Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)

NLP was created by distilling the work of some of the world’s top therapists and it consists of powerful techniques which can transform your experience of life and your ability to perform at your best.

What is NLP?

NLP is the study and application of the relationship between neurological process (Neuro), our method of communicating with symbols (Linguistic), and our adaptation to the experiences which have shaped us (Programming).

Some definitions of NLP that I have heard include:

  • An attitude of curiosity and wanton experimentation that leaves behind a trail of tools and techniques
  • The study of the structure of subjective experience
  • The answer to the question ‘how?’
  • The science of excellence

Where does NLP come from?

NLP was created in the early 1970s when mathematician Richard Bandler and linguist John Grinder studied (or ‘modelled’) some of the best therapists in the world in order to understand what it was that they were doing.  These models were simple enough to be taught and enabled many people to learn powerful change techniques quickly and easily.

NLP has its roots in the hypnotherapy of Milton Ericson, the family therapy of Virginia Satir, the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, and the eclectic wiseness of Gregory Bateson.


I believe that the essence of NLP is modelling:

  • Seeking to answer the question ‘how do you do that?’
  • Being curious and open-minded rather than judgmental and dogmatic.
  • Modelling what works and modelling what doesn’t.
  • Seeking out the difference that makes the difference.

In coaching it may mean modelling how you are when you are at your best and developing a more in-depth understanding of those ‘good days’ so you can have more of them.  In therapy that may mean modelling how you do your problem: how you know when to do it, what you do, what skills and abilities you utilize to do it.  Are there certain situations (experienced or imagined) where you don’t do the problem?  How do you not do it, and what do you do instead?  Looking at things from different perspectives can cause emotions to spontaneously release, realizations that certain beliefs no longer serve you.

The presuppositions of NLP

One of the best ways to understand NLP is to consider some of the assumptions (or ‘presuppositions’) on which it is built.

The map is not the territory

A map is a practical resource that helps us to find our way around.  For a map to be useful it needs to scale the size and complexity to a level which is useful to the user.  Maps of the same area can look quite different: a road map, ordinance survey map, and tube map for example.  We get used to the maps that we use and it is sometimes a surprise and frustration when reality seems to be different from what we expected: roadworks, unexpected boggy bits, or stations that look far apart but are only a few minutes walk above ground.

In life we make mental maps (or models) to help us make sense of our experiences.  We use these maps to help us to choose what to do next.  These maps are based on generalisations that we have distilled from our own experience or simply accepted from other people around us.  Certain information will be deleted from the map in order to make it simple to use.  Places of interest may be highlighted on the map in order to draw our attention – a form of distortion.

The way we experience the world is our personal reality.  When we realise that the map is not the territory it gives us the option of changing the map.  When the map changes, so does the reality of our experience.

People are doing the best they can and underlying every behaviour is a positive intention

If someone is behaving in a way which you perceive as ‘bad’ does that make them a bad person?  According to you, perhaps.  Would their mum agree?  The values that drive their behaviour may well be different to yours.  They may even be judging themselves as bad for what they are doing.

Is this kind of judging of behaviour useful?  In some contexts such as in court it is essential in order to protect others from the consequences of future actions.  In a therapy or coaching context it is more useful to assume that people are always doing their best … given the choices that they perceive are available to them.  This assumption is key to maintaining a relaxed and curious perspective on potentially challenging behaviours and can help create an environment in which everything is included and hidden truth can emerge.

There is no failure – only feedback

OK, so it is possible to fail your driving test.  But does that mean you are a failure?

There is a saying in NLP, ‘If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got’.  If you are attempting to get a certain outcome and it just isn’t happening then you can always work longer or harder.  If, however, these don’t work either then it might be time for a re-think?  And by trying something new perhaps you can get some more information?  This is the attitude of wanton experimentation … what’s the worst that could happen anyway?

The meaning of our communication is the response we get

Have you ever said something to someone and had them blow up in anger or run off in tears?  If we communicate a message to another person and they react in an unexpected way then we can always blame them for not understanding what we meant … but how useful is that?  Alternatively we can take their response as feedback and design our next question to gather more information about, say, their reaction.

People are always communicating, verbally and non-verbally.  Research (that hardly anyone who trots this statistic out has actually read!) suggests that only 7% of the meaning of our communication is through words.  The rest of the communication process takes place through body language, tone of voice and the various signals words cannot convey.  That’s means that 93% of what we communicate is not from our words!  Excellent communication is about using your whole self.  By developing your ability to be authentic – even when under pressure – you are increasing your power of communication and influence.

My relationship with NLP

NLP was the first modality that I was trained in.  I like the pragmatism and emphasis on experimentation.  Many of my favourite perspectives and ways of working (such as Clean Language and RAPSI) fall under the NLP umbrella and NLP practitioners are an open minded bunch when it comes to experimenting with new techniques.

As I was learning I did find some of the NLP terminology a bit complicated (‘meta-programmes’, ‘complex-equivalents’, ‘modal operators of necessity’, ‘VAKOG’, etc, etc).  I thought this was somewhat ironic for a subject to do with effective communication and I found the ‘mind as computer’ metaphor to be a bit mechanistic and lacking in humanity.  Luckily none of this jargon is required in sessions and the techniques eventually assimilated into a personal and responsive way of working.

My approach is rooted in modelling what is: ‘How are you?’, ‘And now what are you noticing?’; and exploring desire and possibility: ‘What would you like?’  By being curious about the answers to these questions I find that my clients’ issues unfold and transform.  I will not use NLP to ‘Re-programme your unconscious mind’ but rather to de-programme your learned responses in order to increase your overall level of consciousness.

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