Submodalities Model, Part 1

Submodalities are one of the predominant models in NLP. They have been used in creating some of the most powerful interventions including the Swish Variations, the Forgiveness Pattern, Mapping Across, the Grief Pattern, and 20 more that I know of. The entire area of Timelines (which we will explore later in this series) is just one area of submodalities.

This first part is a simple explanation and exploratioin of submodalities. You’ll need someone to work with, so enroll a friend or two and have some fun. The elicitation exercise alone is a pretty transformative experience, and having that under your belt, we’ll get into some specific processes using Submodalities in the following weeks!

Drawn from the original 24 Day Trainer’s Manual, this series will visit the material traditionally taught in the classic NLP Practitioner Training. You’ll get the whole “backstory” too, initial framing, instructions, and discussion, just as the Trainers learned to present it! So imagine you are a Trainer, about to teach this to an eager group of whom you are one…and enjoy!


Frames: Early in this training you learned about representational systems. Chunking an experience down by representational system forms the basis for many NLP patterns, as well as the ease with which people can accomplish change. Now we’re going to chunk experience down even farther into submodalities.
Submodalities are the smaller elements within representational systems. Within the visual system are elements such as size, brightness, and distance. Early in this training, you noticed whether someone was making a picture or hearing something. Now if they’re making a picture, you’re going to ask, “How big is it?” “Is it a slide or a movie?” etc.
You have already learned to use several visual submodalities when you learned the phobia technique: association vs. dissociation, size of the picture, black and white vs. color, distance of the picture, etc. In addition to the phobia technique, many of the newer and faster NLP techniques are based on submodalities.
You also used submodalities in Strategies work. Often you found that if you changed the tonality or volume of a voice, or shifted from Vr to Vc (or the reverse), a particular strategy would work much better.
In order to become really flexible in using submodalities to change experience, the first step is to get some experience of the range of submodalities that are available to each of us.
Make sure the group understands the difference between kinesthetic meta responses and kinesthetic tactile and proprioceptive submodalities. The nervous system is composed of two portions: the Central Nervous System which gathers and processes information and moves the body (CNS: the brain and spinal cord, etc.), and the more primitive Autonomic Nervous System which responds automatically to CNS activity with emotional activation (“fight or flight”) and other unconscious physiological responses. Since the organism is a cybernetic system, the ANS responses also loop back to affect the CNS. If you get excited, your breathing may speed up, your fingers tingle, etc. and the CNS can notice these kinesthetic proprioceptive/tactile submodality changes. While it is possible to describe these ANS meta responses with submodalities, these are responses of the autonomic nervous system, which are not under direct conscious control, as the CNS is. This kind of ANS > CNS feedback can sometimes be very important, as when someone decides he’s “scared” when noticing the physiological symptoms of excitement. However, usually we are going to arbitrarily ignore the ANS > CNS feedback loop, and concentrate on the CNS > ANS segment, only because it is useful to do this. We will change submodalities of the CNS input, in order to change autonomic nervous system meta responses. You can also change the submodalities of the kinesthetic tactile system (kinesthetic input) and the kinesthetic proprioceptive system (kinesthetic output and feedback), but even then we want to only use these if they function as causes, rather than effects of ANS activation.
Ask participants to quickly look through the list of submodalities that follow, and ask them to mention any words that they don’t have an experience connected to. Give brief examples or explanations for these, and some of the less familiar ones, even if no one mentions them.


The list below is not complete, and the order of listing is irrelevant. Some of the distinctions listed are actually combinations of more basic distinctions: for instance, “sparkle” is made up of brightness, location, and duration. What distinctions do you make that you can add to this list?

Brightness, size, magnification, color/black and white, saturation (vividness), hue or color balance, shape, location, distance, contrast, clarity, focus, duration, movement (slide/movie), speed, direction of movement, 3 dimensional/flat, perspective or point of view, associated or dissociated, foreground/ background (self/context), frequency or number (simultaneous and/or sequential) (split screen or multiple images), frame/panorama (lens angle), aspect ratio (height to width), orientation (tilt, spin, etc.), density (“graininess” or “pixels”), transparent/opaque, strobe, direction of lighting, symmetry, horizontal or vertical hold, digital (words), sparkle, bulge,…

Pitch, tempo (speed), volume, rhythm, continuous or interrupted, timbre or tonality, digital, associated/dissociated, duration, location, distance, contrast (harmony/dissonance), figure/ground, clarity, number, symmetry, resonance with context, external/internal source, monaural/stereo,…

Pressure, location, extent, texture, temperature, movement, duration, intensity, shape, frequency (tempo), number,…
One useful way to subdivide kinesthetic sensations is the following:
1) Tactile: the skin senses.
2) Proprioceptive: the muscle senses and other internal sensations of posture, breathing, etc.
3) Evaluative meta feelings ABOUT other perceptions or representations, also called emotions, feelings, or visceral kinesthetics because they are usually represented in the abdomen and chest or along the mid line of the torso. These feelings are not direct sensations/perceptions, but are representations derived from other sensations/perceptions.

Olfactory and Gustatory (smell and taste):
The terms used by psychophysics experimenters (sweet, sour, bitter, salt, burnt, aromatic, etc.) probably won’t do you much good. The fading in or out (changes in intensity and/or duration) of a particular taste or smell that programmer identifies as relevant in the client’s experience may be quite useful. Odors and tastes are very powerful anchors for states.

