Using NLP to assist clients in clinical practice

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has been popular in recent decades mainly as a tool for personal development and behaviour modification. Due to the lack of extensive empirical evidence, it is often viewed as a ‘pseudo science’.

Origins of NLP:

Developed in the 1970s by Richard Bandler (a mathematician) and John Grinder (a linguist) NLP emerged from the observation and analysis of effective therapists, notably Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt therapy), Virginia Satir (a family therapist), and Milton H. Erickson (a renowned psychiatrist and hypnotherapist).

Bandler and Grinder wanted to model behaviours of these experts in creating powerful change in their clinical clients.  They focused on how individuals perceive the world, communicate, and behave. From a therapeutic perspective, the aim was to identify how perceptions influence an individual’s mental and emotional states and how these can be used to drive significant change.

The modelling of the specific clinician behaviours had an expectation that they would be repeatable across a range of people and circumstances.  However, whilst the ‘techniques’ were modelled, the specific contexts in which these techniques were applied – and the strategic basis for their use – was lost in translation.

This means that the techniques ‘could’ be used in situations similar to the clinical settings of Perls, Satir and Erickson, however when they are presented as individual techniques in clinical use, they often lack the ‘context’ to make them effective.

What is the evidence?

There is limited empirical evidence or scientific validation supporting NLP, leading to reasonable questions about its efficacy. There are some lower value studies and anecdotal evidence that suggest some aspects of NLP can be effective – when applied appropriately and in the spirit of their original contexts.

For instance, a 2010 review published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that several NLP techniques showed positive outcomes, particularly in areas like goal-setting, phobia treatment, and confidence building. However, the review emphasized the need for more rigorous, well-controlled studies to substantiate these findings.

Known as a tool for personal development, only limited research has been conducted in clinical applications. These have explored the potential benefits of NLP techniques for addressing issues such as anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of these studies suggested positive results when applying NLP techniques like the “Fast Phobia Cure” or “Visual/Kinesthetic Dissociation” in the treatment of phobias and trauma; the “swish pattern” for managing unwanted behaviors; and the “meta-model” for improving communication and challenging limiting beliefs.

What lies beneath?

The clinical context and broader therapeutic goals of the source therapists needs to be understood and considered if NLP techniques are to be use effectively in a clinical setting.  Understanding what the technique is aiming to achieve and using it strategically when appropriate allows us to take learning from the very best in their fields and model that behaviour to the benefit of out clients.  Simply doing a weekend course then ‘doing NLP’ on people is as likely to be as harmful as it could be helpful.  Without a much more nuanced understanding of the application and fundamental principles of therapeutic interventions, NLP should be regarded with caution as a clinical tool.  However, as part of a larger therapeutic strategy, there is enormous value in learning from the best in their fields and having some of their ‘tools’ available in your tool-kit.

At Reflective Resolutions NLP techniques are utilised where they offer a specific benefit to patients as part of the overall therapeutic goals and strategy.  Like so much learned from the best of their fields, the context, strategy and tactical application of skills like NLP are useful when used appropriately.