3.  How Does NLP Work?


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 in this site which you might want to visit as well as, or instead of, this one:

  • FAQ #2 - Describes what "NLP" is.
  • 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 - Following up on FAQ #27, this "multipart" FAQ shows how poor research has meant that a dependence on flawed and even unequivocally false information about the FoNLP (field of NLP) has been commonplace amongst academic critics for over 20 years.  The subsections include details of the infamous 'reviews' by Sharpley (1984, 1987) and Heap (1988, etc.).
  • 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.

The Usual Questions

Two of the search questions regularly asked by visitors to this site are:

  • "Does NLP work?"
  • "How does NLP work?"

Both of which leave open the important question: What do you mean by "NLP"?

What is "NLP"?

  1. Neuro-Linguistic Programming, usually shortened to NLP, is a modelling technique - a particular, non-analytical modelling technique.  That's it.  End of story.
    And in most cases I doubt very much if that is what most visitors wanted to ask about.
  2. The field of NLP (FoNLP), on the other hand, includes everything to do with genuine NLP - NLP itself, the various concepts and techniques adopted, adapted and created during the development of the NLP process and the FoNLP, and training in NLP and/or any of the other elements of the FoNLP, including training as a trainer.

The FoNLP is essentially a set of concepts and techniques which cover a range of communication skills, mainly derived from the use of the modelling technique developed by Richard Bandler and Frank Pucelik in the early 1970s (1972-73?).  The wider FoNLP was jointly developed at first by Bandler, Grinder and Pucelik (from the mid-1970s (1974?) onwards), and after 1978 by just Bandler and Grinder.  Bandler and Pucelik had pretty much completed their work on the modelling process when Bandler recruited Grinder to help Pucelik and himself to put what they had learnt into a form that could be taught to other people.


1.   Does NLP Work?

The answer to the first question, then, is that it depends which part of the FoNLP the question refers to.
If you mean "does the NLP modelling technique work?" then the answer is a categorical "yes".
We can be that sure because it is essentially the same process that billions of babies down through history have used to learn to walk and talk, but opened out so that it can be used to learn just about anything, as long as one or more suitable exemplars and can be found and the NLP modelling technique can be applied to their skill(s).

2.   Do the Rest of the Elements in the FoNLP Work?

As for the rest of the elements - concepts and techniques - that make up the FoNLP, those work too, but many (most?) of them are "context related", to a greater or lesser degree.  That means that few of the techniques will work in ANY context, for ANY practitioner, with ANY subject ALL of the time.  So, to get a desired result in a given context, the practitioner must recognise what concept(s) apply, select the appropriate technique(s) and apply it/them with genuine skill.

If a technique does not work (get the required result) then the practitioner must be sufficiently knowledgeable and flexible to apply other techniques until they find one that does get the looked for result.  As one of the NLP-related presuppositions suggests:

If you go on doing what you're doing now, you're likely to go on getting the results you're getting now.
If you want something different you need to do something different, and go on varying your behaviour until you get the results that you want.

This approach has sometimes been criticised, by the late Professor Margaret Singer, for example, who described it as "a fail safe argument" (Singer & Lalich, 1996, page 172).  Presumably Singer believed that if a technique doesn't work first time we should apply the "talk louder and slower to foreigners" technique: Just keep battering away with the same technique until it does - if ever - produce the required result.

How Does NLP Work?

Talking of criticisms of whatever it is the critics think of as "NLP", it is worth noting that reports of experiments which have supposedly "disproved NLP" were in the vast majority of cases (allegedly) examined just two concepts - preferred representational systems (PRSs) and eye accessing cues - and a single technique - predicate matching.
The most frequent finding in this research was that when observations of eye movements and verbal predicates are compared - as indicators of a person's preferred representational system - the results are frequently contradictory.  And despite the poor design of most of the experiments, this finding is quite likely true in every case.

Unfortunately - for the researchers - this finding tells us nothing of any significance about any part of the FoNLP.
Why not?
Because (a) we cannot determine a person's preferred representational systems from their eye movements, and (b) the co-creators of NLP and the FoNLP ever said that we could.  Thus the claim that "NLP has been disproved" by any of these empirical tests is itself an invalid claim.  It makes about as much sense as if the researchers had driven a car off a cliff and reporting that "Cars don't work" because the one they tested didn't fly like a plane.

Not only that, but we've just seen that NLP itself is one specific modelling technique, nothing else.  Everything else that most people think of as NLP consists of NLP-related concepts, techniques and applications.  Most of the techniques which make up the authentic FoNLP were arrived at through modelling successful behaviour of people who excelled in certain skills, observing what people actually do, as distinct from what they say and think they do.

Thus authentic NLP and genuine NLP-related techniques work because they are pragmatically-based - on real life behaviour - rather than on hypotheses and theories about what "ought" to work.  They are techniques used by, or based on the behaviour of, people judged by their peers to be excellent in whatever skill/ability was being modelled.

What about replication of results - Or: What About "Scientific" Testing?

To put it another way, the NLP-related techniques are primarily based on codified models of behaviour that successful people naturally use to achieve their outstanding results in various situations and contexts as observed by the modeller(s).  This is quite different from a genuinely scientific approach where, if applied in this context, would require that the modellers created a hypothesis, based on their observations, which they then subjected to some form of testing.  And that alone raises a serious problem.

