Problem Solving with the Hierarchy of the Mind

The mind, and any biological or social system for that matter, is organized into levels. For efforts to change or achieve goals to be effective they must address the various levels of human experience.

When working to create change or improve performance, there are five levels of human experience that consistently enter into play:

First, there is our environment and our external constraints. In our environment, we act through our behaviour. Our behaviour is guided by capabilities, what we are able to do and how we go about things (strategies). Our capabilities are governed by our belief systems and our values, which are governed by our identity, our sense of who we are, and our mission, our sense of purpose.

These levels, known as the Neuro-Logical Levels in NLP, are organized hierarchically as follows:

What is your mission/purpose/vision?
Who are you? How do you define yourself?
Beliefs and Values
What do you believe to be true? What is important to you?
What are you able to do? What skills, abilities and talents do you have? What strategies do you use?
What do you do? What actions do you take? How do you behave?
Where? When? With whom? What is the context, time, place, setting? What external influences are there?

Many people struggle with the same recurring problems. They find themselves repeating the same old patterns of thinking, falling into the same old habits and consistently unable to achieve the goals they set for themselves.

Why is this?

Because no one trained us in effective methods for diagnosing and solving the problems.

Before recommending a treatment, a doctor gives a diagnosis. If the diagnosis is incorrect, the treatment will be as well, and the problem will remain or worsen. This is precisely what we do each day; we try and try to solve problems without knowing what the real problem is. We misdiagnose and so we mistreat.

So how can we correctly identify problems and decide on an appropriate solution?

By looking at human experience in terms of the logical levels, we can determine at what level the problem exists, and differentiate from the levels at which symptoms are occurring. By clarifying what is causing what, we know at what level to intervene.

Most often, we attribute the causes of problems to the lower levels. We play the blame game and blame our genes, our brain chemistry, the economy, the market, our parents, our past, etc.We look to the level of capabilities and say “I can’t do that,” “I’m not smart enough,” or “I don’t have what it takes…” But rarely are the real causes of our problems at these levels.

The higher levels govern and influence the lower levels and so often hold the key to achieving the results we want. If an athlete with a great track record for performance (behaviour) begins thinking he or she is going to fail (belief), what is the effect on performance? The belief will easily diminish his or her ability and results. Beliefs govern capability and behaviour.

It seems self-evident when talking about sports, but rarely do people apply this type of thinking to performance in other areas of their life – but the principle holds for any type of performance.

A few years ago I did some leadership consulting for a company. One of their top managers had managed to transform the corporate culture of the center he was in charge of, reduce errors by 45% and ended up saving the company $300,000 a year. They wanted to know how he did what he did. In my work modelling his psychology, one of the things he said struck me; “I am a lighthouse to greatness.” Out of context it sounds a bit arrogant, but I had to work hard to pry it out of him. He was both modest and humble.

Thinking of himself in this way (identity) unleashed his capabilities, shaped his behaviour and allowed him to positively impact his environment. Higher levels govern lower levels.

Some people think that problem solving is always a matter of behaviour. Do this, don’t do that, take this action, act like that, behave this way. But it doesn’t work. Why? Because there is more to human experience. Give people a proven way to make a million dollars and most won’t. Why not? Because their beliefs, values and identity are simply not aligned with that result. To achieve a result, all the levels needs to be aligned with it.

Many people who find themselves in therapy or with recurring and often unexplainable difficulties have a problem at the identity level. They way they have defined themselves and think of themselves is limiting and even toxic, but the belief system is unconscious. The way we think of ourselves and define who we are trickles down into the other levels, governs them, shapes them and can lead to great results or dismal ones at the other levels of experience. But few people wake up one day and think, “Oh, I know what the problem is! It’s an identity problem!”

In my work with people struggling with depression, anxiety, abuse and other psychological challenges, one common denominator has been a disempowering identity. Their beliefs about themselves are negative, limiting and destructive.

I worked with a woman last year who wanted to double her sales. Our original agreement was to work on her approach and her sales ability, but what we discovered was that the way she thought of herself was holding her back. We did some work at the identity level and not long after our coaching, her sales had increased by 80%. Those changes trickled down!

David Kynan

David Kynan will get you there with practical cutting-edge methods for change and performance. President of Personis Coaching and Training ( and Former Vice President of the Canadian Association of NLP, David coaches, teaches and consults on how to make change happen when change is hard. He also lends his skills to individuals, professionals and businesses on topics related to strategic intervention, problem solving, marketing and sales. His expertise has landed him training and consulting contracts with companies such as Sun Life Financial, Medisca Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Pure Water Technologies. He has been featured in the Montreal Mirror, interviewed on CTV and presented on his work at the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa.

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