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The Power of Pre-Supposing

by Frances Coombes(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 148 - June 2008

By simply thinking a sentence such as, ‘What would happen if I cheat on my partner’, we can create our own mental movie and run through the scenarios that might occur. Our movie will incorporate our internal map of the world and rules for how we believe the world works. We can identify with the main character in our movie and heighten the sensations by making them more colourful, bringing them up close and making them bigger.

This cinematic power to run frames of thinking to construct meaning, and then alter our movies at will, is one of the most powerful abilities human beings possess. It means we can alter our thinking at will.

When a person speaks, their words will convey to you some of their mental pictures and beliefs about the way in which their world is ordered. One of my saddest recollections was visiting a neighbour in a hospice at the end of her life. In a small pain-free moment she had time to reflect. I listened, but there was no time for me to question a last sentence that stays engraved in my mind. “I thought that the world was a terrible place, and that people just wanted to take things from me… and I suppose I was wrong.”

Using NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) skills, I began to examine my own beliefs about the way I saw the world, my place in it, and how my thinking worked for or against me.

The Value of Knowing How We Think

Imagine yourself at the end of a long and interesting life looking back on your experiences. Albert Einstein said that the most important decision we can make in our lives is whether we see the world as a friendly or fearful place to live in. Do you have any long-held beliefs about yourself, your abilities, or the way the world works that might not hold up under close scrutiny? If you were examining these beliefs as an impartial observer towards the end of your life are there any you might even fleetingly decide were wrong?

Exercise to Identify Which of Your Beliefs Support You

Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the centre. In one column write down the strongly ingrained beliefs you hold that support you in the everyday things you do. We all hold different beliefs, some examples might be: ‘I get things done’, ‘people like me’, ‘I can do anything I set my mind to’.

In the other column write down any strongly ingrained beliefs you hold that do not support you. Examples of these might be, ‘I procrastinate because I don’t know how to do things’, ‘There is no point in trying, I won’t get the things I want’

‘I don’t have control of my life. Other people set the agenda’. When you have identified your limiting beliefs, say them out loud.

When people speak, they are revealing what they accept as truth.

When a person speaks, their sentence will pre-suppose certain things.

These are the criteria which are accepted by them as truth in order to make sense to them. These are the beliefs that underpin a person’s view of what is reality. This is a really useful skill for problem solving or challenging limiting beliefs, because once you can see what a person is pre-supposing, you can begin to challenge it.

Challenge Your Long-Standing Beliefs One at a Time.

Take an ordinary sentence that displays one of your limiting beliefs about the way things are, something that might be holding you back from achieving an aim: for example ‘I can’t learn to tango. I would not be able to justify the expense.’ The sentence structure for a limiting belief tends to go:

I want to do… But I can’t because…

‘I can’t learn to tango. I would not be able to justify the expense.’

Imagine you are a stranger examining the sentence.

Ask yourself ‘What must be true for that person in order for them to make that statement?’
•    They want to learn something new;
•    Presumably it is enjoyable because they want to do it;
•    They have financial responsibilities;
•    They feel they must justify their actions.
Once you know what the sentence pre-supposes you can begin to challenge parts of it. A good opening question for the above sentence might be ‘Who says you need to justify learning to tango?’ ‘Might there be another way to meet your financial obligations and learn to tango?’
Ask yourself these questions as you examine your own limiting beliefs, or listen to others and you will be amazed at the depth of insight you get into people’s mental landscapes.
•    ‘What must be true for (me) this person to say that?’
•    ‘Who says you need to justify what you do in this way?’


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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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