Interview with Charles Faulkner

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Charles Faulkner (USA) is a second generation NLPer considered by many to be the theoretically most profound researcher and – for sure . the best educated intellectual  in the field. His in-depth analyzing approach has a huge potential to lay the ground for a re-establishing of NLP as a research technology.

Unfortunately Charles didn’t manage to spread his invaluable seed up to now as – for whatever reasons – there is still no book published in which he shares his ideas and inspirations with those, who work on the same endeavour outside the workshop context.

So, for now, enjoy in a glimpse what Charles has to offer. We still hope there will be more.

WOLFGANG WALKER: Charles, when and how did you enter the field of NLP?

CHARLES FAULKNER: I thought this particular part of my journey was already part of NLP ‚folklore‘. It’s a long story with tangents to Thailand, teaching English, winning the lottery, restoring antiques and writing a science fiction novel with my Siamese cat.

The short version is that while I was in undergraduate school, I was also an executive board member of a crisis center. These were places in the late ’70s where people would call when they or their friends were in crisis: personal, relational, or drug oriented. Unsatisfied with the way the callers were being answered, we decided to hire various psychologists and therapists to teach us what they did (including Rogerian, Gestalt Therapy, and Transactional Analysis).

With these experiences and our various backgrounds (industrial engineer, a political organizer, a feminist, and linguistics student – me), we devised an intake form for new callers that started with reflective listening and then moved through a series of questions. We found that if the caller completed most of the intake form, and a wide majority did, they didn’t need our services any further.

Years later, when the first volume of The Structure of Magic was pressed into my hands by a friend, I recognized that it contained some of the same questions that we were asking our callers. Later, when I encountered the Outcome Frame, I saw even more overlap. So, I didn’t need to wait for scientific studies or an emotionally convincing change experience to get me into NLP. I realized from my early experiences at the crisis center with linguistics and change the crucial relationship between language and beliefs.

When I saw a copy of Frogs into Princes in a used bookstore a few weeks later – also with a whimsical title and cover like Structure of Magic – I knew this fairytale exterior contained some of the most advanced scientific thinking on the nature of language and change available. I started to read it in the bookstore. I’ll bet I read a third of the book standing right there, saying over and over again to myself, „My God, they got it.“ I could tell that NLP was going to be important, and that it was going to be popular. I was in a training program within six months. That was 1980.

WOLFGANG WALKER: How did you personally experience the scene right back in those days?

CHARLES FAULKNER: At that time it was still possible to meet everyone in NLP and to train with everyone. So in the ’80s I trained with John (Grinder) and Richard (Bandler), David (Gordon) and Robert (Dilts), Leslie (Cameron-Bandler), Michael (LeBeau), the Andreases, (Stephen) Gilligan, (Paul) Carter, (Dave) Dobson and many more. And this was not just for a weekend, but several weekends, and in many cases, weeks. I took three very different Practitioner trainings, a couple of Master Practitioner programs, as well as assisting for several years on the Andreases courses at every level. I took Post Master Modeling courses with Grinder and Dilts, Bandler, Gordon and Dawes; Trainer Training with Connirae and Steve (Andreas) and then with Bandler – and these courses were all very different. Most everyone knew that and acknowledged it even if they didn’t completely acknowledge their relative advantages and value after the co-founders break-up.

A list of the other developers and developments at that same time would go on and on – Bill O’Hanlon and Steve Lankton had just broken away from NLP to codify and contribute to Dr. Erickson’s work. Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues at MRI were working at a form of brief therapy that became symptom prescription. Steve de Shazer and his collegues in Milwaukee were studying Erickson’s language patterns, and Bob Shaw had just founded Contextual Therapy. Constructivist and constructionist paradigms were just beginning to be worked out. It was a very exciting time. Everything seemed possible.

What excited me most about NLP at that time was the possibility of finding the key – the rosetta stone of human understanding – a linguistic basis to all this ’stuff‘ everyone was working on.

