Working With Clients: 10 Common Traps To Avoid

Most of us who have had any formal training in NLP typically learnt NLP in a therapeutic context meaning how to apply NLP to change work. Perhaps you learnt how to do the fast phobia cure or change personal history or one of many number of NLP techniques.Yet the techniques are not the key to success with NLP!

Don’t believe me. Then answer me this – have you ever had the experience of running a technique with a client or friend and it didn't work or work as well as you had expected?

Of course you have. Does this mean NLP doesn’t work? Not at all. It works marvelously and is an incredibly powerful set of tools and attitudes to creating change with others. So the question then is “why didn’t the technique work?”

Simply put – there is a lot more to NLP that running a technique with a client. Perhaps you've been frustrated before when a technique didn't work or think this NLP stuff doesn't work so let me go find something else. Hold up. The following are ten common traps to avoid when helping others make a change. Implement any number of the "remedy" suggestions outlined here and you will see the quality and speed of your change work dramatically improve.

If you work with clients or are a "friends and family" change agent, run through each of the following traps to identify which one you have made, or make repeatedly, so you can remove that pattern from your elegant change work in the future.

Trap 1: Jumping To Conclusions

A common mistake made by new NLPers high on techniques and the training room euphoria is to want to try out a change technique such as the fast phobia as soon as they hear "fear". We have all been guilty at times of mis-understanding what the clients problem is and as quick as one can say "jack flash!" we are already inside our heads thinking "right which technique can I use?"


Take the time to really understand what the clients issue or issues are. I remember seeing an early 1980's video of Dr. Bandler saying that he spends over 90% of his time listening to the client and only 5% on identifying and running a change technique(s). You want to fully understand how the person is holding the problem state constant and how the structure of the problem works before you go running a bunch of techniques. Sure they of course will work in many contexts but as you face less clear cut problems you will need to become more skilled at understanding how the client holds their problem. As Gabe Guerrero once shared with me, as change agents we must never assume we understand their problem. Test and validate that you understand how the structure of their "problem" works before you run any change intervention.

Trap 2: Avoid Projection

NLP is the study of the structure of subjective experience. When you are working with clients you bring with you your own mental maps and processes. As change agents we often times forget that we are using our own processes and structure and projecting our own stuff onto our clients.

Robert Dilts in his great book "Beliefs Pathways to Health and Wellbeing" tells of a story of a psychoanalyst who believed that a fish in your dreams was the root to all problems. So the story goes that the psycoanalyst whenever working with a client would go "so tell me about your dreams" and the client would start talking and the psycoanalyst would interrupt and go "were there any fish in your dreams?" and the client would go "no" and the analyst would go "are you sure, were there any puddles?" and the client would go "I don't think so .. I was walking down a street" .. and the analyst would go "ahh and was their any restaurants on this street?" to which the reply was "no" .. to which the analyst would quickly reply "but there could of been, yes?" .. (client) "perhaps, I suppose" … (analyst) "and was the restaurant serving fish?" … (client) "I suppose it's possible" … to which the psycoanalyst would respond "ah ha! .. you have the fish in your dreams!"


Avoid projecting your own stuff on to your clients and be aware of your have your own processes that are filtering what your are perceiving from your clients. Look for sensory based evidence that what you think is there is there. No fish in the dreams please!

Trap 3: Lacking Ownership

Not every client who walks into your office or whom asks for your help wants to change. Discover up front who really wants the change. Is the client motivated to change because they want it for themselves or is it becuase someone else like a family member wants it for them. In order for a change to last, in my experience it has been the case that it's important that the client wants the change for themselves and not becuase someone else wants it for them. Sure you can create a change for them and "programme" their neurology to respond in a new way but bottom line is if they decide in the future somebody else wanted the change or you "whizzed" them as some clients have asked me to do for them then in effect they are asking you to be responsible for their change. Don't accept that.


Test to confirm your client wants the change for themselves and are self-motivated to create the change they want for their life. If a client comes to you and wants you to make the change for them with no ownership to do any assignements you provide or unwilling to follow your instructions when doing "visualisation" exercises as some of my clients have miscalled it then give them a reality check before you proceed. Ownership at some level by them is important.

