What Is NLP?

A Brief Introduction To NLP

“You can’t experience delicious food by just reading a menu and you can’t experience NLP by reading about, but having a peak at the menu can still be fun.”

Question – how do you fit an elephant into a shoebox?
Answer – you can’t, it’s too big.

NLP is an elephant of a subject and this web-site only has a shoebox amount of space, so all we can do is (metaphorically) consider the elephants toenail.

If someone was good at skiing and you wanted to ski like them, what would you do? You could find out what they did that made them a good skier and then do the things they did. If you could compare what they did with what a bad skier did then you would know what to do and what not to do, you would have a good model of skiing.

You could do the same for driving skills, selling skills, in fact just about any skills. This process of finding out what someone does, and then passing on those skills to someone else, is called modelling, and NLP is a very accurate way of modelling.

NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming – here’s what the name means:

Neuro Meaning nerves and the nervous system
Linguistics The use of language
Neuro-Linguistics The branch of science and medicine concerned with how the nervous system influences language and how language influences the nervous system
Programming Carrying out a planned sequence of actions to get a pre-planned result
Neuro-Linguistic Programming Using language in a systematic and pre-determined fashion to achieved a planned result or outcome.

My interest is in applying NLP, language techniques and modelling to learning and memory skills.

In order to model someone’s excellence in, say, mental arithmetic, you would have to be able to question them about how they do mental arithmetic. To avoid leading them you would need very effective communication skills. NLP has at its core a very effective model of communication skills.

The challenge in explaining what NLP is, is that it is a whole field of study and not one single thing. NLP contains:

1 a whole set of beliefs about how to communicate with people
2 it uses a well defined model of questioning and listening skills
3 it borrows heavily from the field of clinical hypnosis in its approach to influencing skills and using language and metaphor
4 it incorporates a very effective set of exercises to help people change their behaviour (with applications as diverse as helping someone rid themselves of a phobia to acquiring skills in using computers)
5 NLP has specific and powerful techniques for deliberately creating rapport with another person
6 and it has a long and colourful history

Above all NLP is concerned with how people do things, not why they do them. If some is having difficulty learning a computer the NLP approach is “what are they doing, specifically, to make it difficult to learn?” rather than “why aren’t they learning?” The result of this is to define the structure of their behaviour (perhaps they are becoming physically tense whilst learning and thus reducing their ability to concentrate) which allows them to change the structure and get a better result (they could then deliberately relax and concentrate better.)

The Beliefs Of NLP
NLP has at its core a set of beliefs about communicating with other people. These beliefs were derived by modelling some excellent communicators (see the History of NLP).

No-one is saying that these beliefs are true, but if you pretend that they are true, if you act as though they are true, then you are likely to communicate more effectively with other people. Here are some of the beliefs:

The meaning of your communication or behaviour is the response it gets Remember – this is isn’t “true”, but if you “act as though it’s true” you’ll get different results. If I explain a computer programme to someone and they get confused then my communication was confusing (regardless of how clear I thought I was being), I could then explain it again in a different way. The point is that I take responsibility for the effect of my communication.
If I took the opposite view (i.e. the meaning of my communication is whatever I choose it to mean) then I would be more likely to explain it once and if they get confused just give up and say “well it’s their fault if they don’t understand”.

Every communication or behaviour has a positive intention No-one’s trying to claim, for example, that violent behaviour is acceptable, but in terms of our communicating with people it can be more effective to work on the assumption that even people who are being difficult, awkward or stupid are still motivated by some positive intention. We can then work to find what their intention is and help them find a more acceptable way of achieving it.

Everyone has their own unique map of the world As we go through life we each accumulate our own unique set of beliefs and memories and ideas and attitudes. It can be a real challenge sometimes to believe that other people do not share our beliefs and sometimes even have beliefs that are radically different from our own. NLP works on the basis of acting as though each individuals’ beliefs are absolutely real for that person, even if they don’t seem real to us.

People make their decisions based on their map not on the world itself NLP acts as if we cannot experience the world directly but only through our senses and through our mental “map” of the world. In this way we base our decisions and actions on our own unique belief about the world and not on the world itself.

