The following is a very interesting exchange between Richard Bandler and a workshop
participant who is very sure about something.
B: Are you sure you're sure?
B: Are you sure enough to be UNSURE?
B: OK, Let's talk.
Before reading further,
I strongly recommend that you think of something that you are very certain
about, and find someone else to ask you this set of questions about your
certainty, so that you have a concrete personal experience of their impact.
At the very least, close your eyes and imagine that someone else asks you
these questions, and take the time to carefully notice your response to each
one, so that you can experience their effect on you.
And for those of you who teach modeling, or do modeling, this is an excellent
small opportunity to do some of it. Although Bandler's exchange is brief, and
concise, it is quite interesting to explore its structure.
* * *
Now that you have an experience
of it, I would like to characterize this pattern as I understand it, which
requires a short journey up through logical levels.
Level 1. There is a situation X. X is a more or less sensory-based, "reality," what
Paul Watzlawick has called "first-order reality" which is something
that everyone can usually pretty much agree on, such as a “job interview," or
a “critical comment.” This level is often called “the environment,”
and it is something that often we don't have too much control over.
Certain unpleasant events happen to us from time to time, and we
don't always have the choice of avoiding them or ignoring them.
Level 2. The person then thinks about the situation X in a
particular way and characterizes/evaluates it, for instance, "This
X is scary." This is a meta-response, and the state is a meta-state
about X. This is what Paul Watzlawick has called "second-order reality." This
is where people may differ wildly, particularly if they are from
different cultures, and it is at this level where many conflicts
and problems (and many solutions) exist.
The person could just as well conclude that X is "boring" or "exciting," or "challenging," or
is an opportunity to "learn more about their Buddha nature," etc. The person's
response will depend on the understanding that they apply to the event, and
changing this understanding through content reframing can make a huge difference
in the person's experience.
Level 3. The person has a degree of certainty about the meta-response. "I
know this is scary." This is a meta-response about a meta-response
(a meta-meta-response, with corresponding meta-meta-state). We could
call this "third-order reality," which is even more distant from
sensory experience than second-order reality, and even more troublesome
and dangerous. Plenty of problems (and solutions) also occur at this
Many people who come for therapy appear to suffer from uncertainty: “I don't
know what to do.” “I'm not sure if this is the right thing to do.” “Life has
no meaning.” But you can also think of this as resulting from other certainties.
“I know that wouldn't work,” “I know she hates me,” “I know I can't succeed,”
etc. Since these certainties will make it difficult for the person to consider
other understandings at level 2, it can often be very useful to reduce certainty.
Someone who is phobic of airplanes, and someone who is not, may be making exactly
the same images of flaming death and destruction. The difference is that the
images of the non-phobic include some representation of the small probability
of the crash, as well as its possibility. This could be either a certainty
of its unlikeliness, or a very great uncertainty about its happening. However,
a phobic person is experientially certain that it will happen, no matter what
s/he says “intellectually.”
What makes it difficult to work with a paranoid is not just that s/he thinks
that others are plotting against him/her, but that s/he is certain that this
is occurring, and is unwilling to question it and consider other possibilities.
Another aspect of a person's certainty is that others may suffer from it as
much or more than the person who is certain. Think of all the deaths, persecutions,
misery and destruction around the globe that have resulted from the certainty
of religious prophets and institutions, revolutionaries, and politicians--all
of whom are totally convinced that they were right.
Each of us has a way to assess experience and provide us with a measure of
how certain we are about it. This has often been called a person's "convincer
strategy." The exploration of the variety of ways that people use to convince
themselves of something is also relevant to the topic of certainty, but this
article will only discuss the result of the operation of the convincer strategy.
Every evaluation that someone makes at level 2 has some degree of certainty/uncertainty
about it at level 3, and this will be on a continuum from zero certainty to
There are basically
A. Zero certainty
If a person has zero certainty, they have no firm conclusion whatsoever about
the meaning of X, so they are completely open to considering new understandings
when they are offered, and they will be very easy to work with in exploring
other ways of thinking about the situation X. This is an "easy client," because
their understanding of a situation is very fluid, and they have no, or very
little, certainty about their understanding to lock in the understanding, and
make it hard to change.
