Neuro-linguistic programming” (NLP) is a field concerned with studying and modeling human performance and excellence, and attempts to build transferable skill sets. It is based on the assumption that the unconscious mind might be “programmed” like a computer through the use of language, as well as through images, sounds, and other sensory input.
NLP was co-created in the early 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder , with the collaboration of Robert Dilts and Judith Delozier, from patterns derived from ” modeling ” several well-known psychotherapists, namely Fritz Perls , Virginia Satir , and Milton Erickson .
Bandler, then a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz , and Grinder, then an Assistant Professor of Linguistics , were strongly influenced by the mentoring of Gregory Bateson , and they drew their inspiration from many fields, including Alfred Korzybski ‘s cybernetics and his General Semantics .
NLP and Psychology
NLP falls under the broadest heading of popular psychology , and perhaps most closely relates to cognitive psychology . But while Grinder had an undergraduate degree in psychology, NLP began quite outside the academic mainstream, and it remains largely divorced from mainstream academic psychology to this day, even though many NLP practitioners do have traditional credentials in psychology and psychiatry .
It is claimed that NLP offers a “practical epistemology,” i.e., it attempts to explain in specific terms “how we know what we know”: by inquiring of any human experience, memory, or theory, “How do you know this to be ‘true’?” — that is to say, when one says, “I know this to be true,” on what visual, auditory, kinesthetic, gustatory, or olfactory information is one relying? When such information has been elicited, NLP then seeks to explore in detail such “representations” of reality (often described in terms of “four-tuples” of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and olfactory/gustatory experiences), and to modify them when they are inadequate or unhelpful by offering specific techniques for revising such representations.
NLP as a discipline is pragmatic ; practitioners generally take interest in models only insofar as those models have useful applications. Some NLP practitioners claim to be unconcerned with explaining how a technique works or with predicting whether a technique will work in the future or in different situations. Nevertheless, most NLP practitioners seek to discover “how people do what they do” in the general sense, and are especially interested in how experts and superior performers in a given area achieve their results; they are interested in discovering what is “the difference that makes the difference”, and then in modeling those behaviors to create transferable skill-sets.
As a small example, consider the task of spelling English words. (Note that here we refer to the simple task of recalling the spelling of words one has seen in print before, rather than the more complex task of guessing how a word might be spelled based only on hearing it pronounced.) According to NLP practicioners, some people remember spellings phonetically, and some even remember them by physically writing the words out, whether on paper or in the air. The spellers with the quickest and most accurate recall, however, tend to remember the spelling of words visually, i.e., they literally see the printed word in their “mind’s eye.” People can therefore learn to excel in spelling by changing their approach to the task: instead of writing out or sounding out words, they will improve by learning to visualize words and by regularly applying this technique to the task of spelling.
The field of NLP has, over time, gathered to it many “mini-models” and associated techniques that can be applied to various situations. These models and techniques range in purpose from information gathering and building rapport , to anchoring and the triggering of internal states, to trance induction and changing beliefs .
Models of internal representations include such as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, gustatory, and olfactory (along with their various submodalities ), as well as their concomitant effects on emotions , beliefs , and behaviors . (As mentioned above, the subtitle of one early book on NLP is “the study of the structure of subjective experience”.)
As fallout from the modeling process, NLP has also developed specific techniques that can be applied to areas ranging from psychotherapy — e.g. curing phobias , handling criticism and flattery, handling grief , stopping unwanted habits and behaviors, etc. — to sales and persuasion techniques , to learning techniques, to curing some allergies , among many others.
NLP is best learned through live training programs, but can also be learned through self-study by using the techniques presented in books or tapes and then exploring them.
In contrast to its numerous mini-models and techniques, NLP lacks a central theory, and this is partly by design. Nevertheless, several principles have generally guided the development of NLP, most of them borrowed from other disciplines. Practitioners often explicitly formulate these principles as “presuppositions.”
NLP is not so much about discovering what is “true” as it is about discovering what is useful, what “works” in a given situation. But beyond mere utility, NLP aims for efficiency and elegance.
