Dilts' Logical Levels
Why are some changes so much easier to achieve than others? And once achieved, why do some last longer?
Whether on a personal or organisational level, it’s all to do with the logical level on which you’re trying to make the change.
These ‘logical levels’, first proposed by Robert Dilts, are often used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), but provide a helpful structure for looking at what’s happening in any individual, group or organisation. They define six levels of thinking or situation: environment, behaviour, capability or competence, beliefs, identity and spirituality, and are usually visualised as a hierarchy (see diagram below).
Dilts' Logical Levels
The basic idea behind the logical levels is that each level directly affects those lower in the hierarchy. A lower level may, but will not necessarily, change those above.
The Six Levels
Environment is about the external conditions in which behaviour takes place, and in which we operate. A person operating at this level will probably be explaining what happened, who was there and so on. In general, the ‘story’ will not be about the person telling it, and the energy will be in explaining how something happened. This may involve complaining.
Behaviour is actions and reactions by an individual within the environment. A person operating at this level will be describing what they thought and did, and what effect that had. It also includes what they might have done, and what effect that would have had.
Capability or Competence
Capability or competence might be considered the ‘how’ level. Competences drive behaviour through a personal strategy, involving skills and their development. A person operating at this level, is talking and thinking about ‘how’ to achieve something, including what skills they might need to develop to do so.
Belief might be thought of as the level of ‘why’, and is sometimes also described as ‘values’. It is about the reasons behind the behaviour, including any underlying values. Beliefs and values can either reinforce or undermine capabilities. For example, a belief that you are ‘no good at drawing’ could undermine any attempt to learn to draw well.
Identity is about ‘who’ you are, and could also be considered as the sense of self. Conversations on this level are often about personal self-actualisation, such as ‘What do I like?’, ‘What makes me tick?’, ‘What is my passion?’ A person suffering from stress and burnout often engages at this level.
Spirituality is not always included in the logical levels, and might be thought of as a step beyond the others. It is about ‘what else’, beyond the individual, and related to being part of a bigger system, whether that be family, community or beyond. Some people describe this as the ‘wisdom’ level, and others exclude it altogether, or link it to identity, as being part of how you see yourself.
Using the Logical Levels
You can tell on what level someone is operating by the language they use to discuss a problem or situation. If someone continues to operate on only one level, their problem or situation can easily seem insoluble. However, if they can change the level, then the problem will change.
You can help someone to change the level on which they are operating by changing the language to another level. This will change the problem, and bring a new perspective. This is one of the tools that coaches often use to help their clients to think through problems, but it’s equally applicable for individuals at home or at work, especially in leadership positions.
In practice – some examples of changing the language
Suppose that a friend of yours is worrying about the way that their child is behaving, and is struggling to find things to do that will help her to manage the child’s behaviour.
She is discussing use of punishment and reward, but has got a bit stuck. Examples of questions that could change the logical level, and therefore the problem, would be:
“Why do you think he’s behaving like that?” [Beliefs/values]
“How could you respond differently?” [Competence/capability]
“How could you change the situation, to try to prevent this happening in the first place?” [Competence/capability]
“Do you think he’s trying to assert his sense of self a bit?” [Identity]
On the face of it, these are not wildly different, but they bring the discussion and thinking away from the child’s behaviour, and the adult behaviour in response (naughty steps, grounding, punishments, reward and so on), onto a different level.
There is another way in which Dilts’ Logical Levels can help in practice.
It is often said that feedback should be at the behavioural level: that you should only ever comment on behaviour, and not on the values or beliefs that underlie it.
However, when you think about changing behaviour, in the light of the logical levels, it becomes clear that without considering the underlying values, it may be impossible to change.
Suppose that you have consistently received feedback that you need to do more presentations and public speaking. Your job demands a more public face. You need to change your behaviour. But you’ve tried before, and it’s a real struggle. It’s just too easy to turn down invitations to conferences. Why? If we look at the Logical levels, and think about each one, it may become clearer.
Capability – do you have the necessary skills to behave in another way? If you’ve never had any training in how to speak in public, and you’ve never spent time developing your skills, then no wonder it’s a struggle.
Beliefs/values – do you believe that you can change, and do you believe that it’s right to do so? Examine your underlying values, and you may find lurking a hidden thought, for example, that only certain people do presentations, and you’re not one of them, or that it’s wrong to stand up in public and ‘blow your trumpet’.
Identity – is your behaviour tied up in your sense of self? Maybe you really hate speaking in public, because you dislike being the centre of attention. It’s going to be hard to change your behaviour until you have addressed this dislike. However, address the dislike and your dislike of public speaking could vanish overnight.
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Like so many of the most useful tools in management and leadership, the Logical Levels are extremely simple. This makes them easy to remember and use on a day-to-day basis, to change the way you think, and perhaps the way others do as well.