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Business Book Club: Sleight of Mouth By Robert Dilts

I've set myself a goal to read one self-development book per month. To make sure I really reflect on what I'm reading I'm going to extract the wisdom from the best business and personal development books and share it with you.

This month I’ve been reading Sleight of Mouth: The Magic of Conversational Belief Change by Robert Dilts

The Book

Can something as simple as the way we structure and use language be used to positively impact people’s lives?

As a Master Practitioner of NLP I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of facilitating powerful changes in behaviour just through the use of words. Having learnt and used many of Dilt’s techniques and ideas over the years I thought it was time to hear from the man himself and read the original work

In this book, he describes how the way we use and organise language can limit us and also how, by changing or reorganising a few words, we can achieve an enriched perspective on life that offers us more choices. He provides a comprehensive breakdown of the mechanics of how our thoughts and words are linked, explains how these can limit or help us and offers some exercises that we can do to help ourselves make positive choices.

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What did I learn?

I learnt many useful and detailed techniques from this book which have helped me build on my coaching skills. Dilts has been a keen contributor to the development of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) since its inception. As a result, this book provides a very comprehensive description of the structure of beliefs and the language patterns that can help change them. Due to the technical nature of the book, I will share just a few of the more accessible and easy to apply ones here.


Reframing Techniques

If you are interested in self-development it is likely that you have heard of ‘reframing’ at some point. This is the act of taking a person’s words and putting a different ‘frame’ around them so that they take on a different meaning or significance. e.g :

Person A: “It’s so annoying that the shop sold out of avocados!

Person B: “Isn’t great to have such first world problems?”

This change of ‘frame’ makes the problem feel very different, doesn't it?

What a lot of people familiar with the term ‘reframing’ don’t know is just how many different types of reframe there are. Dilts describes many in the book, here are a few of some of the most useful ones.


Frame size: Changing the scale of the belief to offer a different perspective

“This situation is just the worst”   vs  “How important will this feel one year from now?”

Context reframe: Showing that what seems unhelpful in one situation is beneficial in another

“Why does my mum always interfere?”  vs  “Isn’t it great how she’s always there when you need her?”

Content Reframe: Looking at the same thing but from a different perspective

Rain  Farmer=crop growth Family=Ruined picnic Child with new wellies=fun!

One word reframe: Changing a word to one of a similar meaning but with a positive connotation.

He lied vs he was mistaken  She’s a pushover vs she is compassionate


Even though’ reframe: Swapping ‘but’ for ‘even though’ to shift attention to a more positive view.

It worked today but it might break again tomorrow =Focus on breaking

It worked today even though it might break again tomorrow =Focus on working

Order reframe: Switching the order of information for a more positive focus

If you work hard, you can be successful (emphasis on work) VS

You can be successful if you work hard (emphasis on success)

Dealing with criticism

When we are criticised (either by ourselves or by others) our natural reaction is to get defensive. Defensive behaviour usually ends up with further misunderstanding and conflict. Dilts reminds us that there is a positive intention behind every criticism. For example:

This is a waste of time” = desire to use resources wisely

“It’s too expensive” = Desire to save money

“This feels stressful” = Desire to feel comfortable

This criticism was deemed appropriate from the perspective of the person who made it in the context in which the criticism was given. The problem is that this intention is hidden because all criticism is expressed in terms of what isn’t wanted. Dilts suggests that to deal with the criticism we should focus on the intention behind it and turn it into a question:

“It’s a waste of time” = “What would make this a good use of our resources?”

“It’s too difficult” = “How can we make it easier and simpler to put into action?”

Not only does this avoid a defensive response but it also causes the critic to work a little harder and to think about what might work instead. This forms the basis of a more constructive conversation


Motivation towards goals

In addition to outlining useful language patterns, Dilts also breaks down the mechanics of beliefs and our thinking around what we believe is possible and desirable. He explains that there are five beliefs we need in order to pursue and achieve a goal:

  • The goal is worth it

  • Success is possible

  • It’s OK to pursue the goal OR pursuing the goal is appropriate and ecological (it won’t cause harm in other areas of life)

  • I am capable of achieving it

  • I have a responsibility to/deserve to achieve it

Dilts suggests that if you are struggling to get going with a goal then you should explore which of these is holding you back and strengthen each of the five areas to increase motivation.


Belief Cycles

Anyone who has ever tried to overcome a limiting belief will understand the feeling that beliefs are difficult to change and that change takes a long time. However, Dilts explains that our beliefs change many times over our lives. This process happens naturally and can be gentle and quick. He describes watching his children overcome many limiting beliefs in the few years that they have been alive (“I’ll never learn to ride a bike, “I’m rubbish at maths” etc). He describes this natural cycle of overcoming a belief:

  1. Wanting to believe: the expectation that believing something will have a positive effect on our lives

  2. Being open to believe: not yet believing but exploring possibilities

  3. Believing: we accept the belief as being true and act accordingly

  4. Open to doubt: we become aware that the belief may not be true and start to explore other perspectives

  5. Remembering what we used to believe: we realise that the belief no longer meets our needs or matches our reality. It takes no effort to suppress or deny the belief as we have fully accepted it doesn’t work for us, therefor it holds no emotion.

We can use this natural belief cycle to consciously change our limiting beliefs by following the steps from step 4 back round to step 3 (by creating doubt about old or unhelpful beliefs and finding ways to be open to believing something more helpful).

Change your internal state

Dilts also suggests that we can help this process by changing our internal state. Whenever we feel frustration, try and shift this to confusion. Enjoy the confusion, accept this as a part of learning and get curious about the situation or feeling. When we feel curious we become open to other perspectives. We can use this curiosity to build motivation.

Staying frustrated rarely helps a situation. It causes our thinking to narrow and we miss opportunities to improve things. The quicker we can start to enjoy feeling confused and curious, the sooner we can explore new opportunities to move forward.

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Thought Viruses

Dilts describes a particularly strong kind of limiting belief called a ‘thought virus’. A limiting belief can become a thought virus when:

  • It is separated from the values, internal states and experiences (the evidence) from which they derived

  • They become self-referencing (circular logic)

  • We use them to keep ourselves in a double bind (damned if you do, damned if you don’t)

If we find ourselves talking about a belief in any of the ways above it might be a good prompt to re-examine if the evidence for the belief still exists. Chances are that even if that thought virus was once true, the reasons we created it are no longer there.

What did I think of the book?

Having learnt so much of Dilts work from studying NLP I really enjoyed learning about the mechanics of beliefs and language patterns. This book offers an enormous amount of detail and insight into the way we construct thoughts and express them in the language we use. I’ve learnt many coaching approaches over the years for changing behaviour through language but this book has given me a wealth of ways to add to my skills.

While the book shares many useful techniques it is not an easy read. This appears to be an opportunity for Dilts to show off his intellectual prowess as well as to share the information and this makes it challenging to absorb at times. If you’ve never studied NLP much of the book won't make much sense to you. However, if you are studying NLP or are already a practitioner this book gives new insight into many well-loved coaching approaches and is worth the read to take your skills to new levels.

What should I read next?

Have you read the book? What did you think? What shall I read next?

If you have any recommendations let me know below or via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn

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