If one technique can effect a desired change in an hour, then the search is on for another technique that can accomplish the same change in ten minutes. Example: It’s not uncommon for the turnaround on a phobia such as heights or spiders to be under 10 minutes. The work can be tested objectively afterwards for delivery of the client’s desired result by asking the client to actually visit a tall building or find a spider, and report back on their experience. The practicality of NLP may only go as far as explaining after the fact. As the practice is not concerned with predicting an outcome in the long term through rigorous scientific testing and inference to generalizability, the practicality of NLP in this sense is extremely limited.
Experimentation, observation and feedback
NLP emphasizes observation skills, and these are often the first skills taught in basic NLP training. Practitioners and students of NLP are admonished not to take any model for granted, but rather are challenged to try them out in the real world and observe what happens. A principle borrowed from cybernetics is that of the feedback loop . The NLP practitioner, when consciously engaged in some activity, especially an activity involving one or more other people, is continually gathering information and using it as feedback to adjust his or her own behavior.
One aspect of this is captured in the aphorism “The meaning of your communication is the response you get.” Also important is that some of the most important information is gathered from physiological cues and signals ( gestures , posture , eye movement , breathing patterns , facial expressions , etc), the vast majority of which are given unconsciously , and that these signals must be calibrated to the individual who is providing them.
NLP often teaches specific meanings to particular visual cues, such as eye movements, in that they can show whether the subject is accessing particular parts of their brain. Empirical research into this has found the practice, in addition to cues from body language, to be erroneous.
According to NLP, the client, having the resources they need (Although perhaps not yet having developed or explored them fully) is the person able to say what works and what does not. If they are observed carefully, NLP assumes that they will actually show it quite clearly in their words and body language, what the problem is, how they experience it, and which ways will or will not work, or will be blocked. So the NLP practitioner will by and large use these cues to help the client explore their ‘map’ (perceptions and preconceptions) of reality, encouraging them to explore “what if” and use their existing experience and approaches to the full to identify new approaches, working within the client’s world rather than imposing the practitioner’s own beliefs upon them. So NLP proponents attempt to use NLP in this way to understand, work and communicate respectfully and effectively within another person’s world view, just as conventional psychotherapists do.
A key element is that NLP is very much based upon structure and sequence. Individual tools within NLP can be treated as building blocks, put together to most effectively communicate with each individual human being. It is syntax based, in that the order and structure of what is done is felt to have a significant impact on how effective it is.
- Human experience, behavior and skill themselves turn out to be highly structured. As structures, they can be sequenced (note: patterns can play out over a tiny fraction of a second) and worked with. There are ways in which pathological or sub-optimal aspects of these structures can be reworked by adapting from other existing skills or by developing and practicing new ones. Or indeed the entire pattern may be best changed for a better alternative.
- The spelling example above is a case where one structure (phonetic spelling) is less effective than another (visual spelling).
- For many simple phobias, the key problem is in fact a very powerful “once-off” learning experience which formed a structural link of the form “See X → Feel Y”. In the absence of any underlying issue, where the sole problem is the discomfort and inconvenience of a phobia, there are tools which effectively help a client reduce/remove this dysfunctional link.
(In the latter case, good NLP practice would explore carefully for connected issues and potential side effects ( ecology ), equally it might act pragmatically once enough information is obtained, and trust the client to say if any further work is needed thereafter)
Clarity of thought
NLP teaches that communication is extremely precise and key aspects are often very subtle. It’s important to be very clear in thinking and overall approach. For example, a goal is not just a vague wish, but a Well defined outcome that should meet very specific criteria, or else is likely to prove problematic at some future stage.
A situation (internal or external) can be perceived from many viewpoints, such as “whose point of view”, “past, present, future”, “part of/outside of” (ie associated/dissociated), in terms of physiology or logical thought (body/mind), consciously or unconsciously, at different neurological levels of significance.
NLP strongly encourages enhanced and multiple viewpoints, on the basis that many problems which are symptomatic of a perceived restriction or limitation, result from a lack of awareness and belief in other possible choices.
Adaptation and Innovation
While students are taught set patterns and models during NLP trainings with very specialised terminology, once they have mastered the basic techniques, students are encouraged to try to use these to innovate new ways, without being tied to mere repetition of existing techniques. The principle here, again borrowed from cybernetics, is that the more flexible and adaptable a person is and the more options they have in their behaviour, the more successful they are likely to be in their endeavors. Along these lines are statements such as “If what you are doing is not working, try something — anything — else.”; the view that there is no failure, only feedback; and the attitude that any skill, belief or behaviour of one person can in principle be modeled and learned by another, who can use it to improve their own skill.