Trap 4: Poor "brian juice"

John LaValle is well known for talking about getting the "brain juice" right before you work with clients. He's a master at elicting whatever state is necessary and shows incredible flexibility whenever I have seen him train. All NLPers who are change agents need to be able to elicit "good brain juice" as John calls it with their clients.Your body is your instrument and as the change agent it is your job to ensure you clients mind and body are primed for the change. The exact same technique can be run with a client who is in the powerful positive state and the change work perfectly vs. a client who simply is in a crap state and so the change work crashes and burns.


Whenever you are working with a client ask yourself, is the brain chemistry right? Is the person in the right kind of state to make this change possible.Only when the brain chemistry is right should you attempt any change work. Remember you may need to run the client through several states .. each intense in their own right .. when creating any change. Be flexible.

Trap 5: No behavioural outcomes established

As an NLPer you've no doubt come across the Well Formed Outcome Pattern, the cornerstone of any good change work. The first thing to establish when working with any client is "What do you want?"

Many change agents even when they ask this question accept their clients "what I don't want" responses. Do you?

For example a client a little while back came to me and when asked "what do you want?" responded by saying "I don't want to feel terrible anymore. I feel guilty and am anxious all the time." Before he continued anymore I pattern interrupted him by breaking rapport with him and then said "So you want to feel terrible yes?" to which he went "No" .. "Then what specifically new ways to do want to behave in your life?"


While there is a lot more things you need to establish early on in the outcome ellicatation phase it's important that you tie your clients down to what they do want and don't mind read into imaging what they want. Have them express their new way of being in postive behavioural specific terms.It is easy to get lost inside a your own map thinking and assuming you know what they want (and indeed in some cases it is your job I believe to shape a way of being that would be beneficial to their life) however when you are working with clients it's key that you don't get lost in their non sensory descript language about what they don't want.

Trap 6: Lacking Belief in their ability to create the change

One of the more common experiences I’ve seen when talking to both new and not so new NLPers is a lack of belief by the person in their own ability to create change. Depending on where you learn NLP, it can seem like a complicated and somewhat daunting field to learn.

For starters there are so many new terms, concepts, techniques and not necessarily obvious overlapping areas. How does the Meta Model connect with the Milton model? When should I use this technique or that?

Even figuring out which training school is right for you can be confusing. And when the moment of fresh faced training room euphoria wears off and you are faced with a real person who wants a change it can be a fearful response. Your heart begins to race, a flush of hotness rushes through your body, breath shortens and hesitation spins all round your mind. You can be left gasping for breath.


If you found the above description evoked a negative change in your state, take a big breath in now .. exhale as you r-e-l-a-x.During my study of Richard Bandler and other expert change agents over the years, the one consistent thing that is present is their belief that they can help their clients make a change. They have that deep believe imprinted in every fibre of their being.And you know what is relieving and also surprising … many times these top change experts when working with a new type of change request also had no clue what to do their first time! And there change work doesn’t work perfectly every time.When the “early days” NLPers were first trying stuff out and seeing what worked many times they had no clue what to do. It was a time of pure exploration … as it can be for everyone when you working with a client doing change work you have never been taught a specific NLP technique for.


If you experience hesitation or confidence in your ability to create change for a client then take the time this January to alter your own beliefs. Get outside your own head and examine how your view the situation (using pen and paper or a dictaphone will help). Once you have unpacked the strategy you use and the pre-suppositions implied by your beliefs and thoughts you have a whole raft of NLP tools to quickly and permanently alter your beliefs and design a new way of being for your life.

Trap 7: Not defining the problem in solvable terms

A client comes to you deeply panicked and says “I want you to make my wife stop being so angry”. Many new change agents will automatically start working with the client without ever defining the problem in solvable terms.

If the person's wife is always angry then you should be working with his wife (assuming she wants assistance and assuming it actually is some kind of “problem”) as the change requested is not in the clients ream of direct control.

