Managing your state

Prior knowledge required: Filters – what do you see, hear and feel?

NLP uses the word ‘state’ to describe your way of being at any given moment. This is not just your mood or present emotion, as it also includes your energy level, the way you hold and use your body and the way you think. It is an amalgam of many things and we use a wide range of adjectives to describe it:

  • Alert
  • Tired
  • Happy
  • Curious
  • Relaxed
  • Fascinated
  • Loving
  • Sad
  • Energised and so on.

You are always in some kind of state, though you might not be aware of it unless it is very different from your everyday, baseline state.

Becoming aware of your different states, and learning how to improve the way you manage them are crucial success skills. This forms the basis of Emotional Intelligence, which is now recognised as the foundation of good leadership and a better indicator of overall success than IQ.

Your state is always changing

States are not measurable in any absolute sense. We may notice that a state is increasing or decreasing, or that we have a state to a greater or lesser degree. So we all know that our states change and many people simply accept their changing states just as they accept the weather. But it’s a mistake to imagine that you have no control over your state; it simply isn’t true and not only that, it’s also a limiting and very unhelpful belief.

In reality, everybody already manages their state to some extent. For example, ‘I will take a long bath; that will make me feel better’, ‘I will go out with my mates and have a laugh’, ‘I will eat a tub of ice-cream’, ‘I will go out for a run’ or ‘I will go out and get drunk’. We already have strategies to change our state, though some of these can be quite harmful in the longer term.

As we pass from state to state, either suddenly or gradually, we can think of them as good or bad, desirable or not, positive or negative. We know the states that we enjoy and the ones that we don’t; in fact, the whole world changes when we change state (or at least, it seems to). So we have a basis for deciding whether to maintain a state, increase it or change it to something quite different.

In order to influence our state, we need to have some understanding of what affects it.

What affects your state?

The following diagram, together with an explanation of it, is in the page Filters – what do you see, hear and feel?

Looking at the diagram, you can see that your state is part of a system, and will react to changes in other parts of the system.

External event

We usually think that a state happens as the result of an external event. ‘He brought me flowers and that made me feel really loved’, ‘She yelled at me and that made me scared’, ‘I was so proud driving my new car,’ ‘He made me so angry’ and so on. Looking at the diagram, however, you can see that a state is not directly linked to the external event; it only occurs after some other processing takes place, and this processing is unique to each of us, so the state that results from an event will be different for each of us.

Imagine two young boys playing in the waves on the beach. A much bigger wave than usual catches them both by surprise and pushes them hard into the sand. On recovering, one boy runs up the beach to his mother, crying and scared. The other turns to face the ocean and yells ‘That was FUN!’ waiting eagerly for the next big wave.

Identical event, yet different states generated. Events, in and of themselves, are neutral. They are neither good nor bad. Only after we have processed them through our filters do we label them as good or bad. Just because an event is considered bad by the majority, this does not make it so. It simply means that the majority have filtered the event in a similar way and come to the same conclusion. The event itself is still neutral, and always will be so, no matter how much we might like to think otherwise.

Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.

Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Stop and think about that for a minute, as it has far reaching implications. Each of us causes our own emotions, regardless of the event.

Just because we now think an event is ‘bad’, this does not mean it cannot change for us as we change our filters. A person with a phobia of spiders thinks an event that involves a spider is horrific and responds with a state of extreme fear. However, we all know that phobias can be cured. We have even seen it done on TV with hypnosis and other tools. The cure actually involves changing the filters so the same spider event is processed differently, resulting in a different state, perhaps one of indifference. The spider event itself was always neutral.

Internal movie

Another way that states arise is when we imagine something or replay a memory. This can be completely unrelated to what is going on around us, yet it can still generate a powerful state. If we really get into the process, an internal movie can generate just as powerful a state as an external event.

  • As you remember an old argument, how does that feel?
  • As you remember a fantastic holiday, how does that feel?
  • Think of some project you are currently working on, and then imagine how it will feel to finish the project and be recognised for its success?

Each time, notice what changes in how you feel, and what changes in your posture and breathing.


Jump up and down, or go to look out of the window, or bend down and touch your toes, or start any other physical activity.

As you do whatever it is you’ve chosen, pay close attention to the physical sensations of movement in the here and now.

Notice how you feel. Did your state change?


By behaviour, we mean any activity. This could be something subtle, such as the way you stand or breathe, or something much more obvious, such as a brisk walk or talking. It is anything you do.

