The words that we use are a really good indicator of what is going on inside. It really can be the eyes to the soul if we tune into them with all of our senses.
From a young age, we begin to frame our experiences with words. That is, we learn to associate objects and people and allocate a word to them. To begin, as a child, this is often confusing – often calling everyone “Dada” regardless of gender or who they are 🙂
Over time, we begin to learn to construct sentences that link our feelings to need – “I don’t want to,” and “I’m hungry” are examples for this (or, for those in the new age, “HANGRY” ). This is communication at a basic level. We can communicate that we are feeling hungry on the inside by using the words “I’m hungry” and we know that we have a good chance of getting fed.
Communication, during childhood, works at this basic level – often with parents, siblings and other key people trying to fill in the missing blanks. But what next?
Conscious communication takes place when we decide what we want to achieve with our communication, and then we construct a sentence with the hope that we will achieve the desired result.
The thought process goes:
  • “I feel hungry. I know I need to tell someone”.
And sure enough, “I’m hungry” does the job and food appears on a spoon.
Soon we do not need to consciously make this thought process. We know that it works, so we can start using the phrase unconsciously, to save us thinking about it.
As we develop, we associate words unconsciously with all sorts of experiences. We may have a great time walking in the park one day, and forever more we may label that experience as “fantastic.”
Every time we recollect that moment of walking in the park, we may also recollect the word “fantastic” alongside it. If someone were to suggest walking in the park again, we may well think “That would be fantastic” and go ahead and enjoy the experience once again.
We associate words and phrases with everything in life and we often recall these words and use them again unconsciously. As we make decisions in our life about what we can and can’t do, we make these decisions and we associate “can” and “can’t” next to our decisions.  
For example, if you try to write left-handed, then you may not find it particularly easy. You may then decide that you “can’t” write left-handed.  The next time someone hands you a pen, you evaluate which hand to use and you remember that you “can’t” write left-handed and so that option is ruled out.
If you give a presentation at a meeting say, and it doesn’t go as planned, then you may decide that you “can’t do public speaking”.
Next time someone suggests standing up in front of other people and talking, you are going to recall the last time that you did it, and you are going to remember (probably without realising that this is happening) associating “I can’t do public speaking” with that experience.  You may well say to the other person “I can’t do public speaking.”
This is how rules are formed in your life. These rules are set in stone for you until you bring them into consciousness and change them.
One way of identifying your own and other peoples rules is to listen to the language that is used.
Modal Operator is an NLP Term that is used to identify specific words that enable us to identify our rules.
These are basically our “modes of operating,” a way of being in the world and relating to part of it, or all of it. A Modal Operator is a verb that modifies another verb, so it is always followed by another verb. “I have to work.” “I can become successful.”
There are six types of Modal Operators (MO):
  1. Modal Operators of Necessity. Eg Should, must, ought to, have to, supposed to
  2. Modal Operators of Negative Necessity. Eg Shouldn’t, mustn’t etc
  3. Modal Operators of Probability. Eg Could, may, might, had better
  4. Modal Operators of Improbability. Eg Couldn’t, may not, might not
  5. Modal Operators of Possibility. Eg Able to, can, try, will
  6. Modal Operators of Impossibility. Eg Am not, can’t, try not, won’t
You can spot these words in the language that you use and the language that other people use in order to identify rules that they may have formed for their lives.  These rules may or may not be true. You can seriously empower yourself and others if you can notice and make conscious rules that do not support you.
You should just pay attention to the way that you construct your sentences and you might realise that even by doing that you begin to challenge your rules.
You ought to be able to pick them out now and you could listen out for the use of them in other people’s language in order to see how it could be disempowering for them to form rules without testing once again that they can make a more empowering decision.
And here is where it gets interesting as you can physically FEEL the difference in the language you use by completing the following small activity.
Think of any relatively insignificant activity, and describe it in a brief phrase, such as “looking out the window.”
Say the following sentences to yourself, and become aware of your experience of each of them, noticing how your experience changes with each sentence, particularly where your attention goes, and how you feel:
  • “I want to look out the window.”
  • “I have to look out the window.”
  • “I can look out the window.”
