Are You Sure?

An NLP Language Pattern (article)

Have you encountered someone who was so sure they were right that there was just very little opening for suggesting any new solutions?

Maybe you have been in a conversation where the more you make your point the more the other person digs in and won’t consider any options.  We call them stubborn, except when the ‘them’ is actually you or me.  

Most of us have been in a conversation (or argument) like the description above, and maybe it was with someone very close, like a parent or spouse.  Were you frustrated? Did you feel powerless or ‘resourceless’ to find a way out it?

People who are very certain, tend to be very convincing.  There ís a lot of power in certainty and it also has some downsides. So, how do you counter someone who is absolutely certain?


This NLP linguistic pattern “Are You Sure,” is very simple.  

It would be useful to think of someone you experienced as being intimidating to you or just very stuck in their point of view.  Now, imagine the following conversation:

Person: Says something they are very sure or certain about.

You: Are you sure?

Person: Yes!

You: Are you sure you are sure?

Person: Yes.

You: Are you sure enough to be UNSURE?

Person: Yes.

You: OK, let’s talk about this.

That was pretty simple, wasn’t it?  And it is very powerful.  I want to discuss the structure of the pattern and about ‘certainty’ in general in this article.

Now, before we begin, please take a moment to think of something you are very certain about personally.  Note: Check to see how invested in your point of view.  Pick something that will not severely challenge your identity, or create a seriously negative impact on your well-being, if you find you are no longer so certain.  

And you can find someone to ask you the set of questions (above).  When you are ready have them ask the questions.  Carefully notice and explore your responses to each question as you answer.  The idea here is to give you a ‘tissue level’ (deep level, feel it your gut) experience of the impact the pattern creates.



A way to explore this topic is to think about ‘certainty.’ When I first heard an NLP trained associate talking about ‘certainty,’ I thought it was a strange topic.  “There ís nothing certain in life,” I told him, and I was wondering why an otherwise savvy NLP Coach would ask such a naive question.

I was wondering, ‘don’t we all accept that there’s nothing certain in life?’  I was being way too literal with my associate.  Imagine my chagrin when he asked me, “Are you sure there is no certainty in life?”  I said “Well, yes.”  And I was well into his pattern.

Before I was fully aware of what I’d fallen into, he asked, “Are you sure you’re sure?” At that point, I had to say that I thought I was sure, but I wasn’t all that sure that I was sure.

If I had answered “yes” again, I’m sure he would have asked, “Are you sure enough to be unsure.”  And so on.  As soon as there was a doubt about my certainty, there was no reason for my associate to take it another step.  He had accomplished the purpose of the pattern.


Levels of Certainty

But we all use Certainty or Uncertainty all the time.  So, let’s divide certainty into 3 levels and take a deeper look from the NLP Coach’s point of view. 

Level A: Zero Certainty.  There is no firm conclusion either way about whatever subject or understanding you are working with or attempting to influence. There is complete openness to considering options.  It will be easy for a coach to work with a client at Zero Certainty since understanding remains fluid.

Level B: Partial Certainty.  This is a mid-range level of certainty and an individual at this level is at least partially open to new understandings and points of view.  A client at this level would be slightly more difficult to work with or to convince than a client at Level A.

Level C: Absolute Certainty.  Although there are people who speak from a ‘certainty of purpose’ and people who sound certain are generally thought to be credible.  They tend to be believable, but that is just one end of the spectrum. 

On the other end, an individual at the Absolute Certainty level is likely to be closed to considering other understandings of a situation.  The level of certainty they experience naturally locks up the ability to consider other alternatives.

This extreme level of certainty would be a common level among religious and/or political zealots.  A client at this extreme level would typically be very difficult to work with.  Note that are also people who are absolutely certain they have no control over what happens to them.  Lots of people think they have no ‘value,’ or that they are ‘no good’ or just ‘wrong’ at this end of the Absolute Certainty scale. 