I know I’m different for having been involved in those crazy and creative days of NLP and associated change disciplines. There was a sense of excitement – emotional and intellectual – when a developer or contributor to these various new approaches would come to town to teach a brand new model. The NLP models of Submodalities, Belief Change, Sleight-of-Mouth and The Imperative Self were developed and taught during this time as well as the explication of Milton Erickson’s multiple embedded metaphors and tasking strategies.

I remember one time in the first of my Master Practitioner trainings when David Gordon tore down his flipcharts because he had decided on the spot he had a better way to teach the topic. You don’t see much of that anymore – that willingness to experiment, revise, and go with the better idea, regardless of the pre-scheduled program.

WOLFGANG WALKER: Would you tell us something about the milestones of your own way through the last 20 years in NLP? What were some of the main things you worked on?

CHARLES FAULKNER: Has it been that long? Well, though my various „day jobs“ have changed, I’ve always focused on modelling. Modelling was the reason I got into NLP.

As Bandler noted some years back, most ‚modelling‘ these days is a reapplication of existing (NLP) models, and mostly to already modelled domains of behavior, just not with exactly the same job title – for example ‚modelling‘ executive sales verses therapeutic persuasion. He pointed out, and I agree, that there is modelling as the application of already explicated models within NLP to a domain of behavior.

And then there is modelling as the delineation of a new model, with a new set of distinctions, to organize undescribed behaviors. Not surprisingly, I began, some 20 years ago, in that first category – applying my first NLP Practitioner Training program skills of Strategies and States to modelling the abilities of rapid language/culture learners.

During my first Master Practitioner training, I applied the Meta-Programs model and my advanced Strategies skills to modelling the decision-making of three different types of physicians for a medical marketing firm. This was followed by an application of all of the models within NLP to the proceses of financial decision making in futures traders.

Along the way, my life long interest in metaphor and story led me to ‚translate‘ the recent insights of Cognitive Linguistics into a new model of metaphoric elicitation and change – analogous to Grinder and Bandler’s application of Generative Transformational Grammar to therapy. Several audiotaped programs have been released on this work including: Metaphors of Identity, The Mythic Wheel of Life – metaphors as a coherent system that affects one’s life story, and Worlds Within a Word – how the metaphors of everday language reveal our movement through life.

Around 1990, I began endeavoring to discover how the various models and techniques of NLP ‚fit together‘. This was motivated in part by my background in the philosophy of science – which claims coherence for any descriptive model. That is, while nature may be mysterious, the scientific description of that nature is assumed to be coherent and complete(able).

Taking this point of view, the NLP techniques, which obviously work, must be examples of complete and coherent models of the world. Each of these complete and coherent models will have distinctions, elements, relations, operators and rules. Each model will be a description of the same territory as the other models of experience, and as distinct from them as a weather map is from a street map is from a topographical map of the same area.

In fact, they have much the same relationships. Different maps will be more useful or less useful in different contexts. Each map/model permits a more or less distinct perception of certain elements and their relationships. In contrast to this, when talking about the NLP ‚tools and techniques‘, one often takes a ‚ground level view‘ of things and could easily miss their connectedness. With no perceptions of these ‚tools‘ as elements that are parts of wholes, there is no integrative perspective. I called this integrative development “Perceptual Cybernetics” – which could be described as mapping of the processes of mapping.

This mapping of mapping, complemented by the metaphor work, led to my modelling the elemental structures and processes of each of the models NLP draws on. In the process of this recoding, the fundamental importance of Meta-Programs became clear. That is, every one of the NLP change processes can be described in terms of shifts in the ‚predominance‘ of certain Meta-Program distinctions or by ‚redrawing‘ the boundaries for their instantiation. (Boundaries being a largely unrecognized Meta-Program.)

For example, the Phobia/Trauma Relief Process is (minimally) a combination of two Meta-Programs in the problematic experience. That is, one wants to shift from an In-Time Self orientation to a Through Time Observer orientation. Similarly, defining a Wellformed Outcome is an intervention for someone who has an orientation to the Past with Away From and Modal Operators of Impossibility (instead of Toward Future Possibility).

