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What does NLP stand for?
NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and if you think that's
a damn stupid name you're probably right. The three parts of the
name refer to:
The activity throughout your brain and your whole nervous system
- why what you think affects what your body does and vice versa.
Refers to words - and how we use them: how we are affected by the
words we use, how our perceptions are framed by the words we choose.
Taken from the computing term, this basically means that just as
a computer will try to execute all of the instructions in a program,
regardless of whether they make sense, so human beings tend to act
in accordance with the ways in which their experiences have "programmed"
them, even when the program doesn't make sense (like people speaking
very slowly and loudly to foreigners as though that will improve
the level of communication).
On the positive side it is the ability, when we know how something
works, to change how it works. In this case, how to change our lives
in the way we want by changing our thinking and our behaviour.
According to Korzybski, who first coined the label, there should
always be a hyphen in "neuro-linguistic" to indicate that
this refers to two individual entities - neurology and linguistics
- working together, as compared with "neuro linguistic"
(two separate entities) or "neurolinguistic" (a single
entity), neither of which make this distinction clear.
2. What is NLP?
NLP is a mixture of things.
It is a mixture of concepts put together by Richard Bandler, John
Grinder, Robert Dilts and others.
It uses a mixture of techniques, derived from the fields of hypnosis,
linguistic analysis, neuropsychology and so on. For example:
The NLP Meta Model is based on Noam Chomsky's Transformational Grammar.
The Milton Model is based on the work done by Milton Erickson.
The Meta Programs, developed by Leslie LeBeau (Bandler's ex-wife,
the former Leslie Cameron-Bandler) are an extended version of the
The saying "The map is not the territory", the concept
of "chunking", and the term "Neuro linguistic",
plus much, much more is lifted straight out of Alfred Korzybski's
The notions of reframing and parts (and how to deal with them) is
based on work done by Virginia Satir and Fritz Perls, and so on
and so on.
At its most basic, NLP is the study of people who are outstanding
in some area - by means of "modeling" - in order to discover
what makes the difference between average performance and excellent
performance. And to describe the difference in such a way that other
people can learn to replicate the "excellent" behavior.
3. How Does NLP
According to one definition I read recently:
"NLP is a set of guiding principles, attitudes and techniques
that enable you to change ... behavior patterns as you wish."
Put more simply - NLP aims to open up a person's range of choices
in any situation so that they can optimize, or at least move towards
optimizing, their performance. To this end, two of what are called
the NLP "presuppositions" is particularly important:
Every behavior is appropriate in some context.
People always make the best choice they can (from their point of
view) given the resources available to them.
As a starting point, the first presupposition takes the view that
people act in whatever way they act in a given situation because
at some time or other, in
(a) a situation they perceive to be similar to their current situation
(b) they used this behavior and it brought about the required result
(or something equally satisfactory).
A problem will arise if:
the person is incorrect in their perception (i.e. if the situations
aren't really similar at all),
the behavior is, for whatever reason, no longer valid (a 30 year
old trying to be 5 year old-style cute, for example), or the original
"cause and effect" weren't really cause and effect at
all (assuming that writing a letter to Santa is how you get the
Christmas presents you want).
From an observer's point of view the fact that a particular behavior
is out-of-date, inappropriate, etc. may be obvious. From the perspective
of the second presupposition, however, it is assumed that people
only use invalid behavior if they don't know of any better way to
achieve their desired outcome. That is to say, that no-one deliberately
sabotages themselves by deliberately resorting to ineffective behavior.
Please note, however, this does NOT assume that people always make
the best choices - from an objective viewpoint - when selecting
an outcome, only that they will select what appears to them to be
the best choice. What looks like a "best choice" to one
person may be in conflict with the interests of everyone else around
The purpose of NLP is to remove whatever limitations we have accumulated
which prevent us from making sound choices and acting effectively.
By helping a person to extend their range of credible options we
help them to make sure that they aren't forced to behave inappropriately
because they literally are not aware of having any other choices.
