Neuro-Linguistic Programming is different from all the other schools of psychotherapy I have encountered. Its most remarkable feature is that the two people who founded NLP at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1970s – Richard Bandler and John Grinder – were not trying to develop a therapy at all.
What they really wanted was to develop a way of understanding people. They were particularly interested in working out what is the essential difference between people who are outstanding in their field and those who are merely competent. If the apparently innate gifts that make people shine at what they do could be understood, perhaps they could also be taught to others.
This idea took off and has been staggeringly successful in fields like sports coaching. Bandler and Grinder, and the other developers of NLP developed a set of techniques that make it possible not only to encapsulate many of the things that excellent people do but also to copy them and to teach them to other people.
NLP is widely used in training. For example Katrina Patterson, now a trainer, therapist and deputy chair of the Association for NeuroLinguistic Programming (ANLP) first encountered NLP in her previous job as a senior manager. She used it to learn how to speak in public. But overcoming the fear of the audience that sets a novice speaker’s pulse racing and turns their knees to jelly is not unlike overcoming a phobia of spiders and NLP has a wide range of uses in purely therapeutic settings.
By a curious coincidence, the people whose way of working Bandler and Grinder decided to analyse, were all therapists. They were Virginia Satir, a founder of Family Therapy and Systemic Therapy, Milton Erickson, founder of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy. It soon became clear that although all three were exceptionally talented practitioners, they seemed not to be aware of how they achieved their results. When questioned about their practises they gave a very different account from that produced by observers who meticulously recorded everything they did.
This leads to a central tenet of NLP, adopted from earlier work in linguistics, which is that we all have a ‘map’. The map is our personal picture of what goes on. It is not an accurate representation. Each of us produces our own map from our experience. In the process we choose unconsciously to attend to what we think is relevant and to edit out what is not. We make generalisations according to our experience, and we unwittingly distort things in order to make sense of them. The result, as I often discover after a discussion with my wife, is that no two people have the same map of a given situation.
A second fundamental tenet of NLP is that we are complex interacting systems. This reflects the way we behave as individuals: what we see or hear affects what we do, which then affects what we see. It also affects the behaviour of groups. Everything we do affects other people; changing one persons behaviour will influence the way other people behave.
An important assumption within this system view is that our aim is always to reach a state of balance and stability. We always make the best choices available to us according to ur view of the world, our map. It follows from this that maladaptive behaviour is not produced by having bad intentions, but by having an inadequate map.
One of the skills that NLP teaches is known as ‘modelling’. This is the ability to discover a person’s map – both the bits they are aware of and the bits that are unconscious – and to teach it to somebody else. In therapy the aim is to discover the clients map, to identify the gaps and distortions that cause problems and to use modelling to help them to improve those parts of their map.
There is no rigid pattern to the way NLP therapists work. “They tend to be options orientated” Patterson says, “they are more interested in finding a way that is useful for the client than in conforming to a rigid pattern”. However therapy usually starts by agreeing a contract about what the client wants to achieve, and how they will know they have achieved it. Phobias will often be resolved in a single session. Progress is reviewed frequently and therapy is usually completed within a eight or so sessions.
For many situations NLP training may be more relevant than therapy. Registered Psychotherapists can be contacted through the referral services run by the UKCP in the UK: go to https://www.psychotherapy.org.uk/ and the APA in the US: go to https://helping.apa.org/