What Is… Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)

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In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is neuro-linguistic programming.

Every so often, I read something that refers to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). I really had no idea what it was, so I thought it was worth taking a closer look.

The site nlp.com likens NLP to a “user’s manual for the brain.” It states that “Your unconscious mind is not out to get you–rather, it’s out to get for you whatever you want in life. However, if you don’t know how to communicate what you want properly, it will keep bringing steaming bowls of liver stew out of the kitchen.” This reminded me a bit of the law of attraction, but substituting your unconscious for the universe.

Fundamentals of NLP

According to NLP University, NLP is based on two fundamental principles: “the map is not the territory” (i.e. there is more to reality than we can perceive) and “life and ‘mind’ are systemic processes” that form an “ecology of complex systems and subsystems all of which interact.”

John Grinder and Richard Bandler developed it in the 1970s in the book The Structure of Magic. They argued challenging linguistic distortions can allow the grammatical concept of surface structure to better reflect underlying structures.

Wikipedia has a page devoted specifically to NLP techniques. Modelling is a key learning process by adopting the language and behaviours of another person. People create and modify internal “maps”, and the Meta-model uses questions and language patterns that can affect this map. Anchors are stimuli that can be used to connect to target emotional states. VK/D, or visual/kinetic dissociation, is used to disconnect negative emotions from past events. “Covert hypnosis” may also be used, a technique referred to by one NLP practitioner as “slight-of-mouth”.

Pseudoscience & pop psychology

Wikipedia cites several credible references that dismiss NLP as pseudoscience with no high-quality research evidence to support its effectiveness. Citing several academic references, Wikipedia states that NLP “uses jargon words to impress readers and obfuscate ideas, whereas NLP itself does not relate any phenomena to neural structures and has nothing in common with linguistics or programming.” It also cites several authors who have characterized NLP as a New Age psycho-religion.

NLP has stayed in the realm of pop psychology and hasn’t been generally accepted in the field of psychology. However, it’s used by some hypnotherapists and has been used in leadership training. It also became popular in the human potential movement. While the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy recognizes “neurolinguistic psychotherapy”, there is no standardized NLP training or professional regulation. Erickson Coaching International offers a 3-day course to become a “certified neuro linguistic (NLP) practitioner.” NLP University does not appear to be accredited as an actual university, and does not claim to grant degrees. Contrast this to the master’s degree that is required to become a clinical counsellor.

My sense from what I’ve read is that even if NLP does have some useful concepts, that’s more by accident than through sound theoretical development. I’m always skeptical when there are no standardized credentials, because you never really know what you’re getting in a given practitioner. I’ve never known anyone who has done any training or had some form of direct experience with NLP, and I’d be very curious to hear from someone who has.

What are your thoughts on neuro-linguistic programming?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

11 thoughts on “What Is… Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)”

  1. It sounds totally dodgy. I am very skeptical of any therapeutic approach whose model resembles that of a business or a religious sect: centred on the original developers, theoretical basis cobbled together from outmoded or implausible ideas, brand names and logos, trademarked jargon, expensive training that is often only obainable at their own training institutes, “merchandise” eg books, videos etc, only available information on the techniques sounds like advertising copy or testimonials etc. Occasionally elements of these techniques actually work, but I’ve usually found that those are very similar to established approaches with a good track record eg I think the theory behind craniosacral therapy is totally nuts, but the general principle of therapeutic touch + empathic relationship is effective, as are behavioural activation techniques or thought challenging techniques like those used in CBT

    1. I’ve also noticed that these sort of setups are, if not founded by narcissists and sociopaths, at the very least a magnet for them.

      1. Seems to be a case of people writing something off because they don’t understand it or fear it, or think it is beneath them. Or maybe I shouldn’t try to debate with people who are more intelligent than me. 🤷🏼‍♀️

        1. I think sometimes if one takes a particular approach as the whole package with all the ideas associated with it the picture may be quite different than a skilled pracitioner who skillfully incorporates the most useful parts of that approach along with other different approaches.

    1. When I made the comment about sociopaths and narcissists I was thinking more in terms of the people at the top or who profit from selling the training and merchandise than therapists who simply learn and use the techniques, and there was no implication that any given therapist – including yours – has either of those traits. I have strong opinions and a high degree of skepticism about a whole range of mental health interventions, including many that are accepted as mainstream and which supposedly have a good evidence base (assuming that unfavourable studies have not been suppressed as is the case for many psychiatric drugs), because I have suffered personal harm and seen others suffer harm as a result of these – so the part of your comment about being scared is quite correct. It sounds like your experience has been very different, and I’m genuinely glad that you have a therapist you trust and whose techniques are working for you.

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