Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a field of human endeavor concerned with empirically studying and modeling human performance and excellence, with the goal of creating transferable skill sets. The field has grown in many directions since its beginnings in modeling successful psychotherapists and has found applications in most areas involving human communications, such as education and learning, persuasion, negotiation, sales, leadership, team-building, etc., as well as decision-making, creative processes, health, medicine, and athletic performance.
The field was co-created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the early 1970s from what they called "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 approach from many inspirations such as cybernetics and the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski.
NLP and Psychology
NLP clearly falls under the broadest heading of 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.
NLP as a discipline is pragmatic; practitioners generally take interest in models only insofar as those models have useful applications. Any explanatory or predictive benefit is strictly secondary. NLP practitioners seek to discover how people do what they do, especially how experts and superior performers in a given area achieve their excellent results, finding out what is "the difference that makes the difference", and then modeling those behaviors to create transferable skill sets.
As a small example, consider the task of spelling English words. (Note that here we are referring to the simple task of recalling the spelling of words that 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 developers, some people remember spellings phonetically, and some even remember them by physically writing the words out, whether on paper or in the air. It seemed to them that the spellers with the quickest and most accurate recall tend to remember the spelling of words visually, i.e. they literally see the printed word in their "mind's eye". According to this view, people may learn to excel in spelling by changing their approach to the task: instead of writing or sounding out words, they may learn better by learning to visualize words and regularly applying this technique to the task of spelling.
The field of NLP has over time gathered many mini-models and associated techniques that can be applied to various situations. The models and techniques range in purpose from information gathering and building rapport, to anchoring and triggering of internal states, to trance induction and changing beliefs. There are models of internal representations (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, gustatory and olfactory) and their submodalities and concomitant effects on emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. (Accordingly, one early book on NLP subtitled the field as "the study of the structure of subjective experience".) As fallout of the modeling process the field has also developed specific techniques that can be applied to applications 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, and many others.
NLP can be taught through live training programs, but also through self-study by using techniques and exploring.
In contrast to its numerous mini-models and techniques, NLP lacks a central theory, and this is partly by design. However there are a number of principles that 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 any 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.
Experimentation, observation and feedback
Utility is measured strictly by subjective experimentation and observation. Observation skills are 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 a feedback loop. The NLP practitioner, when consciously engaged in some activity, especially one which involves one or more other people, is continually gathering information and using it as feedback to adjust his own behavior. One aspect of this is captured in the aphorism "The meaning of your communication is the response that you get." Also important is that some of the most important information is gathered from physiological cues and signals (gestures, posture, eye movement , breathing pattern s, 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.
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 doesn't. If they are observed carefully, 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 good NLP practitioner will by and large use their skills 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. The rest of NLP is then, in effect, some known methods to help the practitioner understand, work and communicate respectfully and effectively within another person's world view.
A key element is that NLP is very much based upon structure and * 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 specialized 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 behavior, the more successful they are likely to be in their endeavors. Along these lines are statements such as "If what you are doing isn't working, try something -- anything -- else."; the view that there is no failure, only feedback; and the attitude that any skill, belief or behavior of one person can in principle be modeled and learned by another, who can use it to improve their own skill.
Mind and body
NLP practitioners consider the mind and physical body as a system; that is, each influences the other. There are several important implications:
- The way that the body is moving and held can hold emotion, states and patterns in place. Also some memories are locked in place physiologically.
- Therefore some changes can be easier to make by working at a physical (body) level (letting the body inform the mind), as well as by dialog (mind informing emotions).
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 strongly empirical; 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. Observation skills are the first and most essential ones taught to beginning students in NLP.
Ecology in NLP is about respecting the integrity of the system as a whole when assessing a change to that system; the 'system' in this case is a person's model of the world and the consequences of that model in the person's life. Practically, this 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.
One sometimes hears reference to "NLP therapy" or an NLP approach to therapy. Strictly speaking, NLP does not dictate a specific approach to therapy, believing instead that it is always most beneficial to give the therapist as many options and flexibility as possible. As a result, most therapists find it easy to blend NLP models and techniques with whatever previous training they have to synthesize a personal style that works (better) for them.
Still, it is possible to summarize a set of psychotherapeutic principles, a default NLP approach that a practitioner may gather from NLP training, especially if they have had no previous training in other psychotherapeutic traditions.
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 systematic techniques for doing this.
- The most important parts of the client's behavior 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 ones. (Their conscious communication are more likely to be their cognitive understanding of their situation, often less complete or quite different. 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 recognize it from the unconscious physiological signals. 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 human 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 doesn't 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 all human language is subject to distortion. One of the earliest NLP models addresses how to recognize 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.
- Don't 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 behavior. 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's necessary to do basic ground work or open up further possibilities peripherally, first. Because of this, sometimes it's 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've 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, whose flexible approach to hypnosis is one of the forerunners of this principle, recommended this humorously as scattergun approach.
- Have fun! But never at the cost of 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 has spawned a 'toolbox' of techniques and methods, a collection of observations and patterns which seem to be useful to be aware of in human interaction. It's important to bear in mind that the tools and their use are two distinct issues. NLP by origin is pragmatic and looks for "what works". NLP as it has developed has a profound respect for the individual human being and for their life and their wellbeing.