The map is not the territory This map of the world on which we base our decisions is not a wholly and completely accurate map of the real world, it is only an approximation, and is likely to be quite limited in some ways. This can often mean that peoples’ decisions and behaviours can be quite limited.

Memory and imagination use the same neurological pathways The brain only has one set of nerves for dealing with information. If someone imagines what their favourite meal will be like the brain can’t tell the difference between the imagination and the memory of a real meal – the two thoughts will have the same effect, i.e. a watering mouth. In the same way thinking upsetting but imaginary thoughts (such as “what would happen if I lost my job”) can be just as distressing as experiencing the same event for real.
Similarly, thinking happy thoughts has as powerful effect as actually experiencing a happy event. (Clinical investigations show that “positive thinking” causes a fundamental change in brain chemistry!)

The Model Of Questioning And Listening
The model is based on the idea that we think so much faster than we can talk and we think many more thoughts than we can ever speak. When trying to find out what someone is thinking we cannot read their thoughts directly, we can only use their language (both verbal and non-verbal).

But how much is lost in the transition from a myriad of lightning fast thoughts and memories to a few mumbled words? If we want to know what someone is thinking (let’s call it the ‘deep structure’) we have to start with the clues in the language they give us (let’s call that the ‘surface structure’) and then ask questions to fill in the blanks.

When people construct a sentence they will often (as an unconscious process) delete a lot of information. Instead of referring to someone in detail they will use phrases such as “he said” or “they did”. We could then ask “who specifically?” – thus filling in some of the missing information.

People also tend to use generalisations – phrases like “I can never remember ‘phone numbers.” The chances are that they can remember their own number, so the sentence is not literally true. What we could then do is find out which examples are they missing out and which are they concentrating on.

By using this model of questioning, called the Meta Model, we can help people find out what assumptions they are making, which examples of success they are overlooking, which useful bits of information they have missed out; rather than just assuming that what someone says is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

As with most things in NLP, the Meta Model loses something in the translation, it’s far more educational to hear it in action!

Influencing Skills And The Artful Use Of Language
When you read the History of NLP page you’ll recall how the world famous hypnotherapist, Milton H Erickson MD, was modelled extensively by Bandler and Grinder (the co-developers of NLP) to find out how he so successfully influenced people to help them give up addictions, repair relationships and improve the quality of their lives.

Erickson used language in a particularly skilful way. He used stories and metaphors to get his message over, he used whatever style was appropriate to his client rather than using just one preferred style (which is what many therapists, counsellors and trainers tend to do).

Exactly how such language forms are used is beyond the scope of this introduction.

Exercises To Change Behaviour
These exercises involve different visual and language exercises to help an individual change the structure of their experience.

People who are having problems speaking in public often go through a sequence of mental actions (each individual may go through a different sequence but each individual is consistent):

1. see the audience
2. imagine them staring at me
3. hear them criticising me
4. feel tense and have butterflies in the stomach
5. call this sensation “fear”

NLP has many exercises to help the individual re-write this little script, so that it might then go:

1. see the audience
2. imagine them smiling at me
3. hear them giving me words of encouragement
4. feel tense and have butterflies in the stomach
5. call this sensation “excitement”

Provided that this sequence is appropriate to the needs and beliefs of the individual it is likely to have a much more resourceful result than running the first script.

Other NLP exercises can help change limiting beliefs (from “I can’t” to “I can”), change the meaning of past events (from “they ruined my life” to “they may have caused me pain in the past but my future is beautiful”), change future expectations (from “this interview is going to be horrible” to “this interview might be challenging”) and so on.

The key feature of many of the NLP techniques is that they are powerful. If someone repeats to themselves “every day in every way I am getting better and better”, but uses a whining tone of voice, sags their shoulders, looks down at their shoes whilst thinking big pictures of failure then the positive affirmation is not going to have much effect.

If instead they created powerful images of times when they have been happy and have dealt successfully with problems and really felt the happiness throughout their body and then deliberately linked this with what they were planning to do during the day, they are likely to have a better day and actually get better and better.

