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Philip H. Mandel - NLP Coach and Hypnotherapist

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Perceptual Positions

Some of the basic concepts of NLP have been in use for quite some time by some unlikely scientific celebrities, such as Nobel Prize nominee Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995), developer of the Salk vaccine for polio. Dr. Salk used the concept of "perceptual positions" in his work with viruses and cancer cells. Here are Dr. Salk's own words, from Anatomy and Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason (Columbia University Press, NY, NY, 1983):

"I do not remember exactly at what point I began to apply this way of examining my experience, but very early in my life I would imagine myself in the position of the object in which I was interested. Later, when I became a scientist, I would picture myself as a virus, or a cancer cell, for example, and try to sense what it would be like to be either. I would also imagine myself as the immune system, and I would try to reconstruct what I would do as an immune system engaged in combating a virus or cancer cell.

"When I had played through a series of such scenarios on a particular problem and had acquired new insights, I would design laboratory experiments accordingly. I soon found myself in a dialogue with nature using viruses, immune systems, and other phenomena to ask questions in the form of experiments and then waiting for the answer. Based upon the results of the experiment, I would then know what questions to ask next, until I learned what I wanted to know, or until I went as far as I could go. When I observed phenomena in the laboratory that I did not understand, I would also ask questions as if interrogating myself: "Why would I do that if I were a virus or a cancer cell, or the immune system?" Before long this internal dialogue became second nature to me; I found that my mind worked this way all the time."

Of course, Dr. Salk had no knowledge of NLP when he developed the polio vaccine since NLP had not yet been created. Nevertheless, he found himself using "second perceptual position" as a way of acquiring new insights. In NLP, second position is a particular way of stepping into another person's shoes. By contrast, when I am in first position, I am fully in my body, knowing my own feelings, needs and desires. When I put myself in second position with another person, I imagine what it is like to be that person - with his family history, employed in his job, being his age, and so on. If done fully and completely, it provides a rich, full representation of what it is like to be the other person, providing an understanding of his feelings, needs and desires. What Dr. Salk did was to go second position with virus cells, cancer cells, and the human immune system. Clearly, he was able to make use of this skill to great advantage since it helped him develop the polio vaccine. The vaccine has likely been responsible for reducing the incidence of polio as much as 95% and preventing innumerable cases throughout the world.

With NLP, in addition to first and second positions, we also commonly use the perspective of "third position," which is an enlightened observer perspective - like the proverbial fly on the wall, but with true knowledge and empathy gained from having first experienced the other two perspectives.

An NLP process called "Aligning Perceptual Positions" provides a way for an individual to experience each of these three perspectives to gain insight and compassion for others, particularly when there is a relationship of difficulty. I sometimes use this process with clients when they have trouble standing up for themselves in a personal or professional relationship, or when they are stuck in one particular position (for example, co-dependence is the state of being stuck in second position).

I invite your questions and comments on perceptual positions or any other NLP-related topic. As always, if there is a particular issue you would like to address with me, please don't hesitate to ask.

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