The Curious Case of the Clueless Academics


In the following discussion, "chapter" refers to the book chapter written by Spicer and Boussebaa; a draft version of which can be accessed here:
(I have not compared the whole of the two versions word-for-word, but Dr Spicer has assured me that they do not differ in any significant respect.)
The word "article" refers to the material you are reading here.
The field of NLP (FoNLP) refers to the specific modelling process which is NLP + the related techniques, concepts and applications + the training in NLP and/or the related techniques, etc.)


In an online description of his research , one of these authors states:

Beyond my own specialism, I am interested in the impact of self-development technologies such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming on everyday life.
(  Accessed July 6, 2010)

So we might reasonably expect that this item would at least demonstrate a good grasp of the basics of the FoNLP, mightn't we?

In a word, "No".

That is to say, we might expect it, but we wouldn't find it.
Instead we get what is possibly the most bizarre critique of "NLP"* I have come across to date.
Thus we are told, at the front of the book:

In this collection we present a series of chapters concerned with the ways in which managerial values and practices appear to be informing some of the most mundane and commonplace aspects of our everyday lives.
(Introduction, Tyler and Hancock.  Page xi)

This makes the inclusion of a chapter purporting to be on "NLP" all the more bizarre as the genuine FoNLP is certainly not a "managerial practice" which has leaked out into everyday life.  In fact exactly the opposite is true.  That is to say, the FoNLP was initially developed to increase people's communication skills - any people - and has been slowly absorbed into various management training courses over the last 30 years, approximately.

That neither the editors (Tyler and Hancock) nor the authors of this chapter are aware of this simple historical fact is possibly the most damning evidence of their lack of knowledge of the subject that one could find.
It is hardly surprising, then, to find that the editors apparently have absolutely no idea how flawed Chapter 10 really is, and endorse Spicer and Boussebaa's nonsensical claims in glowing terms (page xvii).

Most academic criticisms that I've read up until now (July 2010) tend to attack a very small element of the FoNLP - usually PRSs and/or eye movements and/or predicate matching - on the grounds that they have not been "scientifically" validated.  And since the FoNLP is not a scientific endeavour, that's hardly surprising.

In the book chapter considered here, however, the reader is bombarded with allegations, few of which make any sense, and several of which are pure fantasy or, at best, ill-informed conflations (linking up ideas that aren't really related).  Thus we are offered the fantasy that:

By beginning with one's mental models, NLP effectively involves a turning away from the world.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009.  Page 173)

In practice there is really no basis for this allegation other than the authors' general misconceptions about the subject they are allegedly addressing.  (See the long review for a fuller explanation.)

By the same token, one of the main themes in the second half of the chapter is totally dependent on the illogical assumption that "excellence can be managed" = "subjectivity can be managed" = "conflict can be managed".  In reality only the first two claims have been made for the authentic FoNLP.  The "conflict can be managed" claim (presented as a general principle, as in this chapter) is such a colossal distortion that it, too, borders on complete fantasy.  Without it, however, the entire chapter would fall flat on its unlovely face.

(*   Wherever I have used "NLP" this is to indicate that I am referring to Spicer and Boussebaa's unstated definition of the FoNLP and not to any accurate description.)

*** The Short Version ***

(Status, at time of publication)
André Spicer:   An Associate Professor of Organisation Studies at Warwick Business School.  His research focuses on how globalisation is achieved and resisted in and around organisations.
Mehdi Boussebaa:   A Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Professional Service Firms within Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

Critical Material:
Managing Conflict: The Curious Case of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, in P. Hancock and M. Tyler (eds), The Management of Everyday Life (2009). London: Palgrave.  Pages 164-178

Nature of criticism:
Although the chapter is only 18 pages long (if we exclude the references) by my count, the first eight pages, bar part of one paragraph, are taken up with a discussion of the philosophical aspects of "conflict".

In the remaining ten pages the authors criticize "NLP" for:

  • Not fulfilling its promise to bring about a conflict free world,
  • Claiming that conflict can be managed,
  • Encouraging a unitarist view of the nature of conflict, and
  • Encouraging people to turn inwards rather than outwards when faced with situations involving conflict.

None of which, for one reason or another, are actually true.

A Regretable Lack of References
Given that this chapter has been written by two academics, and given the extent to which the chapter contains inaccurate information about the FoNLP, it is doubly unfortunate that there is a pronounced lack of references to authoritative NLP-related resources in the text.
Despite the fact that the list of references for the chapter includes 5 books co-authored by the co-creators of the FoNLP, the first paragraph that addresses "NLP" (pages 165) contains no citations whatsoever.
Moving forward to page 170, where the section headed The Curious Case of Neuro-Linguistic Programming begins - and where most of the discussion of "NLP" is located - from that page onwards we find:
A total of 34 citations
Of which only 15 mention genuine NLP-related sources
Of which 4 simply mention a book title.
Of the remaining 11 citations:
Only 7 involve actual quotes
Of which only 4 provide a complete reference (including the page number(s) so that the original text can be found and checked).
In the other "NLP" citations we are given what appear to be Spicer and Boussebaa's very dubious paraphrasing of whatever they imagine the texts are saying.

And that's just the beginning!



