Mind games

Few subjects in training excite as much passion as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). There are as many advocates as critics, all keen to bombard you with supporting evidence.

The main criticisms, even from its advocates, include:



  • The name is confusing
  • There is no consensus on what NLP is
  • People misrepresent NLP techniques as simple
  • There is no overseeing authority
  • It attracts extremists making wild claims
  • Assessment of training lacks independence
  • Techniques learnt can be used for malicious or self-serving purposes (one book by an NLP advocate was called How to Get the Women You Desire into Bed)
  • NLP only works in English
  • It has attracted a bad press partly because of legal conflicts
  • NLP is only about making money.

This is not surprising given its turbulent beginnings in the heady atmosphere of California in the 1970s as the brainchild of the colourful Richard Bandler (see box) and John Grinder.

Hypnotic connection

Most recently attention has shifted to TV hypnotist Paul McKenna, now also an NLP practitioner who, through his training organisation, has offered a seven-day course co-taught with Bandler.

McKenna hit the headlines recently in a court case against Mirror Group Newspapers over claims he knowingly paid for a bogus PhD in the US in the 1990s. He won the case, but costs and damages have yet to be decided.

It is to McKenna’s credit that he has overcome dyslexia to subsequently achieve a legitimate PhD in 2003. Unfortunately, extensive contact with his organisation failed to persuade him to comment on hypnotherapy and NLP.

Its advocates describe NLP as ‘how you think about things’ – the study of subjective experience and of consciousness. It has two main strands, one involved in helping people overcome phobias and lead happier lives, and the second to do with training, specifically developing ways to help students learn and retain information. Sometimes, as will be seen, the two appear to work simultaneously.

But first to the critics. The most damning criticism of anything usually comes from insiders. In this case, NLP expert Andy Bradbury leads the charge. He has spent his working life teaching and training and is a qualified NLP practitioner and author of several books, including Develop Your NLP Skills.

So why did he walk out of a ‘Master Practitioner’ course last February? “I felt the training was straying too far from authentic NLP,” he says.

“I think the core ideas and techniques are very useful tools for anyone who works in any area of psychology – training, coaching, teaching, therapy or management. And I use the term ‘tools’ deliberately. I regard most of what people think of as NLP as being useful in addition to other concepts and techniques. I do not believe that NLP as it stands today is ‘sufficient unto itself’.

“I think a lot of the misunderstanding and hype surrounding NLP are due to ignorance of the general basics of psychology on the part of the people spreading the misinformation,” he adds.

Bradbury’s linking of NLP to psychology is relevant. Birkbeck College, University of London, offers an NLP course as part of its certificate and diploma in applied psychology.

Katrina Patterson, who teaches the course, is a communications consultant, executive/life coach and an International NLP Trainers’ Association trainer. Unlike Bradbury, she is proud of NLP’s wide-ranging origins, claiming it draws on concepts from many areas of psychology and psychotherapy, including the family therapy of the Virginia Satir model, behavioural psychology, and Ericksonian brief theory and humanistic psychology.

Satir was famous for her non-scientific approach to family therapy, promoting caring and acceptance to replace constraints that family roles, such as placator, bring. Milton Erickson developed a form of hypnosis that is regarded as highly therapeutic.

Breaking the mould

Patterson agrees that NLP does not fit the usual training mode. “In academia and training there is a lot of emphasis on certification. NLP is not about that, it is about the changes and choices you can bring to yourself.” In contrast, Bradbury claims “no NLP ‘certificate’ has any inherent value”.

But for those who want qualifications, they are available from more than 70 NLP training organisations in the UK, and elsewhere, particularly the US.

There was a charity called the Association of NLP (1995-2000), but the name has now been adopted by a commercial organisation. Well-regarded courses are run by members of the NLP Psychotherapy and Counselling Association. There is also the Professional Guild of NLP.

NLP has also attracted interest from academic researchers. Surrey University recently began one of the first funded, university-based research projects into it. It is headed by Dr Paul Tosey and Dr Jane Mathison. Their goals include promoting research, developing a critical appraisal of theory and practice and to model excellence in adult teaching and learning.1

Language barrier?

