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Neuro-linguistic programming
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Neuro-linguistic programming

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), is a field of human endeavor originally concerned with empirical study of, and modeling of, human performance and excellence, with the goal of creating transferable skill sets, and this remains the core activity of the field to this day. The field has grown in many directions since its beginnings in modeling successful psychotherapists and has found applications in most areas involving human communications, such as education and learning, persuasion, negotiation, sales, leadership, team-building, etc., as well as decision-making, creative processes, health, medicine, and athletic performance.

Table of contents
1 History
2 NLP and Psychology
3 Goals
4 Methods
5 NLP Principles
6 Therapeutic NLP
7 Modelling
8 Mechanistic Toolbox or Humanistic?
9 Criticism of NLP
10 Literature
11 Related topics
12 External links


The field was created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the early 1970s from what they called "modeling" several well-known psychotherapists, namely Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson. Bandler, then a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Grinder, then an Assistant Professor of linguistics, were strongly influenced by the mentoring of Gregory Bateson, and they drew their approach from many inspirations such as cybernetics and the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski.

NLP and Psychology

NLP clearly falls under the broadest heading of psychology, and perhaps most closely relates to cognitive psychology. But while Grinder had an undergraduate degree in psychology, NLP began quite outside the academic mainstream, and it remains largely divorced from mainstream academic psychology to this day, even though many NLP practitioners do have traditional credentials in psychology and psychiatry.


NLP as a discipline is pragmatic, meaning that it is interested in knowledge that is useful in applications. NLP seeks to discover how people do what they do, especially how experts and superior performers in a given area achieve their excellent results, finding out what is "the difference that makes the difference", and then modeling those behaviors to create transferable skill sets. As a small example, consider the task of spelling English words. (Note here we are referring to the simple task of recalling the spelling of words that one has seen in print before, not the arcane art of guessing how a word might be spelled based only on hearing it pronounced.) Some people remember spellings phonetically, and some even remember them by physically writing the words out, whether on paper or in the air. But as NLP developers discovered, the best spellers, in the sense of those with the quickest and most accurate recall, remember the spelling of words visually, i.e. they literally see the printed word in their mind's eye. And this skill can easily be taught to others. If they apply it regularly, they too can become excellent spellers.


The field of NLP has over time gathered many mini-models and associated techniques that can be applied to various situations. The models and techniques range in purpose from information gathering and building rapport, to anchoring and triggering of internal states, to trance induction and changing beliefs. There are models of internal representations (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) and their submodalities and concomitant effects on emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. (Accordingly, one early book on NLP subtitled the field as "the study of the structure of subjective experience".) As fallout of the modeling process the field has also developed specific techniques that can be applied to applications ranging from psychotherapy, e.g. curing phobias, handling criticism and flattery, handling grief, stopping unwanted habits and behaviors, etc., to sales and persuasion techniques, to learning techniques, to curing some allergies, and many others.

NLP Principles

In contrast to its numerous mini-models and techniques, NLP lacks a central theory, and this is partly by design. However there are a number of principles that have generally guided the development of NLP, most of them borrowed from other disciplines.


Perhaps the overriding principle is practicality. NLP is not so much about discovering what is true as in discovering what is useful, what works in any given situation. But beyond mere utility, NLP aims for efficiency and elegance. If one technique can effect a desired change in an hour, then the search is on for another technique that can accomplish the same change in ten minutes. Example: It's not uncommon for the turnaround on a phobia such as heights or spiders to be under 10 minutes. The work can be tested objectively afterwards for delivery of the client's desired result by asking the client to actually visit a tall building or find a spider, and report back on their experience.

Experimentation, Observation and Feedback

Utility is measured strictly by experimentation and observation. Observation skills are the first skills taught in basic NLP training. Practitioners and students of NLP are admonished not to take any model for granted, but rather are challenged to try them out in the real world and observe what happens.

A principle borrowed from cybernetics is that of a feedback loop. The NLP practitioner, when consciously engaged in some activity, especially one which involves one or more other people, is continually gathering information and using it as feedback to adjust his own behavior. One aspect of this is captured in the aphorism "The meaning of your communication is the response that you get." Also important is that some of the most important information is gathered from physiological cues and signals (gestures, posture, eye movement, breathing patterns, facial expressions, etc), the vast majority of which are given unconsciously, and that these signals must be calibrated to the individual who is providing them.

Client Centred

The client, having the resources they need (Although perhaps not yet having developed or explored them fully) is the person able to say what works and what doesnt. If they are observed carefully, they will actually show it quite clearly in their words and body language, what the problem is, how they experience it, and which ways will or will not work, or will be blocked. So the good NLP practitioner will by and large use their skills to help the client explore their 'map' (perceptions and preconceptions) of reality, encouraging them to explore "what if" and use their existing experience and approaches to the full to identify new approaches, working within the client's world rather than imposing the practitioner's own beliefs upon them. The rest of NLP is then, in effect, some known methods to help the practitioner understand, work and communicate respectfully and effectively within another person's world view.


