Martin Messier

July 3, 2023

5 Ways To Interrupt Patterns

By now, you understand how a pattern interrupt facilitates change by shaking and destabilizing established thought and behavioral patterns.

Let’s examine five ways to do this. These are:

  1. Blocking
  2. Redirection
  3. Overload
  4. Confusion
  5. Spinning out

Let’s begin with blocking.



The most direct way to interrupt a pattern is to block it. Through blocking, you literally prevent the individual from completing his or her typical behavior.

Common examples of blocking include:

  • Interrupting a person in mid-sentence
  • Talking to another person as he or she talks to you
  • Not responding appropriately to another’s communication
  • Blocking a person’s accessing cues (a powerful way of interrupting that person’s cognitive strategies)
  • Waving or moving your hands in front of someone’s face and “knocking away’ their eye position cues
  • Making subtle clicking noises with your mouth (causes a change in someone’s internal pictures)

A case study in blocking

Here’s a good example of “blocking.” A young woman suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

The NLP practitioner who was working with her noticed something peculiar: many of these behaviors started with a type of age regression, accompanied by a childlike body posture. In this posture, her toes would turn in toward one another, in a pigeon-toed stance.

The next time he noticed the woman begin to turn her feet, without saying a thing, he quickly leaned over and straightened the feet with his hands. This startled her and she could not complete her habitual obsessive response.

As the session continued, each time the woman began to turn her feet inward, the practitioner would simply immediately straighten them. For the first time in years. the woman experienced freedom from her obsessions, leading to an important breakthrough in her therapy.

A second case study in blocking

Here’s another example. A young man experienced auditory hallucinations. He constantly heard a disparaging “voice” that criticized him and ordered him to do things that he found unacceptable.

The NLP practitioner working with the man noticed the following pattern: anytime he started to “hear” the voice, the man’s right hand would start to rise to touch his face.

The following time the practitioner saw the man’s hand start to rise toward his face, he reached over, grabbed his arm gently, and said: ”Oh, by the way, there was something else l forgot to ask.” The man, slightly startled and distracted, heard no voice.

The practitioner continued to “block” this behavior in a similar way throughout the session. As a result, the man began to realize that the “voice” was associated to his own behavior in some way, and that he could influence it.

This lead the practitioner and the man to explore and uncover the voice as a part of the man which they could communicate and deal with in more effective and ecological ways.


Redirection involves diverting a behavioral or mental pattern, rather than stopping it dead in its tracks. This can happen by diverting the representational sequence of the ongoing pattern with a particular sensory stimulus.

For example, imagine a person who is lost in thought. What if he or she suddenly heard some noise or saw some movement in the external environment? That surely would draw his or her attention to it and interrupt that thought pattern.

The stimulus does not necessarily block the person‘s strategy. Instead, it overrides the ongoing sequence, shifting the person’s focus and altering their behavior. Often, after such an interruption, the person may find it difficult or even impossible to reaccess the thought pattern he or she was in and may even forget what he or she was thinking about.

One example: total distraction

Here’s a simple example you may have lived through yourself. Have you ever seen someone engaged in a heated conversation with someone else? Then, a third person came up to them, tapped them on the shoulder and asked them where they could find the car keys. After answering the request, the person tried to get back to the conversation but couldn’t for the life of them remember what they were talking about.

Have you ever witnessed that? I bet you have.

Two more examples: gestures and shifting physiology

Here’s another example… You could divert someone’s accessing cues using hand or head gestures to shift the flow of the communication. Also, you can use your own eye movements to direct the other person’s eye movements.

Here’s a third example: if you ask a depressed person to sit up straight, hold his or her head up high, take a full breath in the chest, throw his or her shoulders back, open his or her eyes wide and smile, you’ll draw that person out of that disempowering state faster than anything else you might do. The classic depressive physical posture probably does more to elicit and perpetuate the depressive state than any other factor.

Generally, a depressed person will slump and hunch over, eye and head oriented downward to access kinesthetic information. No wonder that person isn’t able to see or talk himself or herself out of his or her problems.

Usually, any representational system (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory or gustatory) can either focus inward or outward. For example, the more you talk to yourself in your head, the less you can hear what’s going on around you. The same goes for the other senses.

