Sometimes a big idea comes along that really does feel new. And, in the early 1970s, that was Neuro Linguistic Programming, or ‘NLP’.
However, like many big ideas, NLP had its antecedents. It was built on the foundations set by others. But what it did was combine many things into a new framework. Some were well-understood. And others arose from the direct research of its founders and the people who followed them.
The name, Neuro Linguistic Programming roots it into its 1970s origins. And many of the ideas now seem familiar. Indeed, we have covered a fair few of them in earlier Pocketblogs. But now seems a good time to take a broad overview of the whole of NLP.
The Origins of NLP
NLP began with the work of two young men, at the University of Califiornia, Santa Cruz, in 1972:
- Linguistics Assistant Professor, John Grinder
- Psychology student, Richard Bandler
Grinder and Bandler wanted to understand how three particularly successful therapists were able to get such good results in cases where others could make no progress. They were less interested in theory, and more keen to document how they worked.
They studied Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erikson, to document their working method. This process of study, documentation, sorting out, and then codifying is one they would later call ‘modelling’. It remains the bedrock of NLP methodology.
The Meta and Milton Models of NLP
As they learned from these therapists, they were able to develop models that were to become the heart of NLP:
- The Meta Model
– from the work of Virginia Satir.
This is a set of linguistic patterns we can use to gain insight into the unconscious thinking behind what people say.
- The Milton Model
– from the work of Milton Erikson.
This is a set of complementary linguistic patterns that practitioners can use to influence the unconscious thinking in therapeutic settings. A number of practitioners and trainers, however, assert that these can be used in non-clinical settings to influence work colleagues, customers in a sales situation, and prospective buyers through marketing copy, for example. I am, however, unaware of any rigorous research to back up these claims.
What is NLP?
Practitioners have a whole plethora of definitions of NLP, and I’ll offer a couple in a moment. Mine, however, is simple.
I think NLP is a rag-bag toolbox of psychological, physiological, and communications methods that affect the way we can communicate, and the results we get from the people around us, and ourselves. Some work and some… well, I’ve seen no evidence.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, NLP training organisations were going great guns selling NLP-based training and organisational interventions. They made big promises of transformation in both individuals and cultures.
Without a doubt, some of the tools are useful. And indeed, the philosophical underpinnings (called the Presuppositions of NLP and the frames) are highly empowering. They emphasise personal responsibility and practical action.
Definition of NLP
from Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming by Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour
NLP is a practical skill that creates the results we truly want in the world while creating value for others in the process. It is the study of what makes the difference between the excellent and the average. It also leaves behind a trail of extremely effective techniques for education, counselling, business and therapy.
Definition of NLP
from NLP at Work by Sue Knight
NLP is how you make sense of your world and most importantly how to make it what you want it to be.
Definition of NLP
from Way of NLP by Joseph O’Connor and Ian McDermot
The study of excellence, a model of how individuals structure their experience and the study of the structure of subjective experience.
How to ‘do’ NLP
The NLP toolset is huge. The illustration above lists some of the methods, techniques, and models that it contains.
There is far too much here to even scratch the surface (though we have covered Logical Levels of Awareness in this series).
If you want a deeper survey, but one that is easy to read, and shorter than the average NLP book, I do recommend Gillian Burn’s NLP Pocketbook. It’s excellent.
What I Most Like about NLP
… are the philosophical underpinnings. I want to share examples of frames and presuppositions in NLP, and a few words about what I like about them.
In NLP, we try to reframe a problem by describing the outcome we desire. This is similar to some of the formal problem-solving methodologies (like Synectics), that reframe the problem ‘I can’t…’ and ‘how to…’, for example.
Perhaps the best known NLP reframe (and the subject of much satire at work) is seeing an apparent failure as feedback from which we can learn. Yet this is true. It doesn’t make failure a ‘good thing’, but it does ensure that the cost of failure is at least recouped in part.
I also love the shift that NLP encourages, from assumptions to curiosity. It opens up new possibilities by inviting us to take nothing as being predetermined. Curiosity as the source of all that is best in humans is a personal hobby-horse of mine. I do find, however, that this contradicts another NLP reframe, that focuses us on ‘how’ questions, rather than on ‘why’ questions. ‘Why?’ is the ultimate curiosity question and the source of scientific discovery. I do understand the pragmatism of saying it’s more important for a therapist, say, to know how to help someone than it is for them to understand why that person is unwell. But I fear ‘how’ alone is limiting of the human spirit of curiosity.
The Presuppositions of NLP
The list of these in my notebook (and in many NLP books) is long. So again, I’ll pick out three examples.
‘The Map is Not the Territory’ is perhaps the best known. It simply means (to me) that people respond to the simplified way that they see reality, rather than to the full panorama of reality itself.
‘Excellence can be modelled and duplicated’ is the foundation of NLP. It suggests that if I:
- find someone who is excellent at doing something, then
- observe how they do it, to form an accurate model of their mental and physical states, and their behaviours, and then
- follow the prescription of that model…
Then, I will get the same results that they do, and match their level of excellence. Good luck with modelling Leonardo or Mozart, but many examples, like to salespeople and brilliant journalists are within reach, I believe.
‘The meaning of your communication is the response you get’ was an eye-opener for me, nearly 20 years ago. It stopped me thinking that if you didn’t do as I say, or agree with my argument, it was your fault. Rather, if I intend to get result A, but instead get result B, then… B was the meaning of what I put out into the world, regardless of what I intended. This means we have to take full responsibility for how we communicate and the impact that we have on others.
What is Your experience of NLP?
We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.
To learn more…
The NLP Pocketbook is full of tips, techniques, and tools to help you succeed and make a positive difference to your life.