First published in The A-Z of Alternative Medicine,
1995 (Second Edition)
and then in Positive Health
Magazine, Issue 9, Dec/Jan 1996
Different ways to Look at, Talk about, and get to Grips with NLP
If you haven't already heard of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic
Programming), the chances are that you will soon (actually, now
you've read this far the chances are you'll hear more about it in the
next day or so - that's one of the ways our minds work).
Most of us go through life without thinking much about what goes
on inside our minds (except maybe sometimes to wish it was
'different'). Heads and bodies are supplied without instruction
manuals. If we enquire, then we are told that this is the province of
psycho-something-or-others each of whom has a different opinion. None
of these are necessarily 'wrong' but they aren't always very helpful.
The founders of NLP took a practical view and said: "It's your
brain - if you don't look after it, don't expect anyone else to."
They also discovered a model of the way minds work that is
straightforward and practical - the start of a user manual.
NLP is only a model. It isn't 'right' or 'wrong' it's only as
useful as it is useful. One of the basic tenets of NLP is "if it
isn't working, try something else" - and this applies to NLP as much
as anything else.
Minds are very complex, each of them is different and as a result we
all have different ways of relating to the world. Here are three
different descriptions of NLP. Dip into each of them and see which is
most to your liking:
- A description in terms of baking a cake.
- An interview with James Lawley who uses NLP in his work as a
counsellor and business consultant.
- A more formal description in terms of psychological and
1. Baking Cakes
Request from the CompuServe NLP Forum:
"Give me a working set of examples, definitions, ranges that
distinguishes NLP from something like Cake Baking."
OK. Here's a short explanation.
When you bake a cake you require several things - a list of
ingredients, a recipe, some physical skills. Most of these are
available to everyone yet some people consistently make better cakes
than others. At its essence NLP is the study of what make the
difference between world-class cake bakers and us mere mortals who
are just competent.
Most of the time the difference depends on what happens in our
heads - so, in your example, the question becomes: What is the
difference that makes a master caker? Can you teach someone else how
to be a master caker?
The answer to each of these is "Yes", though as you need to take
this on trust for a while please handle NLP in that part of your mind
where you test things out to see if they work. Now we need to address
the question of "How?". Here all I can do is offer a rough sketch but
it may give you a framework to build on.
We record our experiences internally by using only a few main
parameters: we see things in our mind's eye; we hear internal
sounds (often an internal voice that we talk or listen to); we
also feel things (combinations of muscular, sensory and chemical
actions in the body). In NLP these three parameters are termed
Visual (V), Auditory (A) and Kinaesthetic (K) and most experiences
are coded in one or more of these in some kind of combination.
If we code all experiences in (VAK) terms, then that includes
things that we imagine, or anticipate, as well as things that are
in the past. It follows then that we can construct (VAK) codings
and it further follows that we can change them. [Note that it's
quite important that we can tell what is 'real' and what is
The way (VAK) codings work is that they link to one another. So if
you see a fresh-baked cake you may begin to feel just a tad
hungry! These linkages can be changed (usually by providing a
better alternative). So given a choice between feeling depressed
or feeling good the mind an be coached to opt for feeling good. It
is also possible to associate a (VAK) code to something external,
like a touch on the shoulder.
You can coach your own mind, but it is sometimes easier if someone
else works with you. Your mind is more likely to accept this if
the coach has good rapport with you. The technology of rapport is
well established and involves "matching" of body posture,
movements, voice, language patterns, etc. At its highest level
this can make the coach have a very rich and open information
channel with you and seem to be a part of you.
Most of the coaching that your mind accepts and uses is taken in
the subconscious, it is not that which the 'logical' thinking mind
is comfortable with or knows how to deal with. So NLP gets into
so-called 'altered states'.
What minds often do with the coaching is to change the (VAK)
coding. For instance, pictures in the mind's eye can be changed in
brightness, size, position, framing, 2D-3D, moving or still,
colour or monochrome, etc. You can also watch yourself in them or
be in them. We also code things into past, present and future.
In order to do things we combine (VAK) codings in patterns which
are triggered at appropriate (or inappropriate times). In baking a
cake you might tell when it was nearly done by comparing the smell
with an internal coding, look (V) at the cake, touch it (K), hear
your mother's voice say "that's done" (A), check with internal
codings, see (V) if it feels (K) about right. These strategies can
be elicited and taught to someone else.
All of this coding operates in the structure of a particular
individual. This structure will include: specific behaviours,
physical states, beliefs and values, and other odds and ends that
make up their particular mind-set. Again it is possible to elicit
the key parts and to teach them. There are also some common
patterns of behaviour that can be identified which are sometimes
termed meta-programmes (another big chunk of NLP).