A key element is that NLP is very much based upon structure and syntax. This impacts in two ways: Examples:
  1. The spelling example above is a case where one structure (phonetic spelling) is less effective than another (visual spelling).
  2. For many simple phobias, the key problem is in fact a very powerful "once-off" learning experience which formed a structural link of the form "See X --> Feel Y". In the absence of any underlying issue, where the sole problem is the discomfort and inconvenience of a phobia, there are tools which effectively help a client reduce/remove this dysfunctional link.

(In the latter case, good NLP practice would explore carefully for connected issues and potential side effects (ecology), equally it might act pragmatically once enough information is obtained, and trust the client to say if any further work is needed thereafter)

Clarity of thought

NLP teaches that communication is extremely precise and key aspects are often very subtle. It's important to be very clear in thinking and overall approach. For example, a goal is not just a vague wish, but a Well defined outcome that should meet very specific criteria, or else is likely to prove problematic at some future stage.

Multiple Viewpoints

A situation (internal or external) can be perceived from many viewpoints, such as "who's point of view", "past, present, future", "part of/outside of" (ie associated/dissociated), in terms of physiology or logical thought (body/mind), consciously or unconsciously, at different Logical Levels of significance.

NLP strongly encourages enhanced and multiple viewpoints, on the basis that many problems which are symptomatic of a perceived restriction or limitation, result from a lack of awareness and belief in other possible choices.

Adaptation and Innovation

While students are taught set patterns and models during NLP trainings with very specialized terminology, once they have mastered the basic techniques, students are encouraged to try to use these to innovate new ways, without being tied to mere repetition of existing techniques. The principle here, again borrowed from cybernetics, is that the more flexible and adaptable a person is and the more options they have in their behavior, the more successful they are likely to be in their endeavors. Along these lines are statements such as "If what you are doing isn't working, try something -- anything -- else."; the view that there is no failure, only feedback; and the attitude that any skill, belief or behavior of one person can in principle be modeled and learned by another, who can use it to improve their own skill.

Mind and Body

The mind and physical body and a system, that is, one influences the other. There are several important implications:

Subjectivity of Experience

Other principles, borrowed from sources such as
General Semantics, affirm the subjective nature of our experience, which never fully captures the objective world, and that this experience differs from one individual to the next, sometimes radically, and can even differ for the same individual when compared across different contexts. As a result, one needs to be aware of these differences when interacting with others, to make few assumptions about what the other person is experiencing, and to gather information as needed to verify one's understanding of the other's experience.


NLP's development has always been strongly empirical; the techniques and patterns developed in the field come from repeated observations, and all of the most common NLP techniques are continually submitted to testing during ongoing practitioner trainings around the world. Observation skills are the first and most essential ones taught to beginning students in NLP.


Built into NLP is the principle of Ecology. This is the asking of the question, "Is this really a good thing? What might the downside be?" and thus minimising in advance decisions which are not for the best all round.

NLP does not have as a goal the development of theories. NLP as a field is extremely pragmatic. Practitioners are generally interested in models only insofar as they have useful applications, and any explanatory or predictive benefit is strictly secondary.

Therapeutic NLP

While it can be argued that NLP is primarily about modeling human behavior, it remains true that the first subjects of study were experts in the field of psychotherapy. As a result, many of the models and techniques of NLP, perhaps a majority of those taught in basic trainings, have application in psychotherapy. A significant number of those who take NLP training do so because they are practitioners of psychotherapy, whether as psychologists, psychiatrists, MFCCs (i.e. Marriage, Family, and Child Counselors), social workers, pastors, or lay counselors. Given the historical importance of this area of application it is worth some discussion.

One sometimes hears reference to "NLP therapy" or an NLP approach to therapy. Strictly speaking, NLP does not dictate a specific approach to therapy, believing instead that it is always most beneficial to give the therapist as many options and flexibility as possible. As a result, most therapists find it easy to blend NLP models and techniques with whatever previous training they have to synthesize a personal style that works (better) for them.

Still, it is possible to summarize a set of psychotherapeutic principles, a default NLP approach that a practitioner may gather from NLP training, especially if they have had no previous training in other psychotherapeutic traditions.

Some of these principles are:

Beyond this sampling of general principles there are many specific techniques and patterns for specific situations and types of desired changes. See the references at the end of this page.

In terms of self-help, many of the NLP-derived techniques can be self-applied. But other techniques more or less require the assistance of another (skilled) person.


The technique of Modelling is perhaps at the core of NLP.

Mechanistic Toolbox or Humanistic?

NLP has spawned a 'toolbox' of techniques and methods, a collection of observations and patterns which seem to be useful to be aware of in human interaction. It's important to bear in mind that the tools and their use are two distinct issues. NLP by origin is pragmatic and looks for "what works". NLP as it has developed has a profound respect for the individual human being and for their life and their wellbeing.

