Improve your social life with association and disassociation cues

Updated 14 August 2015, version 1.2
Today I’m going to remind you of a simple NLP pattern that can help you:

  • Make friends and keep them
  • Become more popular and attractive to others
  • Get dates and keep partners
  • Reduce conflict and negativity in your life
  • Get more support from others
  • Keep people around you happier

You already know this skill. You learned it during NLP training, and use it during interventions.

But you probably haven’t generalized it to everyday life. (Most NLPers don’t.) This subtle shift in language can make a big difference.

Association and disassociation cues

What skill do I mean? Using language and other cues to get people to associate and disassociate.

When guiding change work, you can disassociate a client by telling them to “observe that younger you, over there.” To keep the client disassociated, you then describe the people in the representation as “that you,” “she,” “him,” or “they,” while gesturing toward the representation and away from the client.

When building a resource state, you use “you” language, present time, and associated sensory cues to associate the client into the experience: “And as you feel that good feeling, now, notice where the center of it is in your body.”

That’s great for change work, but what about the rest of life?

Avoid these association mistakes!

A couple years after my NLP training, I began to notice the ways my NLPer friends and I used association and disassociation cues in everyday life. Our casual language often associated people around us into negative states and experiences! We didn’t mean to do it; it happened automatically while we had our “talking to a client” filters turned off.

I also heard even skilled NLPers accidently associate and disassociate people during interventions. Several times I watched an NLP professional skillfully work a demo subject or client out of a deeply unresourceful state… only to accidentally plunge them back into it by using “you” language to talk about the person’s problem!

Do a language experiment

I decided to experiment with changing how I used association and disassociation cues in everyday interactions. No more “You know when you…” language for my negative stories!

Until that point, I had used a lot of association cues with negative content. I decided to do the opposite most of the time:

  1. Help listeners associate into desirable, positive, and empowering experiences and resources. If you have something good to share, use association to help your listeners experience it too.
  2. Help listeners disassociate from negative, unpleasant, and disempowering experiences and attitudes. If you talk about hardships and problems, keep people disassociated. If they talk about problems in an associated way, help them disassociate.

I began by changing one thing: the way I used pronouns — words such as I, you, we, they, he, she, someone, and a person. Later I added other linguistic cues. Eventually I also added gestures and body language.

What happened?

  1. My results with clients improved.
  2. People feel good around me, so they like me more, find me more attractive, and give me more support.

Before I tell you how to quickly change your automatic association cues, let’s do a quick review.

How sensory cues affect association and disassociation

As you know, when you mention or describe an experience, people understand what you say by building mental representations of it. Association and disassociation cues tell your listeners how to represent point of view.

When you suggest association, people tend to imagine or re-experiencing having an experience, as if they were actually doing what you describe. This makes them experience the emotions and physical sensations of that experience.

When you suggest disassociation, people tend to imagine observing themselves or someone else having that experience from the outside. This lets them observe the situation without experiencing or re-experiencing the emotions and physical sensations of being in that experience.

Association cues include:

  • Referring to “you,” “we,” “us,” and “this.”
  • Using the person’s name: “John, read this now.” (Sometimes naming a group the person belongs to will also associate them, especially if you also use other linguistic cues: “Like you, most NLPers enjoy learning.”)
  • Specifying present time: “As you experience that now…” or “As you’re experiencing that now…”
  • Spatially enclosing the listener in the context: “As you’re in that experience now…”
  • Speaking and acting as if something is real; using words like “because” and “of course.”
  • Using your listener’s experiences as examples. This works especially well if the experiences are sensory-based, and if you specify some submodalities. “As you listen to that voice, notice the pitch and tempo…”
  • Gestures that suggest something is in or on the person’s body, or surrounds them.
  • Associated sensory cues: “Hear with your own ears, see with your own eyes, feel your body.”
  • Specifying submodalities that require your listener to associate. Kinesthetics are especially good for that. “As you notice the temperature of the air around you now…”

Disassociation cues include:

  • Referring to “they,” “he,” “she,” “someone,” “a person,” “one,” “it,” and “that” in representations, and to yourself and your own experiences as “I.”
  • Using names to specify people other than the listener, and groups they don’t belong to.
  • Specifying past or future time, especially if qualified as not happening now: “You used to do that.”
  • Spatially distancing the listener from representations: “As you see and hear those people way over there…”
  • Speaking and acting as if something is unreal; using words like “if.”
  • Unreal and hypothetical examples: “If you listened to an elephant playing a piano…”
  • Gestures that suggest that what you refer to is distant.
  • Sensory cues for disassociation: “As you observe that from over here, notice how distant it seems.”
  • Specifying only submodalities appropriate to disassociation: vision and hearing, but no tactile cues.

