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While writing her third book* on NLP, Monique Esser asked if I could write a short paper on the 'the original ethos of NLP' for possible inclusion in her forthcoming book "NLP dans la pratique de la psychothérapie" (NLP in therapeutic practice).

My first attempt was:

The Original Ethos of NLP

In the beginning was an ethos, a characteristic spirit of a community. Judith DeLozier says: "The discipline known as NLP began before it had a name with an interdisciplinary community of people (Richard Bandler, John Grinder, Leslie Cameron, Mary Beth Megus, David Gordon, Robert Dilts, and myself, to name but a few). We were motivated by a shared curiosity about how we know, about how we learn, how we communicate, and how we change. And how we can influence the process of change in a well-formed, ecological way. The patterns of NLP were not imparted to us, but unfolded in our learning." Today we would call this a "community of practice" (Lave & Wenger) — the practise of modelling the way human beings organise their internal experience.

In time Grinder and Bandler created a new form of bottom-up modelling. In perhaps the earliest written description of NLP as a field, Robert Dilts noted that NLP was "open to change or expand in accordance with its own findings". And the key criteria by which NLP changed and expanded was the pragmatic philosophy and Darwinian selectional process of ‘use what works’.

The group that formed around Bandler and Grinder used examples of actual experience out of which models and techniques emerged. And, as DeLozier recalls, "a lot came out of the answer to one question: 'How do you know?'. The epistemological question. People would say, 'Oh, I'm going to the show tonight.' And we would ask, 'How do you know?' We began to notice that they made eye movements, and we would wonder what was going on. And they would say, 'Well, I can see myself going to the show.' And we found out that they really do see something. We started connecting together the patterns of physiology, of language and of internal state. Once you understand the level of what patterns are involved, you can create your own patterns." And create their own patterns they did — often by borrowing from other disciplines such as Transformational Grammar, Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence. However, these applications or ‘trail of techniques’ are the end result of modelling and not modelling itself.

Richard Bandler has said that NLP is 95% information gathering and 5% change-work.  Before they had the hundreds of techniques we have now, how did Bandler and Grinder facilitate change? Primarily by modelling. And why? In part because both of them had already developed modeling skills, and in part by studying Satir, Perls and Erickson they discovered that these therapists knew what to do because they too were brilliant intuitive modellers.

Twenty years later Penny Tompkins and I modelled another superb therapist, David Grove, and we found that he too was a modeller par excellence. Penny and I call the process of bottom-up modelling the way people organise and can change the structure of their subjective experience, ‘therapeutic modelling’.

Within the NLP community today, those who share the original ethos are continuing to discover new “patterns unfolded in our learning”.

James Lawley, 8 December 2007.

DeLozier, J  ‘Mastery, New Coding and Systemic NLP’, NLP World, Vol. 2, No. 1, March 1995
Dilts, R B,  Roots of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Meta Publications, 1983
Lave, J & Wenger E, Situated Learning, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Lawley, J & Tompkins, P, ‘What is Therapeutic Modelling?ReSource Magazine Issue 8, April 2006.

* Monique Esser, La P.N.L. en perspective, (1st Edition Labor, 1993, 2nd edition, Communication, 2000)

Monique asked some follow up questions which I answered on 27 Dec 2007:
Can you define what you mean by original "ethos" of NLP since this word is much more meaningful in the anglo saxon tradition than in the continental tradition?

'Ethos' is the characteristic spirit of a community. It encompasses the principles, value system or disposition by which a community, consciously or otherwise, maintains an identity and by which decisions are made. The term a "community of practice" highlights that an ethos is not an abstract idea but involves the living practices around which a community gains knowledge, skills and experience. [ref. 1]

In the beginning, when Richard Bandler and John Grinder started their collaboration, not only were there no NLP processes, there was no NLP.  Instead they had to rely on what they observed and what they experienced when they took on an exemplar's behaviour. They formulated their ideas and methods based on the patterns they had detected from live examples. These patterns of internal and external behaviour were tested by using them in the real world. This was not a linear process because it involved several feedback loops. It was a multi-level systemic process. In other words, Bandler and Grinder worked from the ground of behaviour of individuals up to a generalised model of human experience.  This is the essence of what John McWhirter calls 'product modelling'. [ref. 2]

