Reader Questions – Could You Explain the Distinction Between Process, Pattern and Content?

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Sally emailed me asking me to clarify the distinctions of Process, Pattern and Content.

These three terms confuse beginning and advanced NLP students alike – chiefly the process/content distinction.

I’ll share with you my definition. It’s VERY likely for other trainers to disagree with it. Adopt it if you find it useful.


In the context of NLP, a pattern is a predictable unit of behavioral sequence.

Now what the hell does that mean?

Gregory Bateson defines the pattern as follows in Steps To An Ecology of The Mind:

any aggregate of events or objects (e.g. a sequence of phonemes, a painting, or a frog or a culture) shall be said to contain a “redundancy” or a “pattern” if the aggregate can be divided in any way by a “slash mark” such that an observer perceiving only what is on one side of the slash mark can guess with better than random success, what is on the other side of the slash mark…. Or, again from the point of view of a cybernetic observer, the information available on one side of the slash will restrain) i.e. reduce the probability of) wrong guessing.

OK, now that we have the jargon and the abstract out of the way, let’s try this in English.

Let’s say that you touch James’s hair and he gets angry. Hmmm, interesting… Then, you notice later that Tim touches James’s hair and he gets angry again. Wow, what’s going on here? Another time, Tara touches James’s hair and he gets angry again.

At this point, you’ve noticed a pattern. How can you tell? Because you can semi-accurately predict that anytime someone touches James’s hair, he gets angry.

That’s the structure of a pattern. Anytime x happens, y happens. Anytime someone touches James’s hair, James gets angry.

To use Bateson’s slash mark, it looks as follows: someone touches James’s hair/James gets angry.

Now, if you were to watch only half of the movie (someone touching James’s hair) and paused it, you could accurately predict the second half of the movie (James getting angry).

You’re surrounded by patterns. The chorus of a song is a pattern, which you can predict time and time again. You probably brush your teeth and dry your post-shower body in a pattern, knowing accurately what comes after each stroke.

Anytime x happens, y happens.

Process vs Content

Now on to the feud! Here we go…

Were John Grinder talking to you, he would undoubtedly argue that this IS the NLP distinction in therapy.

Once again, let’s hit an example to make this more obvious than Leonardo DiCaprio walking around in Uganda.

Karl needs therapy, according to him. The reason for this, he tells you, is that his father beat him when he was a kid.

This last piece of info is content.

A psychotherapist trained in most modalities would likely dabble into content to perform an intervention. This would involve exploring Karl’s relationship to his father, reliving some of the beatings, trying to understand why his father beat him the way he did, etc.

Enters the NLP-trained therapist.

This therapist will explore how Karl represents the problem situation. In other words, what does Karl do to make himself feel bad? Does he make pictures? Does he talk to himself? Does he hear certain voices? Does he experience kinesthetic sensations?

Once she has identified that Karl talks to himself and then feels bad, the therapist will explore HOW SPECIFICALLY he talks to himself. How loud is the voice? Where in space does it come from?

Then, the therapist will guide Karl in altering the way he talks to himself. He will lower the volume. He will move the voice around in space. He will accelerate the voice. He will change its pitch. All the way until Karl notices that he no longer feels bad when he continues telling himself the exact same things he used to.

In other words, Karl is now processing the content differently.

NLP-trained therapists can perform an intervention on a client absolutely blind to the content, that is, without having a clue as to what the issue is. You can read many examples of this in Frogs Into Princes.

So content is what happens. Process is the way we represent what happens.

Summing it all up

There you have it. Process, Pattern and Content.

Process: The way we represent what happens.

Pattern: Anytime x happens, most likely y will happen.

Content: What happens.

Simple, huh?

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