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  NLP - Misunderstandings that arose





Dr L. Michael Hall
December 2009

In recent Meta Reflections I’ve written about the field of NLP which has brought lots of responses and with them a number of misunderstandings about what this field is all about.  So what is it all about?   For anyone who has read the original documents and followed it from the beginning, there really should not be any question.  But many have not.   So to offer some correction and clarity, here are some misunderstandings about what NLP is about.


1) “NLP is too cognitive, it lacks sufficient emotional and spiritual dimensions."

This one comes primarily from Europe and reflects mostly on the way that some trainers present NLP.  This misunderstanding does not seem to arise anywhere else in the world.  Everywhere else NLP is presented as not cognitive enough!


This statement also indicates a misunderstanding of the systemic nature of NLP about human nature.  Modeled from the systems thinking of Korzybski and the Family Systems of Virginia Satir, NLP inherently involves a holistic approach.  NLP is cognitive to the extent that we recognize that our mapping drives our emoting.  “We operate on the world (the territory) by means of our mental maps.”  And our mapping is primarily a function of our mind— our understanding, perceiving, and meaning-making.  And it then inevitably affects our emotions.


To say that something is cognitive is simply to say that it involves thought and that you have to use your thinking skills.  So what would “too cognitive” mean?  Does it mean “too academic?” Does it mean that it involves concepts and that it requires some abstract understanding of something?  Does it mean that it involves some complexity?  Does it mean that someone presents NLP by lecturing?  By talking and talking and not using experiential learning methods?  Effective NLP training always involves experiential learning that increases your emotional intelligence as well as your spiritual intelligence.


2) “Everything is NLP.”

Well, no, everything is not NLP.  Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) as a communication model is about how we communicate—first to ourselves and then to others.  It is a model of that identifies and uses the components of thought—the sensory representational systems (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and then words and language as the meta-representation system.  Then through communication we induce ourselves and others into states— mind-body-emotion states.


And this Communication Model, in turn, gives us a set of modeling tools.  With it, we can break down the neuro-linguistic communication structure and so model any and every human experience.  Now NLP can do that.  We can use NLP to detect and create a structural format (or map) of any experience.   Yet that’s not the same as saying that “everything is NLP.”  Yes, using NLP we can take just about everything in human experience and replicate it.  But to say that anyone in previous centuries or decades were actually “doing NLP” because they were identifying some aspect of some experience is to extend this line of thinking too far.  They were doing something, but not NLP.  What we do today, using NLP, may recognize that they were doing something similar.  Similar, but not the same.


NLP arose from two movements.  The first was the Cognitive Psychology and revolution of 1956.  Historians use that date for Noam Chomsky’s original work in creating Transformational Grammar (the particular grammar that John Grinder used to sort out the language patterns of Perls and Satir and then later Erickson).    That was the year also that George Miller publishes his famous 7 plus-or-minus 2 paper about human consciousness.  After that he along with his associates, Carl Pribram and Eugene Galanter wrote Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960) and that was the basis for “strategies” in NLP.


The second movement was the Human Potential Movement which was spearheaded by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.  And that goes back to the 1930s and 1940s when both were doing their original work.  The movement blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s with the launching of the first human potential movement in California.  It was primarily Maslow who created the paradigm shift in psychology from the sick side of human nature to the healthy side.  It was he who put forth the idea that people are not innately sick, broken, or evil but have all the potentials for becoming fully alive and actualizing their best.  And that’s where Perls, Satir, and Bateson got their ideas about human resourcefulness.


3) "NLP is hypnosis."

Well, no, not really.  Now, true enough, the founders of NLP, Richard and John modeled Milton H. Erickson who founded modern medical hypnosis as a form of communication and so added the Ericksonian language patterns to the distinctions of NLP.  NLP is not hypnosis, but NLP has modeled the structure of the hypnosis as a communication phenomena.  It is called “the Milton Model” as well as the “reverse use of the Meta-Model of language.”


Yes, many in NLP have wandered far away from the original modeling emphasis in NLP and sadly, most training programs in NLP do not even present the process of modeling— strategies, elicitation of structure, pattern detection, etc.  But that’s more to the core of NLP than hypnosis or trance.  All of the work in using trance states for developing new resources or applying in certain contexts is but one application of NLP.


4) "NLP is therapy."

Well, not exactly.  True enough, the first models of NLP came from therapists —from world class psychotherapists who did “magic” in healing traumas and enabling people to get over the past and get ready for the future.  But NLP is not a psychology of therapy although we have many patterns in NLP that deals with traumas, hurts, and limitations.  Instead NLP is a psychology and set of procedures about the structure and process—it is a meta-position of how things work.  And this is true for things of excellence and things of disaster.


Experiences of heaven and of hell can be modeled and understood in terms of a person’s meanings, communications, and neurology.  The content of NLP is about the workings of neurology, linguistics, and semantics in the mind-body-emoting system.


5) "NLP is new age."

Ah, another misunderstanding!   And certainly one of the biggest.  No, NLP is not “new age,” even if it is used by people who believe in and practice various New Age things.  Using that logic, we could also say that NLP is Christian, or Moslem, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Jewish because it is also used by Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews.  Yet obviously, who uses it does not determine what it is.


As a cognitive-behavioral model, NLP is concerned about the structure of experience— as the sub-title of Robert Dilt’s classical work, “Neuro-Linguistic Programming: The Study of the Structure of Subjective Experience” (1980).   In itself, NLP is not a new age phenomena although some NLP trainers have (knowingly or unknowingly) contaminate their presentation of NLP so as to wed the two and totally confuse themselves and others.   As a result, they don’t even know what NLP is at its essence—at its sources—or the foundational groundwork of NLP in General Semantics, cognitive psychology, and the first Human Potential Movement.


The Heart of NLP

What I loved about NLP when I first encountered it was that it provided a way to find and work with the structure of an experience.  And why?  Because every experience has a structure.  Every experience comes together within a person’s mind-body-emotion system through the way a person thinks, emotes, speaks, and behaves.  And when you know that, you have in your hands some very powerful tools for change and renewal.  And it is from this foundation that Neuro-Semantics arises.  In fact, Neuro-Semantics specifically builds on this as it has contributed additional modeling tools to the NLP field —the Meta-States Model and the Matrix Model primarily.  But also Neuro-Semantics has expanded the Framing model (Frame Games, Winning the Inner Game and Mind-Lines), created the Self-Actualization Quadrants (the Meaning—Performance Axes), and formulated the Benchmarking Model.

Dr Michael Hall
Executive Director
International Society of Neuro-Semantics, Colorado USA

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