This kind of Meta-Programs perspective allows me to model the person, group or organization as a dynamic system of orientations and relationships and to notice ‚missing‘ or under utilized domains and/or connections between them. Interventions then become the systematic redirection of the other’s attention rather than applying a technique. And this redirection is often accomplished covertly by redirecting one’s own attention while in relationship, rapport in all it multiple aspects, with the other.

WOLFGANG WALKER: Are there some main insights you realized during these years?

CHARLES FAULKNER: First, that human thought and experience are not formal and categorical even as so much of NLP is coded that way and it works so well thinking it’s so. In the words of the co-founders and most of their early co-contributors; „We made this stuff up.“ (Which actually isn’t the case. A lot of it is on permanent loan from somewhere else. What they do is make unusual uses and unique combinations of what was ‚borrowed‘.) And they were aware, and kept us aware, that it was all a useful fiction. And if the fiction outlived its usefulness (ie. doesn’t fit the experience), then get a new fiction.

It was this attitude that led me to re-examine the NLP metaphor (really storytelling) model, to read extensively in Cognitive Linguistics, and to finally acknowledge the fundamentally metaphoric (analogical) nature of the mind/brain. I began to hear, and then see, the metaphoric basis of most meaning making.

For example, hearing that someone was having problems meant more than their having a problem orientation. The problems were instantiations of a Problem/Solution metaphor for experience. Helping them solve problems, while successful in the particular, actually kept them in the same paradigm. And if someone described themselves as a Healer, this became resonant of part of their identity. So, I would check for entailments and consequences of holding this meaning making assumption (along with others) about oneself. And when someone said they were ‚behind‘ in their work, they’d told me more about their life journey than they realized, as well as how to assist them in ‚meaning it‘ differently.

So, for me there is a complementarity between the form and process of experience and the content/meaning of experience. Working in both of these domains is as important as working with both conscious processes and unconscious processes.

Second, I realized that while there were a number of different models making up NLP (modalities, anchoring, strategies, criteria, etc.) , there was only one model for teaching it: training.

Now, the word ‚train‘ comes to us through the latin ‚trahere‘, which means to drag from one place to another. Not something I want to be doing!! Even putting aside its roots, the word train currently expresses the concept of behavioral entrainment. That is, to act without thinking. For example, one entrains athletic movements, musical skills, multiplication tables, that is say, habits.

While this is certainly possible with the NLP techniques, I wondered how this approach might be preventing many participants from becoming generative in their use of NLP. It presents the absurd situation of participants being taught to do what they are already doing. After all, NLP students have to anchor themselves in order to anchor someone else. And to understand strategies, they have to use, well, their strategies. The unstated assumption in this was most probematic for me: That is, that NLP students were learning to do something new – which meant that they were somehow incompetent in these areas before taking NLP. And this clearly isn’t the case, though thinking so can make it seem all too true sometimes.

So, I thought, instead of entraining the NLP techniques, what if we could assist our students in directly perceiving the processes already going on? NLP is a map making process. What if we could learn to deliberately shift our attention, like we do with optical illusions, so that we could see these different maps at different times? Well, this changed everything, especially my teaching of NLP.

Third, I kept coming back to is how easily, and maybe necessarily, our mind/brains reify experience – turn experiences into objects of thought. It happens everywhere in life these days. Even narrowing ourselves to the history of NLP provides us with many examples.

When Bandler and Grinder got started in their early groups, they were endeavoring to recapitulate process. They even joked aloud about how some of their students keep calling it ‚the process‘ and pointing at this reification. My guess is process proved too amorphous for most students for as soon as the NLP techniques appeared on the scene, they were quickly latched onto. Soon there were lists of the techniques one had to know in order to become an Ceritified NLP Practitioner. And these Practitioners would talk about how a client needed a new Motivation Strategy or a new Belief like it was something to be picked off the shelf at an Auto Parts store.

With the advent of Meta-Programs, perceptual distinctions became personal descriptions, as in „He’s an Away From“ or „She’s a Self sorter.“ While there was probably no harm intended in this, these are examples of taking a perception of process and turning into object, in this case characteristics of a person’s self, like „He’s German“ or „She’s a Hindu“.