To be blunt, the basic flaw in this chapter is that the supposed link between "conflict" and the FoNLP is a complete fabrication.
Whatever it is the authors think of as "conflict", they seem to believe that it is not only a possible spur for change but a downright necessity.  As far as the FoNLP and its alleged relationship to "conflict" is concerned, the chapter includes almost no accurate information about the subject.  Instead of genuine facts about the FoNLP the authors use completely unsupported misconceptions (to put it politely), and then build their arguments on this misinformation without a hint that their "foundations" are entirely invalid.  For example:

  1. Much of the authors' basic argument is based on a quote from a book published approximately 2 years before development started on the FoNLP
  2. Much of the "supporting" material takes the form of "2+2=5" arguments, for example ...
  3. The authors take the genuine NLP-related claim that "excellence can be managed", along with the implied claim (also genuine) that "subjectivity can be managed", and conclude, without ever explaining how, that "NLP" must therefore be claiming that "conflict can be managed"
  4. The authors then use those pieces of misinformation as a basis for further claims such as: "NLP" is out to create "a world without conflict"
  5. The authors demonstrate such a poor understanding of the authentic FoNLP that most of their assertions only relate to their own internal model of "NLP"
  6. In the course of their chapter the authors, as though unaware of what is going on, produce evidence which directly contradicts the points they seem to be trying to make
  7. Although the entire chapter is about "conflict", the authors provide only a very vague definition of what they mean by the term in relation to the FoNLP.


In the full version of the evaluation of this material I refer, several times, to "fantasies", because (in my opinion) that is all the text amounts to, as far as the authentic FoNLP is concerned.  There seems to be some rather hasty "cherry picking" (of quotes), but without any basic understanding of the FoNLP, even these highly selective snippets do more to undermine the author's accusations than to support them.

In short, the "information" the authors provide doesn't even give an accurate understanding of the authentic FoNLP.  And it certainly doesn't support their various allegations about the use of genuine NLP in relation to "managing conflict".

*** End of Short Version ***

*** 'Director's Cut' ***

Semantic Manoeuvrings in the Dark - Part 1

It seems fair to say that the authors of this chapter start their comments about whatever it is they think of as "NLP" pretty much as they mean to go on:

There has been a profusion of popular psychological techniques which people are entreated to use in their professional and everyday lives to manage conflicts and struggles.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 165)

Notice, already, the use of manipulative language.  According to these authors, people aren't being "encouraged" to use these psychological techniques, they are, allegedly, "entreated" to use them.  Elsewhere the authors talk of "NLP" offering "alluring techniques for feeling mastery" (page 165), and claim that "CEOs, directors, managers and their employees are increasingly being seduced by NLP [sic]" (page 171), etc. (italics added for emphasis in both quotes).

Likewise, on page 11, when referring to a role play exercise described in the book Reframing (page 162) a "married couple who are considering divorce" are referred to as the "two assailants".
And on page 172 of this chapter, the authors speak of "NLP practitioners offer[ing] a plethora of tools and techniques.  Some of these are process models that promise to guide parties through the dire straights of conflict" (Italics added for emphasis).

Since the authors produce only one example of a genuinely conflict-related technique from this alleged "plethora", the use of such extravagant descriptions may well lead readers to ask themselves whether such language suggests that the text is designed to appeal to the emotions rather than to reason?

Semantic Manoeuvrings in the Dark - Part 2

Only a couple of sentences later, as part of what may look like a simple introduction, the authors write:

NLP has been offered as a powerful tool that business people can use to manage their relationships, the way they present themselves, the way they communicate, and of course managing conflicts.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009.  Pages 165)

What we have here, in practice, is an example of a semantic prime:

  1. Although the sentence is presented as a fact, we aren't given even a hint as to who has "offered NLP" in these terms, where, when the offer was made, or whether this hypothetical offer was ever made by either of the co-creators of NLP.
  2. We are told that NLP is presented as "a powerful tool" (singular).
  3. We are told that "of course" this "tool" can be used for "managing conflicts".  But why "of course"?  This is a presuppositional phrase which only makes sense if we accept the unstated assumption that it is common knowledge that "NLP" can be used for this purpose.  The unwary reader, however, is unlikely to consciously register this subtlety and the phrase can easily slip past unnoticed.  What is likely to remain, however, is a mistaken impression that the point has indeed been established and justified by some kind of supporting information.

Semantic Priming
According to psychology professor John Kihlstrom (UC, Berkeley), priming is akin to preconscious processing:

"Preconscious processing can influence the ease with which certain ideas are brought to mind, and the manner in which objects and events are perceived and interpreted"
(Kihlstrom, 1987)

That is to say, the comments are made not simply for their own sake but for the purpose of preparing us to interpret later comments in the way the authors wish us to interpret them - in line with their own beliefs.
(I have absolutely no idea whether the authors were consciously aware that they were using this technique.)

The 'priming' effect comes into its own when the reader gets to the second part of the chapter, where there is a more detailed commentary on the authors' beliefs about "NLP" (see John Kihlom's explanation in the sidebar).
Instead of getting the whole shooting match at once, so that we can set the claims against the fact that they are merely suggestions, we find ourselves starting out, in the later section, with an already biased and compromised view of whatever the authors then describe as "NLP".

