20.   What's Wrong with 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 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 - 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.

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:

  • "nlp has been debunked"
  • "arguments against nlp"
  • "why nlp does not work"
  • "nlp therapy criticism"
  • and so on

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.
This point is important because the kind of questions I'm addressing here are in fact asking "does the NLP modelling technique work?"  And the answer to that question is an unqualified "yes".  How do we know that?  We know it because it is entirely based on the observe and imitate process that every able-bodied infant (and many others who are less fortunate) have used as they learnt to walk and talk.  If you are reading this page then you are yourself almost certainly proof that the NLP modelling technique works.

So far, so good.  But I strongly suspect that isn't really the question that most people actually intended to ask.
Beyond the core modelling technique there is a whole body of NLP-related concepts, techniques and applications which make up the FoNLP (the field of NLP).  This includes NLP itself, all the other authentic NLP-related concepts and techniques, and training in any part of the FoNLP).  On that basis it would be my guess that most people, when they talk about "NLP", are actually referring to "the whole of NLP" - in other words the FoNLP, as far as they could guess what that means - and not just to NLP.

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.
Most academic research, for example, has only looked at "eye accessing cues", "preferred representational systems" and a technique called "predicate matching".  Yet even within that very limited definition of the FoNLP, most of the research is based on wholesale ignorance (see "a href = "nlpfax28.htm">Cargo Cult Criticism for more details).

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.
(If you have a question or a comment that isn't dealt with here, feel free to e-mail me on bradburyac@hotmail.com.)

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.
(By "authentic" I mean techniques which are either part of the original set of techniques developed by the co-creators of NLP and the FoNLP - Bandler, Grinder and Pucelik - or which are unambiguously based on the principles used by the co-creators when developing the original FoNLP.)

But of course there are plenty of critics of whatever each of them thinks of as "NLP".  Many of whom are well-established academics.
Surely they wouldn't report flaws in "NLP" if they didn't exist.  Would they?

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.
The whole situation looked bizarre and the approach was not effective.  The suspect was silent at the beginning of the interview and remained silent throughout the interview.'
(Vrij & Lochun, 1997.  Page 28)

Which may have been an entirely accurate assessment.
BUT, Vrij presents his case in a thoroughly one-sided manner.

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:

  • Whether the suspect was previously known to the police, and
  • If so, was he a petty crook or an "hardened" offender;
  • Whether this was the first interview of this suspect for this offence;
  • The seriousness of the accusation(s) made against the suspect;
  • Whether either of the officers had dealt with the suspect on any previous occasion(s);
  • and so on.

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.
The description of how to use this specific technique given in this article is such a close match for the relevant NLP-related technique that you could put it into any NLP-related book or training course and I doubt if even experienced NLPers would realise that it came from a non-NLP-related source.

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.
To be blunt, trying to understand what "NLP" is by analyzing the name is as useful as trying to understand what Beef Wellington tastes like by eating the printed recipe.  Still, for what it's worth:

"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.
On the other hand, both NLP itself (a specific modelling technique) and the overall field of NLP (FoNLP) are based on observations rather than on theories or scientific tests.

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".
The term "Coaching", for example, now refers to a multi-million dollar industry that has only come into existence over the last 10-20 years.  But what is "coaching"?  However hard you look I guarantee that you won't find a generally agreed definition, even amongst the self-appointed experts.  Indeed, from the contents of a number of discussions on specialist forums it's quite clear that there isn't even a generally agreed set of characteristics which can be used to distinguish "coaching" from "mentoring".

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:

  • The "school of physiology and behaviour" - the Klingon school, of which John Grinder is a leading exponent, puts emphasis on the value of physiological/behavioural modification as the key to changing everything else.  In Turtles All the Way Down, for example, Grinder and DeLozier talk about have a group dancing session at the end of each day in order to help to integrate that day's learning.
    Grinder's current (August 2010) focus is on what he calls New Code NLP, which again has a strong physiological and behavioural components.
  • The "school of the internal state" - the "hearts and flowers" or Doctor McCoy school, of which Woodsmall nominates Leslie Lebeau (Leslie Cameron-Bandler, as was) as being a leading exponent.  In this case the emphasis is on changing one's emotional state as the "fulcrum" for leveraging change.
  • And thirdly we have the "school of internal processes" - the Mr. Spock school, favoured by Richard Bandler and Robert Dilts.  Adherents of this school tend to emphasize techniques, such the use of sub modalities.