So what about the claim NLP only works in English? Patterson says successful books on NLP have been published in other languages, including Chinese and Spanish. But she concedes it is a challenge. “When people learn NLP in English, they find it more difficult to translate into their own language.”

She also defends the use of hypnosis as one of NLP’s techniques. “Nobody knows exactly what hypnosis is, although it does show up on an MRI scan. It puts people into a state of deep relaxation which makes them more suggestible.” As every trainer knows, the more relaxed the student, the more receptive they are to learning.

As for proof of effectiveness, it depends on what you are trying to prove, says Patterson. You can use a subjective scale and ask ‘on a scale of one to 10, how do you feel and how do you know that?’ It is very subjective. But you can also test: do your delegates use what you have taught and is it demonstrable?”

Patterson is in the lucky position of being able to apply her acid test as she has taught people a range of life skills that can be demonstrated. Take spelling. One of her subjects had a life-long weakness in spelling in spite of a degree-level education. She had been referred to Patterson by a psychologist. Patterson taught her to look up, not down, when trying to visualise the word, and within an hour she could spell, and still can.

For his part, Bradbury condemns the ‘lunatic’ fringe that has become associated with NLP, “who go around claiming it can do virtually anything from raising the dead to getting your whites ‘whiter than white’. Little can be done to stop them, he says.

The final main criticism is the cost of NLP training. According to a recent Guardian article, Paul McKenna Training (PMT) charged up to £1,900 for individuals (£1,500 for corporate members) for a seven-day intensive course – without lunch – which reportedly attracted 600 delegates.

Patterson does an eyesight improvement course (yes, it comes within the aegis of NLP) that costs £195 over two days – cheap considering that a pair of glasses would cost more. “Often people only think something is good if it costs a lot of money,” she says.

That view is echoed by Matthew Wilson, PMT’s corporate sales manager. As their client base grows, its demographic is moving upmarket, with management consultants and FTSE 100 companies joining the queue that now includes the Royal Bank of Scotland, Centrica, Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Their goal, says Wilson, is soft skills training. “In business meetings, it [NLP] helps with communication: how people are communicating and how they are being understood. People say it is the best thing they have ever done. They say that if it improves their life by 5%, then it is worthwhile.” Given his position, Wilson would say that, wouldn’t he?

But judging by the feedback from others, NLP is a growing force, although its practitioners probably won’t take too kindly to jokes about the force being with you.

Richard Bandler: NLP founder

Richard Bandler (pictured, right) and John Grinder started NLP as a practical fieldof study into subjective experience in the early 1970s.

Bandler was a mathematician and gestalt therapist and Grinder was a professor of linguistics, now famous for learning languages very fast. Their wives, Leslie Cameron Bandler, an ecologist, and Judith DeLozier, an anthropologist, both wrote books on NLP.

At the time it was associated with alternative therapies, new-age thinking and primal screams. Now it is associated with changing human behaviour to achieve goals.

In the 1970s and 80s, it attracted a huge fan base, including Bill Clinton and many US industry chiefs. Bandler became a prolific author, with more than 40 titles to his name.

But his successes have been interwoven with a colourful life. In 1988, Bandler was tried and acquitted of the murder of a prostitute. In 1996, he started legal action against Grinder over various issues, including ownership of NLP, which failed.

In the late 1990s, Bandler’s ownership of the NLP trademark – first registered in 1996 by McKenna Breen and transferred to Bandler in 1997 – in the UK led to a legal challenge by NLP practitioner Tony Clarkson. He feared the NLP community in the UK would be prevented from using the name.

Clarkson won on the grounds that too much time had elapsed since NLP’s inception for a trademark application to succeed. Costs of £100,000 were awarded against Bandler, who said he could not pay. He was made bankrupt by the High Court in 2000. Clarkson says he has never been paid those costs.

At the time of the action, he appealed to the ‘NLP community’ to help him pay costs and expenses. Few obliged, and he received only a few hundred pounds.

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