The reader can counter this effect, however, by simply remembering that, whatever is said in the first part of the chapter, when we get to the section on "The Curious Case of NLP" we are actually starting from scratch.  Up until then the authors have not given us any evidence at all that their imaginings have any counterpart in real life.
(And remember, you can check everything said here by reading the draft version of the entire chapter at

Semantic Manoeuvrings in the Dark - Part 3

On the next page the allegations become even more dubious, thus:

We argue that whilst NLP [sic] may provide some alluring techniques for feeling mastery, such techniques internalise conflict, making struggles within something that we need to 'work through' within ourselves rather than 'work out' with others.  The ultimate result is that people feel that conflict is something that must be done away with through an act of internal psychological will.  Any residues of conflicts are simply to be blamed on an imperfect use of the technique.  This ultimately results in people who are trying to 'working [sic] through' conflicts being trapped in a heightened state of anxiety.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 165)

To be perfectly frank, there does not appear to be one word of truth in this entire quote:

  • Contrary to the frequent reification of "NLP" found in this chapter, genuine NLP is a specific modelling process, and nothing else.  The notion of a rogue modelling technique going around "seducing" unsuspecting business people, etc., might just work in a Sci-fi story, but in this context it is plain nonsense.
  • And what is an "alluring technique"?  The FoNLP is designed to extend people's choices with techniques which were already in use by highly respected and competent people, such as the three therapists, Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Dr Milton Erickson.  No evidence is offered as to why people such as this would have been developing and using techniques that were going to result in a self-induced "heightened state of anxiety"?
  • By the same token, what is meant by "techniques for feeling mastery"?  How does one "feel mastery"?  Mastery of what?  And what evidence do the authors have to back their claim that this allegation actually relates to the authentic FoNLP, other than their own imaginings?  (It doesn't.)
  • What are the specific techniques referred to as "such techniques"?  This looks a lot like a variation of the "No true Scotsmen" logical fallacy.  In this case anybody can be a "Scotsman", because only these authors know what characteristics, if any, distinguish the "true Scotsmen" from all the rest.  And they aren't telling.
    This is yet another example of the authors' almost complete failure to provide any evidence to back the grab bag of nonsensical accusations that make up their "case" against whatever they imagine "NLP" to be.
  • What evidence do the authors have that any techniques they have in mind "internalise conflict"?  This is especially relevant in light of the authors' failure to identify these hypothetical techniques, either here or later in the chapter.
  • In what way do these hypothetical techniques "mak[e] struggles something that we need to 'work through' within ourselves rather than 'work out' with others".  The description bears no similarity to anything I know of within the authentic FoNLP.  Once again, what is required here is some kind of viable evidence, not just the flights of fancy.  But this chapter never does provide any such evidence.
  • "The ultimate result is that people feel that conflict is something that must be done away with through an act of internal psychological will"?  Who says so?  Yet again we are assured that something is true without a scrap of viable evidence to back it up.
  • The same critique applies to the rest of the quote - no evidence is given that there are any such techniques within the genuine FoNLP.  No authorities are quoted who have arrived at these conclusions.  In fact ...
  • The most interesting aspect of these claims is that, as far as I know, all of the qualified academic psychologists, and a couple of neuroscientists besides, who have criticised "NLP" have made the same claim: That "NLP" doesn't work!  Yet here are two authors who (a) admit that they don't really know what "NLP" is (page 170), and (b) offer little or no viable supporting evidence for their allegations, yet want to argue, by implication, that all the other academic critics have overlooked their "discovery" that some (unidentified) technique[s], which they claim have some (unidentified) link to whatever they think of as "NLP", can somehow leave users "trapped in a heightened state of anxiety."

Semantic Manoeuvrings in the Dark - Part 4

Yet another confusion technique we need to watch out for in this chapter is somewhat akin to what is known, in the FoNLP, as syntactic ambiguity.  That is to say, they make some kind of comment about their version of "NLP", followed by a series of negative remarks, which make no further mention "NLP".  Technically, then, the authors can deny that they made the negative remarks about "NLP".  But in practice it is pretty inevitable that readers will take the negative statements as being about "NLP".  For example:

By beginning with one's mental models, NLP effectively involves a turning away from the world.  To eradicate conflict, one needs only to dive into one's interiority and tune one's subjectivity in accordance with that goal.  Conflict is no longer thought to be something that has anything to do with unequal resources, systematic patterns of discrimination and disrespect, or fundamental antagonisms in social life.  Rather, it is something that is the result of a misalignment between mental frameworks and how we communicate.  The result is that conflict is effectively internalised; it becomes about one's interior world rather than the world between us.  Conflict is thought of as something that is a deviation from a world of perfect inner calm and communion between our individual mental models.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. Pages 173-174)

In this paragraph we have a typical example of the linguistic structure I described.
Only the first sentence specifically mentions "NLP", and as the paragraph develops, the claims become increasingly divorced from anything in the authentic FoNLP until we reach the utterly uncredible claim that the members of some carefully undefined group believe that nirvana is only a footstep away.
In fact, not even the first sentence is accurate as regards the genuine FoNLP, so it probably shouldn't be much of a surprise to find that, once again, the authors haven't provided so much as a single reference to, or quote from, an authoritative source to support their allegations.

Six Myths and One Misses

Apart from all the inaccuracies, it is interesting to note how the second part of the chapter ducks and dives around various topics without ever tying them together to form a coherent or credible whole.  Thus in the second half of the chapter there are at least seven topics that are of some importance:

  1. The claim that NLP is a form of therapy;
  2. The claim that Anthony Robbins represents "NLP";
  3. NLP modelling;
  4. The claim that excellence can be managed;
  5. The "NLP Promise";
  6. The claim that "NLP" is based on a "solipsistic 'model' of the world"; and
  7. The claim that using "NLP" techniques has a negative influence.