However NLP when taught as a set of techniques directed at a specific goal, and especially when divorced from its full background, has at times been presented as mechanistic ("this is how to do that") or manipulative ("this is how to make someone do something"). In its full context, where a broad approach based upon the clients own wishes is paramount, these are not the case. Only when taught as "quick fix" or directed to a goal such as sales or seduction that these checks and balances integral to core NLP work become omitted.

Criticism of NLP


Some have criticized the manner in which NLP has been promoted. Some NLP trainers make unwarranted claims for the field in general or for the specific techniques that they teach. Of course, this is to be expected in any field, especially one which is unregulated and for which there is no central guiding professional association or guild by which members of the field can hold each other to standards of competence and ethics.

Some complain that the ethics of NLP has been compromised, because the powerful communications techniques of NLP can be (and have been) exploited for commercial applications such as sales and marketing, and activities such as seduction.

Some NLP trainers are sometimes accused of being secretive about their techniques and only making them available through expensive courses, making it hard to assess the validity of the techniques. Some complain that the techniques and skills can only be learned in what they consider to be expensive privately taught courses. It is true that acquiring most of the skills in the field does require interactive training, just as acquiring skill in martial arts requires more than book reading. The need for private courses is unlikely to change until the subject is taught more widely in more publicly accessible venues, and until the innovators decide inventing gratuituous terminology is superfluous. Colleges and universities do not currently offer any courses in NLP.

Moreover, NLP practitioners often invent special buzzwords for their new models, when the language already exists to adequately describe what they are doing. Many trainers in NLP and its offshoots have gone to the extent of giving a different name to their brand of NLP, often trademarking their brand-name. This is probably due in large part to the failed attempt of Richard Bandler in the 1980s and early 1990s to acquire legal rights to the NLP moniker through the courts. The buzzwords and brand-names reinforce the stereotype of NLP as a non-academic discipline. They also make it very difficult to keep current on all the new techniques and make it benefitial to use a glossary and pay for more classes. However, the vast majority of established NLP techniques are well documented and available in many published books and on the Internet.

Is NLP a Science?

Some critics of NLP assert that the majority of methods taught as part of NLP have not been scientifically verified and some even classify it as a pseudoscience. This probably has much to do with the aforementioned divorce between NLP's development and traditional institutions of science and psychology, although it may be in part because the claimed efficacy of some NLP techniques seems unrealistic to traditional psychologists and scientists, but NLP is not committed to a central theory or fixed set of models. It is explicitly eclectic, and practitioners in the field are constantly looking for new models, patterns, and techniques that may be more effective than or complementary to existing ones. Novel ideas are encouraged and experimented with. Those not found to be useful (or not as useful) are ruthlessly discarded. NLP has taken this rather to the extreme, at least in its early days, in that students and practitioners were typically pushed to accomplish tasks in ways other than those had already been found effective, in part to keep practitioners flexible and adaptable, which is hampered if they become reliant on a fixed theory, and partly so as not to preclude the possibility of further discoveries.

However, after thirty years of development there are certain principles, models, and techniques which have stood the test of time and can be pointed to as being, if not anything as cohesive as a theory, at least a stabilized body of knowledge within the field, and it is inevitable that some trainers will teach these (and some students accept them) almost dogmatically. But the originators and movers in the field emphasize that these models are not be construed as being true in any absolute sense, but rather as useful generalizations.

Compared to more idealized versions of the scientific method, NLP places little emphasis on prediction. (However, note that some sciences lend themselves to predictive theories more than others.) While NLP models which have repeatedly been found useful may be regarded as generalizations which will usually (but not always) be useful, practitioners do not usually refer to these generalizations and do not extrapolate them into predictions for experimentation over extended periods of time. Rather, such extrapolation typically occurs within a single session by a practitioner working with a subject. The "hypothesise - predict - test - verify" cycle is performed in minutes and repeated many times during a session, on a subjective basis.

While NLP makes heavy use of the scientific method in the small, it lacks other characteristics of Science in the large, such as the documenting of experiments and their results in widely recognized refereed journals, the teaching of the subject in courses at college and universities, and funding for research through public and private grants.

Early NLP developers and most modern NLP practitioners are more interested in results, discoveries, and practical applications than in gaining status or standing in the mainstream scientific world. Those NLP practitioners and scientists who are try to establishing scientific validity to the satisfaction of mainstream scientists sometimes cannot reach agreement on acceptable experimental protocols. Those who do conduct experiments and write up the results often find that the recognized mainstream journals have a policy to reject all papers on NLP.

Unlike Science, NLP does not have truth as a primary goal. Rather, it seeks to do things effectively and efficiently. Some have argued that NLP might be more properly classified as an engineering or technology discipline rather than a science.


Related topics

External links