Now, I’ve commented elsewhere that this tendency to reification is nearly a precondition for any industrial revolution. Wedgewood, Ford, Dailmer and others took processes of production and reified them into the replicable forms we now know as factories. The question is; when to stop? Bateson wrote some time ago that the epistemology and methodologies of the nature sciences are inappropriate for the study of mind. That is, thoughts are not things. Yet, here we are again.

Think about the Complex Equivalence idea for a moment. The Complex Equivalence is a two-variable term borrowed from Transformational Grammar 25 years ago. It reflected Chomsky’s position that meaning was mostly in the syntax and not the semantics. He relegated words to a look up lexicon; thus word = experience.

Where as NLP has the assumption that each Complex Equivalence for each ‚word‘ will be personal. That is, the dog in my mind will not be the dog in your mind. So, it’s at least a three-variable term including the individual knower. But wait. Where do ‚dogs‘ as a category come from? Surely not from some Platonic absolute. So, cultural categories pre-exist any particular knower, that is, they must be shared to be cultural. This leads to the idea that meaning can be much more richly understood as at least a tetrad consisting of: the Known (or name), the Knowable (named), the Knower (or namer) and the totally of Knowledge (somatic, semantic, syntactic, pragmatic). As Wittgenstein wrote: „To understand a sentence is to understand a language.“ An additional note: which variable someone puts their emphasis on can reveal alot about their epistemology, Meta-Programs and more. In this way of thinking, a thought is dynamic nexus of relationships that will be affected/changed by the next ‚thought‘ – whether it’s internal or external in origin.

And fourth, there’s systemic thinking (and just as importantly, systemic acting). Bateson called it the biggest bite out of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge in two thousand years. Yet, it’s over 50 years since the first Macy Conference and the publication of Norbert Weiner’s book Cybernetics, over 25 years since Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and these days, the word cybernetics has more currency in science fiction movies than psychological circles.

Early on in NLP, a colleague and I concluded that if we could effect a general shift in thinking from cause-effect to systemic, most of the NLP thinking and behavioral skills would naturally ‚fall out of‘ the non-linear paradigm. We also realized that such a shift could not be effected within a conventional education format, in as much as it was not a building up of facts or skills, but a discontinuous ‚leap‘ to different processes and preceptions.

While it is occasionally able to effect this ‚leap‘ in an apprenticeship, group education eluded us. There appears to be something especially difficult about maintaining a systemic (or cybernetic) frame of mind. Sometimes I think we as a species are evolving into another level of mind, something like Piaget’s developmental cognitive levels.

WOLFGANG WALKER: How do you experience the NLP scene today? Do you detect noticeable shifts e.g. in attitude, in content?

CHARLES FAULKNER: First, I’ve keep pretty much to myself the last few years, so I’m really not the best person to ask.

I know that several well-known NLP Trainers have successfully transitioned to corporate consulting and coaching. I also know that the models that constitute NLP are pretty much what they were ten years ago. This isn’t to say that important new work isn’t being done (or that the previous work wasn’t great). It’s just that I can think of several examples of really good new work that’s not getting out the way is used to. It’s as if the content of the Practitioner and Master are more than enough for counselling, coaching and consulting. It goes to the idea of wondering how NLP will advance as field in contrast to its advancing as a set of applications.

At this point, NLP as applied techniques is assured a place in most modern societies. Almost everyone knows the about the importance of outcomes and states and criteria, with sensory cues not far behind. It’s featured in popular magazines and even Hollywood movies. Even my hairstylist talks to me about how „She’s a visual“ without being aware of what I do for a living. And in all this, NLP as the source of all it all is almost always dropped off. There seems to something about saying that it’s Neuro-Linguistic Programming that many people just can’t to do.

Meanwhile, NLP as a distinct method of psychotherapy is well underway, especially in Europe and due in large part to the excellent efforts of many professionals there. You should know this is a striking accomplishment in NLP.

WOLFGANG WALKER: How would you see the future of the field? What are the risks and traps along the way? And what are the chances and opportunities?

