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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ***
Nature of criticism:
In the remaining ten pages the authors criticize "NLP" for:
None of which, for one reason or another, are actually true.
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.
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.
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".
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.
What we have here, in practice, is an example of a semantic prime:
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).
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.
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.
To be perfectly frank, there does not appear to be one word of truth in this entire quote:
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.
In this paragraph we have a typical example of the linguistic structure I described.
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:
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:
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 ...'
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.
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.
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
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.
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".
In this sense, NLP is "the study of the structure of subjective experience" (Dilts et al., 1980).
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].
This sounds straightforward enough, except that:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
But is this really a "core assumption"?
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 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.
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.
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?
How, for example, does having internal mental models exclude the existence of any external reality?
This looks like another leap into fantasy.
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Bandler, R. and Grinder, J. (1978/1979), Frogs into Princes. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.
Bolstad, R. and Hamblett, M. Transforming Conflict (1997). A copy is available on the NLP Institute of California website: http://www.nlpca.com/DCweb/Transforming_Conflict.html. Retrieved January 12, 2010.
Kihlstrom, J.F. (1987). The Cognitive Unconscious. Science, December 18, pages 1445-1452.
Long, M. (2010). Word Whacker. The 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.
Andy Bradbury can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org