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Neuro-linguistic programming is an approach to communication and psychology. It is based upon observing naturally self-taught expertise, and modeling the processes and habitual patterns such experts seem to repeatedly use which seem to be responsible for the results they obtain. As such, NLP has its own methodology and philosophical approach towards being effective within the human world, born of pragmatism rather than theory.
Much of NLP's philosophy, worldview and approach, and discussion of their basis, was laid out in its early books, such as Structure of Magic vol. 1 + 2 and Frogs into Princes.
Overview of NLP
- Main article: Neuro-linguistic programming
Neuro-linguistic programming studies and models how people think about and perceive aspects of their life, and how to work with the underlying cognitive and emotional processes at a practical level. The range of potential uses is varied, and NLP has an exceptionally broad and adaptable structure.
The field originated in the work of Richard Bandler, John Grinder in association with polymath Gregory Bateson in Santa Cruz, California in the early 1970s, when they recorded and studied in depth several world renowned therapists who seemed to obtain almost magical results by the therapeutic standards of the time. They concluded that a comprehensive set of self-taught approaches and skills was largely responsible for their success, that these could be summarized and expanded upon, and that much of human perception and experience was also structured and could be worked with effectively in this way. They stated, in contravention of the professional wisdom of that time, that the internal human experience demonstrated itself in people's behaviors, and could be worked with directly given an appropriate mindset, and that this was why certain individuals were so singularly successful as therapists compared to the norm.
Despite its substantial influence and adoption of its viewpoints, extreme skepticism persists in some quarters, due both to its pop psychology usage and non-traditional approach to psychology.
Techniques v. attitudes
Grinder and Bandler made very clear that there was a profound (although blurred) difference between skills and techniques as a basis for working with people, and attitudes and approaches.
- "People who come to us in therapy typically have pain in their lives and experience little or no choice in matters which they consider important. All therapies are confronted with the problem of responding adequately to such people. Responding adequately in this context means to us assisting in changing the client's experience in some way which enriches it. Rarely do therapies accomplish this by changing the world. Their approach, then, is typically to change the client's experience of the world. People do not operate directly on the world, but operate necessarily on the world through their perception or model of the world. Therapies, then, characteristically operate to change the client's model of the world and consequently the client's behavior and experiences."
Purpose and basis of NLP's world view
The founders of NLP emphasize that in their experience, experts in human communication all have a similar approach, and it is this approach (and not the technical skills) which distinguishes them, and which can be learned:
- "When you watch and listen to Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson do therapy, they apparently could not be more different...People also report that the experiences of being with them are profoundly different. However, if you examine their behavior and the essential key patterns and sequences of what they do, they are similar.... The same was true of Fritz Perls... when he was operating in what I consider a powerful and effective way, he was using the same sequences of patterns that you will find in their work.
Analyzing this further, Grinder and Bandler stated that there were a very few common traits such people – whether top therapists, top executives or top salespeople – all seemed to share:
- Everything they did in their work, was pro-active (rather than reactive), directed moment to moment by well-formed outcomes  rather than formalized fixed beliefs
- They were exceedingly flexible in approach and refused to be tied down to using their skills in any one fixed way of thinking or working  
- They were extremely aware moment by moment, of the non-verbal feedback (unconscious communication and metaphor) they were getting, and responded to it   - usually in kind rather than by analyzing it 
- They enjoyed the challenges of difficult ("resistant") clients, seeing them as a chance to learn rather than an intractable "problem"
- They respected the client as someone doing the best they knew how (rather than judging them as "broken" or "working")
- They had certain common skills and things they were aware of and noticed, intuitively "wired in"  
- They worked with great precision, purpose, and skill  
- They kept trying many many different things until they learned enough about the structure holding a problem in place to change it  
They summarized their findings:
- "You need only three things to be an absolutely exquisite communicator. We have found that there are three major patterns in the behavior of every therapeutic wizard we've talked to — and executives, and salespeople. The first one is to know what outcome you want. The second is that you need flexibility in your behavior. You need to be able to generate lots and lots of different behaviors to find out what responses you get. The third is you need to have enough sensory experience to notice when you get the responses that you want..."
Skills vs. philosophy in NLP
Grinder and Bandler stated categorically that although these people had developed many innovative and effective skills, the core of their effectiveness was neither their skills, nor some mystical or unknowable quality or personality. It was primarily the attitudes, approaches and philosophies they had in common which made them capable of effective work, and these could be learned and transmitted. When this was done, others could learn from these models to be effective the same way. This approach became central within the philosophy and epistemology of NLP:
What we essentially do is to pay very little attention to what people say they do and a great deal of attention to what they do... We know that our modeling has been successful when we can systematically get the same behavioral outcome [results] as the person we have modeled. And when we can teach somebody else to be able to get the same outcomes in a systematic way, that's an even stronger test.