Of these seven, we will see that only number 4, the claim that excellence can be "managed", comes anywhere close to what the FoNLP is actually about.  And even that isn't entirely in the clear.

The "NLP is Therapy" Myth

Spicer and Boussebaa's claim that "NLP" is a form of therapy (see page 170, for example), is nothing new in criticisms of "NLP".  I'm guessing, from various clues in the text, that the allegation appears in this particular context because the authors have adopted one, or both, of the faulty syllogisms that can be found in various critical articles going all the way back to the articles by Sharpley and Heap:

  1. Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson were all therapists
  2. Bandler and Grinder derived some of the NLP-related techniques from their models of Perls, Satir and Erickson
  3. Therefore the FoNLP is a form of therapy.


  1. Bandler and Grinder carried out certain therapeutic activities
  2. Bandler and Grinder created the FoNLP
  3. Therefore the FoNLP is a form of therapy.

    Problem: In neither case is Step 3 either logical or accurate.

    Bandler and Grinder were interested in modelling communication rather than therapy as such (see Frogs into Princes, pages 38 and 47, for example):

'… in your work as a professional communicator ...'
'The proper domain, in our opinion, of professional communicators is process.'

Bandler actually modelled both Perls and Satir inadvertently.  With the former the modelling took place whilst Bandler was editing a book on Perls, and the modelling of Satir's techniques took place whilst Bandler was running the sound and recording facilities for Satir during a month long teaching tour in Canada.  Moreover. in the latter case Bandler modelled the family therapist whilst reading books, monitoring the sound equipment and listening to music by bands such as Pink Floyd.  It is this specific non-evaluative, non-analytical form of modelling that is still the core of the entire authentic FoNLP.

The "Anthony Robbins Does NLP" Myth

Firstly, it is quite correct that Anthony Robbins studied the FoNLP for a while in the 1980s.  However John Grinder suggested that he model the "fire walking" experience that was the basis of a number of seminars that began to appear around that time.  Robbins did this, and soon moved on to running seminars of his own.  With a commendable degree of integrity, rather than trying to shimmy in behind the increasingly successful "NLP" brand name, Robbins developed his own very successful "product" which he labelled Neuro-Associative Conditioning (NAC), which he has stuck with ever since.

Although one academic based most of her entire (one paragraph) criticism of "NLP" on a magazine article about Robbins, and a "skeptics" article on Fire walking (see Four Professors Looking the Wrong Way for details), Tony Robbins does not run NLP seminars, or even "reunions".  So when Spicer and Boussebaa write:

NLP 'gurus' conduct a range of seminars designed to put theory into practice.  The most famous of these reunions [sic] is Anthony Robbins' four-day Unleash the Power Within seminar, the climax of which involves participants being encouraged to walk barefoot over hot coals.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 170)

they were presenting almost totally invalid information.  That is to say, Robbins does run such seminars, and they do last for four days - but they are not NLP-related seminars and are therefore invalid as an example of NLP-related activity.
In fact the only completely accurate piece of information in this quote is that there are such things as NLP-related training seminars.

The NLP Modelling Myth

According to Spicer and Boussebaa's description of "modelling":

People are influenced by internal 'maps' which they construct and organise according to their five senses
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 171)

Without any additional clarification this would seem to mean little more than 'people are influenced by their own ideas'.  Whilst this would seem to be unequivocally correct, it is not entirely clear, to me, what this has to do with modelling, and in any case, the authors then quickly segue into an inaccurate interpretation of the authentic NLP modelling technique.  Thus they continue:

NLP [sic] claims that the way this information is stored can be identified by paying attention to how individuals use their five senses.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 171)

Again, although the words are arranged to form a grammatically correct sentence, the meaning is not at all clear.  Do they mean that we should "pay attention" to the way people use their ears to hear, and their eyes to see, etc.?  If they mean something more than that, what technique(s) do these authors think "NLP" offers for determining "how individuals use their five senses".
Anyway, the "explanation continues:

In this sense, NLP is "the study of the structure of subjective experience" (Dilts et al., 1980).
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 171)

But the statement is so vague that it borders on the meaningless.  What exactly is meant by "in this sense"?  Are there other "senses" in which "NLP" might be something else?

By studying such a structure in exceptional people, one can essentially 'model' it and adopt it as one's own.  Thus, one can, in principle, become excellent at anything. ... footballers aiming for the glory of Zinedine Zidane simply need to model their [hero].
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 171)

This sounds straightforward enough, except that:

  1. We have no way of knowing what these authors mean by "studying such a [subjective] structure in exceptional people".  Which is an absolutely basic consideration.  Because if they think that the NLP modelling process is based on an analytical study then they are a very long way from an accurate understanding.
  2. Likewise the implication that this is some kind of "quick fix" process is well wide of the mark.
  3. The description makes no mention of another crucial element of the NLP modelling process - validation through feedback checks.

