Changing behaviour with neuro-linguistic programming

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is used by coaches to improve communication and change behaviours. London South Bank University’s Anne Harriss explains how.

Neuro-linguistic programming is a powerful tool connecting three elements:



  • N: Neurology – relating to the brain and nervous system;
  • L: Linguistics – the use and effect of language we use; and
  • P: Programming – the behaviours used in achieving the intended goals.


Describing NLP to someone who has no experience of it is rather like explaining the idiom “skating on thin ice” to someone who cannot think in the abstract and has encountered neither skating nor a frozen stretch of water.

Experiencing NLP is the best way of gaining an understanding of its applications. It is a multifaceted concept used by some business, life and health coaches. It aims to improve communication, change behaviours and includes therapeutic interventions.

Anecdotal evidence from NLP-qualified OH nurses suggests that they have used facets of the approach to make their health promotion activities even more powerful. Drawing on models and interventions derived from a wide range of sources, NLP is not limited to therapeutic interventions and has a range of applications in enhancing communication in other settings.

NLP is rather like a huge treasure chest of psychotherapeutic tools. This article aims to give a very brief overview of some of the principles of NLP, highlighting one tool in particular and exploring a few indications of how NLP can be used.

Embedded within NLP is the principle that skilled communicators use similar verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to gain rapport with others. These strategies are underpinned by an understanding of the internal sensory representational systems people use to process and make sense of their experiences.

Kalisch and others (2005) demonstrated that manipulating these modalities is effective in reducing emotional responses. It can be invaluable in assisting a successful return to work as part of case management, particularly to assist a client who has experienced confidence issues, anxiety, workplace interpersonal relationship problems or phobias affecting work performance.

Paul McKenna, previously a stage hypnotist, has developed a niche as an NLP master practitioner. A notable success for McKenna was his treatment of Celia Battley, a doctor who developed a severe needle phobia following a needle stick injury while working at London’s Charing Cross Hospital (Liang, Bramhall and Cullen, 2002). Her phobia became so debilitating that she was unable to leave her home for fear of sustaining another such injury, fearing stepping on a discarded needle lying in the street.

Battley was awarded an out-of-court settlement in the region of £500,000, reflecting the serious impact of her phobia. An excerpt from a TV programme featuring McKenna successfully treating this phobia with NLP is available. A further link highlighting other McKenna successes is included at the end of the article.


quotemarks [Bandler and Grinder’s] premise was that if such elements could be identified, they could be taught to others so that the less expert could model outstanding practitioners to gain similar results.”


NLP incorporates an awareness of the sensory language people use and then matches that language. These processes can be very powerful influencers, particularly within marketing. OH practitioners can utilise such principles when “marketing” health and workplace health management to both management and clients.

The pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has funded NLP-practitioner-level training for its OH teams as part of their wellness initiatives, and some freelance OH practitioners have added NLP to the portfolio of skills they offer to their client organisations. Other practitioners utilise it within coaching and in changing negative self or health behaviours as part of case management.


Development of NLP


John Grinder and Richard Bandler developed NLP in the US in the 1970s. Grinder was an assistant professor in the linguistics department of the University of California, San Diego. He had an interest in syntax and the structure of language. Bandler, then an undergraduate student, worked with him on a project exploring the linguistics underpinning techniques used by Gestalt psychotherapists. This form of psychotherapy focuses on processes, what is being experienced, and content, what is being talked about.

They investigated the approaches of successful psychotherapists to identify any commonalities underpinning their communication strategies within the therapeutic relationships. They aimed to discover the range of strategies used by outstanding therapists that facilitated their remarkable results. Their premise was that if such elements could be identified they could be taught to others so that the less expert could model outstanding practitioners to gain similar results, in short – they were modelling excellence.

Grinder and Bandler’s objectives were to:



  • make sense of how a group of people process information;
  • discover how people internally represent their world;
  • determine how internal representations are reflected in speech patterns and body postures; and
  • establish how successful psychotherapists gain client rapport, the importance of which is highlighted by O’Connor (2001).


Observations were made of how people mentally represent their experiences and world view, particularly the use of a primary representational system incorporating sensory modalities. These modalities are incorporated in the NLP VAKOG model, named from the initial letters of each of the sensory-specific modalities: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory.