This need to be approached with care, however, to make sure that
the new choices are genuinely appropriate (or "ecological").
Helping someone to overcome a paralyzing fear of snakes - in general
- is useful.
Completely removing someone's caution in regard to snakes could
be quite disastrous if they ever come across a Water Moccasin, a
Black Mamba or a hungry Anaconda!
What are the NLP Presuppositions?
NLP is largely based on practical experience rather
than academic theories, and the NLP pre-suppositions - some unique
to NLP, some borrowed from General Semantics, cybernetics, etc.
- are extremely useful as a guide to the thinking behind NLP as
a whole. Because they are usually each expressed in a single sentence
they are sometimes misunderstood as being vague and/or idealistic.
In reality they are all extremely pragmatic.
Some of the best-known NLP pre-suppositions include:
If you go on doing what you're doing now you are very likely to
go on getting the same results as you are getting now
Commentary: The pre-supposition here is that we are each responsible
for our own lives.
Though we may not be able to control what goes on in the world around
us, we can always control how we respond to those events. If we
always act/respond in the same way then the most likely result is
that we will maintain the status quo.
This is why making a decision on the basis that "that's the
way we've always done it" is often the prelude to disaster.
If you want something different you must do something different,
and keep varying your behavior until you get the result that you
Commentary: The second pre-supposition is that there's a solution
to every situation if you're prepared to keeping on looking until
you find it.
This leads us straight into the third presupposition:
The person with the greatest number of choices in a given situation
is likely to get the best outcome
Commentary: This is related to the idea of the BATNA (best alternative
to non-agreement. If you go into a negotiation session with only
one outcome in mind - and you don't achieve that particular outcome
then you're up a dead-end street. If, on the other hand, you have
several outcomes in mind (prioritized from "most preferred"
to "least preferred", of course) then it is likely that
you will achieve at least one of your outcomes.
You cannot not communicate
Commentary: People often imagine that they can avoid personal responsibility
by simply saying nothing. This pre-supposition point out that we
are constantly communicating, by what we do say, by what we don't
say, and by a host of non-verbal signals.
On this basis it may be obvious that there is more to be gained
by accepting responsibility for one's actions, than by trying to
The meaning of your communication is the response that you get
Commentary: The pre-supposition here is that people will respond
to what they think you mean, which may be an accurate or inaccurate
interpretation of your intended meaning.
(Please note, a "communication" is the 'whole' message
- not only what you said but also all of the accompanying non-verbal
The value of this pre-supposition is that it points out that if
we want people to respond appropriately to what we say then we need
to talk to them rather than at them. That is, we need to be constantly
aware of other peoples' responses to what we're saying, and adjust
our communication accordingly, rather than just assuming that they
will have understood what we meant them to understand.
Everyone has all of the resources they need
Commentary: This is one of the "dodgy" presuppositions
in that it doesn't exactly match the presupposition it was based
on. What Erickson actually said was that every client already had
all the resources they needed to be able to deal with their "presenting
problem". That is to say, at some level they already knew how
the problem had come about and therefore already knew all they needed
to resolve the problem.
Which isn’t quite the same as saying that we all have whatever
resources (or capabilities) we need to get us out of ANY situation?
Even if we accept the presupposition as it is usually stated, I
suggest that we need to acknowledge two qualifications which I call
In order to use a resource you must -
know that you have it, and
know how to use it
(though not necessarily at a conscious level)
Let me illustrate what I mean by referring to the question of how
children should be educated.
Some people, taking the viewpoint that we already have all the resources
we need, argue that children must be free to learn what they want,
when they want, and that ultimately they'll learn everything they
need to know.
Those in the traditionalist camp point out, quite accurately, that
this approach simply doesn't work and (here comes the non squinter)
that education must therefore be carefully structured and controlled.
A third, and far more true-to-life approach takes into account all
three parts of the NLP pre-supposition, thus:
Children have all the resources they need in order to learn very
effectively. (If they didn't how do they learn to walk and talk
without taking "lessons"?)
