The 4 four fundamental problems of NLP

In the last century, NLP was seen as some form of ‘genius’ methodology to generate change in yourself and others.  NLP had its roots in the quality healing practices of Satir, Perlz and Erickson (amongst others).  Its models made many generalised observations that were valuable to help people understand communication processes.

So why is NLP thought of so poorly these days, and why has it not fulfilled its promise?  Why have there been almost no clinical papers or evidence based applications of NLP this century? The answer lies in understanding 4 unresolved problems that face NLP.

Problem 1: The ‘programming problem’.

Even the name suggests a massive problem.  ‘Programming’ is something that you ‘do’ to a computer to change its outputs.  The idea that an external person (or even yourself) can ‘program’ away problems, insert behaviours or outcomes (ie, manipulate others) removes all humanity and agency from the people being ‘programmed’.

People are not computers, they cannot be ‘programmed’.  No blunt force technique is going to be accepted, enjoyed or valued by the person being treated by an object so the outcome desirable to the ‘practitioner’ is achieved. This idea that people can be devalued to manipulatable objects was the foundation of NLP in dating and sales applications .  Even the ‘change your life with NLP’ type courses of self development subtly push the premise that people can be programmed to behave or respond differently, and that this is some type of ‘power’ or ‘magic’ that can be learned in a weekend course.

People are wonderful, learning beings with agency, that are full of resources and self capacities to change.  It is not up to a ‘practitioner’ to force or program a change into someone because they have power or skills, but rather ‘invite’ them to change, help then find a path, and develop greater sense of agency in doing so.  

Problem 2 : NLP is tactical

If you have a hammer, all problems look like a nail.  If you are an NLP practitioner, all problems look like a timeline therapy or a movie theatre, or (insert other favourite technique) solution.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with the techniques themselves – they were drawn from actual cases of luminaries in the field – the question is not ‘how’ to apply them (as tactics), but where, when and why to apply them (strategically) and when not to.

Milton Erickson called NLP ‘a delightful simplification’ of his work – because it described the tactical application of one process that was suitable to a specific client at the time it was observed.  But was it used for cognitive advancement, emotional shift, paradoxical therapy, acceptance, challenge or the many other reasons that a technique may be used?

The NLP philosophy that we can ‘model’ what works from others is a great idea.  But when you simply learn the technique without the strategic conceptualisation; the value in the overall treatment schema; or the potential for harm – then you are being given a hammer to which all problems are just nails.

Problem 3: the iatrogenic supposition

The ‘programmer’ is shown the technique and learns to ‘do it’ to others.  Yet what are the embedded suppositions?

  • That the technique comes from the ‘masters’ and should work?
  • If it doesn’t work, the fault lies in the client?
  • That there is no room for individualisation of the structure (that is, the technique is the hammer or it’s nothing)?

I have never seen an NLP course that outlines the success rates for the techniques in populations or circumstances.  They are supposed to work, so if they don’t whose fault is it?

This iatrogenic (harmful) set of suppositions is increasingly damaging to people who are suffering.  Perhaps it encourages them to see a poorly selected tactical technique that doesn’t work as ‘their fault’, and encourages them to feel even more helpless and hopeless?

Problem 4: the learning problem

Often clients can have an emotional response to a tactical technique.  However, what are they to learn from this that enhances their lives moving forward?  Apart from the application of a technique, the client needs to understand the experience in a way that enhances their opportunity to understand, reflect, learn and do better in future.  This is rarely offered as part of the ‘process’, and keeps NLP ‘victims’ in a one-down position to the practitioner.

With the programming problem, most of the time the concept of ‘power’ lies with the practitioner, either overtly or implied.  When coupled with the lack of contextualisation of the application of the technique, what ‘message’ does the client actually take away from the experience that adds value to their lives?  This question is rarely considered in the NLP approach.

NLP is plagued by these four problems.  If practitioners were taught to use the tactical tools of NLP in appropriate ways that deal with these issues, then NLP has the capacity to offer some clients some value, in some circumstances.

However, until these problems are openly addressed, NLP remains a hammer looking for a nail.  It lacks the opportunity to be anything more than manipulative party tricks.  

As tools within a broader, thoughtful strategic framework, there is benefit in such tactical approaches learned from others, it is just how they are applied that matters.

What is the alternative?

As a master practitioner in NLP, I saw these problems as being critical limitations in its use.  It is why my journey took me to study psychology, psychotherapy and to work directly with the best in the world.  Incorporating solutions to these problems (a strategic approach, the client being fully in control of the experience, the focus on learning and the building of true life skills through the work) are foundational to my practice.  

Woking with me, you might see, on occasion, an NLP technique in my approach.  This is because in the right place, the right context and the right way there is value in their use.  But as a strategic practitioner, it will be clear why the technique is used and how, in the complexity of the individual client, it serves what we are hoping to achieve.

By starting with the outcome the client seeks, we can evolve a range of strategies that might help the client, then define the tactical ‘techniques’ that allow then to be usefully delivered and experienced.  The aim is always to help a client define and achieve positive goals in their therapy that build their capacity and skills to get unstuck and experience their current and future in more positive, valuable ways.

Find out more about my practice here.