‘Certainty’ in Unresourceful Behaviors

Clients who come for coaching are often suffering from uncertainty.  They say things like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do” or “I don’t know why I’m not being successful at work.”  

Presumably, a more difficult client may be saying things with more certainty like, “I know I can’t succeed.” or “Life has no meaning,” or when presented with a potential solution say, “I know that won’t work.”

I had a coaching client who presented with driving phobia. I wanted to see the phobia in action, so I got in the passenger seat of her car. She was amazingly certain that she had hit someone on the street with her car when we passed a trash can on the street.

No logic seemed to dissuade her belief.  I had her drive around the block to check and still a big part of her was sure she had hit someone.

Although NLPers tend not to use psychological labels, you can understand that the difficulty with a ‘paranoid’ person is not just that they think others are out to get them, it’s that they are convinced it is true.  They do not question the reality and do not consider other possibilities.  

An airplane phobic may be consumed with pictures of crashing and burning so that no other thoughts are available to them.  A person with a mild fear may imagine the same picture, but with a realization that it is extremely improbable.

The ‘Are You Sure?’ pattern is also closely related to NLP’s Metaprogram, Convincer Strategy, which is an inquiry into how people get convinced about things in general.


What the Pattern Does

Depending on how a person answers the questions in the ‘Are You Sure?’ pattern above, you will be able to determine the level of certainty.  For example, “Well, I’m pretty sure,” tells you the person is at Level B and you don’t need to push to the next step in the pattern.

A ‘set jaw,’ a ‘fixed gaze,’ or a definitive hand gesture may tell you more than the words used.  The question, “Are you sure you are sure?” applies certainty to itself recursively (using it back upon itself) and in effect is asking if the person is absolutely sure (Level C).

If the person is Absolutely Certain, then what you are sorting for is to create a willingness to apply absolute certainty back on itself.  NOTE: You may recognize ‘Apply to Self’ as on NLP ‘Sleight of Mouth’ pattern.

You have been eliciting information to determine whether you have the conditions for Absolute Certainty in the first questions and when you are sure you have it, you are now ready for the last step.  “Are you sure enough to be unsure” applies certainty to its negation (a negative or contradictory statement).  You have created a ‘logical paradox.’


Logical Paradox

The three ingredients of a logical paradox include:

  1. An absolute statement
  2. Recursion
  3. Negation

In short, the pattern uses certainty recursively (back upon itself).  

We have set up a logical paradox that acts to perpetually refer back upon itself so that ‘what’s true’ is ‘false’ and ‘what’s false’ is ‘true.’  The thought of a logical paradox is difficult for people to deal with in that it challenges our ideas about certainty and reality itself.

The only place for a brain to go is to adopt a Level B perspective and all the pattern is designed to do is create an openness.

Enough’ is also important in the sentence. Enough presupposes a ‘threshold’ with regard to certainty.

If the person says “no”, they are saying they are below the threshold of certainty and therefore they are not so certain.  If they say “yes,” they are saying ‘certainty’ has reached the level of threshold and that is ‘enough’ to allow themselves to be uncertain.

If you are sure enough, you will be unsure.  What is presupposed is that full certainty includes the ability to be unsure and for all intents, it stacks the two polar opposites nesting with each other.

So, here’s a closing question for consideration.  It is better to go away with more to question now that you have worked so hard to be certain you understood the argument and the positive intent of the pattern in the article above, wouldn’t you say?

The question is, “Is there such a thing as Absolute Certainty?”  I’m certain some people would say “yes.”  Now a better question, at least in my opinion, is “Is certainty useful?”  Certainty can be experienced.  It has a feeling.  

Note that you can think of an example of certainty and represent it and express it in sensory terms.  

In other words, you can elicit the submodalities (near/far, bright/dim, color/B&W, warm/cool, heavy/lightness, etc.) of certainty and associate them with positive outcomes.  I wonder how many ways you can find now to apply certainty to the states and abilities you most value in life?


  • by Bill Thomason, NLP Executive Success Coach and Strategist, Certified Master NLP Trainer
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