What's Up, Doc?
Most days I get at least one visitor to the Emporium asking whether "NLP" really works - using search criteria such as:
Let me start to answer these statements and questions by making a very basic and important distinction:
Making a statement like "NLP doesn't work" makes about as much sense as saying "cars don't work", without explaining which particular car(s) "don't work", and in what specific way(s) it/they "don't work". BECAUSE ...
To be accurate, the term "Neuro-Linguistic Programming", and it's abbreviation - NLP - refer to one specific modelling technique - and nothing else.
So far, so good. But I strongly suspect that isn't really the question that most people actually intended to ask.
And there is root problem. If someone is asking whether "NLP" works we need to know just how much of the FoNLP they are are indeed referring to.
So, because I have already dealt with the question of whether NLP itself works, and why, (see also FAQ #3), in this FAQ I'll discuss a few basic criticisms and questions that I've come across on various NLP-related discussion groups.
What are the Disadvantages of Using NLP?
Short answer: There aren't any.
Longer answer: There aren't any - as long as you are using the 'right' technique for a given context in a competent manner and with positive (win/win) intentions. And as lomg as the technique you are using is authentic.
But of course there are plenty of critics of whatever each of them thinks of as "NLP". Many of whom are well-established academics.
As an example of how critics find disadvantages in the use of NLP-related techniques where they don't exist, I'd like to take a quick look at an article by Professor Aldert Vrij and Shara Lochun (1997), in which the lead author describes how he witnessed two police officers interviewing a suspect using one or more NLP-related pacing techniques:
'Recently I ... was asked to assess videotapes of a police interview. My first impression was that both detectives were behaving "strangely". I then discovered that they were both imitating the suspect's movements.
Which may have been an entirely accurate assessment.
Firstly, despite the evidence (that they were quite obviously 'behaving "strangely"') he apparently assumes that the two officers were in fact skilled in using the technique and were therefore using it correctly. In practice, given the poor record of providing adequate training for UK police officers, in a variety of areas, it would surely have been appropriate to ask how much training and how much experience these particular officers had had in regard to this particular technique before assuming that the behaviour on the videotape was entirely due to shortcomings in the technique.
Secondly, Vrij tells us nothing about the person being interviewed so we cannot estimate the appropriateness of the approach - in that context. We do not know:
Thirdly, from Vrij's description we cannot rule out the possibility the suspect was simply acting on advice from their solicitor.
In fact, what Vrij is referring to is nothing more than one of several NLP-related rapport-building techniques. As such, no matter how skilfully, or not, it was being used on this occasion, even in the hands of a bona fide expert, it was scarcely likely to turn an experienced criminal - if that is what the suspect was - into a chatty little fellow ready to 'shop' himself on the spot.
In fact, using various NLP-related techniques inappropriately, in the wrong way (to obtain a result a given technique was not designed for), or unskilfully may well create resistence rather that smoothing the communication process.
We might contrast Vrij's rather negative view with that of other researchers who seem to have discovered the efficacy of the NLP-related "mirroring and matching" technique, possibly without knowing anything about NLP. See, for example, part 1 - Be a mimic - of this online article from from New Scientist magazine, 7th of May, 2008.
Room for Improvement
The name is a major pain
Although Bandler is rumoured to have made up the title "neuro-linguistic programmer" off the top of his head when a traffic cop asked his occupation, it was actually based on a list of potentially useful words drawn up John Grinder.
"Neuro" (derived from the Greek neuron for nerve) is based on the fundamental tenet that all behavior is the result of neurological processes [either conscious or unconscious]. "Linguistic" (derived from the Latin lingua for language) indicates that neural processes are represented, ordered and sequenced into models and strategies through the use of language and communication systems. And "Programming" refers to the process of organizing the components of a system (sensory representations in this case) to achieve specific outcomes."
(Incidentally, the term "neuro-linguistic" was originally coined by Alfred "a map is not the territory" Korzybski as far back as the 1930's.)
It would have been a big help if Bandler and Grinder had been more precise in their definition of NLP when they were starting out
Despite the "sound byte" definitions such as "NLP is an attitude" and "NLP is the study of the structure of subjectivity" (which are both true, in their own way), there doesn't seem to have been much of an effort to produce even a draft description of what NLP is about at the time when NLP was first being developed.
The phrase "NLP is the study of the structure of subjectivity", for instance, sits quite comfortably with John Grinder's statement that NLP itself is nothing more than a specific modelling technique. But where does that leave "NLP is an attitude"? And despite Bandler and Grinder's joint experiments with various aspects of psychotherapy, all three of the co-creators - Richard Bandler, John Grinder and Frank Pucelik have unambiguously stated that neither NLP nor the FoNLP as a whole ever were intended as a form of psychotherapy. Indeed, Bandler is on record as having said that he has never done therapy in his life.
