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SD for NLPers

Natasha Todorovic
June 2003

This basic introduction to Spiral Dynamics (SD) for Practitioners of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was written by Natasha Todorovic for ‘Voice Of NLP’ and is re-published here with the permission of both Natasha and that short-lived e-zine’s editor, Steve Bannister.

Natasha, an NLP Master Practitioner & Trainer, is the personal and business partner of Spiral Dynamics co-developer Chris Cowan. She can be contacted via e-mail or the NVC Consulting web site.

The flirtation is over. The first date has come and gone. We are now in the throes of building a relationship knowing it’s going somewhere with boundaries not yet defined. The quality of the partnership developing between NLP and SD will be determined by the enthusiasm of the parties involved – that’s you!

What is SD? Spiral Dynamics is a powerful model of human nature which is capturing the imagination of NLP practitioners, organisational development consultants, coaches and trainers all over the world.

It is the title of a foundational book, a number of websites, and a certification programme. For some, it represents an excellent toolbox, with instructions on how, when and where to use NLP tools and techniques. For others, it is a spiritual movement and a path to enlightenment. For therapists, it makes the plethora of psychological approaches and interventions make sense. Whichever angle you tend to favour, these various applications are a testament to the power of this model.

The underlying theory is based on the work of a largely unrecognised research psychologist, a contemporary of Maslow’s, Dr Clare W Graves, Professor Emeritus Psychology, Union College, New York. At the end of each semester of exploring theories of personality and human development in the early 1950s, Dr Graves found himself confronting a question he could not answer.

“Okay, Professor, now that we know Freud, Jung, Maslow, Rogers, Skinner and the others, which theory is right? Which one accurately depicts the development of human nature?”

Dr Graves realised he couldn’t answer this. Rather than continuing to rehash psychological orthodoxy or participate in debates between the conflicting theories of the day, he decided to start afresh by searching for the reasons behind the shifting views of human nature. For over 30 years he conducted an elegant study using batteries of psychological tests. interviews and observations. Graves cross-compared his data with those of other theoreticians. From the mountain of information he built a fresh theory.

Graves found remarkable patterns. He was among the first to approach Psychology from a bio-psycho-social-systems perspective, including the: biological, neurological, brain, psychological, sociological and complex adaptive systems components. This allowed him to explain a tremendous amount about human behaviour, learning, motivation and values and to create (1970) what he called ‘The Emergent, Cyclical Double Helix Model of Adult Biopsychosocial Systems Development’ (also known as Spiral Dynamics).

Christopher Cowan, co-author of ‘Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership And Change’ (1996), worked with Dr Graves over a 10 year period learning, developing and applying the technology and further developed it into the Spiral Dynamics model.

The Gravesian point of view offers incredible flexibility, utility and power for understanding the complexity inherent in rapidly changing human mindscapes.

Because of the focus on values, many NLP practitioners use SD as a reframing tool and build it into Robert Dilts’ Logical Levels (1990). Although this is like using a computer as a typewriter, many profound changes have occurred with this simple association. Others use SD to provide information about how to approach their clients most effectively – as a nurturer, an authority, a highly paid expert, an insultant (as opposed to a consultant), a peer or as a facilitator.

One of the most remarkable applications of the combined SD/NLP fusion has been a programme for at-risk-youth. As a result many teenagers who were considered hopeless and had been thrown out of other remedial programmes – and even juvenile prisons – have found new hope, new skills and a new understanding of their roles in society. They have learned rapport skills, sensory acuity and the differences in human nature which enable them to engage with their environment in more socially acceptable and productive ways.

NLP practitioners are finding that SD is useful for defining the present and desired state in a way NLP doesn’t. SD bridges the nature vs nurture debate and outlines the reasons for, conditions under which, and trajectories of human change with its elegant description of ‘Change States’, ‘Variations of Change’ and ‘Conditions for Change’.

SD offers a complementary perspective that turbo charges NLP techniques. It offers a roadmap to understanding values and the value systems they come from. The coupling of SD and NLP in business, coaching, therapy, management, personal growth and organisational development and change can produce incredible results. If and when they join formally they will pack an even more powerful punch.


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