An outsider’s perspective on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)

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I was recently at a dinner with a number of people who have attended NLP training events, some of whom I know well, and have heard about NLP from them already (I myself have not attended a NLP event). Also at the dinner were others who did not know about NLP. The discussion that followed (principally ‘what is NLP?’) led me to think about this blog post.

Here I set out some thoughts on my own perspectives of what NLP is (briefly, since the facts are fairly clear in this respect, and well documented elsewhere), as well as what NLP means for society in general, for the people who practice it, and for those who don’t follow it.

What is NLP?

According to wikipedia (link here), NLP is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as:

a model of interpersonal communication chiefly concerned with the relationship between successful patterns of behaviour and the subjective experiences (esp. patterns of thought) underlying them

a system of alternative therapy based on this which seeks to educate people in self-awareness and effective communication, and to change their patterns of mental and emotional behavior

Examples include building and maintaining rapport such as matching and pacing non-verbal behavior and matching speech and body rhythms of others, anchoring responses on certain gestures/actions, and changing perceptions of existing concepts to elicit certain responses.

NLP was developed in the 1970’s as a form of psychological therapy, but has since been developed into training available to the general public. This has turned NLP into a lucrative industry.  It is often shared via conferences, seminars, workshops, books, etc.

According to Wikipedia there is great variation in the depth and breadth of training and standards of practitioners (since there is no unified governing body/standards agency applying a centralized control over NLP education/practice), and some disagreement exists between those in the field about which patterns are, or are not, “NLP”.  There are also criticisms of NLP for lacking scientific methods and empirical research evidence (in particular in the case of some of NLP’s more fantastic claims).

Why do NLP?

NLP practicioners will tell you that it helps you be more successful in all aspects of your life, in particular where you deal with other people.

My take – much of what NLP is about is common sense, but focusing discussion and reflection on these topics can help awareness, understanding, and internalization of the topics, and if that happens, then NLP can be very worthwhile.  In today’s world success is often determined by your interactions with other people, and NLP seems to help develop skills which can help you become more successful in that.

There are however some important factors also needing consideration:

  1. Opportunity cost of time/financial investment.  NLP requires a time investment (learning and practicing NLP principles, etc.), and there is an opportunity cost to such time investment (could you be spending your time on something better?).  While NLP benefits can potentially begin from the first ‘session’, the concepts are detailed and numerous, and so NLP practitioners investment (time and financially) is often not insignificant.
  2. Learning doesn’t necessarily mean doing.  While the first step in NLP is awareness, it is important such concepts are internalized, and ‘lived’ – therefore, it is not sufficient to know about NLP concepts, but rather you need to be able to apply them in real-time negotiations/situations (when potentially you are thinking about numerous other facets of your negotiation/situation).
  3. Being NLP trained isn’t enough on its own. Don’t lose sight of thinking for yourself – creativity, independent thinking, etc. are all still very important, and it is not sufficient to just let NLP training drive your thinking.  Also, challenge what you here (even in the NLP training) – don’t accept it at face value.

Many NLP practitioners will tell you that this is obvious/aware to them.  If that is true, then I guess all’s well.  I suspect there is a certain correlation of those who can use NLP to make themselves more successful (hint, not everyone), in that they already possess a certain emotional intelligence level.

What sort of people do NLP, and what does it do to them?!

People who do NLP are likely:

  • people who are interested in psychological interactions, emotional intelligence, personal development, coaching, counseling, self-help, etc.,
  • people who are motivated to achieve more success in their jobs (NLP benefits are not just work driven, but it seems that work is the primary purpose for most – the other major argument that I continue to hear is that NLP can help overcome phobias), or
  • people who want to continue to learn.

