What is NLP?
This brief leaflet has been produced by PPD Personal Development to
give those new to NLP some information on the definition, background and
application of NLP. We hope you find it useful. If you have any questions,
or would like any further information, please feel free to call Judith Lowe
on 01372 277 123.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has many strengths, but a clear and
helpful name isn't one of them! Fortunately, it can be defined straight-forwardly
as "the study of excellence."
NLP was born when John Grinder, a linguist, and Richard Bandler, a mathematician,
asked them-selves a simple yet fascinating question: What is it that makes
the difference between some-body who is merely competent at any given skill
and somebody who 'excels' at the same skill.
People typically answer that question in one of two ways. Either that some
people have natural gifts or talents for a particular skill, or that practice
and experience is what counts.
NLP side-steps these answers by focusing not on what has made the difference
in the past between two people of different abilities, but on what can be
done now to turn the competent person's performance into one of excellence.
NLP proposes that there are three elements to any skill or behaviour.
First, there is the external behaviour. That is, what the person actually
does and says.
Second, there is the person's internal computation. That is, what they
think and the way in which they think.
And third, there is the person's internal state. That is, what and how
Each of these three elements can be examined in detail. A movement, for
example, can be reduced to the level of micro-muscle movements. An internal
image can be defined by size, position, colour, contrast and so on. An internal
voice by the words themselves, tone of voice, volume, location and similar.
A feeling can be described by position, intensity, temperature, direction
By following this process, it is possible to build up an extremely comprehensive
model of any excellent behaviour. This model of excellence can then be acquired
by the competent person simply by reversing the process; the competent person
makes the same movements, images, voices, feelings.
In some cases, we may need to expand our model to include such things as
beliefs and what NLP call `perceptual filters': the ways in which our past
experiences affect the way we now perceive the world.
Modelling need not involve someone else. It is equally possible to model
yourself. Suppose for example, that you feel nervous when you have to speak
to a large group of people. Instead of finding someone who is a confident
public speaker and modelling them, you could simply find a different situation
in which you feel confident (perhaps talking to two or three people) and
model yourself in that context.
NLP is the name given to a set of tools, techniques and approaches used
to carry out this transformation.
The type of modelling we have described has long been applied to the objective
world. Most of the science we now call engineering, for example, came about
by people studying what worked in natural structures, working out the principles
involved and then applying those same principles to new structures.
NLP simply applies the same process to excellence in people. It studies
the underlying structures of the skills, behaviours and experiences of excellence,
and then assists people in using those structures effectively. Thus NLP
is sometimes defined as "the study of the structure of subjective experience."
NLP has been successfully applied to the fields of business, sport, therapy,
education and the performing arts. The tools it offers can be applied equally
well to any human activity.
In modelling examples of excellence in fields as diverse as hypnotherapy,
tennis, training, acting and team management, NLP has also developed a number
of specific models of excellence which are now considered part of NLP. Examples
include a highly successful phobia cure, an elegant format for resolving
internal conflict, and an impressive format for running streamlined meetings.
These models are typically taught as part of NLP training programmes.
The work done using NLP has also resulted in a number of attitudes, or
presuppositions, which seem to be useful when aiming for excellence. Note
that NLP doesn't claim that these presuppositions are true, merely that
it is useful to behave as is they are.
The distinction is an important one. NLP doesn't insist that you change
your beliefs about the world; merely that you be prepared to experiment
with other approaches. It's rather like catching a train to an important
meeting it may not be true that British Rail timetables are unreliable,
but - if it is important to be at the meeting on time - it might be useful
to behave as if they are, and phone first to check that the train is running.
Among the presuppositions normally presented on NLP trainings are:
The map is not the territory
In other words, the description of an experience is not the same as the
experience itself. We live in a world in which we pay a good deal of attention
to words. We often behave as if words were a direct and undeniably accurate
description of ex-perience. NLP invites us to make a distinction between
the words, and the experience they describe.
Choice is always better than no choice
Most of us have an understandable tendency, when we succeed in something,
to view our successful approach as the 'right' approach to use in future.
NLP suggests that, even when we have behaviours that work perfectly, it
is still useful to have other options: to be able to choose from several
successful behaviours. That way, if one of them turns out not to work, we
have other successful behaviours to call on.
There is no failure, only feedback
When things don't work out the way we'd hoped they would, a common response
is to consider that we 'failed'. NLP offers and alternative view. That what
actually happened is neither good nor bad, but merely information. Think
back to when you learnt to drive. You almost certainly crunched the gears
at some point. That didn't mean that you failed as a driver and would never
be able to operate the gearbox: it simply meant that changing gear in that
particular way didn't produce the result you wanted. You then used that
information to improve the way that you changed gears.
The meaning of the communication is the response it produces
This follows on from the previous presupposition. If our communications
don't produce the responses we would like, we can either decide that the
other person is to 'blame' for not responding appropriately, or we can simply
accept that our communication produced the result it did and decide what
we would like to do now. The first approach leaves us powerless: we are
in the hands of the other person. The latter approach enables us to treat
the response as information and change our behaviour accordingly. This places
us in the powerful position of a flexible communicator willing to take responsibility
for achieving things we would like. (We use the word 'responsibility' in
its literal sense - the ability to respond.)
You'll hear quite a lot in NLP about three ways of doing things. NLP takes
the view that one option is (obviously) no choice at all, two options is
a dilemma and that choice only begins when you have at least three approaches.
Having at least three powerful approaches to any goal, and being willing
to use whichever option is most appropriate at the time is what NLP refers
to as behavioural flexibility.
One of the most powerful forms of behavioural flexibility is what NLP calls
first, second and third person shifts.
When we are experiencing things through our own eyes and ears, we are said
to be associated, or in the first person. If we now wonder how someone else
is experiencing, and `put ourselves in their shoes', we are said to be in
the second person; and if we see and hear both our-self and the other people
as if we were an observer, we are said to be dissociated or in the third
We all switch between first, second and third person quite naturally, often
without being really aware that we are doing it. NLP teaches the skill of
deliberately shifting consciousness in this way to gather information -
to see things literally from another person's point of view.
And where did that awful name come from? Despite the numerous and amusing
apocryphal stories, the truth is that the co-founders of NLP, Grinder and
Bandler, were in a log-cabin high in the hills behind Santa Cruz, pulling
together the insights and discoveries that were to result in the book The
Structure of Magic. Towards the end of the marathon 36-hour session, they
say down with a bottle of Californian white wine and asked themselves "what
on earth shall we call it?"
Grinder says the result was "Neuro" because the results we were discovering
seemed to operate at the level of neurology; "Linguistic" because
of the ways in which language patterns reveal and impact our neurology;
and "programming" because the new discoveries enable us to break
free of the way we have been programmed by socialisation, and offer us new