What is NLP?

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is often described as “the study of excellence”, and it began in the early 1970’s when two Americans, a mathematician called Richard Bandler and a linguist called John Grinder, started to investigate what made the difference between people who are just average at doing something and people who excel in it.

Bandler and Grinder studied three therapists who were all masters in their own field: Virginia Satir (systemic family therapy), Milton Erickson (Ericksonian hypnosis) and Fritz Perls (Gestalt therapy). What emerged was a process that Bandler and Grinder called “modelling”, which was a set of techniques for capturing and describing the mental processes and linguistic patterns used by these therapists, or by anyone else who excels at what they do.

And the point about modelling was that these mental processes and linguistic patterns could then be acquired (learned) by anyone else, so that in principle anyone could then achieve the same level of excellence as the person who was modelled. In other words, modelling could enable anyone to program (like a computer) their own neurological and linguistic patterns – hence Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

So modelling became the foundation for the body of knowledge and techniques known as NLP. Many of these are not necessarily original or unique to NLP, but together they represent what some people have claimed may be “the most powerful vehicle for change in existence”.

Isn’t it just tricks of the mind?

Over the years NLP has often been the subject of controversy. Perhaps the most common (if contradictory) allegations made against it are that it:

  • doesn’t work,
  • works, but is used for unscrupulous manipulation,
  • works, but only for a short time.

As to whether NLP works, it’s true that there have been few if any statistical (randomised, controlled) trials of the kind required to prove that a new drug is effective. However, if like me you’ve seen someone quite happily allowing a large spider to walk over their hand, when a few minutes before they couldn’t even be in the same room with one, you’ll have no doubt that in some sense NLP definitely works.

And it’s because it works that unfortunately NLP has sometimes been used for unethical purposes, for instance to sell a product to someone who clearly doesn’t need it or can’t afford it. And I believe part of the reason for this lies in NLP’s emphasis on “programming”, which might seem to imply that other people can be thought of simply as computers, which can be programmed to do whatever the programmer requires. And this also explains why NLP sometimes seems to offer a “quick fix” which may not last once the immediate effects have worn off.

In the early 1990’s these concerns about traditional NLP led to the development (principally by Robert Dilts) of a new generation of “systemic NLP”, which re-emphasised the systemic thinking of people like Virginia Satir and Gregory Bateson. It is this approach that I prefer to use in my work, in which NLP techniques are not step-by-step programs which one person installs in another person; they are interactive processes which take place within a dynamic relationship between two or more people.

What about NLP and hypnosis?

When Bandler and Grinder studied the hypnotherapy techniques of Milton Erickson in the early days of NLP, they came up with a set of language patterns that they called the “Milton model”. They believed that this model represented the essence of Erickson’s technique, and it is routinely taught as part of most NLP courses.

Erickson himself, however, is reported to have said that “Bandler and Grinder spent four days with me and thought they got my techniques in a nutshell … What they got was the nutshell.” (Bruce Grimley quoting an email from Bill O’Hanlon, 2011). Their model, he was saying, has some validity, but it does not get to the core of his approach. The way Erickson viewed his work is perhaps best summed up in a story he told to a group of students.

“I was returning from high school one day and a runaway horse with a bridle sped past a group of us into a farmer’s yard, looking for a drink of water. The farmer didn’t recognize it so I jumped up to the horse’s back, took hold of the reins and said ‘Giddy-up’ and headed for the highway. I knew the horse would take me to the right direction; I didn’t know what the right direction was. And the horse trotted and galloped along. Now and then he would forget he was on an highway and would start off into a field. So I would pull on him a bit and call his attention to the fact that the highway was where he was supposed to be.”

“And finally about four miles from where I had boarded him he turned into a farmyard and the farmer said, ‘So that’s how the critter came back. Where did you find him?’ I said, ‘about four miles from here.’ ‘How did you know he should come here?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know; the horse knew. All I did was keep his attention on the road.’; I think that is how you do psychotherapy.”

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