The "scientific method", as it's called, is very useful in situations where inanimate material is being investigated.  It can also be applied quite effectively to a limited range of "very simple" animate creatures.&nbs; But by the time we start trying to apply the scientific method to more complex life forms, especially human beings, the notion of replication of results is only possible if we ignore individuals and look for purely statistical results based on behaviour in groups.
This is not to say that the statistical results are in some way at fault - as statistics.  Only that averages don't tell us about the individuald withing the group.  In fact a given group may not include a single individual who conforms to the profile derived from the average for the group.

Compare this to the NLP-related approach where a model is based on a specific individual.  So we immediately know that any resulting technique has been used successfully by at least one person.  It is then down to other individuals to decide - preferably from personal experience of using the technique - whether it is sufficiently useful to them, as an individual, for them to make use of it in their own lives.

In short, the core NLP technique - modelling - is completely unlike the kind of situations where genuinely scientific testing is applied.  Where Science is about "What ought to work - in a consistent fashion", NLP modelling is about "What has worked for someone and might work for others".  There is no assumption in regard to NLP-related techniques that every technique will work every time in every situation.

If NLP Works - Prove It

That last comment is one which seems to confuse numerous critics of "NLP" who are concerned with the question of whose responsibility it is to "prove" that "NLP" works.

A response from many NLPers, whenever the question of "proof" comes up, is something like: "If you think that something to do with NLP needs to be proved, you go ahead and test it."

This is often, and wrongly, interpreted as meaning that NLPers think that it is the critics' responsibility to prove or disprove the validity of the various NLP-related techniques.  But that really isn't the point at all.  The real message is:

  1. If I'm using NLP (a specific form of modelling) and/or any NLP-related techniques it's because I know, from experience, that the technique(s) I'm are using have worked - for me - in the past, so
  2. Looking for "scientific proof" that NLP techniques work seems like a very abstract, theoretical and rather pointless exercise, and
  3. I'm not inclined to waste time looking for such proof.  However
  4. If someone else thinks that such experiments are of some value then they are welcome to apply whatever tests they think are relevant.

There is, moreover, one important qualification.  Whoever is doing such research should only say they are testing claims made for any part of the FoNLP if that is indeed what they are doing.  They need to do the necessary background research to discover which are the claims made by the co-creators of NLP and the FoNLP, and which have been simply made up by "wanna be" NLPers, free loaders, or even by other researchers.  Otherwise, according to their own standards, they have no basis for claiming that they are researching NLP and/or the FoNLP as created by Bandler and Grinder and should make that clear when they report their findings.

In other words, it isn't a question of "passing the buck," but rather a matter of questioning whether any genuine "buck" exists.

Scientific Testing?

Another important issue to remember here is this: Not being able to validate a given NLP-related technique does not prove that either (a) the particular technique is invalid, nor that (b) the FoNLP as a whole is invalid.  As all genuine scientists know, even in the most rigorous, and appropriate scientific experiments the results do not prove that the hypothesis is true or false - they demonstrate a level of probability that the hypothesis being tested is true or false.
If we bear this simple rule in mind it is immediately clear that the majority of NLP critics - those who claim that NLP has been "disproved", "falsified", etc. - are not only making inaccurate claims; they are also demonstrating a profound lack of understanding as to the inherent boundaries of scientific testing.

The Importance of Modelling

As explain above, NLP itself is actually a specific modelling technique - capturing the elements of how a particular person carries out a specific function to create a model that can be used by the modeller, and possibly taught to other people.  (By implication, then, NLP is primarily designed for modelling the behaviour of people who have some outstanding skill or talent which other people might want to duplicate.)

So, if you wanted to help people to become really effective estate agents (realtors), you would not, from an NLP perspective, waste time sitting them round a table and getting them to imagine what qualities it might be useful to have in that job.  Rather you would either model a top estate agent and teach the model to your students, or you would teach them how to model and then put them in a position where they could "shadow" a top realtor for themselves.

That is "genuine" NLP, as distinct from techniques which someone thinks ought to work, or might work if the wind is blowing from East Nor East and there's an "X" in the month, etc.
So the answer to "how does NLP work" is: By allowing people to develop an indepth perception (not necessarily a conscious perception) of how a genuine expert in some skill does whatever it is they do.

Everything else - virtually everything that most people think of as NLP - is a collection of techniques, methods and applications which can be used in the modelling process - and many other contexts.
Although closely associated with NLP, none of these elements are NLP; because any one of them could be discarded without changing or affecting NLP (modelling) itself.

In the end, short of trying to analyse NLP and every one of the NLP-related techniques, then, the answers to the two questions are the answers given at the end of the "Quick Answers" section:

  • "Does NLP work?"
    Yes, both NLP (the modelling technique) and the NLP-related techniques do work, though it is important to select and implement the appropriate technique for use in any particular situation.  Moreover, since no technique can be guaranteed to work for every situation, in every context, with every client, for every practitioner, it is important to be flexible in seeking alternative approaches if necessary.
    To paraphrase an old saying: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again - with something different.  
  • "How does NLP work?"
    Authentic NLP and the authentic NLP-related techniques work because they are based on real life behaviour rather than on theories derived from (usually) unrealistic experiments.  That is to say, they are techniques used by, or based on the behaviour of, people judged by their peers to be excellent in some skill.

In a nutshell: We know that the authentic FoNLP techniques work because, if they hadn't already been observed at work they wouldn't have been included in the FoNLP in the first place.
The qualification is that we cannot be sure, in advance, that any particular technique will work in any particular contexts.
Or as someone once said about the uncertain nature of real life: If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.