B. Partial certainty
If someone is somewhere in the mid-range of certainty, they are at least somewhat
open to considering other possible understandings (on level 2) of a situation
X (on level 1). If they are very certain, it will be harder for them to consider
other understandings, but at least it will be possible. These clients are somewhat
harder to work with than those with zero or very little certainty, and those
who are more certain will be harder to work with than those who are less certain.
C. Absolute certainty
If a person is totally certain about their understanding, they will be closed
to even considering other understandings, because their certainty about their
understanding locks up the ability to consider alternatives. These are the
really tough clients, and this is the situation where Bandler's pattern is
particularly useful--to move someone from the absolute certainty (which has
only one representation) to the partial certainty (with more than one representation)
in which a dialogue is possible. (I think it is very significant in this regard
that at the end of the exchange, Bandler says, "OK, Let's talk.") In other
words, this pattern is not useful to solve a problem; it is useful to make
it possible to solve a problem on level 2 by decreasing certainty on level
Understanding the pattern
To understand how the pattern works, we will need to enter the realm of paradox,
which is very difficult for most of us to think about. (It was also hard for
Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, two very brilliant professional logicians
to think about, so there is no shame in this, but the faint of heart may wish
to consider turning to simpler recreations.)
"Are you sure?" asks if a person is in state of certainty. This is a question
that asks for a digital yes or no answer, but permits answers which are qualified
in some way. If the person says, "No, not really," then they are uncertain (A)
and are already open to other understandings. If they respond, "Well, I'm pretty
sure," they are somewhere in the intermediate range of partial certainty (B)
and will be at least somewhat open to considering other understandings. If they
simply respond "Yes," we need more information. (As usual the nonverbal messages
in voice tone, posture, hesitations, etc. will be much more useful than the words
in assessing the actual degree of certainty the person is experiencing.)
"Are you sure you're sure?" applies certainty to itself recursively, in essence
asking if the person is absolutely sure. Answering this question requires the
person to go to a 4th level. Again this is a question that asks for a digital
yes or no answer, but permits a qualified answer. If the person says. "Well,
I'm pretty sure," or qualifies it in any way, then the person is somewhere in
the mid-range (B), and can already be talked with usefully. If the person replies
with an unqualified "Yes," they are saying that they are absolutely certain (C).
(Again, the nonverbals will tell you more about the absoluteness of the certainty
than the words.)
This condition of absoluteness (or near absoluteness) is required for the next
step of the pattern to work. However, if the condition of absoluteness is not
met, it means that the next step is unnecessary, because in a condition of
partial certainty (B) you can proceed to usefully explore alternative understandings.
A very important aspect of this question is that it asks the person to recursively
apply their certainty to itself. This requires the person to go to a fourth
logical level, and this is something which is also necessary for the next step
in the pattern. A "Yes" answer is a confirmation that the person is willing
and able to do this recursion or "apply to self," as it is usually called in
the "sleight of mouth" patterns. Recursion is a precondition for the next question,
which also asks the person to apply certainty to itself, but in a different
Another way of describing this is that the first two questions can be used
both to gather information about the client's degree of certainty, while at
the same time beginning to assemble pieces of a puzzle which will be put all
together in the third step. "Are you sure enough to be UNSURE?" applies certainty
to its negation, and is a form of logical paradox, equivalent to the statement "This
sentence is false (not true)," or "I am a liar (not truth-telling)." (The word
“paradox” can also used in a more general way to mean “contradictory” or “unexpected,”
but the meaning here is restricted to logical paradox.)
The three essential ingredients of a logical paradox are:
1. An absolute statement
In paradox, an absolute
statement is recursively applied to its own negation, bridging two logical
levels. If the statement is true, then it is false, and if it is false, then
it is true. This perpetual oscillation between truth and falsity challenges
all our ideas about certainty and reality, and this is at least one reason
why we find it so difficult to think about paradox.