Depressed people spend most of their time focused on internal kinesthetics. Directing their tactile awareness outward through physical movements, interacting with objects or playing sports will effectively divert their focus.

To interrupt the pattern of someone who is depressed, have him or her do something, no matter how meaningless the activity may seem.

A case study in redirection

A practitioner once received an emergency call from a depressed client. That person said she was contemplating suicide. At the time of the call, however, the practitioner was assisting another client and could not handle the situation at that exact moment.

Out of desperation, the practitioner told the calling client in a firm and congruent voice to go out immediately, take a bicycle ride for at least 20 minutes and call the practitioner again when she returned. The practitioner figured that this would keep the person busy and buy some time until the practitioner had finished with the other client.

When the client called back, the crisis had passed. The practitioner couldn’t believe it.

The client said that the bike ride had broken the depression. Before the bike ride, she hadn’t left her house for days. She said that she now understood how that had built up her disempowering state. She still needed to work on a number of problems she faced, but the bike ride had averted a crisis by successfully shifting her focus to a different part of her experience, interrupting the disempowering pattern of thoughts that prompted the depression.


Overloading occurs when a particular representational channel processes more information than it can handle.

Overloading happens naturally in many everyday experiences. For instance, have you ever been in a noisy place and you couldn’t “hear yourself think?” Or have you ever felt so good that you didn’t know what to do or say (we often call this “being overcome by emotion”)?

Other examples of overload are situations like being overwhelmed by beauty or practically “knocked out” by some smell or fragrance.

The behavioral result of overloading, as with any of the other pattern interrupts, is that the person’s mental process cannot complete its cycle. This is the mechanism behind what
we call “threshold patterns” in NLP.

Using the Compulsion Blow-Out

A good example of leveraging threshold patterns in therapeutic application is the “Compulsion Blow-Out” protocol. The Compulsion Blow-Out is based on the old adage that it is possible to get “too much of a good thing.” Typically, a practitioner will use the Compulsion Blow-Out by working through submodalities.

Let’s take the compulsion for chocolate cake, for example. That feeling will often intensify if the person imagines the piece of cake getting closer and bigger. However, the feeling generally reverses after passing a certain “threshold” point. The piece of cake will become “too big” or “too close.” By intensifying the submodalities associated to the compulsion beyond the threshold point, overload happens and the pattern interrupts.

You can do the same to representations that trigger anger, fear, jealousy and other feelings and emotions. By taking one of the submodalities past threshold, you can overload one of the factors in the pattern and interrupt it.

Take a visual memory that triggers anger, for instance. If you increase its speed, you can take it past threshold and shift the response from anger to laughter.

Several NLP submodality techniques revolve around this principle.

Confusion Techniques

Confusion techniques are a type of pattern interrupt modeled from the hypnotic work of Milton H. Erickson. Many confusion techniques involve the use of verbal ambiguity.

For example:

In the middle of a sentence, you could suddenly stop, reach over and touch the person you’re talking to in a number of places and then ask seriously:

“Which time were you touched more times than the time before you were last touched?”

Typically, the person will become confused. Momentarily, his or her conscious thinking processes will “go on hold,” opening them up to other suggestions or responses.

A case study in using confusion

At an NLP seminar, a man wanted learn how to use his voice with more versatility. However, he felt a tremendous amount of internal resistance. A part of him knew it was “appropriate” to become more flexible with his voice. Yet, he felt ”ridiculous” anytime he tried something different. This inner conflict made him self-conscious and got him stuck whenever he tried to do an exercise. As a result of this challenge, he felt increasingly frustrated, both with himself and the other seminar attendees trying to participate in the exercise with him.

A fellow participant brought his challenge to the attention of the two NLP trainers conducting the course. They decided to use a confusion technique to interrupt his pattern.

They brought him up as a demonstration subject for an exercise on vocal flexibility. Naturally, as he began the exercise, the inner resistance and conflict immediately began to emerge.

At this point, one of the trainers said:

“I understand that you think it is appropriate to develop flexibility with your voice, but are worried about looking ridiculous by doing so. The question I have is whether you want to be appropriately ridiculous or ridiculously appropriate?”

Taken off guard by the question, the young man couldn’t answer.

The other trainer took the opportunity to add:

“It’s only appropriate that you are confused by the question because it such a ridiculous thing to ask.”

