The trouble with NLP

For a while now, I’ve been stewing over what I want to say about Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). It’s been a bug bear of mine for some time, at least the last couple of years, and I’ve never really been able to clarify why. This post is in part an effort to highlight my issues with it, and to bring clarity for myself.

It was originally developed by psychologists Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the mid-1970’s. If you take the literal breakdown of the theory, it supposes that you can take an understanding of the way the brain works (neuro), how we describe and use words (linguistic) and how we go forward and act (programming).

There are four pillars to NLP that form the basis of the theory and approach.
1) Rapport – how you build a relationship with others and yourself
2) Sensory awareness – how the world is different when you use all your senses
3) Outcome thinking – how to think about what you want
4) Behavioural flexibility – how to do something different when what you’re currently doing isn’t working

And to help with various parts of the pillars, there are techniques used to help you think about how they are achieved. Concepts such as ‘reframing’, ‘anchoring’, ‘representational systems’, ‘mirroring’ are taught and trained on. Other techniques are about using ‘trance states’ and practices in hypnosis. And then there’s the other stuff like looking for eye movements and playing to ‘Visual’, ‘auditory’ and ‘kinaesthetic’ senses.

At face value, this seems fine, right? Well, kind of. Even at face value, something seems amiss to me. If you take a look at the term itself, the main criticism from researchers and critics is that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. There’s little in it’s theory or delivery which is about the neuronal side of things. You don’t learn about neural networks, or language processing and development, or any original work on actual neurological development. It seems to be that the ‘neuro’ part of the title is misleading and affords it a level of security to Joe Public, that it is steeped in some sort of scientific evidence.

Ah, there’s the other cornerstone of psychological research in general that no psychologist worth their salt would do without. Empirical evidence. The ability to take someone’s research, put it to test, and see if you achieve the same results. NLP is somewhat bereft of this. Instead there is a lot of anecdotal evidence about its success. The trouble with anecdotal evidence is that it can’t be replicated. It’s anecdotal because it’s few and far between. And it’s also anecdotal because I’ll wager other factors were in force that enabled that person to achieve their desired result.

Surely the anchoring, reframing and representational systems are sound though? Well kind of. By all means do your own research, and here’s my take. Anchoring is about creating an association with a word or action that brings someone back to a desired state. Hmm. So the classic ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ comes to mind. Are we that susceptible? It would seem we are. It’s about where our focus lies. Have you seen the classic ‘count the number of times the basketball gets passed’ perception video? Go watch it, it’s truly fascinating, and happens all the time. If you’re told to focus on something, that becomes your anchor, and you neglect all other information. Fickle beings we humans are.

Reframing also works to help you ‘talk yourself’ or convince a group about something. For example, I may choose to talk to a group about my poor navigational skills on the approach to the venue. Or I can describe my brilliant use of modern technology helping me to successfully find my way to the venue. They say the same thing, just differently. The reframing one emphasises what I think you need to hear. In turn it also emphasises what I think I want to believe.

And the representational systems piece is interesting. This one’s a bit tricky to get a grasp on. If I understand it (and I could be way off here), it’s about the way in which we process events and memories by using our senses to make sense of them. For example, I might describe an insight as > I looked within myself and saw the light. I’m using the ‘sense’ of my eyes to describe an action. We also do this when internalising a question. For example, how does my dress look? > hear question, picture meaning, picture mental image of dress, gauge your feeling of the dress, respond. Sounds complicated. This particular piece of theory seems to have given way to talking about Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic senses instead. Erm, so the theory wasn’t sound enough in the first place?

In fact, if you want more introductory information you should go look at the Business Balls site on the topic. There’s a lot there but very informative.

One of the things that I suppose is concerning for me, is the way NLP can be used to manipulate those you interact with. That is if you do the above well, consciously and with concerted effort, you can ‘make’ others do what you want. And that just doesn’t sit right with me. People should be allowed to do things of their own accord, not because they’ve been manipulated into doing something they are unaware of.

As an aside, this is why I respect Derren Brown. He openly admits to manipulating those he entertains. He doesn’t hide the fact he’s going to manipulate and deceive you. He just doesn’t disclose how he did it, well not all the time. And that’s the key. Even if you are trained in NLP, you shouldn’t be using these techniques to give you the upper hand or advantage over others.

So where does this leave me? Confused really. Which is why I am not a fan of NLP. It purports to be an effective organisational and communication tool. That’s just clever marketing. A self-awareness tool? A self development tool? Yes, to both. I have met, worked with, and been friends with NLP practitioners and master practitioners. If they’re practising their NLP skills, I’ve certainly never been able to put my finger on what they’re doing specifically. Not in the same way you can identify when someone is using a range of techniques like facilitation skills, or presentation skills.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe NLP is about daily communication, but I certainly don’t see how it’s different to what I would provide training on, the exercises I do, or the theory behind the practise.

NB – I am not trained in NLP, but use a lot of the same techniques and theories in what I believe are the original contexts and not in the context of this practice.