Sure you can teach him some strategies about influencing her state etc but a much better place to start if you wanted to help this person is define the problem in solvable terms. For example you could help him change his association of what his wife anger means. The meaning is key.

It may mean to him that

Anger = She doesn’t love me.

My wife doesn’t love me therefore she will leave me.

Hence the behaviour of panic.

Yet for all we know his wife may be justifiably angry and simply wants her husband to be more present to the family’s needs.

If you worked with the client without understanding the 1st and 2nd order outcomes the client was seeking you would be solving the wrong issue and secondly would not help the client be able to direct themselves to feel the thing they want which in this case was safety and control.


Always listen to the literal way the client speaks about their problem and their request. Is the problem defined in solvable terms (e.g. I want to solve world hunger, I want my mother to love me). If not reframe the issue and request to be in solvable terms. Fully understand the structure of the clients problem and their 1st and 2nd order outcomes before you do any change work.

Trap 8: No Congruency

Ever had a client who a change didn’t stick for? Before you take on a client to do any work, make sure the client is really congruent about wanting to make the change and is ready to have the change work. Many times clients may say they are ready for the change but are not. The believe they will be giving up too much and so are no congruent with the change. Make sure these issues are addressed up front.


Make sure you client is congruent about wanting the change. Pay attention to the non verbals to see if they match up. Have them explain to you why you should help them make the change. Look for any side-benefits they get by having the particular behaviour or likely resistance forces in the life (e.g family, colleagues, or friends) who may undermine or undo you change work. Where necessary help the client develop the congruency they need and if they aren’t congruent or don’t want the change really, then don’t work with them.

Trap 9: Not following instructions

Much of the overt change technique work we do with NLP requires the client to follow the instructions we give them. In the early days when I was learning NLP I was dealing with a client who had a phobia of flying so I used the phobia technique with her. To my concern the technique didn’t seem to work. 10 minutes on she still was terrified of the thought of flying and would have board a flight in 12 hours time.I changed my approach and ran a different change intervention which worked perfectly.

Reflecting on the event afterwards I realised an important distinction that would stay with me for all my change work ever since … the client wasn’t following my instructions, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to her to notice tell tell things that could of alerted me and I had let her state effect mine. Her emotional response was leading me. It was a lesson that is something that I always check for now when I work with a client and am much slower to jump techniques until I know I have mis-calibrated to the persons structure first.


Pay close attention to your clients. If you are giving conscious instructions to your client about doing some change work (such as changing sub-modalities) make sure the client is following your instructions to the letter. If you are giving unconscious change work, make sure you have calibrated well to the unconscious signals of the persons body and either have setup IMR responses (e.g. finger signals) or have staged tests built in at each stage of your work.

Trap 10: No Testing

Testing is key to NLP. It’s not enough to hope that your intervention(s) has worked. You must test. Test, Test, Test again. And I am not just talking about future pacing.

Future pacing is important and useful for installing future memories but at each stage of the change process test your work to ensure each part is working as expected so by the time you are done you know the client has the change. Then test to confirm. Put the client in the situation or context that bothered them and look to see a different behavioural response.

Perhaps where they got angry now they laugh or where they were anxious now they feel totally at ease. It is essential and beneficial that you test your work. It will give you greater confidence in your ability to do great change work and also give you an opportunity to learn something new if it didn’t quite work completely yet. Perhaps there was some small piece you missed off. If so re-do your work to make sure you have addressed it all.


Test, Test, Test your work. Don't know what or how to test? Then read this article here.Make sure you test at each stage of the change process, and again and again at the end. This allows you to confirm your intervention worked.

Closing Comments:

I’ve covered ten of the most common traps to overcome as a NLP change agent. If you follow and implement the suggested remedies outlined above you will notice a great increase in your confidence, skill and fun, in doing NLP change work.

All you need to do, is take three patterns you do, that don't get you the result you want, and make a conscious effort to put into place the corrective suggestions I've outlined. Start today, and soon you will find you will be doing magical change work.

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I'm Tom.

Everyone has something they’d like to change in their life. I’m here to help you transform the behaviours that get in your way so you can have the life you really want.

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