The swallowtail caterpillar is a pudgy creature that spends all day nibbling leaves. It should be an easy meal for a bird, but many birds pass it up.

They avoid this creature because it fools them into thinking it’s a snake. It has concentric circles on its back. When a bird gets close, the caterpillar puffs itself up causing the circles to look like eyes and its head to look like a snake’s head. An incoming bird quickly changes course and finds easier prey.

The swallowtail caterpillar’s strategy causes birds to flee with little effort from the worm-like creature. Similarly, when we want to generate alternative interpretations to eliminate beliefs, we don’t have to struggle. We can deploy four simple questions to find our way.

What are the four questions?

Who? What? When? And Where?

These questions are surprisingly useful in creating alternative ways to interpret the events that led to a belief.

To use them, you ask the question, listen to the client’s answer, then build an alternative interpretation out of what they give you.

For example, one client had the belief “If I make a mistake or fail, I’ll be rejected.” He formed the belief because as a kid his parents would get angry with him if he did something they thought was wrong. To help him come up with alternative interpretations, I asked him these four questions.

“Who was getting upset at you when you didn’t do what they wanted?”
“My parents.”
“So one interpretation is that if you screwed up around your parents, you might get rejected but that doesn’t’ mean it would happen with all people.”

“What were they doing when you were feeling this sense of rejection?”
“They were speaking in a stern voice.”
“Ah, so one interpretation is that if you screw up, someone might speak to you sternly but that doesn’t prove they’re rejecting you.”
“Yeah, their tone of voice doesn’t mean rejection.”

“When were these events taking place?”
“When I was growing up.”
“So one interpretation is that when you were growing up and you made a mistake, you’d get rejected. But do we know for sure this would always happen into the future?”
“No. I can’t know the future.”

“And where were these events taking place?”
“They were at home mostly.”
“So one interpretation is that at home, I got rejected when I made a mistake or failed, but that doesn’t mean it would happen in all environments.”
“True. Most places are more accepting.”

Guiding a client into creating alternative interpretations in this way makes the process feel more real to clients. And as a result of these questions, he was able to flow through the rest of the process fairly easily.

But if I already know some good alternative interpretations do I have to ask all these questions?

The short answer is no. If you can create them without using questions, go ahead and do so. However, it often gets the client more deeply involved in the process when you guide them with questions. And if you are eliminating beliefs on your own, you may find that it helps you when you’re feeling stuck too.


  • The four questions that help you generate alternative interpretations are: Who, What, Where, and When.
  • Using them can make the process more real to clients and can even help you get unstuck if you’re eliminating beliefs on your own.
  • To use these four questions, ask, listen, then build an alternative interpretation using what the client gives you.

Using questions to create alternative interpretations often helps people to feel that they own the process more than if they are merely given to them. So try using these four questions with yourself or people you work with. You may find that they make eliminating beliefs easier.

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