Subjectivity of experience
Other principles, borrowed from sources such as General Semantics , affirm the subjective nature of our experience, which never fully captures the objective world, and that this experience differs from one individual to the next, sometimes radically, and can even differ for the same individual when compared across different contexts. As a result, one needs to be aware of these differences when interacting with others, to make few assumptions about what the other person is experiencing, and to gather information as needed to verify one’s understanding of the other’s experience.
NLP’s development has always been empirical in the loosest possible sense; the techniques and patterns developed in the field come from repeated observations, and all of the most common NLP techniques are continually submitted to testing during ongoing practitioner trainings around the world. As these observations do not involve the use of empirically validated measures, they are open to a serious lack of validity and reliability, just as research has shown. Indeed, regarding empiricism, it can only be said that observation skills are taught to beginning students in NLP.
Ecology in NLP relates to the integrity of the system as a whole in terms of the consequences to the person’s life. Practically, this simple consideration entails asking questions like “What are the intended effects of this change? What other effects might this change have, and are those effects desirable? Is this change still a good idea?”
While it can be argued that NLP is primarily about modeling human behavior, it remains true that the first subjects of study were experts in the field of psychotherapy. As a result, many of the models and techniques of NLP, perhaps a majority of those taught in basic trainings, have application in psychotherapy. A significant number of those who take NLP training do so because they are practitioners of psychotherapy, whether as psychologists, psychiatrists, MFCCs (i.e. Marriage, Family, and Child Counselors), social workers, pastors, or lay counselors. Given the historical importance of this area of application it is worth some discussion.
Strictly speaking, NLP does not specify any approach to therapy, claiming instead that it is better to give the therapist as many options and flexibility as possible. As a result, it is easy to blend NLP models and techniques with whatever previous training they have had.
Even if they have had not previous training in psychotherapy, an NLP psychotherapist can draw on a set of psychotherapeutic principles, or a default NLP approach; Some of these principles are:
- The therapeutic interaction is a form of communication, and communication must be facilitated by establishing and maintaining rapport with the client throughout the session. NLP provides techniques for doing this.
- The most important parts of the client’s behaviour and of the therapeutic interaction, typically take place at the unconscious level.
- The most important communications by both parties (both verbal and non verbal) also typically take place at an unconscious level. (Their conscious communication are more likely to be their cognitive understanding of their situation, often less complete or quite different. NLP recommends that Both must be taken into account)
- The client has all the internal resources he needs to carry out any solution to his problem. The client will always make the best choice among the options available to him, so a general idea is to always give the client more choices and flexibility in his behavior.
- Calibrate the client’s problem state, i.e. learn to recognise it from the unconscious physiological signals (eye movements and body language). Throughout the session be aware of what the client is communicating to you on all levels.
- The goal of therapy is whatever outcome the client wants. This is not as trivial as it at first sounds, since often the client does not initially know what he wants — that is, not consciously and not usually in the form of a well-formed goal for purposes of therapy. NLP has a model called the Outcome Frame to gather this information, and to help frame for the client the goals of the therapeutic session(s).
- In conjunction with the above, much difficulty comes from poor communication, both with others and internally. Clarity of both goal and process is important, vague goals or goals with hidden agendas are unlikely to be achieved. If the ‘wrong’ goal is being worked on, it will either change as time goes on, or the client will let you know in various ways that the goal does not really meet their needs. Vagueness of this kind can show in language, or non verbally.
- While gathering information, beware of assuming too much about the client’s internal experience and about what they mean by their words, since NLP claims that all human language is subject to distortion. One of the earliest NLP models addresses how to recognise categories of possible distortion and how to gather accurate verbal information.
- Choose an appropriate level at which to address change. At one end of the spectrum, the client may need only to change his physical environment. At the other end, he may need to fundamentally change his view of or beliefs about himself.
- Do not drag out into multiple sessions what can be addressed in a single session. Don’t take an hour to do what can be done in five minutes.
- Find the client’s internal representations and/or processes which drive the problem behaviour. If you change the representations and/or the way they are processed, you will often change the behavior.
