Neuro-linguistic programming: Secret code is a secret no more

Only curing the common cold seems be-yond the apparently all-powerful reach of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

It is touted by proponents as a way to make sense of the world and, in turn, to make the world whatever you want it to be. No surprise then that neuro-linguistic programming  has grown from a communication tool into an essential qualification for many coaches and trainers.

Its UK profile has risen thanks to TV star and self-help guru Paul McKenna. His website promotes neuro-linguistic programming  with the message: “Take control of your life – a secret code to unlock your mind’s potential”.

To the outsider, neuro-linguistic programming  can appear to be a secret code. It has its own vocabulary, with talk of ‘filters’ and ‘anchoring’.

The former refers to levels of thinking that control where we focus our attention and how we ultimately respond to situations and people. The latter is about how we make associations that work through conscious choice, so we can action them when appropriate.

“Neuro-linguistic programming is the study of what works in thinking, language and behaviour,” says Sue Knight, NLP trainer and practitioner.
“It is a way of coding and reproducing excellence that enables you to consistently achieve the results you want for yourself, your business and your life.”

It certainly has a large and growing band of believers.

Knight’s book on the subject, NLP at Work, has sold more than 50,000 copies worldwide in recent years – a phenomenal amount, considering most business books only accrue sales in the lower thousands.

Changing face of neuro-linguistic programming

Neuro-linguistic programming is extending its influence because it is constantly being reinterpreted, benefiting from the popularity of business and life coaching.

Susi Strang, a practitioner and teacher of neuro-linguistic programming, says: “NLP has become very diverse. It was developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, who eventually went their different ways, and it has since diverged into different branches.”

Strang says there are ‘different brands’ of NLP on offer for anyone who wants to train in it or train others. This means that any buyer of NLP, either as a course for their own development, or when checking a coach’s qualification, needs to be sure that they get the brand they want or need. For example, some providers offer it alongside hypnotherapy or spiritualism.

She says: “There are some basic similarities, but there are diverse ways of applying it.

“It can be used as a skillset, for example, for managers to encourage best practice in appraisals; or a way of being; or an attitude, or even a philosophy of being.”

In the absence of a standard model and in an unregulated market, the challenge for anyone wanting to learn more about NLP is knowing what will be right for them.

There are a few basic pointers. NLP schools or consultancies usually offer three levels of certification: practitioner, advanced practitioner and master practitioner. These certificates will have been validated by organisations that are members of accrediting bodies, such as the International NLP Trainers Association or the Association of Neuro-Linguistic Programming UK (ANLPUK). Both have codes of conduct and ethics.

Prices for NLP practitioner certification are usually £2,000 for an eight or nine-day course.

Strang says any potential learner should interview the school and expect an interview in return. “When we interview people, we ask what they want in terms of a skills base and personal development. And we expect them to ask about the focus of the school. We want the student to interview us,” she says.

According to Strang – who sends video recordings of some training sessions to the ANLPUK – key questions prospective students should ask include who scrutinises and supervises the teachers, and what the external validation is.

In demand

John Cassidy-Rice, a registered trainer with the International NLP Trainers Association, explains why NLP is in demand. “Up to five years ago, people used to look for training in NLP, but called it ‘advanced communication skills’. It was used by sales people, who find it useful to help them read their customers.”

The emphasis has now shifted into development. “When looking for coaches, HR people will favour those with NLP skills,” he says.
An NLP qualification would certainly be part of the criteria used by Gillian Ince, Claire’s Accessories’ learning and development manager, when hiring a coach.

“I am a great believer in NLP,” says Ince, who holds practitioner certification herself. “It is about how people work and getting into their world. NLP and coaching are close anyway, because NLP is about interpreting what might block someone,” she says.

However, although an NLP qualification is an indication of the coach’s interest and approach, studying for the qualification is not enough, says director of the Northern School of NLP, Derek Jackson.

“It’s great for enhancing what people already do, rather than being an entity in itself,” he says. “It doesn’t turn someone into a coach.”

Jackson believes NLP works with the building blocks of experiences, the beliefs that people hold and what they say. “NLP is about organising experience. You can change the pattern.”

Identifying the pattern also allows it to be replicated. “The central theme of NLP is that our experience has a structure. If we know what to look for, we can match how to do it. This is modelling,” he says.

But buyers and the coaching community must be wary of treating NLP and coaching as interchangeable. Rather, they should think of bringing them under one umbrella, says Natasha Palmer, managing director of coaching organisation Rivas Palmer.

She says NLP techniques can help practitioners ‘read’ a subject and in turn help their coach or manager find the quickest route to move them forward.

Look for the clues

For example, NLP teaches that our eyes give clues to how we are thinking and how we use our memory or experiences. A typical example is that a good speller will usually visualise a word by looking upwards, to the right or left. People who move their eyes to the side are, according to NLP theory, driven by an audio sense, as they are said to be looking towards their ears and their audio memory.

“If you apply this to a team,” says Palmer, “an audio person needs to be told how to do things, whereas a visual person needs to be shown.”

She says NLP techniques can be used by a coach to help the client understand another’s standpoint.

A client who feels caught in conflict is encouraged to imagine that they are sitting looking at their opponent in a seat opposite them. “This makes it easier to ask what is happening from the different aspects,” says Palmer. “Use questions such as: ‘What’s happening from your point of view?’ and ‘How do you think that the other person is feeling?’.”

She believes that together, NLP and non-directive coaching can be powerful. “Introducing NLP techniques into coaching can make people move forward very quickly. If you don’t use NLP, you will have the same results, but not as fast.”

by Stephanie Sparrow

What is neuro-linguistic programming?

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is more than 30 years old. It was developed by Americans John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the mid-1970s at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A potted history of their lives on campus helps to explain the term.

Maths student Bandler became interested in psychotherapy and invited professor of linguistics Grinder to participate in his therapy groups.

An interest in the linguistic patterns of effective therapists led the pair to develop a model based on the theory of transformational grammar of language used by Gestalt therapy founder Fritz Perl, and various other therapists and hypnotherapists. Hence the idea of neuro (how ways of thinking affect results) and linguistic (choice of language affects what we think and achieve).

Bandler and Grinder were also fascinated by computing and so called their method ‘programming’, which, in their terms, refers to the strategies that we use to run our lives.


Case study: Claire’s Accessories

Gillian Ince, head of learning and development at Claire’s Accessories, has been a certified neuro-linguistic programming practitioner since 1999.

“My manager at the time encouraged me to take the course for my personal development, and so I could use my new skills within the business,” she says.

She attended a series of four-day courses, spread over five months. One of the main principles of NLP that Ince has been able to bring into work has been the concept of modelling excellence. “NLP shows you how to ask some-one who is doing something well what their strategy is.”

She says NLP methods have brought huge benefits to her work. “If I am conducting one-to-one coaching, I use things that I have learned. For example, I talk people through the meta mirror – an exercise where you step into different positions to get a different perspective.”

Although Ince is an NLP advocate, she keeps it in context. “It is not rocket science. It is about understanding how we communicate. You can – through NLP – get people to improve themselves.”

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