NLP Strategies for working with addiction clients: #1 Building Rapport

Beginning this month, Dr. Walton offers a series of articles based on specific NLP strategies as they apply to counseling with clients experiencing addiction issues. The first strategy Dr. Walton discusses is building rapport. More here.

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Trust Does Not Come Easily With Some Clients

Rapport is the ability to connect with another person in ways that create trust and understanding. Building rapport can be particularly challenging when working with clients who have addiction issues. Many of these clients experience greater distrust than others; so, building a strong bond is critical.

Relationships with clients who are facing addiction can be enhanced by three key practices:

  1. Understanding eye-accessing patterns
  2. Understanding predicate phrases
  3. Matching and mirroring the client in some manner

More here on specific Neurolinguistic Programming Strategies that can work in YOUR clinical practice. Then, we offer a case study for your review. Finally, we invite your questions or comments in the section at the end.


NLP practitioners know that accessing cues refers to eye movement. These cues indicate the visual, auditory, or kinesthetic sensory representational system a person uses to process and store information. This is particularly valuable information for a counselor.

For example, if a client’s primary representational system is:

  • Visual, he might say, “I see what you mean.”
  • Auditory, she might say, “I hear your message.”

When the counselor speaks in the same “language” as the client, greater understanding and rapport occurs.

In terms of assessing someone’s eye movements, direction of movement and the language they use to describe issues BOTH matter. In this way, position of the eyes – up-down or left-right – as well as where the eyes linger can tell us as much about how they process and store information as the words that they choose.


Predicate phrases also offer clues to a client’s preferred representational system. The client who says “I pictured something different” or “his words were very discouraging” provides information. When the counselor identifies the cues, and uses the appropriate words, the client gets a subconscious message “we are similar.”

Neurolinguistic Programming Practitioners believe the basis for rapport is that people who are like each other are more apt to like each other; so, identifying and duplicating similarities is key to the counseling process. Besides eye accessing cue and predicate phrases, there are additional strategies such as matching and mirroring.


Matching and mirroring can also be effective tools in building rapport, as well. Matching refers to doing what another person does. Mirroring refers to doing what the person does in reverse. Five ways to match and mirror are listed below:

  1. Physical actions – If the person has folded arms, then, do the same.
  2. Tone, volume, and tempo – If the person speaks softly and quickly; then, speak softly and quickly.
  3. Breathing – If the counselor wants to experience the client’s feelings; then, match breathing patterns.
  4. Chunk size – If the person discusses specific details; then, focus on the details.
  5. Common experience – If the counselor wants to create feelings of closeness; then, explore common interests.


Paula made an appointment to see me, an addictions counselor, because she claims “other counselors don’t understand my problems.” Even though she agreed to meet, Paula made it very clear she had little confidence in my ability to help with her chronic bulimia. Therefore, building rapport seemed essential.

Building Rapport

I began by asking Paula questions such as:

…………a) “What didn’t the other counselors do?”
…………b) “What goals would you pursue if we continued?” and
…………c) “What could each of us do to make this experience more successful for you?”

To determine Paula’s primary processing system, I listened to the predicate phrases she used during the discussion. She made comments such as “my friend promised you could help me” and “other counselors asked questions that hurt my feelings.” I also observed her eye movements which were sideways to the left and right.

Based on her responses, as well as my knowledge of accessing cues and predicate phrases, I initially assessed Paula’s primary representational system as auditory. So, we talked about sound judgment and being in tune with her emotions. I wanted Paula to feel as if I really heard what she was saying.

If Paula’s primary representational system were visual, she might have said “I saw my mother as controlling” or “I could not picture a solution to my problem.” Her eye cues would have been up and to the left or right. Given that information, I might ask questions such as “In hindsight what would you have wanted a counselor to do?” or, “From your perspective, were other counselors uncaring?”

If Paula looked down to her right and made statements such as “I feel no one understands me,” or, “This problem feels unsurmountable,” her primary representational system might be kinesthetic. I would then ask a question such as, “How does it feel to think no one understands you?”

I continued to build rapport with Paula by matching:

………….a) she talked softly and slowly; so, I talked softly and slowly
………….b) she offered specific details about her situation; so, I asked for additional details, and
………….c) she mentioned that Pad Thai was her favorite food; I told her about my favorite Thai restaurant.

I knew rapport was established when

Paula reacted positively to what was said. She shook her head in assent and added to the conversation animatedly.
Paula talked softly and slowly, I did the same initially; then, I talked in a more normal tone and pace. She followed my lead – picking up the volume of her voice and the speed of the conversation.

Paula agreed to continue meeting for three sessions and then decide whether to continue or not.

Once rapport was established, we began to address her presenting problem – bulimia. However, it is highly possible the counseling, even during those three sessions, will be become uncomfortable for her and I will need to rebuild rapport at different points in the process.

About the author
Dr. Walton has a doctorate in Psychology and is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist. After following traditional counseling approaches for years, she became interested in neurolinguistic programming and how those techniques can be used with individuals whose lives are affected by addiction. To this end, she joined the staff of the iNLP Center and has recently developed a course for professionals entitled "NLP for Addictions". All courses offered by the Center can be viewed at:; the link to Dr. Walton's website is:
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