In short, someone using the NLP modelling technique must check their own performance at intervals to see if their ability to exercise the skill being modelled is equal to, or surpasses, the skill of the exemplar being modelled.
So in order to "simply model" Zinedine Zidane's footballing skills, for example, one would need to watch videos of his games (as many as are needed to cover all aspects of his abilities), without in any way trying to analyse what it was that made Zidane such a good footballer.  One would need to achieve the same level of physical fitness as Zidane when he was still playing.  And one would need to play in a number of actual games of football, ultimately against players whose skills matched those of the players Zidane faced, to check one's own level of proficiency.

Not quite the "simple" procedure that these authors seem to believe in.

The claim that excellence can be managed

The chapter now goes off on a subtle diversion, seemingly in accordance with a game plan that is by no means immediately obvious.

We saw, at the end of the section on modelling, that the NLP modelling process would not be complete until the modeller was able to match or surpass (in the example used) footballer Zinedine Zidane's performances against a team of first class players.

The message is clear: 'excellence' can be analysed, codified and reproduced.  In short, Excellence can be managed.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 171)

Allowing for the limitation outlined above, the co-creators of the FoNLP have indeed claimed that 'excellence' can be modelled, codified and utilised/taught to others.  However, the suggestion that NLP modelling involves analysing the exemplar's behaviour directly conflicts (!) with the non-analytical nature of genuine NLP modelling.
And as for "reproduc[ing]" excellence, that depends entirely on the modeller and how closely they wish to follow the authentic modelling procedure (the use of any NLP-related technique is a voluntary option, never an obligation).

In short, in the claim that "excellence can be managed", is entirely conditional.  The operative word here is "can".  Whether it will be managed in any particular case is by no means a foregone conclusion, and Bandler and Grinder haven't said that it is.

And in any case, the most important thing to notice at this point in the chapter is the fact that the authors have only tied the modelling process to "excellence" and "the structure of subjective experience".  Later on they try to conflate managing "excellence" and "the structure of subjective experience" with "managing conflict" as though the evidence for the first two served just as well as evidence for the third.
It doesn't.  Two plus two do not equal five.

The Myth of "the NLP Promise"

And now we come to the crucial flaw that discredits the entire chapter - the myth of "the NLP Promise" or "The Satir Sham".

In an earlier part of this article, headed Semantic Manoeuvres in the Dark - Part 2, I outlined my belief that a part of the introductory section of the book chapter was designed to have a 'priming' function - leading the reader to suppose that something was a verified fact when in practice no such verification had been produced.  And the part of the chapter we now come to is where I think that 'priming' was intended to take effect.

One of the promises that NLP makes to potential users is the ability to successfully manage the various conflicts that beset their everyday lives.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 171)

As usual, no evidence is offered to support the claim in the first sentence, and in the very next paragraph (page 11) the authors concede that there is very little in "NLP" that does indeed address the subject of "conflict resolution".  Instead of viable evidence we are offered another "2+2=5" manoeuvre:

In a rather grand statement, one of the three therapists whom the founders of NLP 'modelled' suggested that the technique might be part of the "the beginning of the end of people relating to each other through force, dictatorship, obedience and stereotypes... It is a question of whether the old attitudes will die and new ones be born or that civilisation dies out.  I am working on the side of keeping civilisation going with new values about human beings. I hope that now you are, too" (Satir, 1973: 303-4).  So how exactly do practitioners of NLP hope that these grand promises of a world without conflict can be delivered?
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 171)

In a nutshell (a) yes, Bandler and later Bandler and Grinder, modelled Satir, (b) yes, Satir wrote the comments quoted here, but (c) there is no connection to the fantasy that "practitioners of NLP hope [to deliver] a world without conflict".

Although it is never stated outright, I think it is reasonable to suppose that many readers who are not familiar with the authentic FoNLP would interpret the reference to "the technique" (in the first sentence) as meaning "NLP".  But they'd be entirely wrong.  So wrong, in fact, that the whole paragraph deserves to be described as a sham.

  • Whatever Satir may have written in 1972, it does not constitute a promise made by "NLP" [sic] or by the co-creators of the FoNLP.  There is in fact no genuine link between the first sentence "One of the promises ..." and the rest of the paragraph
  • In practice Satir's comments didn't mention a "technique" of any description.  On the contrary, she was referring (Satir, 1972.  Page 303) to a number of "significant new attitudes toward specific family matters", including:
    • Divorce;
    • Contraception;
    • Abortions;
    • Family planning;
    • Retirement;
    • Second careers (remember this was written almost 40 years ago);
    • Changes in education, etc.
  • NLP is not "a technique".  As work began on codifying the core modelling process, Richard Bandler quickly began to generate techniques derived from the modelling that had already been carried out.  Hence Bandler's description of NLP as: "an attitude and a methodology that leaves behind a trial of techniques."
  • We know for a fact that Satir was not referring to "NLP" for the uncontestable reason that the book was published in 1972 - approximately two years before work began on codifying the modelling technique which is NLP, let alone the NLP-related "trail of techniques".
  • By what conceivable sleight of mind can we justify the authors' interpretation of "the beginning of the end of people relating to each other through force, dictatorship, obedience and stereotypes" as meaning "a world without conflict"?  Under which of those headings would we list "unpleasant arguments" or "children squabbling over a toy" (Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 164), for example?
  • Neither Virginia Satir nor Bandler or Grinder were much interested in "managing" conflict (an approach also known as "locking the stable door after the horse has bolted").  Satir's attitude, which is reflected in the general focus of relevant NLP-related techniques, was to provide people with the communication tools that would help them to avoid getting into conflict wherever possible rather than waiting for it to happen and then trying to put things right (see, for example, The Satir Approach to Communication (listed in references), especially pages 52 and 61);