Creating Rapport
Rapport is when two people are “in tune with each other”, or “on the same wavelength”, or “seeing eye to eye”.

It’s difficult to describe, rapport has to be experienced. When two people are in rapport then they are able to communicate with maximum effectiveness and clarity. There is also no such thing as “bad rapport”.

NLP has a whole collection of methods for creating rapport, but these have to be experienced, they cannot be described.

The History Of NLP

Here’s my very brief and unofficial history as I have come to understand it, of what is now called NLP:

In 1972 a young man named Richard Bandler enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Richard majored in mathematics and computer science but changed to study his other interest – behavioural science.

Richard ran various workshops and study groups on Gestalt Therapy and other forms of therapy. In his fourth year he had the chance to present his own seminar as part of his degree course and this was supervised by John Grinder (pronounced ‘Grinnder’) who was working to become a professor. Grinder was a linguist who had studied the work of Noam Chomsky on the theory of linguistics.

Bandler and Grinder continued to work together on their shared interest in Gestalt Therapy. What was to become NLP grew out of the extrovert personalities of these two men. Their aim was simply to find out what worked, what skills and techniques would help someone overcome a problem. The idea of the sympathetic therapist was dropped in favour of the “if it works, use it – if it doesn’t work, try something else” approach.

Bandler continued to run his increasingly popular workshops on therapies and then started working with Grinder to model his (Bandlers’) own skills. Their work on modelling (see Modelling A Style in the NLP In Training section) covered Fritz Perls, the originator of Gestalt Therapy and Vaginia Satir the renowned family therapist.

The models they developed of Perls’ and Satirs’ work lead to the idea of parts. Many people will use phrases such as “part of me agrees with you and part of me disagrees”, these ‘parts’ can be a useful phenomena and tool to work with in therapy (and later in training, coaching and so on).

A group of people formed around Bandler and Grinder and together they explored new techniques and new skills and started to develop a collection of approaches and models, a collection still without a name. This collection was drawn from their playing with techniques from all sorts of disciplines, finding what worked and what didn’t work.

One of the models they developed was called the Meta Model. They would role play having a problem and the person playing the role of the therapist would practice specific question forms to discover the structure of the persons ‘problem’.

The Meta Model became such a powerful and useful tool for helping people solve problems that it was written up and published around the end of 1974 in the first “NLP” book The Structure Of Magic. The idea behind the title was that highly effective communicators seem to be able to almost work magic, the book describes the specifics of what they did to create that magic, it looked at the ‘structure’ of the magic.

The group continued to work with other approaches, asking interesting questions, such as “when someone says ‘I see what you mean’ are the actually making pictures?” Thus a structural correlation was uncovered between the language someone used and what they were thinking.

It was around this time that the term Neuro-Linguistic Programming was thought up. (I still haven’t found a definitive explanation as to who thought up the name and how they thought of it – although there have been all sorts of interesting stories!)

A neighbour of Bandler and Grinder was the English philosopher Gregory Bateson. He suggested that they study the world renowned hypnotherapist Milton H Erickson. So Bandler and Grinder modelled Erickson, they thought about how he used metaphors and stories to induce trance and to help people remove life long phobias and overcome the effects of trauma.

This lead to the development of the Milton Model, now a key component of NLP, the method of using language to influence people. By now NLP comprised the language patterns of the Meta Model, therapeutic change techniques, modelling skills, the trance methods of the Milton Model and others.

Bandler and Grinder continued to run NLP workshops and other members of the group continued to apply NLP in new areas. Robert Dilts applied NLP to the area of health, David Gordon developed the use of metaphor as a specific and teachable language skill, Tad James developed the use of the TimeLine(tm).

From these workshops another book was written – Frogs Into Princes was the first NLP book for the layman. It described in non-technical language the skills and uses of NLP.

NLP has continued to evolve ever since and is now practiced in nearly every country in the world. It is applied to sales, training, coaching, therapy, management and virtually every endeavour which requires effective communication (which is to say virtually every human endeavour).