This, as you can imagine, is complex and much of NLP training
involves imparting understanding and skills. A lot of the work is
done through the very specific use of language. NLP identifies
some very subtle uses of language that can have profound effects.
There is more - much more, but this should be enough to give you a
2. The interview
Talking to James Lawley, NLP therapist and trainer, recently
Vice-chair of ANLP and Chair of the Psychotherapy and Counselling
Section. James continues to be instrumental in the process by which
NLP therapists to become validated psychotherapists registered with
Q. Tell me James, what is NLP?
NLP brings together the three most influential
components of experience: neurology , language and
Bob, you are in contact with the external world through your five
senses: sight, hearing, feelings, smell and taste. Your
neurology takes external stimuli and re-presents them to you
with a matching set of 'internal representations'. These form your
subjective experience; the internal world of your 'mind's eye', or
the pictures you make to yourself. It's the conversations, dialogues
or arguments you have with yourself. It's your feelings and emotions,
over which we used to think we had no control. The important point to
realise is that your experience is created by combinations of these
internal representations which form repeating patterns. These
patterns (or reactions) run over and over again unless they are
interrupted or redirected.
Your language determines how you influence and communicate
with others, and yourself. It is how we label our experience.
Empowering language generates empowered behaviour. Likewise, negative
thinking is the result of disempowering thoughts, often internal
dialogue out of our awareness, which limits choice.
The patterns you use affects the balance of your life. NLP
allows you to use your conscious thinking, your physiology, and your
unconscious processes to align yourself with the values and
principles by which you want to live.
Q. So, what kind of problem does NLP deal with?
The NLP approach isn't confined to any particular
symptoms or applications. It has been successfully applied to fields
as diverse as psychotherapy and counselling, sports psychology,
education, health, law and business.
NLP makes a significant contribution to helping people lose
phobias; deal with trauma; pick themselves up from depression;
resolve unhealthy relationships; maintain an appropriate weight loss;
stop smoking; and in hundreds of other ways when our lives aren't
working and we wish to change.
It's just as important to realise that NLP is not only about
solving problems, it's also about the pursuit of excellence, of
taking things that are working well and making them even better - in
all walks of life. For example: NLP is being used in sports
psychology to help access those states of mind and body needed to
ensure the repetition of peak performance. An athlete can use
positive statements like "I'm going to win this race," but if a voice
in their head says "No, way" there's not much chance of success. With
NLP, that voice can be changed to "Go for it!"
In education we teach spelling and highly effective learning
strategies to children. Doctors and barristers are making use of the
same NLP techniques for gathering high quality information from
patients and clients alike.
NLP is also used to study how belief systems influence wellness.
HOW doctors give information can either be a powerful tool for
recovery from illness, or unwittingly introduce a 'thought virus'
into their patients thinking.
Q. NLP seems to be very powerful, is it safe?
There are 'Ecology' checks built into its use. Before
using any NLP technique or method of exploration, practitioners are
trained to make a thorough examination of the effects the change will
have in the client's life, as well as in the lives of those around
For example, if you wished to move from a co-dependent
relationship to an empowered self, ALL of your relationships will be
impacted by this change and care taken to support you and prepare you
for the effects of those changes on significant others as you move
towards your goal.
Q. I'm still not sure how NLP works?
Nobel Prize-winner, Professor Gerald Edelman has spent
thirty years researching how the brain functions. He concludes that
the ten billion or more brain and nerve cells we have arrange
themselves into groups or 'maps' that correspond to our experience.
These maps allow you to make sense of the world and yourself.
Connections between cells that are frequently stimulated survive and
thrive; others atrophy or are diverted to other tasks.
NLP explores HOW you experience and utilise your own unique set of
maps. Many people have been told what is wrong in their lives.
NLP is about how to change unwanted behaviours - how
these unwanted behaviours have been serving you in some way (else
they would have changed by now!) - and how more choice can be
added so that ecological change can take place.
Q. OK, but what happens if something goes wrong?
All NLP Therapists who are members of the
Psychotherapy and Counselling Section (PCS) of the Association for
NLP are bound by a Code of Ethics. and are required to have
supervision from a more experienced therapist. Through ANLP, they're
in touch with a support network from which they can gain advice, or
refer a client who needs specialist help.
Should you have any concerns about your NLP Therapy or Therapist,
there is a complaints procedure which allows for informal mediation
or formal disciplinary proceedings.
