‘I’ll try…’

It’s only a tiny word. Just 3 letters. But how a person uses the word ‘Try’ provides important clues to their beliefs and attitude.

This widely used and quite sneaky little word is generally used without much thought – almost as a figure of speech, in fact. But what lies beneath it is the attitude I don’t believe…as in ‘I don’t believe you can’ or ‘I don’t believe I can’. And, like a lot of words and terms, we use it so often that few of us are aware of using it – even though it is emotionally impacting ourselves and our listeners.

NLP Presuppositions

By the way, this is No. 2 in a series about how in NLP we look at the implications, or the ‘presuppositions’, of words and phrases.

Confusingly, the term presuppositions is used in two quite different ways in NLP

(1)     What’s beneath, or implied by, what is being said

(2)     The NLP Presuppositions which are simply the Core, or Fundamental, Principles of NLP.

What’s beneath our use of ‘try’?

Let’s look at a few examples to get an idea of what lies beneath the use of ‘try’

‘Try and do this’ (I don’t believe you can do this – it’s way beyond your intelligence and competence – I’m almost certainly going to have to finish it for you – but give it a go, anyway!)

‘We must try and get together sometime for a longer chat’ (How did I manage to bump into this boring person? I’m trapped! I must think of a way of getting out of it. I can’t stand them – just didn’t see them coming. I don’t want to be rude so I’ll fob them off with a platitude and run for it!)

‘Okay I’ll try and make this easy for you’ (It’s complicated. I don’t think anyone as stupid as you could understand it. It’s not easy to explain anyway. And I want you to know that I’m an expert and that I am superior to you because I know all of this!)

‘Try to pay attention’ (Look, I don’t want to be here either! I could be with people who are (almost) my intellectual equals. I have to go through the motions of explaining this to thick, stupid people like you – so at least put on a show of being able to stay with me!)

‘I’ll try and get this finished in time’ (What do you think I am, a robot! Do you realise how much I have to do – and how little I’m paid. I can’t say ‘no’ to you because you’re the manager – but don’t hold your breath on this one.)

Okay, so these interpretations may be a bit over the top. But they do reflect the kinds of feelings and beliefs people when they say such things – although while saying it this person won’t usually be (consciously) aware of their true feelings – hence ‘what lies beneath the words’.

Action point (1): Remember that my use of ‘try’ affects me

If I say I must try and get better at this I’m not committed – I’m giving myself a get-out clause as in ‘Well, I only said I’d try – I knew all along that it was to much for me!’ The same applies, by the way, to thinking it as in thinking to yourself I must try and lose weight. So if you catch yourself using try then stop and rephrase is in the affirmative I will get better or I will lost weight.

Action point (2): Remember that my use of ‘try’ affects you

If I ask you to try to do something this can contaminate your belief in your ability. It plants seeds of doubt in your mind because I have subliminally conveyed that I don’t believe in or trust you. You’re unlikely to intellectually, consciously, register this. But you’ll register it emotionally – especially if I have your respect – as when I am your teacher at school, a manager at work, or….. a parent.

Action point (3): Replace try with do

Do it – is more powerful. Try creates doubt and suggests that it is unlikely that you will succeed.

I will do this – rather than I’ll try

Do this job as quickly as you can – rather than try and do it

Do your very best at this exam – rather than try not to worry too much about the results…

Yebbit, what if I do fail???

By using ‘try’ you’re deluding yourself about your commitment – you’re setting yourself up for failure. Simple as that. If you’re not committed you boost your chances of failing.

But, can we ever use our little word?

Yes, of course. Give this idea a try. When you’ve tried it out for a while you’ll likely find that, like a lot of these words and phrases, it’s something to use with caution rather than be obsessive about. Play with the idea for a while but don’t try too hard…. 🙂

(By the way, my first article on this theme was published back in 2001 in our Pegasus NLP Newsletter click to read it)


  1. GrahamJ on 31st May 2010 at 6:52 AM

    I recall that I was first made aware of the pitfalls of ‘trying’ around 40 years ago by someone not unlike the ‘old school’ senior director in the post: ‘The ones with the bright eyes’. In his more lucid moments, prior to lunch, he said to me something like “My boy, you can either try to do it or you can get it done – which is it to be?”

    But, ‘try’ can have at least 3 meanings, as the last paragraph in this post implies. When it is used in the sense of experiment, as in ‘I’ll try it on for size’, then that is a different matter.

    (Nice examples, Reg!)

  2. Reg on 31st May 2010 at 8:02 AM

    There’s something about those ‘old school’ managers and leaders, isn’t there.

    They may not have had MBAs or spent a lot of time in academic universities but many of them knew people.

    But they had MBWAs – they learned and communicated through Managing by Walking About.

    I suppose the downside is/was that a lot of them tended to use military style and weren’t too sensitive about peoples feelings.

  3. John James Santangelo on 6th June 2010 at 7:05 PM

    I love this post. You are familiar when you’re teaching NLP, we assume we all have the necessary resources and potential skills to succeed. I have always said that when we throw out a statment as in “try” we are excusing failure in-advance! Thank you for your wonderful example and detailed explanantion.

    John James Santangelo

  4. Steve Graham on 15th June 2010 at 11:19 PM

    I tried to get out of bed this morning but I just lay there. Then the phone rang and I just got out of bed without trying.

    If there is real intention and commitment there is no trying.

    You either do or you don’t. 🙂

    Great Article Reg