem obvious, but it wasn’t always taught this way.

Historically, the NLP Meta Model information-gathering questions have been taught as questions that can be used to “challenge” what the speaker is saying, and thus get the speaker to acknowledge a clearer and more detailed picture of reality. But “challenging” someone often doesn’t go over very well. No one likes to be cross examined. (Many people know what this is like from when their parents did it to them as kids.) If we use these clarifying questions with an agenda, or with a challenging or judgmental tone of voice, they will tend to backfire. The other person will tend to get defensive, concluding something like: “This person is being pretty insensitive, why should I listen to them?” or, “Yep, all men are jerks, and you are too!”

Luckily there is nothing inherently challenging or judgmental about any of the information-gathering questions. It’s all a matter of how you ask them. They can be experienced as an Inquisition, but they can also be experienced as the deepest form of empathy and care and connection. It all depends on the voice tone, body language and intent of the person asking the questions. Just remember a time when you had intense curiosity about an incredible story someone told you. A time when you just couldn’t stop asking questions about this story because you had to know all the details. Without knowing it, you were naturally using many of the Meta Model information-gathering questions. My guess is you were using these questions not in a challenging way, but with deep curiosity and connection with the storyteller.

When asked from a place of curiosity and connection, these information-gathering questions can be one of the best ways you can gain rapport with someone else. Sometimes the other person will even solve their problem on their own, due to the clarity they gained by responding to your curiosity.

Sign up for a session with Mark at or call 303-810-9611 for a free 15-minute consult.

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