Box 1: Client and therapist phrases demonstrating VAKOG modalities
Visual modality

  • Client: “I can’t see a way out of this mess.”
  • Therapist: “Paint me a fuller picture of the main problems.”

Auditory modality

  • Client: “I keep replaying our arguments in my mind like a constant soundtrack.”
  • Therapist: “So what can you do to help you switch off?”

Kinesthetic modality

  • Client: “These issues at work are such a heavy burden to bear.”
  • Therapist: “How could the load be lightened for you?”


Communication strategies


Although there are some commonalities with these mental representations, not everyone represents them in the same way. Taking visual and auditory modalities, some people think predominantly in pictures, others process information verbally and many use a mix of modalities, which include feelings.

In essence, Bandler and Grinder identified the following facets:



  • People use a variety of modalities representing their past experiences and this is reflected in the structure of the language they use.
  • Expert therapists use language magically and elegantly, resulting in rapid rapport development.
  • Once rapport is achieved, the therapist can change client behaviour by subtly mirroring client language patterns and body postures.


Within their seminal text, Frogs into Princes, Bandler and Grinder (1979) highlight their observation of brilliant people performing interesting things. They speculated that if a novice practitioner could model the communication strategies of experts they too might obtain similar results.

They refer to modelling the strategies of successful psychotherapists including Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and the psychiatrist Milton Erickson, with Erickson being particularly skilled in using hypnotic language to effect behaviour changes. NLP methods are underpinned in particular by the techniques of Erickson and Satir (Andreas, 1999) incorporating “hypnotic language”. Grinder and Bandler (1981) considered such language patterns to be so powerful that they can even influence individuals without them first being inducted into a hypnotic trance.

Bandler and Grinder (1979) noted that successful therapists were acutely aware of how clients process information and this was reflected in the language patterns clients used. Such therapists then used similar non-verbal communication strategies and language patterns associated with sensory modalities. These methods were key to their therapeutic success.

Erickson was adept at using hypnotic techniques and his methods were incorporated into the NLP Milton Model of language patterns (Bandler and Grinder, 1975b; Bandler and Grinder, 1976b). The positive effects of such hypnotic techniques and mental imagery are referred to by a number of writers (Miller and Matzel, 2000; Brown and Oakley, 2004; Neck and Manz, 1992).

Client phrases and therapist responses illustrating VAKOG modalities are included in box 1.

The principles encompassed within NLP can also be used to enhance teaching and learning (Tosey and Mathison, 2003; Tosey, Mathison and Michelli, 2005), both important elements of OH practice. Fleming (2006) has since used the VAKOG model of NLP in reference to visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles. Visual learners acquire knowledge best using visual aids, including PowerPoint presentations and handouts; auditory learners through lectures and discussion; and kinesthetic learners by experience and doing.


VAKOG explored


All experiences, memories and perceptions are processed and internalised. How this occurs within internal sensory representational systems relates to the VAKOG modalities and is also reflected in the use of language. Visual processers tend to use word patterns indicating this, using phrases such as: “He just can’t see the bigger picture.”

A person using an auditory processing system may use phrases such as: “I hear what you are saying.” Those using a kinesthetic sub-modality may say: “I get an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach.” A phrase such as: “This doesn’t smell right” indicates olfactory representation whereas: “It left a nasty taste in my mouth” suggests a gustatory modality.


Sensory predicates and eye-accessing cues


Just as language patterns provide insight into clients’ modalities, so do eye movements. Bandler and Grinder term these as eye-accessing cues.

For those processing information visually, when recalling memories their eyes move upwards and to their left; conversely, when creating ideas their eyes move up and to their right.

Try this for yourself: ask a friend to give you a detailed description of their front door by creating pictures. Observe the position of their eyes. Now ask them to imagine that door in a different way, suggest creativity, perhaps a door painted with bright pink zebra stripes, a huge neon light replacing a conventional door number, the doorbell shaped like a huge ship’s bell, the bell-pull made of purple rope and the doorknocker shaped like the head of a monkey wearing a brightly coloured hat decorated with banana-shaped fairy lights.