There seems to be a characteristic consistent among NLP practitioners – as with many investments involving personal involvement (eg, schools, universities, employers, MBAs, social clubs, etc.) participants tend to heavily promote the activity once they are enrolled.  This could be driven by:

  • their own enthusiasm to tell others about their new past-time, what they learned, and if you are lucky, how they applied it (as others might be keen to tell you about skiing, their children, their work, their blog, etc., NLP practitioners will tell you all about their interests)
  • a strong belief that it is effective and worth sharing
  • NLP training is sometimes presented in a way that it is a ‘new light’/epiphany (“Wow, have you ever thought of XYZ in that particular way – just think how much you could benefit from knowing and applying that in future!!”).  This can be compounded by some NLP courses involving ‘stunts’ (described this way since they are high profile, not in judgement of whether they actually work or not) such as hypnotism, healing and firewalking (walking barefoot over a bed of hot embers or stones)
  • an underlying desire for validation (of their own involvement), possibly driven by the given the investment made (in time and money) in NLP training
  • their ego, in that participants feel that they have an advantage on non-participants (rightly or wrongly)
  • an assumption that what works for one should work for others (which would not be correct in my view, since each person needs to accept that others may have different skills and needs)

Some of these arguments suggest a criticism of NLP or how it is portrayed – I am not trying to put down NLP or its follows, but I do think that a healthy level of challenge and questioning needs to be applied to everything. For sure, not all of these arguments will apply to all people.

From what I’ve heard so far, I think a lot of what NLP is about makes a lot of sense, however given the required emotional and time commitment to apply it successfully, it is not something that I currently see that I have sufficient time for, thereby prioritizing it below other things in my life. On that basis, I’m happy to learn tidbits from those who are keen to share their own experiences of NLP.

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7 Responses

  1. “My take – much of what NLP is about is common sense, but focusing discussion and reflection on these topics can help awareness, understanding, and internalization of the topics, and if that happens, then NLP can be very worthwhile.”

    Thank you for a balanced review Matt 🙂

    It seems to me that usually people either make wild claims that NLP can cure anything in less than 10 minutes or that it’s some kind of mind control scam!

  2. Unfortunately some of the definitions expressed by NLP practitioners are incorrect. NLP is not and has never been a therapy. NLP is a field with the purpose of building models of expertise and expert behaviour. It’s roots are in the cognitive sciences. Due to the NLP modelling process there are now NLP models that can be applied to therapy, coaching, presenting, selling, negotiating, management consulting, teaching, sports performance, financial trading… The earliest models came from modelling therapists and subsequently that application became a mainstay of most NLP practitioner trainings. Very few trainers of NLP ca actually model which is sad indictment of the commercialization some applications of NLP by some trainers.

  3. Hi Matt,

    I am involved with the Neuro Linguistic Programming movement for the lack of a better word. Your article is right on because of the fact everyone should question what ever they are involved in or with could be NLP, the Bible, a Jim Jones cult. True strength lies within the ability to think for ones self and make decisions based on ones thoughts. The clarity of thought is only sharpened by questioning.

    Being aware of the negativity in your life and being able to overcome that is a huge step in the right direction to a healthy existence. Although I have seen zombie type traits with some of the people involved with some NLP programs I question the intent of the teacher.

    Thanks for making your thoughts available to the world.
    Brad West ~ onomoney

  4. This is a hard question for me. I recently left a ‘mentoring’ relationship that was anything but. I was totally unfamiliar with NLP, and only after I fled the situation, was I told what was being used….NLP ….as a ‘control’ mechanism.

    Going over email correspondence, etc, I could see how this was possible..but then again, the fault is in the ‘user’ of this powerful issue (NLP) and not that NLP is at fault as basis.

    I don’t know about modeling issues…or origin, but I do know that groups like Landmark Forum use NLP to some extent. I think it is something that has to be critically seen…and it’s application should be for empowerment and not control (from the podium).

    We can get so much like sheep…and good techniques can be thwarted for bad and opportunistic purposes.

    For me, my experience still scares and rankles…but I am trying to look at NLP not how it was used to control and dominate me, but as a tool or technique for inner clarity and outer creativity.

    Lady Nyo (blog: http://ladynyo.wordpress.com)

  5. Could you recommend any specific resources, books, or other blogs on this topic?

  6. Hi,

    I’ve been attending an NLP training seminar for the past few days and I can say that it’s one of the most practical courses I’ve ever done. The skills I’m learning are valuable well beyond the price I’ve paid. Next to the study of Objectivism (philosophy) I’d consider it the most important field of knowledge I’ve ever researched.

    My 2 cents 🙂

  7. […] may also be interested in my post ‘An outsider’s perspective on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)‘, written in September 2009, which is structured in a similar approach to this post. […]

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