- Not everyone can go from where they are, directly to where they want (or need) to be. Often it is necessary to do basic ground work or open up further possibilities peripherally, first. Because of this, sometimes it is possible to start from their perception of the problem and address broader or deeper issues, but other times you can only do so much, wait for it to “bed in”, and see how it goes over time. Again, being respectful of their world view is the best guide.
- Check the ecology of any intended change, preferably before making it. That is, check as much as possible for unintended consequences and internal conflicts. The client himself will give you this information if you gather it in the right way. In practice, ecology checks should be done all along the way of a therapeutic session. All conflicting parts of the client are to be honored and respected.
- Check that the desired change, or some part of it, has occurred before the session ends. Have the client test-run the problem situation (usually through mental rehearsal) and verify that there is a difference in the problem state physiology by comparing to what you calibrated initially in the session.
- You will run into situations in which the models you have been taught do not seem to work. When this happens, or anytime what you are doing does not seem to work, try something else — anything else — until you get the outcome you are after. Milton Erickson , recommended this principle, and described it as a scattergun approach.
- Have fun! But never at any additional cost to the client.
Beyond this sampling of general principles there are many specific techniques and patterns for specific situations and types of desired changes. See the references at the end of this page.
In terms of self-help, many of the NLP-derived techniques can be self-applied. But other techniques more or less require the assistance of another (skilled) person.
The technique of Modeling is perhaps at the core of NLP.
Mechanistic toolbox or humanistic?
NLP claims to use a convenient ‘toolbox’ of techniques and methods, a collection of “patterns” which are said to be useful. It’s important to bear in mind that the tools and their use are two distinct issues. NLP by origin is said to be pragmatic and looks for “what works”.
However NLP when taught as a set of techniques directed at a specific goal, and especially when divorced from its full background, has at times been presented as very mechanistic (“this is how to do that”) or manipulative (“this is how to make someone do something”). In its full context, using a broad approach based upon the clients own wishes, this is not the case. When taught as “quick fix” solution or directed to a goal such as sales or seduction, any checks and balances that NLP claims origin for are often omitted.
- O’Connor, Joseph, and McDermott, Ian Principles of NLP . National Book Network ( ISBN 0722531958 )
A concise yet thorough introduction to NLP that works from everyday experience back to theory, rather than from theory to practice. This works well compared to many introductions which explain techniques before giving their commonsense background.
- Bandler, Richard & Grinder, John, 1975. The Structure of Magic I . Science and Behavior Books, Inc. ( ISBN 0831400447 )
Seminal work in Bandler and Grinder’s early development of the process of NLP. Attempts to model successful therapeutic skills using Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar linguistic theory to explain the relationship between a clients speech and the underlying experiences. Introduction of the Meta-Model.
- Andreas, Steve, editor 1979. Frogs Into Princes . Real People Press. ( ISBN 0911226192 )
The first popular introduction to NLP, it is primarily an edited transcription of a seminar given by Bandler & Grinder in the early days of NLP. While some members of the NLP community still regard this as one of the best and most readable introductions to NLP, it is quite dated and contains little of the many techniques and models that have been subsequently developed. Many others in the NLP community therefore have more regard for it as an historical document within NLP.
- O’Connor, Seymour, 1990. Introducing NLP . Aquarian Press. ( ISBN 1855383446 )
A no-hype introduction to NLP.
- Andreas, Steve, and Faulkner, 1994. NLP: The New Technology of Achievement . William Morrow. ( ISBN 0688146198 ) An applied introductory book, with exercises.
- Hall, Belnap, 1999. The Sourcebook of Magic . Crown House Publishing Ltd. ( ISBN 1899836225 )
A concise compendium of the central patterns and techniques of NLP.
- Merlevede, Patrick & Bridoux, Denis, 2001. 7 Steps to Emotional Intelligence: Raise Your EQ with NLP . Crown House Publishing Ltd. ( ISBN 1899836500 )
A NLP textbook containing most of the models taught during NLP practitioner training, explaining on how to use them to increase your EQ.
- Ready, Romilla and Burton , Kate, 2004. Neuro-linguistic Programming for Dummies . John Wiley & Sons Ltd. ( ISBN 0764570285 )
A primer in neuro-linguistic programming for the beginner.