As they construct this new picture, look out for any eye movement. When describing their door from memory, their eyes are most likely to move up to their left, and when constructing a picture of how the door could look their eyes will usually move to their right. Take this a step further by asking them to recall other experiences and observe their eye movements. If they move to their left but predominantly at ear level then they are likely to be “auditory processors”. Although this rule generally applies, the left and right hemispheres are reversed in some people, but the side of the head to which the eyes move proves consistent.

NLP methods incorporate language that “locks” into the client’s representational system. This can be established by cognisance of the client’s use of language coupled with observation of the eye movements outlined above. Careful use of phrases congruent with representational systems supplemented with “hypnotic language patterns” effect change.

When working with a client who predominantly uses visual representation, the practitioner will get the client to think in pictures guiding them to change elements of those visual representations, thus removing the emotional trauma out of the situation. For example, the practitioner will manipulate their mental pictures, making them smaller, removing colour and making them out of focus. This manipulation of visual representations takes the sting out of the situation for the client – rather like switching off the problem. A person haunted by vivid visual and auditory memories associated with traumatic incidents can better deal with these if the colour and sharpness of the picture and the volume of the sounds they recall are toned down.


quotemarksWhen working with a client who predominantly uses visual representation, the practitioner will get the client to think in pictures guiding them to change elements of those visual representations.”


Using language to change patterns of behaviour


Bandler and Grinder’s analysis of language patterns used by therapists was subsequently published as two influential theoretical texts: “The Structure of Magic 1” and “The Structure of Magic 2”. Their central premise was that an understanding of the use of language patterns can assist therapists to discover how their client’s experiences have influenced their representation of their model of the world to themselves.

They asserted that with an understanding of how a client self-represents their world view, a skilled therapist could use similar language patterns elegantly to gain rapid rapport and be more effective in effecting behaviour changes.

People differ in the way they utilise VAKOG modalities. The practice experience of the author of this article with a range of UK and overseas clients is that the modalities commonly used to make sense of experiences tend to incorporate visual, auditory and kinesthetic elements. Although many use a multi-modality approach to information processing, one or two may be preferred.

A person focusing on a visual modality will tend to represent their world by making internal pictures. Those utilising auditory processing systems do so through verbalisation. Skilled practitioners identify their client’s preferred representational system and use this within their interventions. The author has 10 years’ experience as a hypnotherapist and latterly as an NLP master practitioner, gaining excellent results using strategies related to VAKOG modalities and assisting clients with a variety of problems, including:



  • analgesia for intractable pain;
  • boosting confidence; and
  • phobias affecting both work effectiveness and quality of life.


Phobias have been resolved using an NLP “fast phobia cure” effected within a one-hour consultation. A few “mini” case studies from the author’s practice are highlighted below:



  • Client A: A change of work responsibilities required frequent overseas business trips. Unfortunately, the client had developed a severe phobia of flying resulting in debilitating anxiety attacks. He was considering resigning from his post until the “fast phobia cure” switched off this fear. As a result, he was able to take his family to Asia to visit relatives, something he could not previously have contemplated.
  • Client B: Cured of a phobia of lifts, which resulted in them having to walk up nine flights of stairs to reach the offices of work colleagues.
  • Client C: Acrophobia – from being unable to comfortably use escalators or go near windows on floors above ground level, the client chose to visit the top of the 170m-tall Portsmouth Spinnaker Tower and photograph the view below.
  • Clients D and E: Both university students with severe examination phobias. Both were unable to even enter the examination room. Assessments undertaken under examination conditions were university requirements. NLP resulted in them being able to take the required examinations.


In conclusion, NLP can be a valuable adjunct to therapeutic interventions, business and teaching. The work of Paul Tosey, senior lecturer at the School of Management at Surrey University, has been referred to within this article. His excellence in teaching, underpinned by NLP, was recognised with the prestigious Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellowship. His co-author, Jane Mathison, was the first to gain a PhD as a result of her work on NLP within the same university. As a communication tool, its principles can be used in a very important business – that of being an effective communicator.

Anne Harriss is a reader in educational development and a course director at London South Bank University




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