Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Truth About NLP

What is NLP?
NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a name that encompasses the three most influential components involved in producing human experience: neurology, language and programming. The neurological system regulates how our bodies function, language determines how we interface and communicate with other people and our programming determines the kinds of models of the world we create. Neuro-Linguistic Programming describes the fundamental dynamics between mind (neuro) and language (linguistic) and how their interplay effects our body and behavior (programming).

NLP is a pragmatic school of thought - an 'epistemology' - that addresses the many levels involved in being human. NLP is a multi-dimensional process that involves the development of behavioral competence and flexibility, but also involves strategic thinking and an understanding of the mental and cognitive processes behind behavior. NLP provides tools and skills for the development of states of individual excellence, but it also establishes a system of empowering beliefs and presuppositions about what human beings are, what communication is and what the process of change is all about. At another level, NLP is about self-discovery, exploring identity and mission. It also provides a framework for understanding and relating to the 'spiritual' part of human experience that reaches beyond us as individuals to our family, community and global systems. NLP is not only about competence and excellence, it is about wisdom and vision.

In essence, all of NLP is founded on two fundamental presuppositions:
1. The Map is Not the Territory. As human beings, we can never know reality. We can only know our perceptions of reality. We experience and respond to the world around us primarily through our sensory representational systems. It is our 'neuro-linguistic' maps of reality that determine how we behave and that give those behaviors meaning, not reality itself. It is generally not reality that limits us or empowers us, but rather our map of reality.2. Life and 'Mind' are Systemic Processes. The processes that take place within a human being and between human beings and their environment are systemic. Our bodies, our societies, and our universe form an ecology of complex systems and sub-systems all of which interact with and mutually influence each other. It is not possible to completely isolate any part of the system from the rest of the system. Such systems are based on certain 'self-organizing' principles and naturally seek optimal states of balance or homeostasis.

All of the models and techniques of NLP are based on the combination of these two principles. In the belief system of NLP it is not possible for human beings to know objective reality. Wisdom, ethics and ecology do not derive from having the one 'right' or 'correct' map of the world, because human beings would not be capable of making one. Rather, the goal is to create the richest map possible that respects the systemic nature and ecology of ourselves and the world we live in. The people who are most effective are the ones who have a map of the world that allows them to perceive the greatest number of available choices and perspectives. NLP is a way of enriching the choices that you have and perceive as available in the world around you. Excellence comes from having many choices. Wisdom comes from having multiple perspectives.

What it does
John Grinder and Richard Bandler, who invented it, call NLP the study of subjective experience. The letters stand for neuro-linguistic programming. I think of it as influencing people's imaginations through language to help them change anything about themselves in an instant.

Where it came from
Back in the 70's NLP started as a meta-model, or a model for making and changing other models. The NLP meta-model focuses on verbal models, and how language both shapes and reflects human thought. The two explained their meta model in The Structure of Magic. They first used the meta-model to find how highly successful therapists like Milton Erickson and Virginia Satir managed to help so many people. They wanted to know:
  • What language and behavioral patterns did these therapists have?
  • In Erickson's case, how did he consistently produce deep hypnotic trances?
  • What happened in the client's mind as they changed?

Bandler and Grinder wanted to package this knowledge so that anyone could use it to produce the same results - influence human behavior, induce trances, and change their own lives. These studies produced a slew of distinctions and techniques such as pacing and leading, slight-of-mouth patterns, anchors, rep systems, and the Milton model (all of which I will cover in future articles). Throughout it all, the NLP attitude has said that if one person can get a result, so can anyone else - if they have a detailed enough model of what the first person's strategy.

NLP took a quantum leap with the discovery of submodalities. Human experience comes in at least five modalities: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory. These correspond to the five senses: sight, hearing, feeling, smell, and taste. But within each modality is a wide range of experience. Noises can sound loud, soft, high-pitched, or low-pitched. Qualities such as these correspond to adjectives in language: "I heard a loud sound to my left."

Bandler, Grinder, and their students found that submodalities controlled a great deal of our behavior. Consider: if you can remember what you had for breakfast yesterday, and you can imagine what you might have for breakfast tomorrow, how can your brain tell these two apart? How do you tell the future from the past, things you like from things you don't, things you believe in from things you feel uncertain about?

Obviously, these pairs of thoughts have contrasts, qualities that differ between them. Suppose that by applying meta- model questions, you found that you imagine your beliefs off to your left, and uncertainties to your right. What would happen if you imagined something you believed and something you felt uncertain about and then switched their positions? It turned out that most people would feel less certain about their old belief, and more certain whatever they had been uncertain about.
About that time, a kid named Tony Robbins, who studied under Bandler and Grinder, decided to demonstrate to the world how this simple but powerful information could change anyone's life. Robbins started as a janitor in a cramped little apartment, and within a few short years made millions of dollars, bought his own castle, and taught thousands of people about NLP.

Why you should know about it
NLP changes people's lives - for better or worse. Whatever your lifestyle, you have created it through a lifetime of beliefs, attitude, and actions. Because NLP focuses on just these topics, everyone uses its techniques and patterns every single day. When we learn to use NLP consciously, we give ourselves the power to create new lives for ourselves, and get any outcome we desire.

One common thread in NLP is the emphasis on teaching a variety of communication and persuasion skills, and using self-hypnosis to motivate and change oneself. Most NLP practitioners advertising on the WWW make grand claims about being able to help just about anybody become just about anything.
The following is typical:
NLP can enhance all aspects of your life by improving your relationships with loved ones, learning to teach effectively, gaining a stronger sense of self-esteem, greater motivation, better understanding of communication, enhancing your business or career... and an enormous amount of other things which involve your brain. (from the now defunct )

Some advocates claim that they can teach an infallible method of telling when a person is lying, but others recognize that this is not possible. Some claim that people fail only because their teachers have not communicated with them in the right "language". One NLP guru, Dale Kirby, informs us that one of the presuppositions of NLP is "No one is wrong or broken." So why seek remedial change? On the other hand, what Mr. Kirby does have to say about NLP which is intelligible does not make it very attractive.
For example, he says that according to NLP "There is no such thing as failure. There is only feedback." Was NLP invented by the U.S. Military to explain their "incomplete successes"? When the space shuttle blew up within minutes of launch, killing everyone on board, was that "only feedback"? If I stab my neighbor and call it "performing non-elective surgery" am I practicing NLP? If I am arrested in a drunken state with a knife in my pocket for threatening an ex-girlfriend, am I just "trying to rekindle an old flame"?

Another NLP presupposition which is false is "If someone can do something, anyone can learn it." This comes from people who claim they understand the brain and can help you reprogram yours. They want you to think that the only thing that separates the average person from Einstein or Pavarotti or the World Champion Log Lifter is NLP.

NLP is said to be the study of the structure of subjective experience, but a great deal of attention seems to be paid to observing behavior and teaching people how to read "body language." But there is no common structure to non-verbal communication, any more than there is a common structure to dream symbolism. There certainly are some well-defined culturally determined non-verbal ways of communicating, e.g., pointing the back of the hand at another, lowering all fingers but the one in the middle, has a definite meaning in American culture. But when someone tells me that the way I squeeze my nose during a conversation means I am signaling him that I think his idea stinks, how do we verify whether his interpretation is correct or not? I deny it. He knows the structure, he says. He knows the meaning. I am not aware of my signal or of my feelings, he says, because the message is coming from my subconscious mind. How do we test these kinds of claims? We can't. What's his evidence? It must be his brilliant intuitive insight because there is no empirical evidence to back up this claim. Sitting cross-armed at a meeting might not mean that someone is "blocking you out" or "getting defensive". She may just be cold or have a back ache or simply feel comfortable sitting that way. It is dangerous to read too much into non-verbal behavior. Those splayed legs may simply indicate a relaxed person, not someone inviting you to have sex. At the same time, much of what NLP is teaching is how to do cold reading. This is valuable, but an art not a science, and should be used with caution.

Finally, NLP claims that each of us has a Primary Representational System (PRS), a tendency to think in specific modes: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory or gustatory. A person's PRS can be determined by words the person tends to use or by the direction of one's eye movements. Supposedly, a therapist will have a better rapport with a client if they have a matching PRS. None of this has been supported by the scientific literature.*

Bandler's Institute
Bandler's First Institute of Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ and Design Human Engineering™ has this to say about NLP:
"Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ (NLP™) is defined as the study of the structure of subjective experience and what can be calculated from that and is predicated upon the belief that all behavior has structure....Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ was specifically created in order to allow us to do magic by creating new ways of understanding how verbal and non-verbal communication affect the human brain. As such it presents us all with the opportunity to not only communicate better with others, but also learn how to gain more control over what we considered to be automatic functions of our own neurology." *

We are told that Bandler took as his first models Virginia Satir ("The Mother of Family System Therapy"), Milton Erickson ("The Father of Modern Hypnotherapy") and Fritz Perls (early advocate of Gestalt Therapy) because they "had amazing results with their clients." The linguistic and behavioral patterns of such people were studied and used as models. These were therapists who liked such expressions as 'self-esteem', 'validate', 'transformation', 'harmony', 'growth', 'ecology', 'self-realization', 'unconscious mind', 'non-verbal communication', 'achieving one's highest potential'--expressions which serve as beacons to New Age transformational psychology. No neuroscientist or anyone who has studied the brain is mentioned as having had any influence on NLP. Also, someone who is not mentioned, but who certainly seems like the ideal model for NLP, is Werner Erhard. He started est a few miles north (in San Francisco) of Bandler and Grinder (in Santa Cruz) just a couple of years before the latter started their training business. Erhard seems to have set out to do just what Bandler and Grinder set out to do: help people transform themselves and make a good living doing it. NLP and est also have in common the fact that they are built up from a hodgepodge of sources in psychology, philosophy, and other disciplines. Both have been brilliantly marketed as offering the key to success, happiness, and fulfillment to anyone willing to pay the price of admission. Best of all: no one who pays his fees fails out of these schools!

The ever-evolving Bandler
When one reads what Bandler says, it may lead one to think that some people sign on just to get the translation from the Master Teacher of Communication Skills himself:
One of the models that I built was called strategy elicitation which is something that people confuse with modeling to no end. They go out and elicit a strategy and they think they are modeling but they don't ask the question, "Where did the strategy elicitation model come from?" There are constraints inside this model since it was built by reducing things down. The strategy elicitation model is always looking for the most finite way of accomplishing a result. This model is based on sequential elicitation and simultaneous installation.
Many would surely agree that with communication like this Bandler must have a very special code for programming his brain.

Bandler claims he keeps evolving. To some, however, he may seem mainly concerned with protecting his economic interests by trademarking his every burp. He seems extremely concerned that some rogue therapist or trainer might steal his work and make money without him getting a cut. One might be charitable and see Bandler's obsession with trademarking as a way to protect the integrity of his brilliant new discoveries about human potential (such as charisma enhancement) and how to sell it. Anyway, to clarify or to obscure matters--who knows which?-- what Bandler calls the real thing can be identified by a license and the trademark™ from The Society of Neuro-Linguistic Programming™. However, do not contact this organization if you want detailed, clear information about the nature of NLP, or DHE (Design Human Engineering™ (which will teach you to hallucinate designs like Tesla did), or PE (Persuasion Engineering™) or MetaMaster Track™, or Charisma Enhancement™, or Trancing™, or whatever else Mr. Bandler and associates are selling these days. Mostly what you will find on Bandler's page is information on how to sign up for one of his training sessions. For example, you can get 6 days of training for $1,800 at the door ($1,500 prepaid). What will you be trained in or for? Bandler has been learning about "the advancement of human evolution" and he will pass this on to you. For $1,500 you could have taken his 3-day seminar on Creativity Enhancement (where you could learn why it's not creative to rely on other people's ideas, except for Bandler's).

Grinder and corporate NLP
John Grinder, on the other hand, has gone on to try to do for the corporate world what Bandler is doing for the rest of us. He has joined Carmen Bostic St Clair in an organization called Quantum Leap, "an international organisation dealing with the design and implementation of cross cultural communication systems." Like Bandler, Grinder claims he has evolved new and even more brilliant "codes". TheNew Code contains a series of gates which presuppose a certain and to my way of thinking appropriate relationship between the conscious and unconscious parts of a person purporting to train or represent in some manner NLP. This goes a long way toward insisting on the presence of personal congruity in such a person. In other words, a person who fails to carry personal congruity will in general find themselves unable to use and/or teach the New Code patterns with any sort of consistent success. This is a design I like very much - it has the characteristic of a self-correcting system.

It may strike some people that terms like "personal congruity" are not very precise or scientific. This is probably because Grinder has created a "new paradigm". Or so he says. He denies that his and Bandler's work is an eclectic hodgepodge of philosophy and psychology, or that it even builds from the works of others. He believes that what he and Bandler did was "create a paradigm shift."

The following claim by Grinder provides some sense of what he thinks NLP is:
My memories about what we thought at the time of discovery (with respect to the classic code we developed - that is, the years 1973 through 1978) are that we were quite explicit that we were out to overthrow a paradigm and that, for example, I, for one, found it very useful to plan this campaign using in part as a guide the excellent work of Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) in which he detailed some of the conditions which historically have obtained in the midst of paradigm shifts. For example, I believe it was very useful that neither one of us were qualified in the field we first went after - psychology and in particular, its therapeutic application; this being one of the conditions which Kuhn identified in his historical study of paradigm shifts. Who knows what Bandler was thinking?

One can only hope that Bandler wasn't thinking the same things that Grinder was thinking, at least with respect to Kuhn's classic text. Kuhn did not promote the notion that not being particularly qualified in a scientific field is a significant condition for contributing to the development of a new paradigm in science. Furthermore, Kuhn did not provide a model or blueprint for creating paradigm shifts! His is an historical work, describing what he believed to have occurred in the history of science. Nowhere does he indicate that a single person at any time did, or even could, create a paradigm shift in science. Individuals such as Newton or Einstein might provide theories which require paradigm shifts for their theories to be adequately understood, but they don't create the paradigm shifts themselves. Kuhn's work implies that such a notion is preposterous.

Grinder and Bandler should have read Kant before they set off on their quixotic pursuit. Kant's "Copernican revolution" might be considered a paradigm shift by Bandler and Grinder, but it is not what Kuhn was talking about when he was describing the historical development of scientific theories. Kuhn restricted his concern to science. He made no claim that anything similar happens in philosophy and he certainly did not imply that anything NLP did, or is doing, constitutes a paradigm shift. Kuhn claimed that paradigm shifts occur over time when one theory breaks down and is replaced by another. Scientific theories break down, he claimed, when new data can't be explained by the old theories or when they no longer explain things as well as some newer theory. What Bandler and Grinder did was not in response to any crisis in theory in any scientific field and so cannot even be considered as contributing to a paradigm shift much less being one itself.

What Grinder seems to think Kuhn meant by "paradigm shift" is something like a gestalt shift, a change in the way we look at things, a change in perspective. Kant might fit the bill for this notion. Kant rejected the old way of doing epistemology, which was to ask 'how can we bring ourselves to understand the world?' What we ought to ask, said Kant, is 'how is it possible that the world comes to be understood by us?' This was truly a revolutionary move in the history of philosophy, for it asserted that the world must conform to the conditions imposed on it by the one experiencing the world. The notion that one has the truth when one's mind conforms with the world is rejected in favor of the notion that all knowledge is subjective because it is impossible without experience which is essentially subjective. Copernicus had said, in essence, let's see how things look with the Sun at the center of the universe, instead of the Earth. Kant said, in essence, let's examine how we know the world by assuming that the world must conform to the mind, rather than the mind conform to the world. Copernicus, however, could be considered as contributing to a paradigm shift in science. If he were right about the earth and other planets going around the sun rather than the sun and the other planets going around the earth--and he was--then astronomers could no longer do astronomy without profound changes in their fundamental concepts about the nature of the heavens. On the other hand, there is no way to know if Kant is right. We can accept or reject his theory. We can continue to do philosophy without being Kantians, but we cannot continue to do astronomy without accepting the heliocentric hypothesis and rejecting the geocentric one. What did Grinder and Bandler do that makes it impossible to continue doing psychology or therapy or semiotics or philosophy without accepting their ideas? Nothing.

Do people benefit from NLP?
While I do not doubt that many people benefit from NLP training sessions, there seem to be several false or questionable assumptions upon which NLP is based. Their beliefs about the unconscious mind, hypnosis and the ability to influence people by appealing directly to the subconscious mind are unsubstantiated. All the scientific evidence which exists on such things indicates that what NLP claims is not true. You cannot learn to "speak directly to the unconscious mind " as Erickson and NLP claim, except in the most obvious way of using the power of suggestion.

NLP claims that its experts have studied the thinking of great minds and the behavior patterns of successful people and have extracted models of how they work. "From these models, techniques for quickly and effectively changing thoughts, behaviors and beliefs that get in your way have been developed."* But studying Einstein's or Tolstoy's work might produce a dozen "models" of how those minds worked. There is no way to know which, if any, of the models is correct. It is a mystery why anyone would suppose that any given model would imply techniques for quick and effective change in thoughts, actions and beliefs. I think most of us intuitively grasp that even if we were subjected to the same experiences which Einstein or Tolstoy had, we would not have become either. Surely, we would be significantly different from whom we've become, but without their brains to begin with, we would have developed quite differently from either of them.

in conclusion
It seems that NLP develops models which can't be verified, from which it develops techniques which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the models. NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience. This is not to say that the techniques won't work. They may work and work quite well, but there is no way to know whether the claims behind their origin are valid. Perhaps it doesn't matter. NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether it works. However, how do you measure the claim "NLP works"? I don't know and I don't think NLPers know, either. Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices. Unfortunately, such a measurement may reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enroll in more training sessions.
The Myth about 'Good Eye Contact'
It's amazing how many communication skills' books and courses perpetuate the myth that 'good' eye contact means gazing fixedly into the other person's eyes. For a few people this will work well. However many people are likely to find it uncomfortable to the point where they begin to wonder if you are trying to hypnotise them or ask them for a date, or both.
If you meet lots of people in your daily life it's a good idea to think about how you make eye contact - it is, after all, one of the first things people use to form an impression of you!

Some Eye Contact Styles
Spend some time observing people and you will soon recognise that there are many different eye contact styles of which the more common are:
(1) The Fixed Stare Style: their eyes never leave you and practically bore through you. Occasionally this style is used as a power trick to intimidate or to give the impression that the person is more confident than they really are. Much used by politicians who have been thoroughly coached in how to appear a lot more trustworthy than they often turn out to be!
(2) The Darting Glance Style: They do look at you – but with very brief glances. They tend to look at you only when your gaze is averted. This style can give the impression of either low self confidence or lack of trustworthiness so if it happens to be your natural style you may wish to remedy the situation rather than transmit such a non-verbal message.
(Rather than being related to their trustworthiness or their confidence this lack of eye contact is more likely to be due to their personal thinking style. Many people have developed the habit of having to look away, or even close their eyes momentarily, in order to think about what they are saying. In a later article we will look at this subject and at what the direction a person's eyes move in tell you about the ideal communication style to use with them.)
(3) The No-Eye-Contact style: Their eyes rarely, if ever, meet yours. They use peripheral vision to watch you. This style is much favoured by country dwellers whose lifestyle has not included many opportunities for gazing into the eyes of other humans.
You may have noticed, while out in the open country, that there is a tendency to use somewhat less eye contact and to stand further from one another than would be the norm on a city street. As with the Darting Glance the style can be misinterpreted. However the No Eye Contact style is more likely to be a learned behaviour than an essential part of their thinking strategy.
(4) The Turn-And-Turn-About Style: This is the most common style. I look quite steadily at you while you are speaking. (Although, if you appear to find this uncomfortable, I look away occasionally to avoid creating tension). When it is my turn to speak you look at me steadily while I still meet your gaze but look away a little more (to think, gather my thoughts, check my feelings, etc.).

Action Points
The NLP approach to inter-personal communication is to use a slightly different style with each person rather than use the one-size-fits-all approach. This is because treating each person as a unique individual is at the core of NLP and because Rapport in NLP is based on maximising the similarities between us and playing down the differences. People are unconsciously signalling to us how they wish us to behave towards them. This is done non-verbally – through their body language. Match those parts of a person's body language that they have least conscious awareness of and you are on your way to creating excellent rapport. (Although what you are doing is out of their conscious awareness it will still register with them at a subtle feeling level).

In creating Rapport matching does not mean mimicking – if only because to do so would alert the person, consciously, to what you are doing. Matching means adapting your own behaviour so it is somewhat similar to the other person's. So you do not do exactly the same as they do you do enough to non-verbally signal that you are emphasising the similarities between you.
Which behaviours do you match? Eye contact is an excellent way to begin creating better rapport since few people have conscious awareness of their personal eye contact style. (Another excellent way of creating rapport is to match how a person uses their voice – their voice speed, volume, tempo, and rhythm, for example).

Use Eye Contact to Improve Rapport
(1) If they use the fixed-stare: While speaking to them look at them for longer than you might otherwise do. But avoid getting into I-will-not-look-away-until-you-do competition. When you are doing the listening give them quite sustained eye contact. (If, at first, you find this a little uncomfortable you can ease your own tension by varying your expression and by using head nods and 'Uh-huh' sounds.)
(2) If they use Darting Glances: Giving them sustained eye contact will be perceived as aggressive or even intimidating. Adopt a somewhat similar style by looking away more than might be normal for you, especially when you are doing the speaking.
(3) If they use minimal eye contact: Make much less eye contact that you might normally do. Practising using peripheral vision to watch them.
(Incidentally, it is quite likely that these people will also prefer to maintain a larger personal space zone so avoid moving too close to them.)

NLP & Rapport
Rapport, in NLP, is not just something that occurs as a result of people of people being in tune with one another. It is something that can be created – very quickly and easily – even with people we do not know, with whom we do not have common interests, and even with people with whom we disagree. Matching a person's eye contact style is one way of creating this rapport. And it is easy because they are already giving you a demo of how to do it! Simply observe them and then match their style. NLP is a modelling process. It is based on what works. Whether or not they have been 'scientifically validated' we will use those behaviours which produce satisfactory results – and jettison the ones which don't!

Matching non-verbal behaviour works.
Do it subtly. Initially it may feel a little strange – most new behaviours do – so simply use matching in the first three or four minutes of a conversation and then revert to your normal style. Gradually, with practice, it will become more natural for you and soon you will discover that you are doing it without (consciously) having to think about it – you'll have reached unconscious competence.

Now in creating RAPPORT with a group, when addressing meeting or conference for example, I’ll use a variety of styles and approaches. Including matching body language with key players (to whom I recognise that others defer) and using the key 3-5 seconds of eye contact with each person to create rapport with them at a number of levels."
See also est, firewalking, hypnosis, Landmark Forum, large group awareness training, Frederick Lenz (Rama), memory, paradigm, psychoanalysis, and reverse speech.