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Mind/Body Talk: NLP as 'Software for the Brain' - Chunking

by Frances Coombes(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 160 - July 2009

The 'software for the brain' description of NLP, and the idea of choosing to run different programmes of thinking can best be illustrated with 'chunking' – a technique for developing really flexible thinking by actively 'chunking' your thinking 'up' and 'down'.

Chunking, is a computer term for a piece of information. And Chunking our thinking lets us shift our perspective on a situation up and down at will, ranging from small detail specific to 'big picture' overview.   We chunk groups of information into large or small amounts depending on the type of information we want to clarify or obtain more of.

'Big picture' thinking involves 'chunking up', taking an overview and visualizing what the whole project will look like when it is finished. It can also help us to decide how a large task can be broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces. By viewing a situation at different levels and perspectives, we gain new insights into how to tackle it that we might never have thought of before.
Chief executives are usually big picture thinkers; they get the grand idea for the goal, and surround themselves with employees who work out how to proceed with specific parts around the outcome. Project managers or self-employed people are then required to chunk their thinking around an outcome and see all the options from overview to the small specific details at will. Considering a situation from several levels gives more options and insights into how to proceed.

You already chunk information down when you remember phone numbers. You group the regional part of the number together, and then split the rest of the numbers into chunks to make them more memorable.

Situations where having the flexibility to chunk your thinking up and down at will are: when goal setting, negotiating, team building, motivating people, resolving conflict, intervention or problem solving. If you are preparing a presentation you can chunk your information to ensure it is given to the audience in the right 'bit-sized chunks' for them to understand and assimilate. If time management is a problem, chunk up and get an overview first, then break the task down into smaller chunks and deal with them one at a time.

Highly effective coaches and communicators develop a consistent pattern of exploring what people want in both directions. They chunk up to the big picture to explore people's beliefs, values and motivation, then chunk down to the more specific outcomes and explanations.

Chunking Questions Framework

Questions to ask to move a person from the small detail to the big picture outcomes are those which require people to examine what is important to them. When you know what a person's purpose is you can build their motivation.

Questions to Chunk People's Thinking Upwards

Questions that identify peoples 'big picture' and what is important to them require them to examine their beliefs. Ask:
  • What is important to you about....?
  • What would motivate you in order to ....?
  • What does having this outcome achieve for you?
  • What is and example of ...?
  • What have you learned?
  • For what purpose?

Chunking Down Questions

To chunk down and find out about specific information, ask questions which elicit small detail explanations. A person may say:

 'I want to do this........ but I can't because ....' Ask the small detail questions: (Listen for the but because it usually proceeds a limiting thought.)
  • What stops you...?
  • What is an example of this?
  • Who, or what, is stopping you?
  • How are they / how is it, stopping you..... specifically?

Think of Chunking Up and Down

When you have a problem that seems daunting, think of chunking it down into smaller, more manageable sections. This enables you to focus on one specific area at a time and find solutions, before moving on to the next task.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by too much detail, then chunk up to find the purpose or meaning for what you are doing. Getting the big picture will give you an overview so you can define what you are doing and why you need to do it.

Chunking Sideways

Or reframing is a lateral thinking technique used as part of chunking sideways. We reframe what the person says by asking them to describe it as a metaphor, or some sensory-based description.  A colleague may say: 'This job is like 'wading through treacle'. To unpack a bit more detail from their description, we ask:
  • 'What is X (wading through treacle) like?
Chunking skills build flexible thinking that are vital for analysing problems, finding the best approach to new situations and setting new and more challenging goals. You can also use your chunking skills to help colleagues, learners or clients consider which chunk sizes best fit for the outcomes they want to achieve.


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About Frances Coombes

Frances Coombes Advanced Dip CBT/REBT Dip CBT offers one-to-one therapeutic coaching in North West London and on Zoom.  She is a is a CBT/REBT psychotherapist in North West London, a NLP Master Practitioner and Rational Emotional Behaviour Therapist and runs life coaching groups in London and on Zoom.  She teaches NLP at The City Lit in Central London and tutors at the City Lit and Mary Ward Centre in central London on Using REBT for Managing Stress and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). She runs goal setting and REBT coaching groups for vulnerable people for inner London authorities and charities.  

Her most recent book is Motivate Yourself and Reach Your Goals, pub, November 2013, Hodder Headline. Available on and  For extract visit To inquire or book personal development courses contact Frances on Tel: 07818 896 795; 


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