When Grinder, Bandler and the other early adopters worked with clients, they had to use similar (bottom-up) processes because they had yet to develop many techniques. In the absence of the guiding hand of a technique they paid exquisite attention to what the client actually said and did, and responded to that. Without techniques they had to rely on modelling and in-the-moment utilisation. This meant they had no choice but to focus on the individual — both in terms of the client's actual behaviour happening right in front of them, and in terms of working with the idiosyncratic aspects of the client. In other words, they worked from the ground of the client's behaviour up to a generalised model of this client's map of the world.  This is the essence of what Penny Tompkins and I call 'therapeutic modelling'. [ref. 3]

Can you clarify:
  • shifting /sliding from a down-top theory to a top-down  theory
  • shifting /sliding from an individual focused work to a technique focused work
  • The effects of both on NLP
As the number of NLP techniques grew so did the propensity to use them. Over time the skills of bottom-up modelling were replaced by a top-down technique-based approach. Some practitioners still used modelling to decide which technique they were going to use but the tendency to 'do a technique' as soon as possible became more and more prevalent. The notion that NLP is fast only accelerated the trend since practitioners felt inadequate if they could not affect a change in minutes.  And if one technique didn't work, well there were hundreds more to try.

But how many techniques do we need? Especially when a feature of the "therapeutic wizards" that Bandler and Grinder modelled is that they didn't use techniques!

This is not to say techniques aren't useful — of course they are.  Their value is that they can short-cut some change processes. But if a practitioner's focus is on more on the technique than the client, the idiosyncratic nature of the individual can get lost in the race for efficiency.

According to the Dreyfus and Dreyfus 'Novice to Expert' model of skill development [ref. 4], techniques are part of the learning process of a Novice and a Beginner. But once a practitioner becomes Competent, further development to the level of Expert requires abandoning a reliance on techniques.  Instead practice becomes more and more systemic and responsive to what is happening in-the-moment. However the unintended consequence puts the practitioner in a bind: The more they use techniques and see how useful they are, the more reluctant they are to give them up.  And, when they try to learn a bottom-up modelling approach they feel de-skilled and quickly fall back to using the techniques they know. In NLP, we say we believe that clients have all the resources they need, but we act as if they need our techniques in order to change.

To add to the bind, many NLP trainers prefer to demonstrate neat, top-down techniques which have a beginning, a middle, and an end, rather than a messy, emergent, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, bottom-up modelling approach to changework.  These demonstrations send a misleading message.  People are complex.  The fact of the matter is that even with the best techniques a proportion of clients either do not get the change they want or cannot sustain it — so then what do you do?

The long- term effect of a reliance on top-down models is that a very small proportion of practitioners of NLP make much use of a therapeutic modeller approach. And an even smaller proportion of NLP trainers make bottom-up modelling central to their programmes.

The result?  The original ethos of those founders of NLP has been abandoned to the god of expediency. Rather than constructing a bottom-up model of our client's map of the world, we use our clever language patterns to get them to fit our top-down models of the change process. This is not surprising, it takes an extraordinary diligence to become a therapeutic modeller. It is never going to be the path for the many but unless more than a few come forward, NLP as a therapeutic practice — as it was originally envisioned — may cease to exist.

1. Lave, J & Wenger E, Situated Learning, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
2. McWhirter, J 'Re-modelling NLP: Part 14: Re-Modelling Modelling', Rapport, Issue 59, 2002 (reproduced at
3. Lawley, J & Tompkins, P, 'What is Therapeutic Modelling' ReSource, Issue 8, April 2006 (reproduced at ).
4. Dreyfus, H.L & Dreyfus, S.E, Mind over Machine, 1988.

James Lawley

James LawleyJames Lawley offers psychotherapiy to individuals and couples, and coaching, research and consultancy to organisations. He is a co-developer of Symbolic Modelling and co-author (with Penny Tompkins) of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, (with Marian Way) Insights in Space: How to use Clean Space to solve problems, generate ideas and spark creativity and an Online training in Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling. For a more detailed biography see about us and his blog.

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