  • “I choose to look out the window.”
The “mode of operating” in the first sentence above is to be pulled toward the activity, with a sense of pleasure and anticipation.
The “mode of operating” in the second is to be pushed toward it, usually from behind, and usually also with some sense of not wanting to do it.
This is especially interesting as we can feel a sense of push / pull and how we feel motivated in different areas of life – e.g. fitness, health, wellbeing, work, relationships….you name it.
The last two are somewhat different; “Can” simply directs your attention to alternate avenues of possibility. In addition to “looking out the window,” other directions get my attention.
“Choose” presupposes these alternatives, focusing more on the internal experience of selecting between those avenues of possibility.
Whereas we had six modal operators, we can now reduce these based on more of the emotive elements that we are looking at:
The first two have to do with being motivated.
  1. Necessity: “should,” “must,” “have to.”
  2. Desire: “wish,” “want,” “need”
The second two have to do with options that can be chosen in order to satisfy the motivation.
  1. Possibility: “can,” “able to,” “capable.”
  2. Choice: “choose,” “select,” “decide.”
Desire and / or necessity motivates us to change, and possibility and / or choice makes it possible. MOs of necessity and (im)possibility are the ones given most emphasis in many NLP training sessions, because very frequently they are the basis for significant limitations. People often feel stuck and trapped by “have tos,” and limited by “cant’s,” and these are the most obvious kinds of limiting beliefs that people have.
MOs of desire and choice are often de-emphasised, or even ignored, but they are equally important, and they are a mirror-image to necessity and impossibility. For instance. when someone experiences a “have to,” usually it is unpleasant, and s/he wants to have other choices.
Put another way, “have to” and “not possible” are equivalent to “not possible to choose other more desired alternatives.”
Since choosing between alternative possibilities, in alignment with our needs and desires, is fundamental to our survival and happiness, any limitation or reduction in these abilities will significantly limit our ability to have a good life. Every belief in our capabilities will have a MO in it, and many limitations will have either a MO of necessity or a negation of another MO.
This is the kind of difference that MOs not only describe but also create as we talk to ourselves internally. It can be the crucial difference between someone who lives a life feeling as if they are an incapable, helpless victim of events and one who experiences a world full of anticipation and opportunities for satisfaction of needs and desires. Working at the level of MOs, and the beliefs that they are embedded in, is usually at a considerably larger chunk size than working at the content level of a particular limitation, and because of this, the changes that are made will generalise much more widely.
Each of these categories includes words that express various degrees of intensity – even though people often limit themselves by reducing this wide spectrum to a crude either/or digital distinction. In addition to the words used in each category, the nonverbal intonation can also indicate the degree of intensity, and is often much more significant than the words.
a. Necessity has a relatively narrow range of intensity, but there is a definite difference between “absolutely must” and “should,” or “ought to.” Since many people think they should do things that they seldom or never actually do, there are “necessities” that are less than absolute.
b. Desire has perhaps the widest range of intensity, ranging from a faint inclination to smoking lust!
c. Possibility is not a digital distinction (possible / impossible) as it is often taught, but can also vary through a wide range, from very likely (nearly certain) to very unlikely, (improbable, but still possible).
d. Choice, too, can be artificially reduced to a simple limiting either / or (and there are a few circumstances in which this is perhaps an accurate description of the situation). But usually, there is a wide range of choices, a multiplicity of options, not only of what to do, but of how to do it, where to do it, when to do it, with whom to do it, and why to do it.
A MO, like accessing cues, is both a result of internal processing and also a way to elicit it. Asking a person to say, “I won’t” rather than “I can’t,” was one of Fritz Perls, favourite ways to get people to take more responsibility for the implicit choices that they made, and feel more empowered by recognising their ability to choose.
Sometimes changing a MO brings about a congruent change in attitude immediately. More often you will experience incongruence. But even then it can be a very useful experiment that offers at least a glimpse of an alternate way of living in the world.
Try it out, and find out what it would be like if it were true you.
The objections that arise will provide valuable information about what other aspects of your beliefs need some attention in order to make the change appropriate and lasting.
And there you were thinking language was easy 😉
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