What do you think about NLP?
In recent times I have been often asked about my opinion on NLP (Neuro-Linguistic-Programming) from clients, students and people interested in self development. They want to know if it offers any value. They want to know if it is safe, and what they can get out of it. Is NLP for you?
I know that NLP has both its fans and its critics, and having trained to Master Practitioner level I have had extensive experience with the approach. I will probably attract strong comments from both the fans and the critics for some of my thoughts on NLP, but what I hope to offer is MY view, based upon experience, research and practice. So here, in a nutshell, is what I see as the pros and cons of NLP.
Developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the late ’70’s, NLP emerged from a series of observations of a number of individuals performing significant change work. To the credit of these individuals, they asked a very important question: Is it possible to systematise the change process that these ‘magicians’ perform? Looking at the likes of Milton Erickson and Virginia Satir, they used the ‘brain as computer’ metaphor to interpret the behaviour that they observed, and created a number of hypotheses and ‘techniques’ which became the fundamental basis for their approach. NLP became a training program (certifying practitioners, master practitioners and trainers) based upon what was learned from these observations and the models constructed.
The metaphor ‘brain as computer’ has been essentially discarded in psychology. The current literature points to brain as ‘mind’ with associative networks, nodes and information processing concepts as more relevant. The metaphor used by Bandler and Grinder was new and innovative at the time, however many of the models do not hold up under scrutiny of the evidence emerging from the neuroscience.
The NLP ‘observations’ were hypotheses. Like anything in science, hypotheses are the basis for scientific scrutiny. Many of the underlying ‘models’ offered in NLP have not stood up to scientific rigour. It has been a challenge to find any peer reviewed scientific literature that supports the NLP approach, in fact there appears to be many more reviews and articles disproving the models.
There is a perception that NLP is all about influence and trickery in sales and marketing. Part of the reason for this is the way that it was ‘adapted’ and sold. NLP stopped being a ‘technology’ (as B&G referred to it in ‘Frogs to Princes’) as started to be a sneaky way to get people to do what you wanted. It was somehow ‘powerful’, ‘dangerous’ and many people who were victims of training courses or ‘sales experts’ using NLP truly felt NL-Peed upon! It was something you DO to people. This mis-use tarninshed how NLP could have been viewed and considered.
The original observations of B&G have been added to in an attempt to ‘fill out’ the material – things like Jungian archetypes, Grave’s Spiral Dynamics, ‘quantum’ concepts, etc. Different training courses add different material, that had nothing to do with the original observations.
Many of the ‘techniques’ have limited clinical value on their own. NLP provides a limited number of techniques, that are not suitable for many clinical situations or that make significant change. They can change the way someone feels in the moment, but doesn’t change the underlying issues which have created the situation. Used in conjunction with other techniques, they can have value. As change techniques, people should be advised to have proper training beyond 7 days of NLP (dealing with abreactions, clinical assessment, etc) and have appropriate insurance before using them with clients.
NLP training appears stagnant – it has not incorporated all of the new research and learning from cognitive neuroscience, social psychology and information processing theory. It feels to me like there is resistance to test or change the original models, and simply teach a nearly 50 year old set of tols and ideas – even though the richness of the new research can reinterpret and strengthen some of the initial observations underlying NLP.
B&G introduce the concept of ‘modelling excellence’ – the idea that people can learn new skills and strategies and that complex meta-strategies can be broken down into teachable – and learnable- subunits. Often people have a stable attribution on how they are (“I cannot change”). Learning ways to break down behaviours of excellence and to learn the skills and strategies for others to do this is such a positive, empowering thing. When people realise they can change, and can learn the tools to do it, then this is a wonderful thing.
NLP is a metaphor for brain function and change. For people who are new to the field of personal development and personal excellence, the NLP frame gives people a starting point to begin their own journey. Whilst elements lack accuracy in description or currency, they still have the capacity to be beneficial for people who have not had a metaphor or model that allows them to see change or excellence in such a way before.
Most NLP training involves a strongly experiential component. There is a great advantage is experiencing self and self development, particularly when this has not been done before. Many participants in NLP courses have ‘breakthroughs’ driven by the process of accessing affect and experience as they have never done before.
Apart from the ‘quantum’ material (which I believe is unhelpful as it teaches reliance on external loci of control), NLP is all about encouraging people to take control of their experience, to be self aware of their processes and to be choiceful about what they use, where they use it and how they should change. This is incredibly empowering.
NLP introduces a number of incredible topics which a keen student can pursue into some valuable territory. For example, linguistics, patterns of change, response sets, etc. As a starting point, NLP is both accessible and useful – depending upon what you do with it.
Overall, NLP has real value for beginning personal development, and supporting others in their development (ie, for coaches, etc). It is a metaphor for how the brain works and can change, and offers initial insights into some fascinating functions of humans. It is a field that can be almost ‘cultish’ as people become evangelical about the material – and in any field this is dangerous as it limits how the material can be tested, adapted and enhanced.
Do I use it? There are elements I use in coaching and training, and some of the frames and metaphors allow people easier access to understanding of many complex topics. I will use some elements in the clinic, but never by themselves – always as a prover or example of a point or metaphor that is being made.
Would I recommend NLP training? I have recommended NLP, and for some people I still do. It is a great starting point in a complex field. I would, however, say that the quality of the instructor and the program teaching NLP is of real importance. There are only a few instructors or schools that I would recommend – those that ‘walk the’ talk’, have more than just NLP (not just a one-trick-pony) and that have the capacity to connect people to the metaphor and themselves. There are a lot of NLP blowhards out there – they have done a couple of short courses and are hanging out their shingle. If NLP is for you, find a quality instructor.
So there are pros and cons with NLP, and being aware of these can help people make an informed choice. I will leave the last word on NLP to Dr Milton Erickson, who puts the ‘true nature’ of NLP into perspective (with a lovely backhand compliment!): ‘[NLP] is a delightful simplification of the infinite complexities of the language I use with patients’. If you want a delightful simplification as a starting point into human potential and change, then maybe NLP is for you.
What is your experience with NLP?