Using Counter Examples to Reevaluate Limiting Beliefs

The Values Audit and Belief Audit apply principles of NLP and Sleight of Mouth in order to help us become more open to believe in our goals, our values, our capabilities and ourselves. They are simple but powerful processes that help us to establish new and empowering beliefs.

There are times, however, where we may encounter interference from limiting beliefs. In such situations, it is also important to have tools to help us become open to doubt those generalizations or judgments that limit us. Processes such as finding the intention, chunking down, chunking up, finding analogies, and identifying higher level criteria offer several methods softening and refraining limiting beliefs. Another very powerful pattern, that works with the structure of beliefs, is to identify "counter examples" to the beliefs.

A counter example is an example, experience, or piece of information, which does not fit a particular generalization about the world. Counter examples are essentially exceptions to a rule. For example, a person may say that "all Masai are cattle thieves," stating a generalization about a group of people. Tb challenge this representation, we would search for any examples which do not fit that generalization - perhaps a time when a Masai returned a missing cow to someone.

Finding counter examples is a simple but powerful way to evaluate and challenge potentially limiting beliefs, and to deepen our understanding of other beliefs. Counter examples do not necessarily disprove a belief statement, but they do challenge its 'universality', and frequently put it in a broader perspective. (In Chapter 4, for instance, we used counter examples to identify hierarchies of criteria.) As was mentioned earlier, beliefs and criticisms become limiting when they are stated as 'universals'; characterized by lan guage such as "all," "every," "always," "never," "none," "no one," etc. It is different to say, "I am not succeeding because I lack the necessary experience," than to say, "I'll never succeed because I lack the necessary experience." Similarly, there are different implications and expectations connected with the statement, "I am sick because I have cancer," than the statement, "I will always be sick because I have cancer." Beliefs stated as universals frequently have more impact on our expectations and motivation.

For a statement to be truly universal, of course, we should find no counter examples. With respect to Sleight of Mouth, establishing a counter example involves finding an example that does not fit the cause-effect or complex equivalence statements which make up a belief or belief system, and which shifts and enriches our perception of the generalization or judgment being asserted. So, if someone claims, "All employees are mistrustful of their bosses," then we would seek any examples of employees who trusted their bosses. We should also find out if there are bosses who are mistrusted by people other than their employees.

Finding a counter example, by the way, does not mean that a belief statement is 'wrong', it generally means that the system or phenomenon that is being explored or studied is more complex than it has been perceived to be, or that its most fundamental elements have not yet been discovered. This opens up the potential for other perspectives and possibilities.

As we have already established, the structure of belief statements typically takes the form of either:

A means B (complex equivalent): e.g., Frowning means you are unhappy.

C causes D (cause-effect): e.g., Allergens cause allergies.

To seek counter examples we would first ask:

Does A ever occur without B?

e.g., Do people ever frown when they are happy ?

Are there times when C is present but does not cause D?

e.g., Can people be around an allergen and not have an allergy1?

You can also reverse, or 'convert', the terms and ask:

Does B ever occur without A?

e.g., Are people ever unhappy, yet do not frown?

Is there any D that is not caused by C?

e.g., Can someone have an allergic reaction even though no allergy is present?

Finding counter examples often leads us to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon we are considering, and helps to enrich our 'map' of the territory. Often, there is a superficial validity to certain generalizations (like the relationship between frowning and unhappiness or allergens and allergies), but the deeper processes to which they refer are, in fact, much more complex.

Keep in mind that, because beliefs are linked with deep level neurology, a change in beliefs by finding a counter example can often produce immediate and dramatic effects. Finding counter examples, for instance, is the core of the NLP Allergy Technique (which involves finding something as similar as possible to the allergen, but which does not produce the allergic reaction).

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