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.
There are few models that are as beloved of management trainers as Robert Dilts’ Logical Levels of Awareness.
It is popular among those who have learned it as part of formal NLP training, through reading books, or by osmosis. The logical levels model is pervasive and hard to miss if you are alert to these things.
So, in this article, I want to explain what it is, how it came about, and why it is a big idea that merits your attention as a manager.
John Grinder and Richard Bandler are credited as the co-founders of NLP. This is a basket of behavioural, therapeutic, and influencing techniques that comes in and out of fashion in the organisational world.
However, in the self-help world, its ups and downs are less pronounced – it has continually received accolades and steadily grown its influence.
So here then is the central dilemma of NLP for managers and professionals: how important is it? And therefore, how seriously do we need to take Bandler, Grinder, and their ideas of NLP?
John Grinder was born in 1940, and studied psychology at the University of San Francisco. After graduating with a BA, he joined the US Army as a Captain in a special forces unit. He then joined a US intelligence agency, before studying for a PhD in linguistics at The University of California, San Diego.
Grinder completed his PhD in 1971, and after a short time in George Miller’s lab at Rockefeller University, he joined UC Santa Cruz as an Assistant Professor in Linguistics. His research interest was the then very new and fashionable transformational grammar pioneered by Noam Chomsky.
In 1972, a psychology student called Richard Bandler came knocking, looking for help with a research project in which he was transcribing hours of Gestalt Therapy sessions. Bandler wanted help in analysing Fritz Perls’ language.
This was the start of a collaboration that led to the founding of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. The story of their collaboration, and of the other people involved – it was far from a two-person endeavour – is well documented elsewhere. So too is the acrimonious breakdown of their working relationship, and the court actions over ownership of the NLP name and ‘brand’.
The upshot of this, by the way, is the court’s decision that NLP is a generic term and no one can own it. This meant that, after the split, Grinder could continue to develop his own new ideas, which he came to call ‘New Code’ NLP in contrast to the earlier work he did with Bandler, which he refers to as ‘Old Code’.
Grinder has authored many books with Bandler and others, and continues to teach NLP, through his own business (Quantum Leap) with his wife, and for other NLP schools.
Richard Bandler was born in 1950. His first few years were spent in New Jersey, before moving to California. He studied Philosophy and Psychology at US Santa Cruz, where he graduated in 1973.
There, Bandler met John Grinder and other early collaborators in developing what became NLP.
Bandler and Grinder became close colleagues studying and teaching the communication patterns of a number of therapists, like Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erikson. They gathered a number of other interested researchers and teachers around them.
Inevitably, as what they were teaching became more popular – and therefore more commercial – tensions arose. Like Grinder, Bandler formed his own business and continued to teach and develop new ideas. He too still teaches NLP, along with hypnotherapy, around the world.
Bandler and Grinder were co-authors of a number of the seminal books in the emerging subject of NLP. None are aimed at ‘lay’ readers. They are written for aspiring and experienced practitioners and, even having studied NLP and received Practitioner and Master Practitioner certificates, I find them barely readable.
There are many more modern books aimed at introducing NLP to interested readers. Browse your favourite book site and take your pick.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming: NLP
So, what is NLP? It stands for Neuro-linguistic Programming (yeah, I know), and it is fundamentally an assorted bag of methods and models designed to help understand communication and behaviours and elicit behavioural change.
At the root – and this is something Grinder constantly emphasises – is the idea of modelling. Whatever you want to be able to do, find an example of someone who does it to a level of excellence. Document everything they do, say, and think when they are doing it. Then try out being exactly like they are. Start to strip away elements, to find out what parts make no difference and which parts, when lost, become significant.
You’ll end up with a core of beliefs, behaviours, and communication patterns that materially affect your outcomes. Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erikson were the first people extensively studied in that way.
From them, Bandler and Grinder extracted two of the biggest and most influential models within the NLP corpus: The Meta Model (from Satir and Perls) and The Milton Model (from Erikson).
The Meta Model
The Meta Model documents language patterns that allow the therapist, coach, salesperson (choose your role) to spot patterns of thinking in the other person. A long list of linguistic patters betray distorted perceptions, generalisations, and subconscious deletions of possibly relevant information. By challenging these, coaches and therapists can open up new possibilities to the person they are helping, and salespeople can breakdown objections to buying.
Bandler and Grinder’s primary books that originally documented this were The Structure of Magic, volumes 1 and 2.
The Milton Model
Milton Erikson was a masterful user of hypnosis in his therapy. Indeed, his style is sometimes called Eriksonian Hypnosis. Once again, Bandler and Grinder documented his language patterns. They found a similarity to the meta model, but that Erikson was being deliberately vague, to elicit gaps in thinking, through which he could insert therapeutic suggestions. The Milton model can help move a listener into a more receptive state. Again, this is useful to therapists, coaches and salespeople.
Bandler and Grinder’s primary books that originally documented this were Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. volumes 1 and 2.
Evaluation of NLP
NLP is like Marmite: it evokes love and hate reactions in broadly equal measure. And its popularity goes through peaks and troughs – big ones for business, smaller troughs for the self-help industry. It is currently a multi-million dollar industry world-wide.
Three factors are perhaps responsible for the extreme views:
NLP is presented with a lot of complex and intimidating jargon. Indeed, the name Neuro Linguistic Programming suggests a level of mind-control which can intimidate or seduce. Some wonder if the jargon is merely designed to create a quasi-academic glamour the discipline does not deserve.