And they need to understand that they have this capability...
... and how to use it.
In other words, children do need help and guidance. Education, after
all, is a living process, not a static event.
First and foremost, they need to learn how to learn. Just banging
the tools down in front of them and expecting them to get on with
it is a total non-starter. By the same token, however, too much
structure and control turns learning into a boring routine chore.
And look what happens then!
Every behavior has a positive intention
Commentary: This is possibly the most controversial of the NLP presuppositions,
since it is so open to misinterpretation.
we actually mean is that every behavior has a positive intention,
as far as the person exhibiting the behavior is concerned.
This does not mean that the behavior is the best possible choice
(from an objective point of view). Nor does it mean that the behavior
will have positive benefits for anyone else.
A classic example of what we might call the inverted positive intention
is the behavior of the bullying manager who gains re-assurance from
hitting on the people under him/her.
solution to this kind of inappropriate behavior is to find a way
of satisfying the intention by more acceptable means. A way, for
example, of giving the manager re-assurance in such a way that he
no longer needs to bully his employees to get it.
Every behavior is appropriate in some context
Commentary: Another way of putting this is: if we adopt a certain
behavior it's because once upon a time it worked. The trouble is
that we often go on sing a certain behavior even though it is manifestly
no longer appropriate.
Having said that, if we accept this presupposition then we also
realize that the most effective solution is to find a new, more
appropriate behavior rather than holding a lengthy, pointless post
mortem over the old behavior (which is more likely to re-enforce
that old behavior rather than driving it out).
A map is not the territory it depicts; words are not the things
they describe; symbols are not the things they represent
Commentary: This may well be the single most important pre-supposition
in the whole of NLP (originally developed by Alfred Korzybski, the
founder of General Semantics).
In very simple terms it means that we are always slightly separated
from 'reality'. We draw maps, but the map is not actually the place
it depicts and we need to be responsive to what is actually happening
around us rather than complaining that things aren't as they "ought
Similarly, we need to understand that words are only a kind of shorthand
for the things they describe. To get an inkling of what this means
in practice, just look at the words on a banknote. What exactly
does "promise to pay the bearer" really mean?
What would an actual pound or dollar look like, as distinct from
a coin or bank note which represents or symbolizes some financial
Your mind and your body are indivisible parts of the same system
Commentary: The notion that our body and our brain/mind are separate
entities was a developed within the medical profession around the
1930s and 1940s. If there was something wrong with your body - from
a sniffle to malignant cancer - the only solution was some kind
of physical treatment.
Despite its position (literally) at the head of the central nervous
system, in mainstream medicine it was received wisdom that, for
all practical purposes, the influence of the brain/mind stopped
at the neck.
Somewhat ironically, this came about at the very same time General
Semantics was investigating the idea that mental activity had a
direct correlation to physiological activity.
Only in the last couple of decades has practical, scientifically
verifiable evidence come to light that shows beyond reasonable doubt
that the immune system, for example, is integrally linked to brain
activity so that, for example, mental stress can inhibit the performance
of the immune system and thus lead to lowering of general bodily
If one person can do something, anyone else can learn to do it
Commentary: One of the key activities in NLP is the modeling of
people who are recognized (by their peers) as being excellent in
some field of activity in such a way as to identify what they do
that gives them such remarkable results.
these differences have been identified they can be communicated
to other people who can then learn to perform with a similar level
of skill and excellence.
said that, the person learning the skill must have the necessary
aptitude, and be willing to carry out the necessary self-development.
In other words, whilst it is easy enough to model the activity of
a world class sprinter, for example, a person who has only one leg,
or is severely overweight or who refuses to take any physical exercise,
is unlikely to be able to translate the modeled information into
a personal skill.
There is no such thing as failure, only feedback
Commentary: When something doesn't go as we planned we tend to see
that as failure. Depending on the seriousness of the situation we
might then get angry, irritated, sad, depressed, worried, guilty
None of which serves any useful purpose.
what happens if we see the situation as feedback rather than failure.
A real life demonstration of how not to do something?
Instead of being wrong we've learned something. Instead of feeling
bad we are free to form a new plan of action and try again.
rosy-tinted 'positive thinking’? Not exactly.
Edison identified about a 1,000 materials which are not suitable
as filaments for a light bulb before he found one which worked and
A number of best-selling books (i.e. million sellers plus film)
were turned down by more than two dozen publishers before they were
accepted for publication.
And always remember the poor talent scout at Decca records who rejected
the Beatles as having no future in music!
Change makes Change
Commentary: It is a common saying that "the only person you
can really change is yourself". NLP goes one step further and
also acknowledges that changing your own behavior inevitably has
an effect on the people around you. The underlying notion, derived
from the field of cybernetics, is that when one element within a
system changes, the whole system must change in whatever way is
necessary to adapt to that change.
There is a fascinating little experiment which demonstrates the
truth of this presupposition. Groups of three people were seated
in an otherwise empty room in such a way that they were each more
or less facing both of the other two people. Nobody spoke, no one
moved around, gesticulated or otherwise sent overt non-verbal messages.
And yet ...
In every trial, it took no more than two minutes max. For the person
with the strongest feelings at the time, positive or negative, to
engender the same emotion in the other two people.
Genuine Understanding only comes from Experience
Commentary: You can read all you like, and talk to as many other
people as you like, and you can watch other people doing something
on video, DVD or film - but you don't really understand something
until you personally have done it.
You will probably have noticed that all NLP pre-suppositions have
a positive perspective.
Most NLP books discuss some of the presuppositions.
5. What are the
NLP "Rep" systems?
"Rep" (Representational) Systems - also known as Primary
(or Preferred) Thinking Styles, are the main ways in which we handle
input from the world around us:
Visual - in pictures, moving or still
Auditory - in sounds
Kinesthetic - in physical or emotional feelings
Gustatory - as tastes, and
Olfactory - in smells
A person's current PTS(s) are usually reflected in their eye movements,
their choice of words, their breathing and even in their overall
Intellectual is not, as at least one (non-NLP) psychologist has
claimed, a PTS or rep system, though it does have a distinct set
of linguistic patterns associated with it, such as:
"That's something to think about"
"That's a reasonable idea"
and so on.
Auditory Digital is also not one of the five rep systems.
Auditory Digital is also known, especially outside NLP circles,
as "self talk", and although it may mainly, or even entirely,
take place inside your head, it still comes under the heading of
6. What are submodalities?
For each of the Primary Thinking Styles (see Question 6) or "modalities"
there are a number of defining characteristics, called submodalities.
In the case of the Visual PTS, for example, the submodalities include:
Color - is the picture in color or black and white?
Brightness - is the picture bright, dark or washed out?
Depth - is the picture in 2D or 3D?
Movement - is the picture static, like a photo, or fluid, like a
Focus - is the picture clear or blurred?
For the Auditory PTS the characteristics include:
Volume - how loud is the sound?
Mono or Stereo - Does the sound come from one place only, from both
sides, or from all around?
Continuity - Does the sound come and go, or is it continuous?
Tempo - is the sound fast, medium or slow?
And so on.
Change just one characteristic of an important submodality can have
a profound effect. For example, turning the tonality of a self-talk
voice from deep and serious to high pitched and frivolous can make
it far less powerful and limiting for the person hearing it, and
may even result in the voice disappearing altogether.
7. Can NLP be
used in business?
As managers begin to realize that a company is nothing if not the
people that work for it (but don't expect any over-night revolutions!)
NLP is growing increasingly popular as the basis for various training
courses on interpersonal skills, especially coaching (see FAQ
Because of mixed reactions to NLP, especially over its perceived
use for manipulation (see Question 10) NLP techniques are often
included in courses on selling, negotiating, people management,
etc., but without being named as such.