There seems to have been an effort to fan some life into the embers of the allegation using the observation that:

Some of the early work on NLP directly broached the issue of 'conflict resolution'.  In Reframing, Blander and colleagues (1982) contend that conflict is not the result of divergent interests, long histories of hostility or structural antagonisms.  Rather, it is the result of a lack of 'rapport' between participants as well as the lack of a common 'outcome frame'.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 171)

Unfortunately this seems to be based on a lack of accurate knowledge about the use of frames and reframes and in consequence (if I've understood the comment correctly) the concepts are presented without much idea of their potential value.  Thus, on the next page, one NLP-related concept is dismissed as a "unitarist assumption" with "a curious idealist twist":

If only [the parties to a dispute] were able to switch their 'blame frame' into an agreed upon 'outcome frame', then it would be possible to overcome conflict.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. Page 172)

The problem seems to be that the authors think that Bandler and Grinder are talking nonsense if they make such claims.  So let's humour them for a moment, and bring in another opinion - that of renowned linguist Professor Steven Pinker, who as far as I know has no connection with the NLP community.  In a recent magazine article Pinker was quoted in as saying:

If the simplest action, like putting some water into a glass, can be mentally framed in these two ways [either acting on the water (pouring it) or on the glass (filling it)], with different consequences in terms of how we use words, that suggests that one of the key talents of the mind is framing a given situation in multiple ways, and that a lot of insight into human thought, debate, and disagreement can come from thinking about the ways in which two different people - or one person at different times - can frame the same event.
(Marion Long, 2010. Page 49.  Italics added for emphasis)

In fact, this chapter seems to reflect a rather Eeyore-like victimology, finding any possible reason to avoid resolving conflicts by dragging everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into the discussion.  Thus we find the accusation that "NLP" ignores the possibility that "conflict" might arise from:

  • "divergent interests" (page 171);
  • "long histories of hostility or structural antagonisms" (page 171);
  • "the ongoing and deeply embedded historical distribution of value and rewards in society" (page 174);
  • "The distribution of status attributed to women in societies ... thought to be the result of particular modes of thinking" (page 174);
  • "... how institutions that distribute status such as schools, universities and professional bodies often operate with a degree of masculine bias" (page 174);
  • "a fundamental mis-match between mental models of the governed and the governing" (page 174);
  • "collective conflict ... often conditioned by cultures of collective conflict that go back hundreds of years" (page 174);
  • "collective patterns of contestation [that] are shaped by the opportunities which the state and other social structures give to groups to engage in conflict" (page 174);

Once again, however, the entire argument seems to be based on imagination rather than on fact.  Thus the only reference to any authentic FoNLP material demonstrates that the technique in question was not designed to address any of the factors mentioned here.  Several other sources are cited: Tilly (1977). Lasch (1984), Zizek (2002) - but none of them refer to the FoNLP.
Indeed, it is unclear how any of the items on this list would necessarily apply to situations such as the "unpleasant arguments" or "children squabbling over a toy" (Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. page 164) referred to earlier.

On the contrary, this entire thread looks like nothing more than a straw man, set up (presumably) for the sake of argument, and totally invalidated by the simple statement: Nowhere in the authentic FoNLP material do the co-creators of NLP claim to address conflict situations other than at an individual level (i.e. a therapist dealing with a client, a manager dealing with an employee, a teacher dealing with a student, etc.).

One might argue, of course, that a manager dealing with an employee might be the tip of an ice berg, with the underwater portion including a history of trades unionism, poor labour relations, and so on.  And that would be a reasonable claim, if it weren't for the fact that the co-creators of the FoNLP weren't interested in imposing solutions.  They were interested in helping people to find their own solutions rather than in assigning blame.  So if one or both parties in a conflict are constantly harking back to previous problems - for any reason - rather than addressing the situation as it exists "in the now" then the simple fact is that no NLP-related techniques have been designed to deal with such a situation.

In short, the FoNLP doesn't "ignore" the factors the authors list - it has never engaged with that topic, except at a very minor level, in the first place.  Which is why this entire chapter is nothing more than a damp squib.

"NLP" is based on a "solipsistic 'model' of the world

According to these authors:

if NLP does indeed hope to manage conflict out of existence, then it cannot simply do it by focusing on internal mental structures.  This is because many of the dynamics of conflict and struggle are not located within our head.  Rather they involve ongoing and collective social processes that are far greater, far more concrete and perhaps far more intriguing than our own mind.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. Page 174)

But why did the authors ever imagine that the FoNLP was only concerned with internal factors?  Once again we are facing the authors' misinterpretation of what they read, or plain ignorance of genuine NLP-related ideas, or both.  Earlier in the chapter (page 172) the authors quote from an online article a list of eight items, five of which are NLP-related presuppositions, and three of which are brief tips of a similar nature.  All of the items make perfectly good sense, yet these authors manage to find fault by claiming that they constitute "fairly unitarist assumptions about the nature of conflict.

Right away the argument sinks without trace since the genuine FoNLP is pragmatically based rather than theoretically based, and does not include any "assumptions about the nature of conflict" at all.

