In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.
This week’s term: neuro-linguistic programming
Every so often I read something that refers to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), but 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.
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.” It was developed by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the 1970’s in the book The Structure of Magic. Wikipedia explains that according to these founders, challenging linguistic distortions can allow the grammatical concept of surface structure to better reflect underlying structures.
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.
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”.
While it hasn’t been generally accepted in the field of psychology, it is 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. A few years ago I did an excellent 2-day CBT workshop with Dr. Christine Padesky, co-author of Mind Over Mood. For a bit of perspective, the current equivalent of that workshop costs 1/3 less per day than Erickson’s NLP training.
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 NLP?
You can find the rest of the What Is series here.