Can NLP be what it has become?

There are more than 500 books about NLP on Amazon. Most of them have been written by people the original developers don’t know and don’t agree with. This article is to ask the question: can NLP be what it has become?

Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is an unwieldy name for an innovative field. It is – or was – about the structure of human experience. How do we construct our experience? And, by extension, how can we influence how other people construct their experience?

The field originally grew out of a small study group at the University of California in the 1970s. The key players were a mathematician, Richard Bandler, and a linguistics professor, Dr John Grinder. They began to notice patterns and calculate “models” of how various people thought, behaved and communicated. They modelled the legendary hypnotherapist and father of Ericksonian Hypnosis, Milton H Erickson; the pioneering family therapist, Virginia Satir; and the founder of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls. Non-therapists included some successful sales people and negotiators, as well as people around town who’d made significant changes in their own life. The Phobia Project, for example, involved Richard Bandler modelling a whole series of volunteers who used to have a phobia and no longer had it. He says he was interested in what they’d done to “lose” their phobia, and he found they’d all done more-or-less the same thing. Once he had a model of how they’d done it, he taught that to others and demonstrated that anyone could do the same thing and get the same results.

The key point here is that Richard turned his model into a technique. He called it the Fast Phobia Cure and taught it as part of his NLP training programs. He said: “NLP is an attitude and methodology that leaves behind a trail of techniques”. But quite early on there was already some confusion between a) NLP – studying the structure of experience, using the attitude and methodology of modelling, and b) Applications of NLP – using the “trail of techniques” to influence yourself and other people.

Nowadays there are techniques for almost everything. An average NLP practitioner course will teach you techniques for becoming more confident, motivated and determined; for changing beliefs, stopping pain, ending addictions, inducing hypnotic phenomena… and the list goes on and on. Some trainers say you can change your eye colour using their techniques. One guy I met even said he could induce hypnotic penis enlargements!

Paul McKenna famously modelled how naturally thin people think about food, and he turned that into a best-selling book, I Can Make You Thin. Then he modelled how extremely rich people think about money – including Richard Branson, Peter Jones, Sir Philip Green and Stelios Haji-Ioannou – and he turned that into another best-selling book, I Can Make You Rich. It’s a similar process: work out how people do something that others want to do, then use what you work out to create a simple technique/formula/set of rules that other people can use to get the same results. These techniques are obviously popular and commercially valuable. Paul McKenna and others have helped millions of people by sharing the techniques in easily-accessible formats.

It’s become really confusing though. As a brand, NLP is in chaos. Ask 100 certified practitioners what the field is about and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Even the original developers of the field now disagree. Like most groups of young people, they fell in and out of love. Some of them got married to each other, and then divorced. 35 years on, most of them aren’t speaking. There have been several big fights and court cases. Now they’re going in different directions, each anointing layers of trainers, master trainers and apprentices to support them. And, inevitably, many of those people are going in their own direction now too. Christina Hall, for instance, Richard’s first apprentice, now has her own version of the Society of NLP and her trainer’s training is completely different to Richard’s. You could go to ten different trainings and learn ten different and contradictory things – all claiming to be NLP.

I think Bandler and Grinder’s pioneering work led to a paradigm shift that – like the development of positive psychology (studying people who are doing well rather than people who are unhappy or “mentally ill”) – has had a tremendous impact on the success of millions of people. I find their work very useful and I have learnt a lot from both of them, directly and indirectly. I love them both, they have my respect and I think they’re very talented, clever and original people.

But how have they been as leaders of their field?

“Follow me, I’m right behind you.”

I think they’re killing their legacy. They’ve certified lots of people for lots of money but most of them have had no more than a few days training, learning things like the Fast Phobia Cure in a class of 500+ other students. Often they’ve had no chance to practice with supervision or ask their teacher any questions.

Those are the people who are now selling books on Amazon and using YouTube to promote their version of NLP. They’re the people who are presenting themselves as the best in the field. They’re the ambassadors.

Is it any wonder there’s so much scepticism?

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