Fortunately, you don’t have to consciously keep track of any of this if you use my strategy and…

Create a “mental movie screen” over each listener’s head

You can’t know exactly what representations other people will build in order to understand what you say. However, you can approximate their representations, and get a pretty good idea of whether your words and gestures will trigger association or disassociation.

I didn’t want to spend weeks or months retraining myself, and you probably don’t either. Instead, use the fast process below to drastically improve your awareness and cue choices within days.

Creating awareness of association cues

  1. Imagine talking with a friend.
  2. Create a small movie screen over your friend’s head. You will use it to display your friend’s internal representations. (Note: People who visualize less clearly can pretend they see the movie screen, knowing their subconscious mind sees it clearly. Or they can substitute a “sportscaster” voice that describes their friend’s representations, and adjust the rest of these instructions accordingly.)
  3. Say something that includes association or disassociation cues. I suggest pronouns — “I,” “you,” “them” — because they so strongly evoke point of view.
  4. Have the screen show the mental movie your friend will probably make in order to understand what you say, and include the soundtrack.

    You want a movie that will give you the information you need, without associating you into the content. To do this, see and hear the movie from Observer position (so you see your friend, their movie, and how the two relate), put a frame around the movie screen, distort the sound so it seems to come through speakers facing your friend, or use whatever tricks work for you.

  5. When you use associating language, have the movie screen show your friend associating into their representation of what you say. When you use disassociated language, have the movie screen show your friend disassociating from their representation. At this point, don’t try to change anything. Simply notice the new information. Practice with both positive and negative content, and adjust as needed. Here are examples I use when I teach this skill:
    • Imagine saying to your friend, “When you’re really sick and unhappy…” See and hear your friend feeling bad as they imagine having that experience.
    • Now imagine saying, “When someone has a really good day…” See and hear your friend imagining someone else having the experience, and notice that your friend doesn’t get the good feelings themselves.
    • Now say to them, “When someone is really sick…” See and hear your friend imagining someone else being sick, so your friend understands what you say, and they still feel okay.
    • Now tell your friend, “When you have a really good day…” See and hear your friend feeling good as they imagine having that experience.
  6. Imagine utilizing the information you get from the screen to improve your word choices. How do you want your friend to receive your communication? If your intent matches their movie — if you want your friend disassociated, and they make a disassociated mental movie — you already chose appropriate cues. If your intent mismatches your friend’s movie, change your language cues.
  7. Do imaginary practice with more people and varied content. To have a client to access a traumatic memory, or to get rid of an obnoxious person, you might want to associate someone into negative content, or disassociate them from positives. Build in flexibility and choice!
  8. Once you like the results, use New Behavior Generator to install the pattern:
    • Create a disassociated movie of you using your new skill successfully. Your movie should show the screens over people’s heads, their movies, and your responses.
    • Adjust your disassociated movie until you like it.
    • Step into your movie and experience it associated from beginning to end. Do you like it? Do you feel confident and congruent? Do you want to change or improve anything?
    • Step out to make adjustments, step in to check how they work.
    • Continue until the whole movie works the way you want it to.
    • Repeat the New Behavior Generator pattern with 2 more examples.

Initially, you will probably simply notice when you use pronouns in ways that mismatch your intent. Soon your mind will start to anticipate people’s likely responses before you even open your mouth. You’ll notice mismatches between your language and intent, and make corrections before you speak.

For most of us who know NLP, most interactions happen in everyday life outside NLP interventions. How we use everyday language affects our important relationships, our interactions at work, even who likes and dislikes us. We can use association and disassociation cues to uplift and empower people, separate them mentally from their problems, and help them feel good. That benefits the people around us, and it benefits us as well.

Want to experiment?

  1. Calibrate how you us associative and disassociative cues in everyday interactions now. How do people typically respond to you?
  2. Switch to using cues that associate people into good experiences, disassociate them from bad ones.
  3. Calibrate how people’s responses change, immediately and over time.
  4. Post your results in the Comments below.


Improve your social life with association and disassociation cues — 1 Comment

  1. How can I start living bc i feel I’m stuck in the disassociated state and want to get out of that state and live in an Associated State please.

    Kuldip Singh

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