Our state is affected by activity, even a subtle activity. How do you stand when you put on that really expensive and sharp-looking suit? You are power dressed and you know it! If you stand that way right now, even without the suit, how do you feel?

Changing state

By now you will be realising that much of what affects our state is actually going on inside us rather than outside us. This is good news, because we can influence our internal processes, and thus influence our state. This understanding puts us back in control. Even just the process of examining our state, and becoming aware of it, will likely change it.

We can change our state in the moment by changing any of the above things which affect state. We can make more profound and permanent changes to the way we generate states by changing our filters. We may need help to make the more radical changes, such as changing our filters to deal with a phobia, but almost anything becomes possible.

NLP offers many ways to help you manage and change your state at will. See the pages on Submodalities, Anchoring, Using a different point of view, and Goal setting. Also look at the topics on Emotional Intelligence, Goal Setting, Personal Energy and Motivation.

What state do you want?

Your state imbues everything you do. If you are clear about the optimal state for doing something and then access that state, you will be making it much easier to achieve your outcome.

Given your planned activity, whether it is to study something, write up a project, play sports or have a romantic evening out, you might start by considering the following:

  • What state you want to be in?
  • What state do you want other people to be in?

You then need to plan how you can achieve that state and how you could also help other participants to achieve a useful state. It may well be that you can’t do it all in one jump, so what intermediate states would you or others need to go through?

Think of the way a good comedian works an audience. A joke that is hilarious at the end of the show might well have fallen flat at the beginning, as he had not yet had time to move the audience through a sequence of states to where he wanted them.

Think of the sequence of states that you and your partner might go through during a romantic evening...

Baseline state

Your baseline state is your most habitual state. Many states are fleeting or transitional, but each of us usually drops back into a state in which we feel ‘at home’. Your baseline state may be balanced and harmonious or it may be out of balance and uncomfortable. It may be a ‘glass half full’ type of state or a ‘glass half empty’ type. Nevertheless, it has become habitual, even if it is one of continuing anxiety or depression or dullness. The quality of your baseline state contributes hugely to the quality of your life, since you spend so much time in it.

The good news is that you can change your baseline state over time to something that serves you better, improving the quality of your life.


Think about your baseline state:

  • Where does it come from?
  • Whose is it? Maybe you ‘inherited it’ from someone else, perhaps a parent...
  • Did you learn it? Consciously?
  • What do you feel like?
  • What are you thinking about?
  • Who are you in this state?
  • What do you believe and value in this state?
  • What are you able to do in this state?
  • What do you actually do in this state?
  • Where and when do you usually go into this state?

Now think of a baseline state you would serve you better. Preferably, you should get into this desired state either by thinking about how it would be or by thinking about a time when you were in this desired state. Go through the above questions again, and then do a comparison.

What are the differences? Which ones seem most important?

Use the process in Goal Setting to define what you want.

Use the various exercises in this NLP topic, and others in topics such as Emotional Intelligence, to start making the changes that will help you to progress towards your goal of a better baseline state, and thus a better life.

Eliciting states in others

Have you ever tried to cheer somebody up or get them motivated before doing something? We have all, at times, sought to alter someone’s state. We have also affected others without meaning to. How many times have you heard someone say something like ‘What’s the matter with him? All I said was...’

In fact, we are always eliciting states in others whenever we interact with them. We cannot not communicate, even if we say nothing. Another person will always pass what they experience of us through their filters, coming up with a meaning which will affect their state.

The simplest way to elicit a particular state in another person is to ask them to remember a time when they were in that state. The more vividly you can get them to remember the time, re-experiencing it in all its sensory glory so they are really ‘in it’, the more powerful the state that will be accessed. This works best when you are in rapport with the other person, and you are already doing your ‘version’ of the state you want them to access. If you want them to access confidence, be in a confident state yourself, with all the voice and posture signals that exude confidence.

Another way to elicit states is with storytelling. If you want someone in a calm and peaceful state, describe a calm and peaceful holiday so they build this internal movie in response to your story. See the topic on Storytelling for Business for more on this.


If you are in a really bad state, perhaps in reaction to an argument, a setback at work or even something that seems big, such as a relationship break-up, ask yourself how you will feel about it in a month, a year, ten years or however long it will take to get over it completely.

Imagine yourself looking back from that time; notice how unimportant that event now seems. Perhaps you might ask that future you what they learned from the event. Are there perhaps any aspects of it that the future you now finds amusing?

Imagine that things are now going really well for you and access that state of positivity and well being. Walk into the person you will be then; experience all those feelings to the maximum, using all the senses, and then take that state of well being back with you as you return to the present.