We don't know what Virginia Satir really does with families. However, we can describe her behavior in such a way that we can come to any one of you and say 'Here. Take this. Do these things in this sequence. Practice until it becomes a systematic part of your unconscious behavior, and you will end up being able to elicit the same responses that Virginia elicits.' We do not test the description we arrive at for 'accuracy', or how it fits with neurological data, or statistics about what should be going on. All we do in order to understand whether our description is an adequate model... is to find out whether it works or not: - are you able to exhibit effectively in your behavior the same patterns that Virginia exhibits in hers, and get the same results?
We will be making statements up here which may have no relationship to the 'truth,' to what's 'really going on.' We do know, however, that the model that we have made up of her behavior has been effective. After being exposed to it and practicing the patterns and the descriptions that we have offered, people's behavior changes in ways that make them effective in the same way that Satir is.
— Frogs into Princes, pp.7, 9-10
Features of NLP's world view
Unlike classical psychology, the subjective character of experience is integral to NLP. (Subjective in the NLP sense means "as internally experienced", rather than 'arbitrary' or 'whimsical'). It is taken for granted that what people perceive, believe and feel, is more significant to their lives than what is objectively 'true', and takes for granted that each person's awareness and inner world is different and unique. It is emphasized that one must leave ones' own preconceptions behind, and be willing to understand and work within the other person's "reality", to have any great effect, since no one map of reality can be said to be "true". There are only (in NLP's view) better or worse maps, a concept taken from Korzybski's general semantics.
There is an order and a structured logic to it. But that order and logic varies individually and people interact and judge their (and others) lives and actions based upon their own understandings of the world, not upon some objective reality.
NLP does not (subject to physiological pathology) consider people "broken" or "working". All people have a neurology, experience of life, and the innate ability to change their perspective on any aspect of their life, and the nature of neurology is very adaptable. They also have great wisdom in their unconscious minds, even if they do not seem to be able to always use it or it seems on the surface, dysfunctional.  One does not have to be in trance for unconscious processes to be effective.
NLP views human authenticity as bound up with the capability to respond and how much awareness of choice is experienced in actions and responses. Bandler comments, "We're talking about basic beliefs regarding human capability. Here's the only truth about that. Nobody knows."
In NLP, "understanding" is less important than change. Most human learning occurs outside consciousness, and some learnings may even be sabotaged by conscious attention. According to NLP, the brain is capable of learning (or re-learning) patterns extremely fast, and that change can happen quickly, often without conscious mediation. Dysfunctional patterns can be addressed through cognitive routes (talking therapies) or non-cognitive routes (working with the body and unconscious mind), and particularly, by directly retraining the mind to use its innate capability to learn new patterns in a deliberate manner. NLP believes that "People already have all the resources they need, to change", that the mind/brain is very willing to change once it "knows" how, and that guided with skill and sensitivity, change provides an increased sense of control over ones' life.
A powerful demonstration of these interactions by Baxter (1994) found that NLP reframing used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder in place of Prozac, resulted in the same raised serotonin levels and reduced caudate nucleus activity as control subjects who took medication (as measured by positron emission tomography, a type of neural imaging).
People are complex adaptive (learning) systems and processes, and have a richness to them which no simple system can fully predict or capture. Our bodies, our societies, and our planet form an ecology of complex systems and sub-systems all of which interact with and mutually influence each other. "Intuitively obvious" results are not always to be expected. Positive and negative feedback, leverage points, interpretational context, and other features of complex systems will come into play. In humans, the body impacts on the mind, and the mind impacts on the body. Thought, emotional state, somatic awareness, perception, and body usage, as well as neurochemistry and other hormonal interactions, and external circumstances, are all profoundly interdependent and deeply connected, and any can influence or be influenced by another.
In NLP it is therefore seen as important not to make untested assumptions about individuals, that there are many more ways than the obvious to approach a seemingly intractable problem, it is understood there will usually be unconscious goals, limiting beliefs or secondary gains present in any situation, and that there is an art as well as a skill in perceiving how best to approach this. Change is also systemic. That is, it does not happen in a vacuum and is not limited to the "problem area", but usually is connected to other aspects of life, which are part of the situation as well as a necessary part of any solution. Partly for this reason, NLP leaves deliberately open and unlimited, its areas of interest and its scope.
As a special case of systemic thinking, NLP emphasizes that change is relational. That is, change happens in a relational context, whether the self-relationship or the relationship with another person (parent, friend, partner, employer, co-worker, role model, clinician, trainer). Change happens in a relationship, and the quality of that relationship, known as rapport, is often critical to the ability to change.
Meaning and context in communication
NLP views meaning as only existing within a given context, a view known as cultural relativism which is axiomatic in anthropology. Because of this, NLP states The meaning of communication is the result you get – it is not message sent, but message received, and willingness to set aside preconceived interpretive frames, which is most significant in communication.