Sources of information:

Business Balls


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

11 thoughts on “The trouble with NLP”

  1. Sukh, you have captured my thoughts on this so eloquently and sincerely and with such balance! I have been aware of and exposed to NLP for many years in my L&D career and have good friends, colleagues and relatives who are advocates and trained to some very high levels! Like you I believe we naturally use elements of what is labelled as NLP and get great results, however, I believe when someone is ‘practising an NLP technique’ on me it doesn’t feel ‘right’.

    I have lurked and looked in on and been open to NLP training – from a distance yet have never felt that I wanted to take it any further – it just doesn’t sit well with me for all the reasons you have described above – thank you!

  2. I’m with Margaret on this one, too, Sukh.

    Although I’ve done years of psychology training in one way shape or form, I’ve avoided NLP training like the plague. In all my work, I come from a place of believing that if I support a client (individual or organisation) to make change happen, it’s come first from the power of our relationship and second from my ability as a coach/consultant/guide/whatever to be able to read what a process needs of me at each stage and bring it. That takes a lot of experience building, courage and creativity. Now, I’ve seen NLP trained folks be able to use their NLP knowledge well in that kind of context – using a technique in the moment because the moment called for just that. It really raises my hackles, however, when I see NLP practitioners unimaginatively base all their interventions on NLP like it, and it alone, is the answer.

    (And I also don’t get some of the semi-religious fervour that seems to exist around it sometime too…?)

    Great post. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Hi Sukh,

    I’ve met a few NLP practitioners in my time and my concern is some attend a five day programme and think they understand how people tick. I met one of these NLP attendees once and when I asked how NLP works her response was ‘it just does’. Like Christine, I’ve spent over 7 years studying psychology and what I’ve learnt is how complex and unique people are and how difficult it is to get reliable and significant evidence for human behaviour.

    Saying that I also agree with you Sukh that some of the techniques can help improve communication and interpersonal relationships, so some aspects can be useful in a learning context. Great post!

  4. I am no expert on NLP at all, but come from the angle of (generally!) liking people and trying to figure out their behaviour (I know what I’d do if I re-trained!). I completely get what you’re saying. If NLP can help the practising individual feel good, that’s one thing; but using it to help manipulate others, doesn’t feel so hot to me. Some people have the natural ability to bring others along with them – always great to watch – but I’m not keen on the anything that feels deceptive or breaks trust. Great post Sukh, glad you finally got your thoughts out.

  5. Whilst I appreciate that you are a successful and talented individual who can pick up skills wherever is appropriate. It would appear that your discomfort with NLP is based on a position of being outside looking in.

    Your points although valid skim the surface of NLP and there have been many successes in all areas of life from healthcare to its more familiar positioning in business. There are complex and advanced works in speech patterns, eye cue’s and individuals representational systems. Meta programs are a massive and complex part of NLP which when mastered are a huge part of NLP’s success. All I can say is go and get some training from a reputable organisation. Try ITS (Ian McDermott), Richard Bandler & Paul McKenna or Salad.

    I started off as a Psychotherapist and Hypnotherapist. I have studied NLP for three years and have qualified as a Practioner, Master Practitioner and Coach and am very strongly aware that I have still only taken my first few steps along this road. NLP is a vocation and as such is a lifelong journey.


    1. Hi @usherincharge. Thanks so much for your comment. First, I’m not nearly as successful or talented as I’d like to be. But I don’t stop learning as I want to be. A true motivation.

      Your comment in particular, over the others, is heartening. I seem to have hit a note which suggests debate on this topic is indeed very relevant. I will attend an NLP course at some point. I’m not closed off to the training, and remain curious.

      I hope your continued training in NLP serves you well.

  6. All, thanks very much for your comments on this post. It’s certainly been an interesting discussion and one which I’ve followed up on an e-group with a group of fellow occupational psychologists which has brought some other insights to the topic which I’ll share at a later point.

  7. im very dubious about nlp as i am with counselling and life coaching , i think its more to do with evidence that any of these things actually makes us be able to communicate any better or that nlp or coaching of any form will actually change an individuals life for the better , the things that frighten me about nlp and life coaching is the lack of licensing this needs or indeed lack of qualifications that coaching requires in otherwords anyone can life coach dont matter who you are ..but more worryingly have you actually wondered why these nlp / life coach courses cost so much to do ? for each student that signs up to do an nlp course or life coaching course that means the company makes a huge profit , pretty much like online or distance learning courses not all of them are properley certificated and once you,ve done the courses you find you cant use the qualification .
    do yourself a favour , dont part with your cash unless your training is legit ,dont part with your cash if your qualification isnt legit and thirdly have respect for the people your coaching , anyone can be a coach or work on the belief of nlp but at the end of the day your working with people to help them make decisions about career and personal life so be aware they will be looking to you for guidance ..and paying for it , personally i think nlp holds little evidence to suggest that its main purpose works but i,ll leave it to you to ponder over what ive said ! i hope it helps .

    1. Hi Dennis,

      Thanks for visiting the blog. No, this isn’t the same. I’ve read Blink, and it’s an interesting book about the natural ability of people to make a decision or to know something in the absence of hard information.

      What Gladwell describes, though, is different to NLP. NLP is a collection of theories that are meant to be helpful in helping understand human behaviour and human motivation. Unfortunately it lacks evidence to support any of its claims of usefulness.

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