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Is NLP Therapy or Coaching?
By Nicholas Evans. © Active NLP Ltd

Welcome and thanks for taking the time to read a fresh take on NLP

Firstly NLP is hard to define, if you think of it as therapy you get a sense that it's scope is too narrow; and if you think of it as coaching you are conscious of it being so much more. The stock answer of "nuro refers to the mind, linguistic to language and programming refers to the mind" doesn't help much either

There's more to it than meets the eye!

To be fair, NLP is rarely explained in such a simplistic way in face to face encounters person to person. That explanation is mainly used in the 'what is nlp? pages of webites (I've used it in mine). That is not to say there aren't some practitioners who are aren't interested in looking any deeper, even some NLP trainers have little motivation to go beyond a superficial understanding of their subject. In some cases they are just not interested and those that have looked into it more deeply are still unable to put their finger on exactly what it is.

Here's my understanding
In essence NLP is a core collection of patterns, skills and ideas created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s. Other developers, authors and trainers have since added their own variations to this core collection and now NLP can seem like nothing more than a huge collection of pre-defined techniques with strict rules about which step comes first, when to do this technique and when to that one.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The core patterns identified by mssrs Bandler & Grinder still define NLP today and in my opinion give it its strength. These patterns were the result of modelling exceptional people and adding on bits here and there, relating it to quantum mechanics or supernatural entities such as 'the universe' or any of the other spurious practices that it seems to invite is just diluting the unique and inspired work of genius that it is.

So what is it?
The twin beating hearts at the centre of NLP are the linguistic patterns "Meta Model" and "Milton model." Of those patterns that can be characterised as 'behavioural' rather than linguistic two stand out above the rest; "Spacial Sorting" and "Perceptual Positions."

Spatial sorting is taking mental concepts and giving them a physical location. The idea of time is a good example. Someone may have a concept of time that 'feels' like the past is behind them and the future in front. By drawing a physical line on the floor one is able to physically walk back into the past and consider previous experiences. A good practitioner uses NLP skills like 're-framing' and the Meta Model to guide their subject through this framework in a way that helps them to re-evaluate their past.

Huge 'Ah Ha moments' are very common in NLP.

Perceptual Positions describe the different perspectives we can take up when considering any aspect of human activity. We can see it through our own eyes, we can imagine what someone else sees and thinks about it like that and we can take up various levels of objectivity like a 'fly on the wall' point of view. The Double V-K dissociation process now known more populaly as the 'rewind technique' makes excellent use of this ability to evaluate events from multiple persepctives.
It involves imagining a large TV screen in fornt of you and seeing yourself up on the screen going through a past experience. Again, a skilled practitioner guides the person through the process, using NLP language skills and principles.

The terminology suggests that Perceptual Positions are part of our visual experience only but there are also common expressions such as; "Put yourself in my shoes." which mean the same thing and point to a kinesthetic experience

One can use these patterns and skills on self or others. To use them either way requires a good training. They are difficult to master from a book or DVD and should definitely be learnt in a face to face training environment, especially if you intend to use them professionally.

So why do some call NLP new age pseudo science?
Probably because it is a victim of its own success.
Think of it like this, lets say there are 8 core patterns to the NLP model (along with the supporting principles called (presuppositions).
  • Anchoring
  • Spatial sorting
  • Reframing
  • Perceptual positions
  • Meta/Milton model
  • Sub-modality mapping
  • Parts work
  • Chunking
Only 8 elements but you could get over 40,000 different permutations with just those (I'm trusting McDonald's math equations here as they did it for their 8 item menu).
Anyway it's a lot. This I believe is what has happened to NLP over the years, techniques and processes have been drawn up on paper that are logically sound, BUT, when you come to use them in the real world they don't work. It is very seductive to think that all you have to do is change an internal picture from colour to black and white and that will make everything OK, especially if you have no experience of coaching or therapy and you want a guaranteed result. It must seem like a dream come true, the ability to 'heal' emotional pain and bad memories in 20 minutes. Who wouldn't want that? However, the reality is that "sub-modality mapping" is an art and a skill like everything else in NLP and getting the person to a place where the mapping has a chance of being effective is a skill too. Exaggerated claims of 'quick fixes' do us no favours. The techniques may be magical but the skills required to pull them off require hard word, study and practice.

NLP techniques, when used as frameworks (patterns) by skilled practitioners create a space in which people can learn and change, sometimes in ways that completely transform their lives and the lives of those around them. To use NLP in this way requires wisdom, intuition, passion and flexibility, all of which you will find highly valued on any of my trainings.

NLP has no theoretical foundations?
Again not the case! But is a common misconception. One argument is it's because NLP had such charasmatic developers who remain unchallenged. I don't think so. Maybe, back in the 70s the young developers of NLP proudly asserted that their aim was to create effective models without reference to theory and truth. But it is a sophisticated argument they make not the blunt point many take it to be. Unfortunately there are a lot of practitioners who do take it at face value, their most common response when confronted by contradicory evidence being "It doesn't matter if it's true or not, just act as if it is". This is actually a very sensible way to proceed in a contingent world where you can back up pretty much anything with 'science' but it must be tempered with common sense. And yes, it does leave NLP open to criticism that it is anti intellectual, part of the human potential movement, a cult, and not least that all its practitioners, teachers and leaders are ignorant of the most basic theoretical foundations of psychology. But that is certainly not true of the early developers. They couldn't have made those early discoveries about subjective experience without knowing what they were looking for or explained it without reference to existing terminology.

Miracle cures? Unfortunately, I've met many, many practitioners who seem oblivious to the body of work and theoretical foundations that NLP can be identified with. For some being told truth doesn't matter and to 'just act as if it's true' soon becomes constricting and they turn away from NLP. Others adopt it with ferocity (I was at a practice group several years ago being shown a technique that would make me feel differently about someone in my life. I stood in one corner of the room and thought about the person, then stood in a different corner and was told to think about them differently. When I said I still felt the same I was told it that was because I hadn't believed hard enough that it would work!).

I'm a big believer in the power of belief but just standing in a different spot on the carpet and wishing it was so is going too far. The person running the group was guilty of the elementary NLP schoolboy error;

putting all the credit and power in the technique itself.

This kind of practitioner treats NLP techniques like Chinese herbal medicine, selecting the appropriate "cure" for a presenting symptom. The first thing to realise is that the techniques are nothing without a skilled practitioner. It is you who effects the change on others not the process on its own and if you want to make amazing changes in self or on others then invest in a course with some depth rather than one that promotes a kind of 'emporers new clothes' atmosphere where you get at least one miracle cure a day perfomed on a delegate. Miracle cures may look great in the classroom but not so much when you get out into the real world and realise you can't replicate any of it.

A final Note If you want to understand what NLP is and what it isn't, and get that information straight from the horses mouth as it were, then please the article by Richard Bandler.

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