Likewise the chapter slips straight into fantasy land, yet again, with claim that:

For instance, the core assumption appears to be that what is key is individuals solipsistic 'models' of the world they have constructed neurologically.  This suggests that the world is not something that exists outside of us, or between us, or even in our interaction.  Rather, the world is simply our unique mental precepts of it.  Conflict can be simply put down to a lack of understanding, acceptance, and engagement with the unique worlds individuals solopsistically dwell within.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. Page 172)

But is this really a "core assumption"?
No, it isn't.
And even if it was, would it necessarily suggest what the authors claim it suggests?
No, it wouldn't:

  1. The idea that everyone creates their own internal model (or map) of the world is indeed a genuine NLP-related presupposition;
  2. And so is the proposition that everyone responds to their own model of the world rather than to 'reality';
  3. And so also (though Spicer and Bousseba for some reason avoid this information), is the fact that one of the presuppositions of the FoNLP goes as follows:
    A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct,it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for it's usefulness
    (A. Korzybski, 1994. page 58.  Italics as in the original)
  4. So whilst the "maps" are inside people's heads, the "territories" that they relate to are entirely external.  This can only be true if both our internal model of the world and the external/real world are genuine entities which can be meaningfully compared with each other.
  5. And the claim that there is a "core assumption" in the FoNLP that "the world is simply our unique mental precepts of it" is clearly nothing but another fantasy.

It is difficult to know how the authors reached their false conclusion since they don't even tell us what kind of solipsism they are talking about.
If it's a metaphysical form then they are arguing that "NLP" is based on the idea that the world outside of the individual is unknowable, which would be a strange argument given that genuine NLP-techniques are mainly about facilitating communication between people.  If we knew nothing about the world outside ourselves, the whole notion of communication with others would surely be redundant?

If it is epistemological solipsism, and the FoNLP is indeed concerned with epistemology, then there is still the question of how "hard line" a version we're talking about.
The extreme version claims that we can never be sure of anything except the thoughts in our own heads.  In practice, the FoNLP takes the line that we can receive a great deal of information from the world around us, but whilst the incoming data may be received accurately, the moment we start processing it (thinking about it) we start to impose all sorts of filtering, interpretations, etc. which will tend to reduce the accuracy of that information.

So yes, the FoNLP does indeed include a modicum of epistemologically solipsistic thinking, but the claim that:

This suggests that the world is not something that exists outside of us, or between us, or even in our interaction.  Rather, the world is simply our unique mental precepts of it.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. Page 172)

To whom are these conclusions suggested?  Where is the evidence that anyone other than these authors has reached these conclusions based on genuine NLP-related concepts?
In practice, the claims seem to be completely unjustified

How, for example, does having internal mental models exclude the existence of any external reality?

This looks like another leap into fantasy.
The keystone of the argument is the phrase "the world is simply our unique mental precepts of it" (italics added).  But this is not a genuine NLP-related claim.
It is self-evident that we each receive a huge amount of information through out senses every minute of the day.  It is also self-evident that human beings do not possess the ability to handle the whole of this flood of information at a conscious level.  Therefore it also follows that we must exclude a large percentage of that information from our conscious attention.

But does everyone have exactly the same experiences, in exactly the same sequence, as everyone else?  Of course not.  There is, in practice, bound to be some variation between the basic information received by any two people.  And immediately we have a rational basis for expecting that your maps and my maps will be different.  Even if we are identical twins experiencing the same event.

Add to this the fact that our "mental maps" are cumulative.  That is to say, your existing maps will have some degree of influence on the contents of each new map.  And again, since no two people have exactly the same set of experiences, the influences on subsequent maps will vary and produce variety.

So when NLPers refer to the presupposition that we all create our own maps of the world, and the fact that changing our maps can change our experience of the world, they are talking entirely about managing our "subjective" version of the world.  It is certainly not true that:

"NLP [sic] maintains that ... by changing [the structure of our subjective experience], one can literally change one's world. ... The world is only a mental representation that may be altered and changed through skilled manipulation."
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009. Page 173. Italics added for emphasis)

Again there is this confusion between the way in which we relate to the world around us and the world itself.  And, indeed, over the word "structure".

A commonly used question in the NLP community is: "How do you do that?" ; That is to say, what process (series of mental activities) are you using to get a certain result?
(From an authentic NLP-related perspective, all physical behaviour, be it active or reactive, is a response to messages received and processed by the nervous system.  In this sense "mental" activity extends throughout both head and body, or as one of the NLP-related presuppositions has it: 'Mind and body form a single system'.

When we talk about changing structures (the how) we're talking about changing the processes we use which produce certain results.  This in turn alters the way we interact with and view the world around us (the what).  Such changes may be remedial (resolving existing problems) or generative (leading to enhanced performance of some kind.
What this quite obviously does not mean is that the FoNLP embraces a belief that, "The world is only a mental representation" (italics added for emphasis).  Nor does it support the fantasy that using NLP-related techniques will "literally change one's world" (italics added for emphasis), though for some people, in some situations, this might (subjectively) seem to be the case.  Further claims which depend on the idea that "NLP" offers to literally 'change the world' are therefore equally invalid, though use of the techniques might very well facilitate changes within the world.

On a very practical note, the claims in this chapter seem to be in contention with the genuine neurology of subjective experience.  In fact, from the substantial literature on research into memory, we know (as far as one can know such things) that we tend to edit every memory that we recall, as part of the recall process.  Moreover the brain itself apparently then edits related information to make it consistent with the primary amendment.

Thus, whatever these author's personal feelings about the matter, it seems that we are all going around re-forming bits of our subjective experience on a daily basis.

The "Turn Inwards" Myth

Having asserted that "NLP" is only concerned with a person's internal models (page 14), albeit without any viable supporting evidence to back that claim, the article then uses this fantasy as the basis for the further allegation that:

The core assumption is that the greatest hope we have is to try to alter and change oneself.  Changing the world is thought to be a hopeless task.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009.  Page 174)

Which is a complete misconception.  From an NLP-related viewpoint, making a change in oneself is a "systems oriented" approach to changing the world.  In very simple terms, almost everyone is part of one or more "systems" - in their family, their work place and so on.  Primarily through the influence of Gregory Bateson (a renowned cyberneticist), Bandler and Grinder adopted a number of concepts from the field of cybernetics, including the idea that when one part of a system changes, the rest of the system will automatically realign itself to assimilate that change.

Not surprisingly, then, no evidence is provided to support the claim that "Changing the world is thought to be a hopeless task", is a genuine feature of NLP-related thinking.
(Note:   If this "change yourself, change the world" notion seems a little wooly-minded and idealistic, it may be worth remembering that Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is generally credited with being the originator of the very similar epigram: "Be the change you want to see in the world".  And far from retreating from the world, Gandhi brought about massive change by following a course of action based on non-violence.)

An important feature of this misconception is the authors' use of unrelated "facts".  For example they write:

The turn inwards leads to an internalisation of tensions between what Higgins (1987, 1989) calls discrepancies between different "self-domains."  Borrowing Higgins' terminology, one is torn apart by one's "actual self" - one's representation of what one really is here and now; one's "ideal self" - one's representation of what one wishes to become - and one's "ought self" - one's representation of what one thinks significant others expect of oneself.
(Spicer and Boussebaa, 2009.  Page 176)

"Higgens" is Edward Tory Higgens, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University and Professor of Management at the Columbia Business School, in the USA.  His "big idea" was the Self-Discrepancy Theory, which is what these authors are referring to.  What these authors do not tell us - partly, perhaps, because of their mistaken belief that "NLP" is a form of therapy; and partly, one might guess, because it would have instantly put the kibosh on their allegation if they had - is that Higgins' theory applies to psychological problems faced by college students compromising their career choice, understanding clinically depressed students, eating disorders, mental health and depression in chronologically ill women, etc.. (Wikipedia article on Self-Discrepancy Theory.

Once again the authors provide no evidence that the cited work has any relevance to the authentic FoNLP.  Indeed, the very concept of an "ought self" looks like what is known in the FoNLP as a "modal operator of necessity" (e.g. ought/ought not, should/should not, must/must not, etc.).  The NLP-related techniques include various questions that can be used to break out of this kind of self-limiting thinking.

So how did these authors ever arrive at their belief that the authentic FoNLP encouraged a turn inwards if they have indeed read the relevant NLP-related literature.  Take the following genuine quote from the co-creators of the FoNLP:

Most of the people I meet are handicapped in terms of their sensory ability.  There is a tremendous amount of experience that goes right by them because they are operating out of something which to me is much more intense than just "preconceived notions."  They are operating out of their own internal world, and trying to find out what matches it.
  That's a good formula for being disappointed by the way.  One of the best ways to have lots of disappointment in your life is to construct an image of how you would like things to be, and then try to make everything that way.  You will feel disappointed as long as the world doesn't match your picture.  That is one of the best ways I know of to keep yourself in a constant state of disappointment, because you are never going to get the world to match your picture.
(Bandler and Grinder, 1978/19799.  Page 46)

Once again, as in so many of these critical academic "evaluations" of "NLP" we find that the authors have failed to do the basic research needed to gain even a basic understanding of what the genuine FoNLP is all about.

I suggest the one passage just quoted is enough to undermine all of Spicer and Bouseebaa's allegations, as well as providing a very appropriate conclusion to this review of their chapter.

'Nuff said.


Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. (1978/1979), Frogs into Princes.  Real People Press, Moab, Utah.
(Frogs into Princes, though published in 1979, was an edited transcript of a seminar held in March, 1978.  My thanks to Steve Andreas for this information.)

Bolstad, R. and Hamblett, M. Transforming Conflict (1997).  A copy is available on the NLP Institute of California website: Retrieved January 12, 2010.

Kihlstrom, J.F. (1987).  The Cognitive UnconsciousScience, December 18, pages 1445-1452.

Long, M. (2010).  Word WhackerThe Brain, Spring, 2010.  Pages 46-51.

Robbins, A. (1992).  Awaken the Giant Within.

Spicer, A. and Boussebaa, M. (2009), Managing Conflict: The Curious Case of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, in P. Hancock and M. Tyler (eds), Managing Everyday Life. London: Palgrave.

Schwab, J., Baldwin, M., Gerber, J., Gomori, M and Satir, V. (1989).  The Satir Approach to Communication.  Science and Behavior Books, Palo Alto, California.

Wikipedia article on Self-Discrepancy Theory.
Accessed at:, Early May, 2010.


Andy Bradbury can be contacted at: