Neuro Linguistic Programming: A Definition


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NLP was developed in the mid-70s by John Grinder, a Professor at UC Santa Cruz and Richard Bandler, a graduate student. NLP, as most people use the term today, is a set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience. It's more a collection of tools than any overarching theory.

Much of early NLP was based on the work of Virginia Satir, a family therapist; Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy; Gregory Bateson, anthropologist; and Milton Erickson, hypnotist.



What Does the Name Mean?

by Stever Robbins:

The name Neuro-Linguistic Programming comes from the disciplines which influenced the early development of the field. It began as an exploration of the relationship between neurology, linguistics, and observable patterns ("programs") of behavior.

What is NLP?

NLP was developed in the mid-70s by John Grinder, a Professor at UC Santa Cruz and Richard Bandler, a graduate student. NLP, as most people use the term today, is a set of models of how communication impacts and is impacted by subjective experience. It's more a collection of tools than any overarching theory. NLP is heavily pragmatic: if a tool works, it's included in the model, even if there's no theory to back it up. None of the current NLP developers have done research to "prove" their models correct. The party line is "pretend it works, try it, and notice the results you get. If you don't get the result you want, try something else."

Much of early NLP was based on the work of Virginia Satir, a family therapist; Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy; Gregory Bateson, anthropologist; and Milton Erickson, hypnotist. It was Erickson's work that formed the foundation for a lot of NLP, thus the tight connection with hypnosis. Bandler and Grinder's book "Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, Volume I" is one of the best books I've ever read on how language influences mental states.

NLP consists of a number of models, and then techniques based on those models. The major models usually associated with NLP are:

Sensory acuity and physiology.
Thinking is tied closely to physiology. People's thought processes change their physiological state. Sufficiently sensitive sensory acuity will help a communicator fine-tune their communication to a person in ways over and above mere linguistics.
The "meta-model."
A set of linguistic challenges for uncovering the "deep structure" underneath someone's "surface structure" sentences. [Sorry for the transformational grammar lingo.]
Representational systems.
These actually appeared in Erickson's work and the work of others, though Bandler and Grinder took them much further. Different people seem to represent knowledge in different sensory modalities. Their language reveals their representation. Often, communication difficulties are little more than two people speaking in incompatible representation systems.

For example, the "same" sentence might be expressed differently by different people:
Auditory: "I really hear what you're saying."
Visual: "I see what you mean."
Kinesthetic: "I've got a handle on that."

The "Milton-model."
This is a set of linguistic patterns Milton Erickson used to induce trance and other states in people. It is the inverse of the meta-model; it teaches you how to be artfully vague, which is what you use to do therapeutic hypnosis with someone.
Eye accessing cues.
When people access different representational systems, their eyes move in certain ways. Lots of research has been done on accessing cues, because it seems easy to test. Most research has "proven" they don't exist. My thesis was on accessing cues and concluded the same thing. My real conclusion was that a person is too complex a black box to test this effectively. Also, eyes move in ways that are not related to information accessing. While I can visually tell the difference between an "accessing cue" and a non-accessing movement, I can't quantify the difference enough to base research on it.
The structure of internal representations determines your response to the content. For example, picture someone you really like. Make the colors more intense, as if you were turning up the color knob on a TV. Now turn the color down, until it's black and white. For most people, high color intensifies the feeling, and B&W neutralizes it. The degree of color, part of the STRUCTURE of the representation, affects the intensity of your feelings about the content.
These are aspects about how people process information and make decisions. For example, some people are motivated TOWARDS GOALS, while others are motivated AWAY FROM non-goals. TOWARDS or AWAY-FROM tells how they respond to their world; which one a person prefers in a given context will dramatically change how they behave.

NLP has several techniques for diagnosing and intervening in certain situations. They have a phobia cure, a way to detraumatize past traumas, ways to identify and integrate conflicting belief systems that keep you from doing things you want, etc.

I first read about NLP in 1978, and thought it sounded great, but couldn't possibly work. The founders made lots of claims about one-session cures, which seemed implausible. [Fourteen years later, I still think they overexaggerate at times, but I *have* seen two or three session results that rival traditional therapists' results over months.]

In 1984 I took an introductory workshop and discovered, much to my surprise, that it worked well. After messing someone up to the point where he almost needed hospitalization, I decided to be trained in it fully, so as not to repeat the mistake.

I find it works scarily well. So well that even someone with poor training in it can do a lot of damage. There was no quality control in the field, and a lot of people go around teaching NLP who know very little about it. Performing NLP techniques is a skill. Probably only one in ten NLP Practitioners are in the top 10% of NLP skill level, and maybe even fewer than that footnote .

One way an NLP therapist might approach a client session is by understanding the cognitive structure of how a client creates a problem. They then help figure out the cognitive structure of an area of life where the client deals satisfactorily. Then they would teach the client to use the good strategy in the problem situation.

For example: a friend of mine was obsessed with her ex-boyfriend. She was in such fear of him that she would fly into hysterics at the thought of him. Cognitively, she made a big, bright movie of him physically harassing her, with a soundtrack of him whining and lecturing her. The soundtrack seemed to come from around her left ear, and was in the boyfriend's voice.

She had another ex-boyfriend who she was fine about. Cognitively, his picture was small, framed, and in the distance. The soundtrack was her voice talking about how nice he had been, and how the relationship was firmly in the past.

The work I did with her involved representing the problem boyfriend with a small, framed picture. We removed the soundtrack of his voice, and added her narration, instead. The result: she stopped obsessing about her ex, and went on with her life, able to deal with him.

Some people have run into NLP trained people who annoyingly mimic body posture to distraction, in an attempt to gain "rapport." They were poorly trained. Go out in public; watch couples; watch good friends. They walk in synchronization. They move in synchronization. They naturally mirror each other movements. NLP just noticed this, and says "if you don't have rapport, here's one thing to pay attention to."

A common question is "Does knowing what's being done make it less effective?" I've found that knowing what someone is doing lets me barricade against certain things, but there are definite cases where knowledge is not sufficient to keep it from working. I was once in a group dynamics experiment where an outsider watched our group and pointed out to us how we kept getting stuck, because of certain behavioral loops we were in. Even with this knowledge, we were unable to break the loops without incredible effort. And then our efforts to break the loops fell into the same loops. Certain aspects of NLP are like this: if someone is matching your representational systems and doing it well, even if you know they're doing it, they'll still communicate better to you, as long as they're not incongruent about it.

Alas, there are few good NLP books out there. In part, that's because NLP is about communication on all levels, and is much easier to demonstrate than to write about. In part, that's because the people who have done the most creation of the models are out there creating new models and pushing the technology further. Writing books isn't high on their list of priorities. If you'd like to read about NLP, my favorites are listed in the NLP resource list.

Footnote: This is humor. By definition, only 1 in 10 are in the top 10%. Return to text.

Sid Jacobson's History of NLP

NLP was developed in the early 1970's by Richard Bandler, Ph.D., an information scientist, and John Grinder, Ph.D., a linguist. Bandler and Grinder were interested in how people influence one another, and in the possibility of being able to duplicate the behavior, and therefore effectiveness of highly influential people. Their early research was conducted at the University of California at Santa Cruz. What made their search special was their use of technology from linguistics and information science, combined with insights from behavioral psychology and general systems theory, to unlock the secrets of highly effective communication.

The actual technology, or methodology, that Bandler and Grinder used is known as human modeling; actually the building of models of how people perform or accomplish something (anything--the usefulness in benchmarking best practices should be immediately obvious). This modeling process actually means finding and describing the important elements and processes that people go through, beginning with finding and studying a human model. This is a person, who does something in a particular, usually highly skillful, way. For example, if you want to know how to teach some particular skill or concept, you'd first find someone who does it extremely well. Then ask him or her lots of questions about what they do, why they do it, what works and doesn't work, and so on.

At the same time, observing this person in action will often lead to new and better questions to ask in the process. Most of us do this already, though perhaps not systematically.

The addition of specific NLP technology makes it possible to discover much of what this human model does that he or she is not aware of. To do this well means to actually study the structure of people's thought processes and internal experience, as well as their observable behavior.

During their early studies Bandler and Grinder developed a unique system of asking questions and gathering information that was based on the fields of transformational grammar and general semantics. Later they and their colleagues discovered certain minimal cues people give that indicate very specific kinds of thought processes. These include eye movements, certain gestures, breathing patterns, voice tone changes and even very subtle cues such as pupil dilation and skin color changes (training of Practitioners of NLP includes the skills and knowledge to use these information gathering techniques and to notice and interpret the subtle cues).

NLP is this gathering of information to make models, based on the internal experience and information processing of the people being studied and modeled, including the part that is outside of their conscious awareness. The word neuro refers to an understanding of the brain and its functioning. Linguistic relates to the communication aspects (both verbal and non-verbal) of our information processing. Programming is the behavioral and thinking patterns we all go through. There is a relationship between perceptions, thinking and behavior that is neuro-linguistic in nature. The relationship is operating all the time, no matter what we are doing, and it can be studied by exploring our internal or subjective experience. The formal definition of Neuro-Linguistic Programming is: The study of the structure of subjective experience (3).

So, now to the question of our basic theory in NLP. We don't really have one. NLP is not based on theory. It is based on the process of making models. There is a big difference. A model doesn't have to be "true" or "correct" or even perfectly formed. It only has to be useful when applied to what it's designed for. If it isn't, it can be discarded in any situation where it fails. NLP is really an epistemology (the study of the origin and structure of knowledge itself). Everything in NLP is based on specific evidence procedures for effectiveness and is thoroughly tested. "Doing NLP" means working diligently to be sure we know what we know, and use it appropriately.

Adapted from: "Neuro-Linguistic Programming." INFO-LINE, American Society For Training & Development, April, 1994.

By Sid Jacobson.

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© 1993-2008, by Stever Robbins