13.  Can NLP be used to manipulate people?


First Define Your Terms

First of all - it depends what we mean by "manipulate."

If I smile at someone when we are introduced, am I merely being polite - or am I trying to persuade them at a non-verbal level, that I'm a jolly nice chap?
And if I'm doing something more than just being polite, does that count as "manipulation"?  Or are we talking about something rather stronger?

For example, there are several websites that deal with the use of NLP techniques for the purposes of seduction.  I guess most people would accept that as a fairly obvious form of manipulation in the sense of getting another person to do what you want them to do without them realizing what you're up to?
So the short answer seems to be: "Yes, of course it can."

But wait a moment.
NLP also holds that the "unconscious mind" is smarter than the conscious mind.  And when we're talking about manipulation we're usually talking about the person not having any conscious awareness of what the manipulator is up to.  So is it possible that we can be "blind" to manipulation at the conscious level yet aware of it at the subconscious level?  And if we can, then are we really being manipulated or, just as a hypnotized person will refuse to do anything they find unacceptable, do we actually allow ourselves to be manipulated just as far and as long as it suits us to have that happen?

If this seems a little cynical, bear in mind that Professor Robert Rosenthal has demonstrated that when observers were shown three 10 second video clips of the teacher at work - but without being able to hear the actual words that he or she was speaking (only the vocal tones) - thay were able to grade that teacher's performance on several criteria to within 80% accuracy as compared with the evaluations of students who had attended that teacher's classes for several months.
There seems little doubt that we can assess other people both very fast and pretty accurately.  We "know", even when we don't know that we know.

In other words, just as you can use a hammer to build a shelf, or to bash someone's brains in, so NLP techniques can be used for good or ill.

Knowledge - on its own - is NOT "power"

There are certainly some fairly subtle techniques for gathering information about how someone thinks, for example - such as whether it's in sounds, feelings, pictures, etc.  But that kind of information isn't much good unless you know how to use it.  And once you start to use this information in a manipulative manner, you need to start thinking about another important question: "What happens when people find out what you're up to?"  Because "as sure as eggs is eggs" they will realise it, consciously, sooner or later.

An excellent example is the behaviour of certain members and associates of the "New" Labour Party in the UK since they came to power in 1997.
On the face of it their succession of lies, dirty tricks, "spinning" and other forms of manipulation have been quite successful.  That is to say, they have managed to stay in power for longer than any other time in the history of the party.
This apparent success is an illusion, however, made possible by the incredibly uneven sizes of the various voting districts, which heavily favour the Labour vote.
In reality, the Labour Party's share of the vote has gone down each time so that they are in office this time on the basis of less than 37 per cent of all votes cast in the 2005 General Election.  That's a smaller percentage of the vote than any other parliament in the last hundred years or more.
In fact, even with their built-in advantage regarding the distribution of voters, the party's majority was reduced by 100 "seats" at the last General Election, thus making the leadership seriously vulnerable to rebellion by "backbenchers".  Which isn't as big a change as it might seem, because it was only the weird and wonderful way that parliamentary voting districts are set out, that gave the Labour Party a clear majority at the first General Election after they came to power.
And if that weren't enough, one of the main UK TV companies infiltrated one of their reporters into the Labour Party and subsequently screened a programme on exactly what dirty tricks, and other manipulative techniques the party had used.
It seems that people are not so easily fooled as is sometimes imagined, even if they are sometimes slow to react.

Note:     I'm not suggesting that the Labour Party have knowingly used NLP techniques as such - I have no idea whether they have or they haven't.  The point is that they had certainly been attempting to manipulate the media and voter opinion in a BIG way, partly by using a number of techniques which are also part of the NLP toolbox - reframing, etc.  Even with the assistance of a small army of professional manipulators, however, they were obviously unable to escape the consequences of their actions.

Postscript:   In 2010 the Labour Party was led by one of the most inept communicators since Michael Foot.  In the face of such an uphill struggle even the Party's most adept spin doctors could do nothing.  Labour "went down in flames" (as compared to their previous results), and the erstwhile leader of the party has seemingly gone into hiding apart from a brief appearance at the funeral of the one time shop steward of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and leader of the famous Clydeside shipbuilders' "work in" of 1971.
It seems that evem the most skilled manipulators cannot turn "lead" into "gold", so to speak.


Recommended reading: Influencing with Integrity.  Most NLP books cover this question to a greater or lesser extent.