The process of interpreting "meaning" from thought and speech is complex and (as pointed out in sciences such as cognitive linguistics, transformational grammar and general semantics) can involve a wide range of distortions, errors, and mistranslations because internal experiences, thoughts and feelings have to be translated back and forth through conscious perceptual filters, into crude symbols known as 'words'. The resulting patterns of speech are considered highly revealing of the unconscious perceptual filters involved.
NLP considers all behavior, at some level, communicative. Thus even undesired or clinical states such as depression and confusion have a structure, a purpose, and an underlying communication – or in other words, on their own terms, all mental states have a rational structure within their given context. Such states are often viewed by NLP not as problems, but as valuable resource states which are not being understood or acted upon, or a part of a person trying to grow or change, or which require a better 'map' of reality. NLP also considers much communication metaphorical, and that even its own tools can be philosophically interpreted as metaphors used to guide useful responses, rather than literal objective 'truth statements'. 
Form and content
In NLP, underlying subjective (perceived, cognitive) structure ("form") matters more than specific situational "content". The subjective structure of a perceived problem matters more than the situation in which it is embedded. This is an embodiment of the form/content distinction in philosophy, also favored by Western psychiatric medicine (an innovation first argued for by psychiatrists Karl Jaspers and Kurt Schneider), and is also a feature within cognitive linguistics.
NLP takes this principle into the field, with so-called "content free" work being a common respected NLP skill – that is, where no details of the situation are shared or sought, but only the cognitive features of how it is structured are relevant. Despite the practitioner lacking knowledge of the actual situation, knowledge of the structural aspects alone (modalities, strategies, outcome orientation and the like) are often sufficient by themselves to allow NLP to work with full effectiveness. Common rationales for working with reduced content in this manner are:
- The less content is involved, the more the practitioner is client- rather than self- or interpretation-focussed
- The less distraction (ie, loss of strategic focus) due to content is likely to arise.
- Other than perhaps for rapport purposes, the extra information is generally not very relevant to NLP's strategic structural approach, so it is wasteful of time to dwell on it
NLP is in the present and oriented towards the future
No matter the personal history, the only memory of it is in the present neurology and life. The past has no existence independent of this. Therefore what is explored is the memory and impressions of events in the present – present experiences, present constructions, and present limits, including the present beliefs about their existence and origins. What is then aimed for is to build in the present, a changed future, where old, outdated, or dysfunctional beliefs and patterns are no longer an issue.
Common sayings (or principles)
The following are some of NLP's most recognized principles and presuppositions, in their well known aphoristic forms. They are often summarized as soundbites so as to be short, pithy, and memorable, and a fuller discussion of these (as well as some of the other common NLP sayings) is given in Principles of NLP.
- The map is not the territory 
- People already have all the resources they need to succeed [or change]
- Life and 'Mind' are systemic processes
Information and interpretation:
- Behind every behavior is a positive intention 
- There is no failure, only feedback 
- The meaning of your communication is the response you get 
- Choice is better than no choice (and flexibility is the way one gets choice) 
- Multiple descriptions are better than one
- There are no resistant clients; there are only incompetent [less skilled] therapists
- If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got
(or: If what you are doing isn't working, try something [anything] else)
- Good NLP is 90% information gathering and testing, and 10% changework
- Everyone is different
- Use whatever works 
- If something can be done effectively and ecologically in ten minutes, don't spend an hour doing it
- If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got
How NLP applies its philosophy
NLP's philosophy compared to other worldviews in similar fields
- The first books to dissect and analyze these patterns in depth, was called The Structure of Magic (Vol. I + II), partly in recognition of the remarkable skills shown by those therapists modelled. Erickson himself, the third of the original models studied, was a legend in his lifetime, the founder of clinical hypnotherapy, and the subject of many studies and books of anecdotes.
- Druckman, Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988) p.138:
- "The system was developed in answer to [why] particular psychotherapists were so effective with their patients. Rather than explore this question in terms of psychotherapeutic theory and practice, Bandler and Grinder sought to analyze what the therapists were doing at an observational level, categorize it, and apply the categories as a general model of interpersonal influence. NLP seeks to instruct people to observe, make inferences, and respond to others, as did the three original, very effective therapists." 
- Structure of Magic Vol.1, p.???.
- Frogs into Princes, p.8
- Frogs into Princes, p.54-55.
- Frogs into Princes, p.10: "One of the systematic things that Erickson and Satir and a lot of other effective therapists do is to notice unconsciously how the person they are talking to thinks, and make use of that information in lots and lots of different ways."
- According to Haley, a well known writer on Milton Erickson, Erickson was notable amongst psychiatrists, because he would respond to metaphor with other metaphors, rather than by attempting to "interpret".