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.
Except that there's no such thing as "entirely pragmatic" in this context.

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.
By failing to deal adequately with the theoretical aspects of NLP, the original developers left the door open for the subsequent introduction of a whole heap of loopy and/or irrelevant ideas and concepts into the "toolbox" - including techniques and methods which weren't "adopted" because they had already been found to work, but were created because someone thought they "ought" to work.  Or even just because they fitted potential trainees' perceptions of what "NLP" was about.

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)!
(On that last point, for readers not familiar with the NLP-related techniques, there are several NLP-related techniques which have the sole purpose of building rapport quickly and easily.)

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)".
What they don't tell you is that registering with these, and a number of similar bodies, is basically meaningless.  There are only two genuinely authoritative training organizations - the Society of NLP and the International NLP Training

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.
In my opinion no NLP "certificate" has any inherent value.  As demonstrated by the fact that the co-authors of one of the all-time worst books on NLP -
Neuro-linguistic Programming for Dummies - are a certified Master Practitioner and an NLP trainer.
To be blunt, if you know the company someone trained with, and you know the company or you know the work of other people who have been trained by that company, you can decide what value to attach to their certification.  If you don't, then all you're looking at is a piece of paper.  It could be a genuine reflection of the holder's knowledge and ability - or just a piece of paper that shows they turned up every day the course was running.

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.
(And in case you're wondering if this is "sour grapes", I do have a degree in social psychology (from a formally accredited UK university), and I am a certified NLP practitioner.  I just don't think that any kind of certification is as valid as actually seeing what someone does with the skills they claim to possess.)

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.
To some extent this tends to be most evident in online groups interested in the use of NLP for making sexual conquests, of which a couple that I've actually seen suggest that some of the contributors may be seriously disturbed human beings.

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.
There is also some anecdotal evidence that politicians in the UK and the USA (and maybe elsewhere, for all I know) are beginning to use NLP techniques (see
Cracking the Code for more details).

As to whether this behaviour is sufficient to justify putting limitations on NLP -
To be realistic, even if it was, how could it be done.  It is obviously totally impractical to suggest - as it has been suggested - that Bandler and Grinder should somehow be policing the use of their work all around the world.  To use an analogy, Freudian psychoanalysis has been around for more than a century, and professional practitioners are subject to various checks and balances.  None of which has prevented the (usually covert) use of Freudian theory in advertising and marketing since the mid-1920's.

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"?
Personally I don't think they are.  I think they are like a chisel - it can help in the production of beautiful furniture, say, when used by a skilled craftsman with positive intentions.  Or it can become a vicious, even lethal weapon in the hands of someone whose intentions are focused in that direction.  As far as I'm aware, all of the authentic NLP-related techniques were originally designed to help rather than harm the person they are used on.

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:

  • The FoNLP developed over a period of time, and is still developing.  But its initial development was pretty ad hoc, and no one foresaw that it would one day blossom into a world-wide phenomenon.  The safeguards and regulatory mechanisms built-in to the FoNLP reflect that pattern of development.  That is to say, there aren't any.  The people created the FoNLP, and the people who assisted them, were all too busy having a good time extending their knowledge and skills to worry about the formalities until it was too late too do anything about it.
  • The development of the FoNLP has been a process of both discovery and creativity/innovation.
    Discovering processes that people were already using, and have used, (usually at an unconscious level) since who knows when.  Innovating by extrapolating new information from what was already known, and in creating the various techniques for using those discoveries.  But behind it all, they were working with raw material which was already there.  If Bandler and Grinder had been Japanese, or Pakistani, or Lebonese or even European then the FoNLP would undoubtedly look different, to a greater or lesser extent, as compared to the way it looks today.
    To borrow a thought from Shakespeare: People, things and events tend to appear good or bad because that is how we perceive them, and/or because they being used to (what we regard as) good or bad ends, rather than because "goodness" or "badness" is one of their innate qualities.


    Brown, D and Motluk, A, Eight Ways to Get Exactly What You Want.  In New Scientist, Issue 2655, May 10, 2008.  Accessed online at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19826551.400-eight-ways-to-get-exactly-what-you-want.html

    Vrij, Aldert and Lochun, Shara K, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Police: Worthwhile or Not?.  Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 1. March, 1997.