Some practitioners make extravagant claims for what NLP can achieve. Everything from magical sales efficacy to curing phobias, to curing serious mental and physical illnesses.
There is a limited research base. A lot of the evidence for the efficacy of NLP techniques is anecdotal, and many serous academic therapists have offered detailed critiques.
On the other hand, there are also three good reasons to learn more about NLP:
Many people find that much of it really does work. The ideas are taken from observations of effective behaviour. You can apply the modelling process to find out how to replicate the results of your best performers
NLP is respectful of our potential. It encourages personal responsibility and asserts that we can all access the resources we need to make the changes we want
The criticism that much of NLP is ‘just common sense’ can also be seen as a strength. By codifying common sense, we make it more accessible.
You can find much in NLP that is of value to you; and much that is not. If you are prepared to be selective and evaluate each tool on its merits, NLP is a powerful resource.
Here’s a video I did for another business that will echo much of what’s here.
You may be wondering why the Management Pocketblog would take a look at a woman whose principal contribution was in the field of social work, relationships, and family therapy. The answer is that others have found in her work valuable tools that can help you in your leadership and communication roles.
Virginia Pagenkopf was born in 1916, in Wisconsin, and went to high school in Milwaukee. She graduated from the Milwaukee State Teachers college in 1932, with a degree in teaching and started started work as a teacher. There, she started visiting students in their homes, and meeting families.
A few years later, she retrained as a social worker at University of Chicago and received her masters degree in 1948. Satir went into private practice, conducting her first family session in 1951. Towards the end of the decade she moved to California, and co-founded the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, where she became the Training Director, and started the first formal family therapy training program.
Satir’s innovation and eminence as a family therapist are well documented elsewhere. There is a thorough biography and much additional material on the Virginia Satir Global Network site.
Satir died in September 1988.
Three Aspects of Satir’s Work that Managers can Benefit from
At the heart of Satir’s family therapy was powerful listening and questioning. It therefore came to the attention of the founders of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), John Grinder and Richard Bandler. They studied Satir, documented her process, and co-wrote a book, Changing with Families, with her.
The model they created by observing Satir’s questioning is one of the foundation stones of NLP. Whilst it comes in and out of fashion, popular books about NLP are widely used by managers and professionals looking to be more influential.
NLP also receives mixed reviews for its efficacy, but the meta-model, as a codification of Satir’s questioning approach, is one of its stronger aspects. In the model, practitioners listen for clues in what people say and the way they say it, to help understand the presuppositions that may be in their minds. These filters come in three types:
Generalisations, in which we take an event or situation, and presuppose it is more widely applicable, or applies in a specific circumstance, for which there is no evidence.
Deletions, in which we unwittingly ignore some of the facts, feelings, or evidence and therefore place too much reliance on one part of what we observe, so biasing our beliefs and behaviours.
Distortions, in which we make assumptions that are not founded in the evidence. These are the most insidious of the filters, because they cause us to assign meanings or causes to actions and events, which are unhelpful and not accurate.
The Satir Categories
These are five types of behaviour that communicate to others non-verbally. Originally Satir categorised these behaviours for their effect on family dynamics and, in particular, on disputes. For managers, if you understand the postures that go with these attitudes, then you can deploy them to better assist your communication, by supporting your message with congruent non-verbal behaviours. The five categories are:
A dominance posture that asserts power and authority. It can be aggressive, even offensive, and signals that the other person has done something wrong and is being called to account. It is characterised by a square-on posture, leaning in to the accused person and often supported by a pointy finger.
This is almost the opposite – a submissive, maybe even pleading posture. It signals weakness, so only use it when you intend to be confrontational. The weaker your true position or status, the less you should use it. It is characterised by a direct appeal to the other person, with palms upwards.
This behaviour suggests rational thought, and people therefore often use it to disguise emotion. Also use it to slow a discussion down, by signalling you are considering what you have heard. The vital postural clue is that one hand supports the chin, with the other supporting it, crossed over the body. The hand supporting the chin often has a finger pointed upwards to the temple.
Use this posture to attract attention, and create a non-threatening, humorous mood. But be careful, because it can undermine a serious message, and also signal lack of candidness – even untruths. The key to this posture is asymmetry – often very marked.
Use this posture to calmly assert control. Slow down, stand to your full height, and face your audience. This posture convey honesty, integrity and openness. Gently move your hands downwards, together, with your hands open, palms downwards.
Virginia Satir’s Model of Change
The last model is the one I find most useful.
People expect, when they plan organisational change that, at the point of change, things will start to get better, and settle rapidly into a new, improved equilibrium. Satir said no. She identified five stages of change:
Late Status Quo
This stage is marked by established norms of behaviour. The situation may not perform as well as it should, but everyone feels comfortable. Encourage people to test their assumptions and seek ideas from outside the group.
The perceived threat of change triggers resistance, as people feel their power and their control challenged. Help people to evaluate their feelings and overcome their instinct to deny, avoid or blame.
Now that things are changing, the group is distracted from the day-to-day, and performance dips. Create a safe environment that enables people to acknowledge and explore their concerns. Avoid the temptation to rush this stage with instant solutions.
Gradually the new ways of working bed in, and people start to feel back in control. The group will start to iron out problems, and find new norms of behaviour. Be supportive and focus on recognising and celebrating successes.
New Status Quo
All is well again (until next time) and people feel energized by their success. Help people feel safe in continuing to learn and improve their performance.