It's all true, of course - but again not readily understood until you have a reasonably good grasp on the mindset that goes with the FoNLP (Field of NLP - NLP the modelling technique + the NLP-related techniques and applications + FoNLP training).
And having said all that, it is only fair to point out that it is notoriously difficult to provide exact definitions in the context of "soft skills".
Although considerable emphasis is put on using "systemic thinking" and dealing with "the whole person", different "schools" have grown up within the NLP community which have become overly focused on one particular type of approach to using NLP.
As Wyatt Woodsmall describes it, the three main schools can be distinguished from each other,Thus:
Please note, the point Woodsmall is making is that, as a general rule, all of these approaches should be accorded equal value - though each situation may favour placing more emphasis on one approach asd compared to the other two. The decision as to which approach is most suitable in a given situation should be based on an assessment of the situation - not on the basis of an assumption that one approach is inherently "better" than the other two.
The NLP techniques aren't as simple as is often claimed
There are people who claim that you can use any NLP-related technique without anything more than basic training - or maybe even just an accurate written or verbal description - and it will work. But are they right?
In the first place, not every technique is appropriate in every situation. Part of the skill set in the FoNLP is knowing which techniques are appropriate to achieve a particular result in a particular situation with a particular person.
NLP-related techniques are supposedly focused on "process" ("how" someone does something) rather than "content" (the material being processed). On that basis the only question one should need to ask of a client is "Have you done that?" (i.e. have you carried out whatever instruction you have been given?). And it would be even better if the practitioner was able to "calibrate" the client's behaviour in order to tell whether they have completed the action without needing to ask. That takes time and practice.
NLP-related concepts and techniques may be relatively simple to teach - at a purely factual level - but it takes genuine experience to be able to use the techniques effectively. But not all NLP trainers will tell potential customers about that - possibly for fear of putting them off the idea odf taking the training.
Because there is no clearly defined theoretical dimension to NLP, it has accumulated a wealth of crud along with the good stuff.
NLP started out on the basis of adopting/adapting patterns of behaviour which had already been shown to work - by Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson, and others. That didn't mean that everything was bound to work all of the time, for everybody, of course. Rather it provided a toolkit of proven methods and techniques from which practitioners could select whatever seemed most appropriate/effective in a given situation. In other words, NLP started out being entirely pragmatic.
Even the description of NLP as "the study of the structure of subjective behaviour" assumes that subjective behaviour does have some kind of structure, and a structure, moreover, which can be studied.
It is interesting to note that research into neuropsychology over the quarter century since NLP came into being has, on the whole, tended to validate those parts of NLP that were arrived at on a pragmatic basis (Bandler's work on submodalities, for example, was way ahead of its time), whilst the theoretical stuff has been invalidated (the so-called "neurological levels 'model'", for example, already contradicted the relevant scientific research when it was first introduced, and nothing has emerged since that time to make it any more viable today - see FAQ #9)
NLP attracts its fair share of cranks and extremists
Okay, this isn't something that is exclusive to NLP, nevertheless, there is a "lunatic fringe" who have attached themselves to NLP and go around claiming that it can do virtually anything from raising the dead (yes, really) to getting your whites "whiter than white", so to speak.
There are people who appear entirely rational, who claim to be experts on NLP, yet who actually come out with little more than pure gobbledegook.
And there are people (trainers, authors, etc.) who have no interest in NLP other than making money out of it. One book that came out in the summer of 2009 - Understanding NLP, by Kay and Kite - for example, contains almost no information about genuine NLP. What it does contain is page after page after page of information which is either nothing to do with the FoNLP, or actually contradicts claims made for various NLP-related techniques. Such as the quite amazing statement that: "Building rapport with others takes time, commitment and effort" (page 95)!
To be blunt I don't know what anyone can do about these people since without any legal restraint on the use of "NLP" and "Neuro-Linguistic Programming" they are wide open to misuse. I'm afraid it's a case of "let the buyer beware".
There is no central organising body for NLP #1
A growing number of online sites advertising NLP courses include statements such as, "We hold trainer registraition with the Association of NLP (ANLP) and the British Board of NLP (BBNLP)".
This makes NLP almost impossible to regulate, and whilst various organisations have set up as "professional bodies" for NLP practitioners I'm not at all convinced that any of them are worth they paper their letterhead is printed on.
