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NLP: It’s not the end!

May 17, 2012

Recently there has been some chitter announcing an ‘end of days’ for NLP.  It’s been frightfully over-dramatic!  For decades the worlds of business and psychology have been dominated by NLP.  Expanding on its psychoanalytical roots, it has underpinned the rise of hypnotherapy and mentalist entertainment.  When the businesses started to play with NLP they discovered that it helped in developing communication skills, boosted sales, increased the effectiveness of training and built better leaders.  How can we turn our backs on such a powerful tool?

Appreciating why it’s not the end for the models and techniques that pervade in management and training circles requires a good understanding of the history of NLP.  Whilst NLP workshops include an obligatory tip-o’-the-hat history, rarely do they provide much detail.  To be fair, you are not paying £2000 for a history lesson!



Neuro-Linguistic Programming was developed in the early 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder.  These two men met at the University of California in Santa Cruz where Grinder was an associate professor of linguistics and Bandler was but a student of mathematics with a keen interest in the emerging field of computer science.  So far so irrelevant, eh?

The story begins when Richard Bandler takes a job assisting a respected, if somewhat controversial, professor of psychiatry.  (No doubt he just wants to earn some party funds.)  In this job he watches video-taped seminars and transcribes them.  Among them are those of Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir – both leaders in their fields and pioneers of Gestalt therapy and Family therapy respectively.  Soon Bandler sets up his own therapy group on campus.  Having heard that a maths student is running highly successful therapy sessions, John Grinder is understandably intrigued and visits Bandler to find out more.  He is quoted as saying, “If you teach me how you do what you do, I’ll tell you what you do.”

Together they work to refine the practices and they strip away the pieces that have little or no effect, and analyse what’s left.  In this way they identify 12 patterns of language that affect the response they get from subjects, of which 6 from Bandler’s knowledge of Perls and Satir’s seminars, the remainder from condensing Noam Chomsky’s ideas on grammar, Grinder’s area of expertise.  Armed with this ‘Meta Model’ the pair publish their first book, The Structure of Magic in 1975.


Transferable models

What is most important here is not the result – the ‘Meta Model’ attracts more than its fair share of criticism – but rather the methodology, i.e. the approach taken in breaking down complex ideas and practices into simple bite-size templates or models.  That is NLP’s great legacy.

Throughout the 37 years since this first exploit a vast assortment of models and theories have been deduced and published.  For the most part, such models tell us nothing new – but are they trying to?  As I write, the guy being interviewed on the radio is explaining how he has mathematically analysed the structure of the world’s subway systems.  Can that really tell me anything I cannot find by studying a map?  So what’s the use?  If I want to design a subway system I could study all of these maps, make some loose judgements and compare these to my city’s key transport hubs.  On the other hand, if I have some mathematical model, which I can tailor to my needs, that makes my job easier.

The drawback, of course, is that previous designers did not have a mathematical model.  Although they all deserve credit for their design successes, I now possess a model that contains all of their mistakes.  Despite the power of crowds, this is not ideal.  To be frank though, we need to get real and understand that we do not live in an ideal world – look what happened when they tried communism!

What I am really talking my way around here is that the ‘Meta Model’ contains all of the flaws of the theories from which it was extrapolated.  Most of the criticism has been directed at the elements that draw on Chomsky’s ‘transformational grammar’.  His ideas are heavily influenced by Derek Bickerton’s work on the evolution of pidgins and creoles.  (More)

Speakers of long-established languages such as English, or any of the most spoken tongues of the world, have inherent preconceptions caused by their language filter that are inevitable and contextual.  Such provincial prejudices place limits on how effectively techniques can be distributed.

Every one of the models we have inherits the weaknesses and confines of the original technique, theory, practice or process from which they are drawn.  This might undermine the effect you wish to attain, but through testing and tweaking you can improve any of these models, tailoring them to your own scenarios.  That’s their beauty – transference.


Repeat until repeat until repeat until bored

Now, we all know the ‘Meta Model’, don’t we?  Not sure, eh?  Well, let me ask you a question:

How does that make you feel?

Yep, that’s right; the ‘Meta Model’ is mostly responsible for that tactful way that therapists dig out your unresolved issues from the past – your ‘Stripper Daddy issues’ in layman’s terms.  The basic concept is to use cunningly crafted questions as conversational lubricant.  The result is that the patient/subject actually works through their own experiences, feelings, memories and reflections to reach their own conclusions.  NLP doesn’t solve the problems; it just helps the therapist to draw them out into plain view.  Then it’s up to you to solve them.

This helps to illustrate the other problems that NLP-extracted models face in the long-term: perpetual change and poor application.  Therapists have got about 30 years of value from using this technique, mostly because it’s unobtrusive.  Within the last 10-15 years though, the technique has featured in popular media, both satirically and in good faith, to the point of saturation.  This cliché status undermines the effort.  Where did the cliché come from?  Obviously the media made it up… or perhaps the media simply reflects the wide ranging viewpoints that exist in reality.  There are many psychology myths, but this is not one.

What this tells us is that where techniques derived from any model are applied too liberally, or indeed too rigorously, the result is a change in the subjects’ attitude and hence their responses.  Similarly, using scripting in sales or customer service may improve customer responses in the short term, but within weeks the reversal comes.  Who among us can bear to listen to another Direct Debit Guarantee statement?


Rise of EI

The response to these problems has been to generally denounce NLP, preferring Emotional Intelligence.  EI has been promoted as a new perspective but can be traced back to the work of Charles Darwin.  I would like to hear that someone has developed a method of teaching EI, but each time something looks promising it turns out to be a rehash of rapport-building models quarried out by Bandler’s first wife using our good friend Neuro-Linguistic Programming.


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