2.  What is NLP?


Due to the ways that search engine algorithms interpret search requests, you may or may not have ended up at the right page.  To help you to get to the information you are really after, here are some related pages on this site which you might want to visit as well as, or instead of, this one:

  • FAQ #3 - Describes where "NLP" and the NLP-related techniques came from.
  • FAQ #20 - Describes some of the limitations of the NLP techniques.
  • FAQ #21 - An example of criticism of "NLP".  Two school textbook authors use NLP-type linguistic techniques to criticise "NLP".
  • FAQ #22 - A discussion of research of NLP and NLP-related subjects.  Includes references to over 100 such studies which have produced positive findings.
  • FAQ #27 - A detailed rebuttal of the wildly inaccurate article on "NLP" in the so-called Skeptics Dictionary.
  • FAQ #28 - Academic criticisms of "NLP" - Sharpley, Heap et al.  Over 20 years of poor research and "following the party line".
  • FAQ #32 - Describes exactly why research into preferred representational systems and predicate matching, which makes up an overwhelming majority of the negative "evidence", is based on an absolutely fundamental flaw.


Neuro-Linguistic Programming
A set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience.  Techniques are generated from these models by sequencing of various aspects of the models in order to change someone's internal representations.  Neuro-Linguistic programming is concerned with the patterns or programming created by the interactions among the brain, language, and the body, that produce both effective and ineffective behavior.
(NCBI - National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Accessed at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/mesh?term=%22Neuro-linguistic%20Programming%22, May, 2011)

"The changing that people do because others make them costs an organisation a very dear price and is much shorter lived than the changing people do because they have first changed their minds"
Kegan & Lahey (2003), How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation

There are so many web sites and so many books now on offer, all claimiing to be about "NLP" that unless you are already knowledgable about the subject it can be hard to tell what's genuine from the half-truths, the codswallop and the downright "anti NLP"* offerings.

A concept or technique is only identified as "anti-NLP" if it is offered as genuine "NLP" but falls outside the guidelines listed here.
The term is not meant to apply to any person or article which simply makes negative claims about the FoNLP (field of NLP).
After a considerable amount of research into such criticisms it appears to me that these are based on sheer ignorance due to lack of adequate research (see FAQ #27 and FAQ #28 for nearly two dozen examples).
There seems to be little point in describing something as "anti-NLP" if the author(s) clearly have no idea what genuine NLP is about.

NLP is a Process

Despite the multitude of definitions you may come across, NLP is in fact very easy to describe.  Because NLP itself is simply a particular form of modeling which enables the modeler to:

  • Identify the essential elements of the exemplar's thinking, behaviour, etc., which enable them to achieve "excellent" results
  • Codify the relevant elements
  • Use the resulting code to improve their own performance in a particular respect and/or show other people how to replicate the exemplar's performance.

As you can see, everything here is a process - Identifying, coding, "teaching".  It is the modeling process which is NLP, not the model itself.

Note:   A full description of the NLP modeling technique is included in FAQ #24 on this site.

Learning without Stress

The origin of the NLP process was not, as is popularly believed, a driving curiosity about the way some people seem to be so much better at performing certain tasks than other people engaged in the same activity.

In fact it was by way of being an accident, or two accidents, to be precise.
First, Richard Bandler, the originator and co-developer of NLP, was employed to edit a book on the work of Fritz Perls which involved watching videos and listening to audio tapes of Perls at work.
A little later on Bandler worked temporarily as sound technician) for family therapist Virginia Satir.  It was during these periods that Bandler inadvertently "modelled" certain behavioural patterns used by the two therapists in their work.

Working initially with fellow student Frank Pucilik, Bandler developed an ability to replicate Perls' therapeutic results.
The next step was to pass on this knowledge to students in a course on Gestalt Therapy run by Pucelik and Bandler at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  But this raised a crucial problem.  As efficient as they both were in using Perls' methods, neither Bandler nor Pucelik knew how to codify what they had been doing - in order to teach the processes to other people.

If it seems a little strange to say that Bandler and Pucelik were doing something without knowing what they were doing it is worth noting that in the 21st century we would say that they were very probably making excellent use of their mirror neurons.  But in the early 1970s these mirror neurons were yet to be identified, described and understood .  There had been a certain amount of research into the "monkey see, monkey do" phenomena - especially by Albert Bandura.  But what Bandler and Pucelik were experiencing went way beyond simple conscious observation and imitation.

In Bandler's case he is said to have modelled Virginia Satir without any corresponding intention, and with only a bare minimum of direct observation.  What actually happened is that he was reading and listening to music by groups such as Pink Floyd at the same time that he was monitoring the sound and recording systems whilst satir was running training sessions.  Yet Bandler was able to replicate Satir's behaviour with such accuracy that he could come up with a Satir-like solution to a a training exercise situation unlike any situation he had actually seen her dealing with.
It is only quite recently that researchers have discovered that we can learn one thing through our mirror neurons whilst our conscious attention is focused on something else.

And that's where John Grinder, the third of the co-creators of the FoNLP came in.  His job, initially, was to get a conscious understanding of what Bandler and Pucelik were actually doing (at a detailed level) to get these results.  And then to codify (create an accurate description of) that information so that it could be passed on in a coherent manner.

(As the result of some kind of dispute, the details of which are still not entirely clear, Frank Pucilik appears to have played an increasingly minor role in the development of the FoNLP after Bandler and Grinder started working together.  His name does not appear on any of the Bandler and Grinder generated books) and he seems to have dropped out of the picture completely by the end of 1978.  Apart from co-authoring Magic Demystified (an introduction to NLP), with Byron Lewis, Pucelik seems to have taken little or no part in the "Story of NLP" after that time.)

The FoNLP - some Core Presuppositions

It is sometimes said that NLP has no guiding "theory," and therefore cannot be validated or invalidated.
This is not, however, the same as saying that there is no coherent basis for NLP and the wider FoNLP.  In practice, several "core presuppositions" about the NLP process seem to be implied by various comments made by the creators of the field:

  • Experience has a structure.  In other words, our memories and consequently our mental maps, are related to each other in a coherent fashion, they aren't just free-floating or randomly connected.
  • The way someone performs a particular task is determined by context and by specific aspects of their structured experience - which can be modeled.
  • What can be identified by a competent modeler can be described in a clear and coherent manner for use by the modeler and/or other people.
  • Someone who has access to a particular model can, if the modeling process is accurate, and if they meet certain pre-requisites*, incorporate that information into their own patterns of thinking and behaviour and thereby achieve a similar level of performance.

* The phrase "if they meet certain pre-requisites" means: If they have the relevant mental and physical capabilities, if they are prepared to put in the time and effort needed to develop the relevant skills, and so on.  For example, you might teach someone a model of the skills of an expert mountaineer to someone who has an unresolved fear of heights.  In this way they can find out what to do, and how to do it, but until they overcome their vertigo the knowledge isn't going to be of any practical use to them.

NLP and Anti NLP

Anti-NLP is, in effect, simply any technique which is alleged to be part of NLP, but which utilises an approach/techniques/a mindset which actually contradict certain essential elements of the genuine FoNLP.  To understand this more clearly we need to set out a short list of propositions which seem to be essential to the authentic NLP process and it's associated techniques and methodologies:

  • Genuine NLP-related techniques focus on process and largely, if not completely, avoid content
  • They make little or no use of psycho-analytical style "psycho-archaeology"
  • Because, whenever content and/or raking over old memories become the primary focus, control passes from the client/subject to the person using the technique
  • Which violates the perception that results brought about by the client/subject are far more effective than results imposed upon them - as expressed in the presupposition that people already have, or can find, all the resources they need
  • And is in line with a growing realization that the "observer effect"* is a reality, not just a theory.
  • (* The "observer effect", suggested by Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle", says that the observer of an event cannot be neutral, and that the act of observing directly influences what happens - from the observer's point of view.  It explains why several people can have differing views about a given event and yet all be "right".)

By contrast, Anti-NLP techniques exhibit some combination of the following features:

  • A strong focus on content
  • Dredging up memories, especially unpleasant/unhappy memories
  • A clearly "directive" format in which control passes from the client/subject to the person using the technique - as though the client/subject lacks some essential resource(s)
  • An unspoken assumption that the person using the techniques "knows better" than the person on the receiving end
  • Which effectively disregards the influence of the "observer effect."

In other words, in contrast to the mindset of facilitation and empowerment which characterises genuine NLP, the mentality behind Anti-NLP is that of a micro-managing autocrat.

An Anti-NLP ideas and techniques, on the other hand, can often be identified by an almost compulsive emphasis on working at a markedly small chunk level (getting involved with details about details, as one person described it), and in a highly procedural, sequential manner - Step 1 followed by Step 2 followed by Step 3 ... etc.

Don't Know, Don't Care.

Sad to say, it is exactly the negative features of Anti-NLP which make it so attractive to some people.  "Give control to the client"-style thinking may have motivated the co-creators of NLP, but there are plenty of other people ready to jump on the NLP bandwagon who don't give a tuppenny damn for that point of view.

Indeed, what strikes me after years of being on various online chat groups is the regularity with which newcomers appear with questions about how they can, in some sense or other, control the people around them.  Managers who want to make their subordinates behave/perform "better", boyfriends and girl friends, husbands and wives who want to make their partners behave the "right" way, etc.

And what characterises almost all of these questions is that the questioner is entirely in "down time" mode.  That is to say, they don't think about the people they want to control except from their own totally inward looking perspective.
Phrases along the lines of:

"... she doesn't do what she should.  I don't understand and I don't know how to handle her."

Taken from a genuine online enquiry, are typical of this kind of question.
It is an attitude which creates a ready market for a comforting dose of Anti-NLP.