The first trainer then said:

“But isn’t it ridiculous that it is appropriate to respond that way to a ridiculous question?”

His fellow trainer responded:

“Yes, but it’s appropriate to ask a ridiculous question when the situation is as ridiculous as this one seems to be.”

The other trainer then remarked:

“That’s a ridiculous thing to say. I think it is only appropriate that we are all in such a ridiculous situation, and it is necessary that we respond to it appropriately.”

The second trainer retorted:

“I know that what I’m saying is ridiculous, but I think that, in order to act appropriately, I have to be ridiculous. In fact, given the situation, it would be ridiculous to act appropriately”

The two trainers then turned back to the man and asked:

“What do you think?”

The man, completely confused, stared blankly for a moment, and then started to laugh. At this point, the trainers said:

“Let’s just do the exercise then.”

The man was able to complete the exercise without any internal interference. In a way, the confusion technique served to desensitize him to his disempowering interpretation of those two words. This freed him to choose his reaction based upon different criteria.

In the future, whenever any issue about the “appropriateness” or “ridiculousness” of his behavior arose, the man just laughed and made his decisions based upon a different, and more effective, decision-making strategy.

“Spinning Out” a pattern

Sending a pattern into a “spin” is probably the most sophisticated pattern interrupt.

A pattern will “spin out” when the end of the pattern becomes anchored to its beginning. When that happens, the pattern keeps feeding back into itself (like the proverbial snake swallowing its own tail). Because it can’t close, the pattern continues to loop indefinitely. Most patterns have a built-in test mechanism, such that if they are ineffectual after a certain period of time, they will automatically exit into a completely new pattern. That’s why it’s called the “spin out.”

A simple example of how to spin out the pattern

Here’s an example of how you can spin out a belief pattern by continually feeding it back onto itself:

B: I’m stupid because I can’t do X.

A: How do you know that you can’t do X?

B: My experience tells me that I can’t.

A: How do you know that your experience tells you that can’t do X?

B: Because I’ve tried before and failed.

A: How do you know that you’ve tried and failed?

B: I remember it.

A: How do you know that you remember it?

B: Because I can see it.

A: How do you know that you can see it?

B: Because I just do.

A: How do you know that you “just do”?

The spin out strategy here is obvious. Whatever the person answers to the protocol question, you feed back through the question again. As the process cycles through, you will reach one of two results

  1. The person will discover something interesting about his or her own process of belief, or
  2. The person will “give up” on the line of reasoning because the process reveals that the belief is not based on anything substantial or arguable.

As a result, the person will frequently abandon his or her attempts to defend the belief and will open up to new possible meanings.

A second way of spinning out a pattern

Another way of “spinning out” a thought pattern is by actually applying the strategy to itself.

Let’s take a look at a particular case. A young man had trouble getting motivated about his business. He kept finding himself taking on much more than he could possibly handle.

A practitioner elicited his motivation strategy, and they discovered the following: anytime a client, friend or associate asked him to perform some task or favor, he immediately tried to build an image of himself doing it. If he could see himself doing it, he would tell himself to do it and would start doing it, even if he had other things to do.

Then, the practitioner asked him if he could visualize himself not doing something that he could visualize himself doing. His thought pattern started to spin out and he quickly went into a deep trance. The practitioner took advantage of that state to install a more effective motivational strategy.

A third way to spin out a pattern

Another way to spin out a strategy is to set an anchor for the beginning and another one for the end of the pattern; then, collapse the anchors so the beginning and the end become tied together.

A man came to a workshop on NLP and hypnosis and claimed he’d been trying to go into a trance for over 25 years and had never succeeded. He strongly believed it was impossible for him to enter a trance even though he had wanted to for all those years. For the sake of demonstration, the trainer spun out his belief strategy. He set one anchor at the beginning and one at the end of the pattern, and then collapsed them. The man reacted initially  with confusion and agitation, but within an hour he had the first trance experience of his life. Most importantly, he believed he did.

In summary…

Each of these pattern interrupt techniques is designed to stop or destabilize an ongoing mental or behavioral pattern so that an appropriate intervention may be made by the practitioner.

Many techniques, beyond those formally associated with NLP, can be understood as the process of interrupting or destabilizing an old pattern so that a new one can emerge.

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