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