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 mechanistic ("this is how to do that") or manipulative ("this is how to make someone do something"). In its full context, where a broad approach based upon the clients own wishes is paramount, these are not the case. When taught as "quick fix" or directed to a goal such as sales or seduction, these checks and balances integral to core NLP work often become omitted.
Criticism of NLP
Some have criticized the manner in which NLP has been promoted. Some NLP trainers make unwarranted claims for the field in general or for the specific techniques that they teach. Of course, this is to be expected in any field, especially one which is largely unregulated and for which there is more than one guiding professional association or guild,by which members of the field can hold each other to standards of competence and ethics.
Some claim that NLP as a technology for change is ethically neutral, and others complain that the ethics of NLP has been compromised, because the powerful communications techniques of NLP can be (and have been) exploited for commercial applications such as sales and marketing, and activities such as Censored page.
Some trainers are sometimes accused of being secretive about their techniques and only making them available through expensive courses, making it hard to assess the validity of the techniques. Some complain that the techniques and skills can only be learned in what they consider to be expensive privately taught courses. It is true that acquiring most of the skills in the field does require live training, just as acquiring skill in martial arts requires more than book reading. The need for private courses is unlikely to change until the subject is taught more widely in more publicly accessible venues, and until the innovators decide inventing gratuituous terminology is superfluous. There are only a few training organisations, colleges or universities offering properly accredited courses in NLP. In The Netherlands, one can attend a number of modes as an extension on dramatic therapy, communication, management, psychology and other studies with which communication is concerned.
Moreover, NLP practitioners often invent special buzzwords for their new models, when the language already exists to adequately describe what they are doing. Many trainers in NLP and its offshoots have gone to the extent of giving a different name to their brand of NLP, often trademarking their brand-name.
This is probably due in large part to the failed attempt of Richard Bandler in the 1980s and early 1990s to acquire legal rights to the NLP moniker through the courts. The buzzwords and brand-names reinforce the stereotype of NLP as a non-academic discipline. They also make it very difficult to keep current on all the new techniques and make it beneficial to use a glossary and pay for more classes. However, the vast majority of established NLP techniques are well documented and available in many published books and on the Internet.
Is NLP a science?
Some critics of NLP assert that the majority of methods taught as part of NLP have not been scientifically verified and some even classify it as a pseudoscience. This probably has much to do with the aforementioned divorce between NLP's development and traditional institutions of science and psychology, although it may be in part because the claimed efficacy of some NLP techniques seems unrealistic to traditional psychologists and scientists. Indeed, science is skeptical of unproven claims, and anecdotal evidence - even accumulated over time and people - is not sufficient to establish a scientific fact. Thus, until controlled research is carried out, the claims of NLP practitioners that "in my experience it works" will not persuade scientists, for precisely the same reason that scientists do not believe in astrology (which also has anecdotal evidence on its side).
The method of proof in NLP is different than that used by scientists; NLP places little emphasis on prediction. (However, note that some sciences lend themselves to predictive theories more than others.) While NLP models which have repeatedly been found useful may be regarded as generalizations which will usually (but not always) be useful, practitioners do not usually refer to these generalizations and do not extrapolate them into predictions for experimentation over extended periods of time. Rather, such extrapolation typically occurs within a single session by a practitioner working with a subject. The "hypothesize - predict - test - verify" cycle is performed in minutes and repeated many times during a session, on an observational basis.
While NLP makes heavy use of the scientific method in the small, it lacks fundamental characteristics of science in the large, such as carefully controlling experiments, and subjecting them to peer review in refereed journals. It must be noted that those NLP practitioners who do conduct experiments and write up the results may find that the recognized mainstream journals have a policy to be overly skeptical of their results.
Unlike formal scientific research, NLP does not have truth as a primary goal. Rather, it seeks to do things effectively and efficiently. Some have argued that NLP might be more properly classified as an engineering or technology discipline rather than a science.
- 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 succesful therapeutic skills using Chomsky's Transformational Grammer 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-lingustic Programming for Dummies. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. (ISBN 0764570285)
A primer in neuro-lingustic programming for the beginner.
- Official Website of John Grinder; co-creator of NLP http://www.nlpwhisperinginthewind.com/
- Official Website of Richard Bandler; co-creator of NLP http://www.richardbandler.com/
- Official Website of Robert Dilts http://www.nlpu.com/
- NLP Online Magazine http://www.nlpweekly.com
- The Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding by Robert Dilts and Judith Delozier http://www.nlpuniversitypress.com/
- Criticism from Skeptic's Dictionary http://skepdic.com/neurolin.html
- History of NLP http://www.pe2000.com/nlp-history.htm
- Glossary of NLP terms http://www.inspiritive.com.au/glossary.htm
- NLP Talk NLP Discussion forum http://www.talknlp.com
- Database of articles on NLP uses & applications; books http://www.nlpcomprehensive.com/articles_more.html
Last updated: 02-10-2005 17:28:01
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55