Just a thought - if you think that demonstrates anything untoward about NLP certification, just ask yourself what a university degree actually demonstrates other than that the holder turned up to his/her seminars and tutorials more or less regularly and successfully gave the approved answers to a series of exam questions from time to time. And remind yourself of the number of business people and business organisations who claim that university graduates don't have the knowledge and skills needed to function effectively in the "real world" and therefore have to be trained all over again, for another year, or two, or three, before they are of any use to their employers (i.e. on a "graduate training programme" of some kind).
Some critics also point out that NLPers are evaluated at the end of their course by the same people that trained them, and that therefore the examiners have a vested interest in the result. This is, of course, true. And again it is also true of universities and other professional bodies that supply training as well as certification.
There is no central organising body for NLP #2
Which has made possible the growth of an "old boys network" within the NLP community (NLPOBN for short). The members of this group apparently either do not understand what NLP is about, or don't care, and seem to evaluate all ideas on the basis of whether X (the originator of the idea) is a "nice guy" or not. As a consequence, numerous ideas that are totally contrary to NLP have been introduced into the list of supposedly authentic NLP procedures.
For example, one of the original tenets of NLP - one of the core features of the NLP modeling procedure - was that techniques should be as refined and simple as possible. Once the modeler has created a "full" model they should then strip away everything that isn't necessary to produce the required result. By implication, then, genuine NLP is concerned with eliminating everything that isn't necessary. Yet the members of the NLPOBN work in exactly the opposite direction, throwing up innumerable techniques as though the only thing that mattered was quantity rather than quality.
By the same token, where relevant genuine NLP emphasizes the importance of creating change in the here and now, rather than indulging in Freudian-style psycho-archaeology which frequently drags up and revivifies unpleasant memories from the past. Many of the offerings from the NLPOBN naturally do exactly the opposite, often getting lost in a cascade of out-of-date information which hinders rather than helps the client. Not surprisingly, if the client has the temerity to complain about the procedure they are blamed for being "unco-operative", refusing to come out of their "comfort zone", etc.
In other words, one of the most radical and to my mind most valuable NLP presuppositions - there are no bad students, only poor teachers - has been turned on its head. In the NLPOBN the responsibility for success resides with the client, since (presumably) OBNNLPers are so arrogant as to suppose that they can never be wrong (I have certainly witnessed this first hand with several very well-known NLPOBNers).
NLP Techniques can be used for malicious and self-serving purposes
Yes, it's true, despite the emphasis by "good" trainers and writers on using NLP to create "win/win" results, some of the NLP techniques can be used for malign purposes by people so inclined.
Unfortunately the misuse of NLP techniques is not limited to that one group, however. I have witnessed first hand several supposedly upright members of the NLP community use techniques such as "revivifying memories" (specifically refreshing a memory which carries disturbing implications) in order to cause someone they don't like to become agitated and distressed. There is absolutely no justification for this, and once again the fact that these people behave, or have behaved, in this manner is primarily a demonstration of their own "less than optimal state", to put it nicely.
As to whether this behaviour is sufficient to justify putting limitations on NLP -
Some Freudian techniques - especially those which play upon the so-called "primal urges" - are extremely powerful and have been used for decades in advertising, and elsewhere, with the deliberate intention of manipulating the target audience. Does that mean that Freudianism/psychoanalysis are necessarily "bad"?
And lastly, a limitation rather than an outright flaw, the linguistic/language element of NLP:
NLP and the NLP-related techniques were created and developed by people whose first language is English
Or to put it another way, the linguistic elements of the NLP-related techniques weren't designed to work in any language other than English.
(Please note: This limitatation does not affect the whole field of NLP. For example, since they are based on the five primary senses common to all human beings (whether in full working order or not), there is only one set of representational systems, no matter where someone was born.)
Having said that, if you are studying, or want to study the FoNLP, and English is not your first language, it is advisable to find a book on the subject which has been written by someone whose first language is the same as your own. I say this because I know that my own books have sometimes been translated directly into other languages without making allowances for what will or won't work in any of those languages.
For example, phonetic, scope, syntactic and punctuational ambiguities, adopted from the work of Milton Erickson, are all useful techniques for English speakers. But which, if any of them work at all in, say, German, Greek, Arabic or Chinese? And on the plus side, are there linguistic constructions which will work in other languages which won't work in English?
By the way, after this last section first went on line some bright spark made a complaint (in a business-related chat group) that this proved that "NLP" violated UK law on catering for diversity - that it discriminated against people who didn't have a good working knowledge of the English language. Apparently the person who wrote the complaint hadn't considered the possibility that ALL languages violate the UK diversity laws in regard to anyone who doesn't have a working knowledge of a given language.
This whole discussion comes down to just a couple of simple points: