Since it was conceived in the 1970s, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) has interested professionals and laymen alike, with its simple and practical therapy methods. The practice makes use of the way an individual’s mind works to change responses to thoughts and feelings. Some of its techniques have become enmeshed with popular culture, such as the so-called ability to detect lies by watching a person’s eye movements.
Although many self-help books have been written based on NLP techniques, it is prudent to question if and how the practice works, as well as which conditions it is most effective for treating.
Here you will find everything you need to know about NLP, from its definition down to practical guidelines for finding an NLP practitioner.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming: What is it?
Neuro-linguistic programming is a psychological approach which asserts that one can adapt strategies used by successful individuals to achieve one’s own goals. It guides the individual in learning from their own experiences of success and failure about which thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are useful, and which are getting in their way. No action is negative, even if it leads to perceived failure, as it is just a step in the learning process.
NLP was developed in the 1970s by John Grinder and Richard Bandler. Grinder is a linguist, and he used his expertise in language to pinpoint how a person’s speech patterns reflect the way they process the world. Bandler is an information scientist and mathematician, a background which was instrumental in NLP’s philosophy that a human’s internal processing can be mapped and analyzed.
By assessing a person’s speech, actions, thoughts, and feelings, neuro-linguistic programming practitioners build an understanding of the person’s map of reality. NLP techniques are then used to help the person copy the processes used by others, to use them in place of techniques that have not proved successful.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming Theory
NLP theory considers all human action to be positive, as all experience provides information. It asserts that a person can only understand an action experientially – by actually performing that action and processing its results.
How Does Neuro-Linguistic Programming Suggest the Mind Works?
NLP suggests that each individual’s mind creates a map of the world, using data received through the senses. Each individual’s maps is different, with varying levels of importance placed on input from different senses. For example, some people understand the world based more on their visual perceptions, while others understand it based more on their auditory perceptions.
The system that the person uses to process experiences is called a primary representational system (PRS), and knowledge of it is essential to accessing and changing the individual’s personal map.
Neuro-linguistic programming techniques work on the assumption that the PRS can be enlisted to influence the individual’s map.
How Does Neuro-Linguistic Programming Cause Change?
Neuro-linguistic programming causes change by improving one’s understanding of their cognitive and behavioral patterns. It also builds more effective communications between conscious and unconscious mental processes.
Once a person has a better understanding of their personal map of reality, they can analyze what is effective in achieving their goals and what is not. They can then analyze the perspectives of others and assess what leads to their success. NLP is primarily experiential, and therefore the individual has to perform an action in order to actually learn from the experience.
NLP practitioners focus on six logical hierarchies of learning, communication, and change. Each logical level organizes the data below it. Changes made at a lower level influence the higher levels, and vice versa.
The six logical levels, in descending order, are:
- Purpose and spirituality
- Beliefs and values
- Capabilities and skills
What Happens in a Neuro-Linguistic Programming Session?
In an NLP therapy session, the therapist works with a person to understand his/her thinking, behaviors, emotional states, and aspirations. They then attempt to outline the person’s map of the world, along with their primary representational system (PRS). Once they have a foundation, they use a variety of techniques to change the way the person thinks, feels, or behaves in certain situations.
Neuro-linguistic programming has a firm foundation in Friz and Laura Perls’ Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy asks the individual to focus on the “here and now,” using their current thoughts and feelings, along with their relationship with the therapist, to identify what they’d like to change and to find solutions. Thus, NLP sessions are strongly based in the present, and require the client to work towards change in the session itself.
Techniques Used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming
NLP sessions use a variety of eclectic techniques, chosen according to the particular client’s PRS.
Some of the most common techniques include the following:
- Anchoring: associating an action as a trigger for certain emotional states. For example, the practitioner might help an individual immerse himself or herself in a feeling of confidence, then ask them to do a repetitive action, such as squeezing the forefinger and thumb together. The idea is that this action will later trigger the sense of confidence.
- Rapport: the practitioner mirrors some of the client’s unconscious physical actions, creating a quick rapport and using empathy to better guide the client towards their goals. This is generally used in conjunction with other techniques, making them more powerful and effective.
- Swish pattern: the client is guided to visualize their regular patterns of behavior or thought, and adjusts these patterns to lead to a desired outcome. For example, the client visualizes a feeling such as anxiety, giving it a shape, size, and color. They then monitor it as it spirals in its familiar direction. Once they have a vivid representation of it, they attempt to spiral it in the opposite direction, towards achieving a more useful result and feeling.
- Visual/kinesthetic dissociation (VKD): this technique uses visualization and other strategies to dissociate negative thoughts and feelings with an event. This is often used for treating PTSD. The client visualizes the traumatic event as if it is a movie, viewing it from a safe distance. The client is then led to vividly visualize it ending in a safe place, rather than in the trauma.
- Association: some practitioners use the opposite of the previous technique. For example, Kathy Welter-Nichols treats bulimia by associating the vomiting process with repulsion. Since bulimic clients generally have no problem with vomiting, she guides them towards having a strong negative reaction towards it.
- Failure into feedback: this is a fundamental technique used in conjunction with other strategies. The client learns to see lack of success as feedback rather than failure.
Does Neuro-Linguistic Programming Work?
Neuro-linguistic programming is used by many mental health professionals and is especially popular among self-help gurus. The founders of NLP have written a range of self-help manuals, teaching readers to use NLP techniques to build confidence, reduce anxiety, and even make money.
But does it actually work? The evidence is somewhat ambiguous.
Research into the efficacy of NLP has not been extensive. There are limited studies to work with and the studies which have been done have been too lacking in rigor to make firm conclusions. For example, one study that found NLP effective in helping children develop a state of mind conducive to learning had a sample size of only seven children. Its authors admitted to their conclusions being “brief” and “tentative.”
Some clinical studies found no difference between the group that received NLP treatment and control groups. A review of research done into NLP concluded that “there is little evidence that NLP interventions improve health-related outcomes.” This was attributed, however, to the limitations of NLP research, and not strong indications that NLP does not work.
The assertion that certain eye movements reflect dishonesty, and that the eyes can be used as a natural lie detector, is one of NLP’s most well-known claims. It has been used in pop culture over and over again during the past four decades. However, research conducted in 2012 found no notable difference between eye movements of people who were lying and of those telling the truth.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that NLP techniques work in a range of contexts. Richard Bandler, one of the co-founders of the field, has disagreed with the scientific testing of NLP.
What Kinds of Concerns is Neuro-Linguistic Programming Best For?
Proponents of neuro-linguistic programming recommend its use for a number of mental health issues. These include anxieties and phobias, communication issues, PTSD, depression, attention disorders, addictions, schizophrenia, OCD, and borderline personality disorder.
Treatment of anxiety and phobias accounts for the most widespread use of NLP, seeing as it is particularly suited to eliminating negative associations with situations and behaviors.
Paul McKenna, a well-known proponent of NLP, has written a range of self-help books. This includes his I Can Make You… series, which shows readers how they can become happy, confident, smarter, thin, rich, and more.
How AreNeuro-Linguistic Programming Specialists Trained?
Individuals seeking to become NLP practitioners have a number of possible routes. Ideally, they should train under the mentorship of an NLP expert. Since NLP techniques are experiential, it is difficult to learn them from a book. Organizations such as the iNLP Center or the Empowerment Partnership provide training towards certification as an NLP practitioner.
However, there are online courses available on websites such as Udemy which train potential NLP practitioners at a relatively low cost.
Concerns/Limitations of Neuro-Linguistic Programming
While many licensed mental health professionals employ NLP techniques, they do not always consider it an effective treatment in and of itself. They use it as part of a more holistic therapy philosophy. Practitioners trained in NLP alone are unable to provide that holistic context, and may not be ready to deal with issues that cannot be simply addressed using common techniques.
The lack of empirical evidence supporting the claims of NLP proponents is concerning. When treating serious mental health conditions, it is prudent to seek treatments that do not rely mainly on anecdotal evidence.
NLP has no state oversight or regulation, and therefore anyone can claim to provide NLP treatment with no accountability.
Important Practitioners in Neuro-Linguistic Programming
Neuro-linguistic programming was first developed in the 1970s, and the founders remain the most significant practitioners to this day. Other well-known figures include Paul McKenna, the aforementioned self-help guru, and writer.
Linguist John Grinder is one of the co-creators of NLP. To this day he runs training and gives talks. He works with Carmen Bostic St. Clair, with whom he has developed “New Code NLP,” which is touted as a “more ecological approach,” which practitioners use to “self-apply NLP.”
Co-creator Richard Bandler is also still running NLP training and seminars internationally. He is continually involved in further developing the field. His background is in mathematics and information technology.
How to Find a Therapist
While there are many NLP practitioners throughout the US and around the world, the ideal therapist has broader training in psychology and is a licensed mental health professional (LMHP).
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
Neuro-linguistic programming is not regulated by state legislatures, and anyone can, therefore, claim to provide NLP training. For this reason, it is important to check a practitioner’s credentials before paying them for treatment.
The success on NLP relies strongly on the client-therapist relationship. Therefore, it is important to find someone with whom you are comfortable. Ideally, you should find an LMHP who has training in a broader psychological approach to which you relate.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
Ask a potential therapist about their background and whether they have certification in NLP. See if they can give you more insight into their approach to psychology and therapy as a whole.
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Final Thoughts on Neuro-Linguistic Programming
Neuro-linguistic programming has made waves in the psychological community since its conception in the 1970s. Its techniques are simple yet powerful, and proponents of it claim its effectiveness in treating a range of mental illnesses. It is also popular in self-help circles. There is, however, very little empirical evidence, and none which can conclusively prove that NLP works. Those suffering from serious mental illnesses might be more confident trying a more established alternative before giving NLP a chance.