There are two more very important elements in the word "enough." "Enough" presupposes
some point on a continuum, while the person has been using an absolute either/or
(sure/unsure) distinction with no middle ground. No matter how the person answers,
if they accept this presupposition, they are agreeing to a frame in which certainty
is on an analog continuum rather than an absolute, digital either/or, and consequently
other alternative understandings can be considered. Unless they challenge this
presupposition, either answer to this question moves them to an experience
of partial uncertainty.
There is yet another important element in the word “enough.” It presupposes
reaching a threshold, in this case a threshold of certainty. If the person
replies “No,” they are saying that their certainty is something less than the
threshold. If they reply “Yes,” they are saying that their certainty has reached
the threshold, and is “enough” to be uncertain.
“Are you sure enough to be unsure?” Is the question form of the statement,
“If you are sure enough, you will be unsure,” and this is presupposed when
asked as a question. This presupposition states that great certainty includes
within it the ability to be unsure, taking two experiences that have been experienced
as polar opposites, and nesting one within the other.
I have already mentioned that it is very difficult for most of us to process
logical paradoxes. When we hear this paradox, stated as a question, (with the "enough" presuppositions
packed inside it), most people simply give up and respond yes or no. If a person
answers "Yes," they are agreeing to a state of unsureness (the "unsure"), and
if they answer "No," they are also agreeing to a state of unsureness "not sure
enough." Whichever response is given, they are agreeing to a degree of uncertainty,
and consequently the willingness to consider alternative understandings. This
pattern has the same form as a paradoxical challenge that the devil supposedly
once offered to God in regard to God's omnipotence. The devil challenged God
to create a rock so large that even God could not move it. If God cannot create
a very large rock that he cannot move, he is not omnipotent in his ability
to create rocks, and if he does create such a rock, he is not omnipotent in
his ability to move rocks. Either way the absoluteness of God's omnipotence
To summarize, this pattern is very useful in situations in which a person is
very certain about how they understand something, this understanding causes
them difficulty, and their certainty results in their being not willing to
even consider alternative understandings.
Using this pattern can open them to considering other models of the world.
Learning how to sort out levels of experience in this way is a very useful
skill that can help us understand the structure of problems, and decide which
level of understanding could use some improvement. This makes it much easier
to find our way through the twisting corridors of another person's mind, in
order to help them find their way out of their predicaments--and also keeps
us from wasting our time solving problems that they don't have!
Confusion about levels of thinking, the recursion that transcends levels, and
particularly recursion that includes negation, are present in many human problems.
It is a little-explored realm, and one that often creates paradoxical traps
for us. Knowing the three essential elements of paradox (absolute statement,
recursion, and negation) can help us identify these traps, and avoid them.
We can't avoid logical levels, or recursion, and we wouldn't want to--that
would keep us from thinking about thinking, and having feelings about feelings,
thinking about feelings, and many other valuable and unique aspects of our
But we can learn to use positive statements whenever possible, rather than
negation, and learn to be very careful when we do use negation. The NLP emphasis
on positive outcomes is one example of the value of this, and the benefits
that can result from this kind of thinking. And we can be doubly careful when
recursion is also present, which is much more often than we usually think.
To give only one example, when someone says, “I am a bad person,” they are
saying that everything that they do is bad, and one of their behaviors is the
sentence that s/he just said to you, so “badness” applies to the sentence about
And finally, we can also
learn to be very cautious about making absolute statements, realizing that
all knowledge is relative, contextual, and based on our very limited experience
and understanding. Paradoxically, that is one thing we can be very certain
about! I think it is truly amazing that with the three pounds of jelly between
our ears we can imagine and think about an infinite universe, but it would
be useful to have a little humility all the same. Let's start with some humility
about our knowledge and certainty.
© Steve Andreas, NLP developer, trainer, author, (and art collector)