- "He does not translate unconscious communication into conscious form. Whatever the patient says in metaphoric form, Erickson responds [matches] in kind. By parables, by interpersonal action, and by directives, he works within the metaphor to bring about change. he seems to feel that the depth and swiftness of that change can be prevented if the person suffers a translation of the communication." (Haley, "Uncommon therapy", 1973 + 1986, p.28)
- For an example of "wired in" precise skills, Frogs into Princes, p.77: "One of the things that we noticed about Sal Minuchin, Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson and Fritz Perls is that they intuitively had many of those twelve questions in the meta-model wired in."
- Frogs into Princes, p.162: "One of the things that I think distinguishes a really exquisite communicator from one who is not, is to be precise about your use of language... If you are precise about the way you phrase questions, you will get precise kinds of information back."
- For example, Erickson had developed hypnotherapy and unconscious communication, Satir had developed the meta model, and so on.
- In this context, the meaning of a "map" is ones understanding of the world and how it works, and ones beliefs about it and about oneself. These may be true or mistaken. The function of ones understandings and beliefs is to help one be capable of navigating that reality, or making competent choices in ones life. In this sense it is a "map" of reality.
- Virginia Satir believed that if you dug deeply enough into any dysfunctional or damaging behavior, you would eventually find that the client was in fact trying to achieve a positive intent (often unconsciously ineptly or harmfully), and that the dysfunction could often be helped by finding other ways to honor that positive intention.
- Psychiatrist R. D. Laing argued that the symptoms of what is normally called mental illness are often comprehensible reactions to impossible or conflicting demands.
- Quoted from Bandler, Time for a Change, p.132
- Bandler, Time for a Change, p.135-136: "Your ability to respond makes the difference between you and furniture... human means that someone of the appropriate sex can look at you in a certain way that starts the juices rolling... the problem isn't that you respond, it's how you respond. Being able to change from one response to another gives you the keys to... authenticity."
- Bandler, Time for a change (1993) p.20:
- "It's easier to cure a phobia in ten minutes than in five years... I didn't realize that the speed with which you do things makes them last... I taught people the phobia cure. They'd do part of it one week, part of it the next, and part of it the week after. Then they'd come to me and say "It doesn't work!" If, however, you do it in five minutes, and repeat it till it happens very fast, the brain understands. That's part of how the brain learns... I discovered that the human mind does not learn slowly. It learns quickly. I didn't know that."
- Baxter, 1994, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry
- It is for this reason that NLP considers itself a methodology or toolbox, and also an art or attitude, since one cannot tell in any situation what is needed, but the same generic approaches and techniques in various combinations seem to be consistently useful.
- Example study: Guy's, King's & St. Thomas's Hospitals Medical & Dental Schools, highly reputed London hospitals, introduced NLP training to its staff in 2003, "[s]upported by the testimonials of GP's" (ie, general practitioners), commenting that "it is based on ... more than 400 patients whose recovery was considered to be extraordinary in the light of the diagnosis and prognosis they had received. From this it emerged that precise and consistent communication between doctor and patient appeared to be one of the most powerful components of the healing equation." 
- Stephen Gilligan, a protoge of Erickson and renowned hyponotherapist in his own right, has spent many years developing this specific field, of "parts of a person trying to wake up and grow", under the title of Self-relations Psychotherapy.
- George Lakoff one of America's most renowned linguists, describes "the major findings of cognitive science" as: - "Abstract concepts being largely metaphorical", and "The mind being inherently embodied". These closely parallel NLP's own core principles, that "The map is not the territory" (descriptions are often metaphorical at some level), and "Body and Mind form a systemic whole". (Source: Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), introduction )
- Source: General Semantics, the brainchild of Alfred Korzybski (1933), and built upon by Gregory Bateson's (1972, 1979) postulations that there is no such thing as "objective experience."
- Source: Virginia Satir. In a similar vein, psychiatrist R. D. Laing has argued that the symptoms of what is normally called mental illness are just comprehensible reactions to impossible demands that society and particularly family life places on some sensitive individuals.
- Source: Information theory and cybernetics. This principle is a statement about the importance of feedback loops to learning, borrowed from information theory. (Asbby, Cybernetics). cf. the story of Edison and the lightbulb.
- Source: cultural relativism, axiomatic in anthropology.
- Source: systems theory. Bandler words this, "The ability to change the process by which we experience reality is more often valuable than changing the content of our experience of reality" .
- Source: utilization principle, from Milton Erickson. Erickson was famous for turning peoples self-perceived defects, or limitations, to positive use. Thus Erickson used a girl's poor dental appearance (which she was convinced made her deeply unappealing) as a positive means to find a husband, shock (via a couples' inhibitions about sexual language) as a means to enable them to relax enough to conceive, and a man's Jesus delusion to obtain him work as a carpenter as part of his eventual healing and rehabilitation into society.
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