Q. I've heard that NLP involves hypnotism. Is that true?
The originators of NLP studied a number of eminent
therapists including the work of Dr. Milton Erickson, a clinical
hypnotist and a master at helping his clients achieve happier and
more fulfilling lives. They discovered that one of Dr. Erickson's
most effective tools was his use of language. They incorporated much
of his approach into NLP and combined it with other therapeutic
models. This means there are times when a very relaxed, inwardly
focused state might best serve your needs. This is akin to the
'visualisation' and relaxation used by many therapies.
Some therapists, however, use a combination of NLP and formal
hypnosis. It is always useful to discuss a therapist's method before
you start so that you can discover a fit with your own preferred way
of making appropriate changes to your life.
Q. How does NLP compare with other forms of therapy?
As well as the work of Milton Erickson the originators
of NLP studied Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, Virginia
Satir a developer of Family Systems Therapy and many other
outstanding performers in different fields. NLP was born by
identifying what was effective, regardless of the approach being
used. Thus NLP has unique elements as well elements which overlap
with other approaches.
Q. Why should I choose NLP?
NLP focuses on what you want, how you want to be, and
how to find the resources and attributes you already have to assist
you in making changes. This means dramatic improvements in your life
can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time.
The psychological model
The foundation of NLP is a way of thinking about
people which has proved practical and effective in a wide range of
applications and situations. This way of thinking is not held to be
'true', just as a useful model for practical purposes. The model is
organic and changes as new applications are explored; it is broadly
based and draws on and integrates concepts and understanding from
many areas of psychology and psychotherapy. The strongest strands are
from the Gestalt, Family and Brief therapy schools and Humanistic
psychology; next the fields of systems thinking and linguistics,
especially the work of Bateson, Watzlawick, et al and Chomsky's
transformational grammar; there are also recognisable strands from
Behavioural psychology and the concept of the unconscious taken from
The NLP model holds that each individual constructs their own 'map
of the world' based on their perception of their experience and that
they act, in accordance with their map, in the way that seems best to
them at the time. The map is constructed by the individual taking
their sensory experience of the world (what they see, hear, feel,
taste and smell); applying internal filters (derived from their map)
to those inputs which delete some parts of the experience; distorting
the experience to fit with the expectations of their map; and,
sometimes, generalising the experience by inferring patterns or rules
which are then added to the map.
The map is stored by the individual in their mind and body as a
set of experiences (images, sounds, feelings, tastes, smells) which
can be linked into patterns. These may link external experience to
internal: The taste of the madelaine recalls my youth;
internal experience to internal: When I imagine them together I
feel jealous; or internal to external: I tell myself "one more
won't hurt", so I take it.
The individual encodes their experiences so that they can
distinguish between experiences which are 'good' and 'bad', 'real'
and 'imaginary', 'past', 'present' or 'future'. This coding is
effected by changing the form of the internal representation, e.g.
'good' experiences may be imagined as large full-coloured pictures,
'bad' ones as small black and white images. This coding may be so
familiar that it is out of conscious awareness, as driving a familiar
route may be done without awareness.
The therapeutic model
The NLP therapist assumes the NLP model to be true for
practical therapeutic purposes. The client thus presents with a
'present state' which is in some way unsatisfactory, and a 'map of
the world' which embodies their perceptions of their past present and
future. The emphasis of the therapist is on how the client constructs
their present state, not on analysis of why.
NLP psychotherapy is a client centred therapeutic approach. The
basic remedial model for change is that the client is able to find
resources in their own experience to add to the present state so they
can reach a more desirable state.
The role of the therapist is that of an active facilitator. The
NLP therapist helps the client: identify their desired state; be sure
that this state is appropriate, or 'ecological', for the client as a
whole; and then to identify an apply the appropriate internal
resources. To be effective, the therapist builds a high level of
rapport with the client using a set of techniques identified in the
NLP model but widely applicable to other human communications.
In working with the client in this way the NLP therapist can draw
on a broad set of techniques based on the NLP model which have proved
effective in dealing with different forms of limiting present state.
Some of these techniques operate at a simple behavioural level,
others involve the client in changing limiting beliefs and thereby
opening up more choices. Whilst considerable time may be taken in
working with the client to gain a clear understanding of the present
and desired states, the change process is typically brief compared
with other types of psychotherapy.
As in all therapies there are dangers of creating expectations
which cannot be realised. NLP psychotherapy stresses the concept of
ecology, for client and therapist, in change work and ecological
steps are built into most of the techniques. The changes sought must
be truly representative of the whole person and not just appropriate
to one part or careless of the potential adverse consequences of
©1993, 1994 Bob Janes & James Lawley
Last modified 11.1.01