(Trios, 30 minutes total)

Each person in the group thinks of a pleasant experience to use as content. Take turns selecting a submodality from the list to play with. When it is your turn, pick one that seems unusual or unfamiliar to you. Either it’s a distinction you use but never noticed, or it may be one you don’t use, and one that can be a valuable addition to what you are able to do internally. Identify your selection so that everyone in the group can simultaneously try out using that submodality on their pleasant experience, and notice and report what happens. Change only one submodality at a time, from one extreme to the other, to find out how that changes the impact of the experience. (For example, if the submodality is transparency, try varying the image from very opaque to very transparent, noticing what happens to your response as you do so.) Notice particularly the following, as you change the selected submodality:
a. Do any other submodalities automatically shift with it?
b. Does your feeling change, in either quality or intensity?
c. Ask yourself, “In what context might this submodality be useful?” “How could I use this to make my life better?” For instance, if you find that making a pleasant picture dim decreases your feelings, see if dimming will also work to make your feelings about an unpleasant memory picture less intense.
d. Be sure to try changing some Auditory and Kinesthetic distinctions as well as visual ones.

Discussion: “What did you discover/notice?” Everyone has submodalities, and uses them usually unconsciously, and often in ways that make their lives worse, without knowing it. The more you can use them consciously, with direction, the more flexible and skillful you can become. More than any other NLP pattern or distinction, submodalities allow you to run your own brain.
When you changed one submodality, what others (if any, in any rep. system) changed with it? These are usually related to experiences that go together in the external world, and tend to be anchored together internally. For example, things generally appear smaller, dimmer, and less colorful when they move farther away in the real world. In many ways (but not all) your internal world is a faithful map of the external world.
In general, what are the effects of adding submodality distinctions compared to subtracting them? (For instance, adding in color vs. subtracting it.) Adding distinctions creates a richer experience with stronger responses, and vice versa.
Point out that some submodality shifts (association/ dissociation for example) work almost universally the same way for everyone. Others are fairly dependable, while there are also very idiosyncratic responses that only work for a particular person and are probably the result of a more unique personal history.
Dissociation: Earlier in the training we described dissociation as “seeing yourself,” because 1. It is a useful simple way to introduce dissociation, and 2. It is the most useful form of dissociation for achieving personal change. Now we want to broaden the definition of dissociation to refer to any experience you have that is not associated. Any experience that is at a distance and separated from you in any way is dissociated, whether you see yourself or not. If you imagine a familiar landscape the way you actually see it associated, you can create dissociation by framing it as if it were a photograph on a wall. As you do this, typically it will get smaller, and flatter, possibly losing color and detail, etc. Many of these other submodality shifts can also be used to establish and maintain dissociation.
Analog/Digital distinctions. Analog functions vary continuously from zero to infinity, such as size or brightness. Digital functions are categorical, “either or” “step function” distinctions. An image is either associated or dissociated, for example.
Simple threshold: An everyday example of a threshold is that you can chill water until it reaches the freezing point. At that threshold it undergoes a qualitative change, turning into ice. Did you notice that sometimes you can change an analog submodality continuously and get a digital shift in the response? For example, as you increased the speed of a voice, your response intensified and then changed in quality to laughter, as the voice began to sound like “the chipmunks.” Keep this in mind when you ask someone to brighten a picture for example, in order to get a stronger response to a resource state. You don’t want him to brighten it so much that he goes over threshold and the response changes in quality.
If you want your client to associate with a picture, you can often change one or more analog submodalities until they “pop” into the picture. When you make a dissociated picture closer and closer (or more and more colorful, or panoramic, etc.), at some point you will find yourself associated into it.

Frame: Next we want to demonstrate a simple example of how to use submodalities to anchor a resource process and “map across” to another content area.

Next Week:

Drawn from the original 24 Day Trainer’s Manual, this series visits the material traditionally taught in the classic NLP Practitioner Training.
Copyright (c) 1986, 1987, Connirae & Steve Andreas, (hereinafter, “C & S Andreas”) 2897 Valmont Rd., Boulder, CO 80301. All rights reserved. Copyright (c) 1998, 2001 NLP Comprehensive, PO Box 648, Indian Hills, CO 80454

0 thoughts on “Submodalities Model, Part 1”

  1. Dear Tom

    I must pass on that this new ezine prototype is fantastic. To recap on submodalities was a much needed refresher and a little himbling to realise I’d forgotten a little too much for my likening. I did have a couple of clarification questions that I hope you can assist with:
    In laymans terms could you please clarify kinesthetic meta responses and kinesthetic tactile and proprioceptive submodalities, as I got lost in the explanation provided.

    Secondly, have you written or are you going to write an article on the Belief Change Pattern using SMD’s. I ask this from my experience as limiting beliefs is an area that seems to stop people really getting closer to reaching their potential.

    I look forward to hearing back from you and reading Part 2 on Submodalities.

    Have a wonderful day.

    Grant Leach
    New Zealand

  2. Hi Grant,

    My apologies, I missed your comment and questions. Here are some definitions from our glossary of NLP:

    Kinesthetic – The sense of feeling. May be subdivided into tactile feelings (Kt = skin sensing physically feeling the outside world (pressure, temperature, vibration), proprioceptive feelings (Kp = movement, internal body sensations such as muscle tension or relaxation), and meta feelings (Km = “emotional” responses about some object, situation or experience). (See “Representational Systems.”)
    To proprioceptive I would add balance.

    And yes, I will be doing a series on the Submo Belief Change. 😉


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