CHARLES FAULKNER: I’m worried about NLP – the fractionation, the lack of communication between the various camps, the lack of academic connections, the lack of field wide evolution, and the ‚greying‘ of its participants. These may only be American concerns, and I wonder.

Years ago, I argued that NLP was not a field in the accepted sense of the word as there were no professional conferences nor juried journals – which was to say, there was no ‚community of scholars‘. What I meant by that is that developers, researchers and practitioner (at whatever level), and despite their professional competition, have a ’space‘ in which they meet, share, argue and develop what constitutes the field.

Having been in academia, I have few illusions about this. In other fields there are camps, and power grabs, and arguments for arguments sake. And there is research, and the development of old ideas, as well as the discovery of completely new paradigms.

The fact is, several significant new fields were founded after NLP and have florished. These include: Solution Oriented Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Cognitive Linguistics, Knowledge Management, Selectional Theory Neuroscience, Genome research and several entirely new domains of computer science.

Participants in these fields generate university graduates, hold international conferences, meet with professionals from other fields, receive private industry and government grants, take lucrative consulting and/or employment contracts, and publish technical articles and books as well as more accessible popularizations that most NLP authors (including myself) have specialized in.

In fairness to the founders of NLP, there is ample evidence that they intended NLP to be a field. There is their declaration in NLP, volume 1. There is the publication of their representational-linguistic theory in the Structure of Magic books. And there are the annotated Erickson transcripts and their predicate calculus. I know that early on they met with alot of resistance from already accepted disciplines such as humanistic psychology and psychoanalytic psychiatry. I know that later on they lost the support of Erickson, Bateson and Satir. At some point they simply stopped their efforts in that direction.

This is a shame – because of what NLP can already offer (which remains largely unknown in our (USA) ever more pharmaceutically oriented society); and because of what NLP could offer to thinking, to educating, to creating, planning, to governing, and to just plain good living; and because of what NLP could become (an advanced form of inquiry unlike and unmatched by any other I have found so far). We are just passed the beginning of what is possible.

WOLFGANG WALKER: Which projects do you plan to start personally in the future?

CHARLES FAULKNER: My current modelling project concerns the structures and processes that make up one’s ’self‘. This was prompted by several long standing interests – in the creation of social meaning, the effects of modernism, and the media as experience – along with the observation that many of the major psychological ‚dis-orders‘ of our time didn’t exist a century ago (or if they did, they was in the single digits).

What I’m proposing is that depression, drug addiction, cults, celebrity worship and success obsession are actually efforts to solve the problems of having a self by attempting to get rid of it. That is, rather than these behaviors being self-destructive, they are ’self‘ deconstructive. The ’self‘ structure problems include: recursive self reference, having a value system that is its own basis for meaning, groundless external ‚reference‘ experiences, faulty comparison strategies, and the forced separation of one’s public and private self.

The first surprise in this work was to discover that there was not a single self structure. Rather, there are at least five distinctly different ‚archetypal patterns‘ and these variations help to account for distinct life ‚choices‘ as well as different belief system structures.

I will be doing my first public presentation on this work at ANLP’s Summer Conference in London the first weekend in July. At that time, I’ll offer some alternative organizations of one’s ’self‘ that preempt the solutions and constitute a new way of thinking about therapeutic interventions. It’s an exciting work in progress.


  1. Hi Wolfgang,
    Thank you for your years past vote of confidence. I’d forgotten about this interview. And it seems I said a number of things that are still salient today. As for laying the groundwork for new research, I am, finally, writing a book, though it is on the Cognitive Linguistic basis of Behavior Finance.
    All the best,
    Charles Faulkner

  2. Hi Charles, great to hear from you again! Yes, the interview is still pretty good and interesting. That’s why we decided to post it on our website both in english and in german. I’m happy, that you’re finally writing a book now and I look forward to read it. At the ILMSR we meanwhile got a pretty good sensory-based understanding of the mental space concept. It would be nice to discuss that with you one day 🙂 All the best, Wolfgang

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