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What is NLP?

Excerpted from: "The Significance of Neuro-Linguistic Programming in the Therapy of Anxiety Disorders," by Graham Dawes
[in: Clinical Management of Anxiety: Theory and Practical Applications, J.A. Den Boer (ed.)]

...What later became Neuro-Linguistic Programming begins with Richard Bandler, an undergraduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he was specializing in mathematics and computer science. He became involved, through Science and Behavior Books, in editing transcripts of workshop videotapes of the Gestalt psychotherapist, Fritz Perls. Through repeated viewing of these videotapes, Bandler evidenced a talent for absorbing (as if by osmosis) the significant patterns of Perls' therapeutic interventions. This led to a deeper interest and before long Bandler was running his own weekly Gestalt group.

He soon found that interventions which worked with one person wouldn't necessarily work with someone else who had the same stated problem. Given his background in mathematics and computers, it was more puzzling to him that these behavioral 'equations' did not produce identical 'answers' than it might have been to someone with a different background.

John Grinder was an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at UCSC when he first attended Bandler's Gestalt group. He was also adept at absorbing and adopting other people's behavior. In addition, his particular area of expertise in linguistics was Noam Chomsky's Transformational Grammar which claimed to be a model of how language worked. Grinder proposed to Bandler that they apply the same principles to understanding how the therapeutic process worked.

Here were the core processes in the development of NLP: immersion and codification. Bandler and Grinder would immerse themselves in an exemplar's behavior, taking on everything, indiscriminately. They operated on the assumption that they didn't know which aspects of the exemplar's behavior were significant in bringing about a therapeutic outcome so they had better adopt it all. They would even take on such elements of behavior as, for instance, Perls' characteristic German-accented English. From such global beginnings, they would drop elements of behavior, one by one, to discern how each contributed to the overall therapeutic effect. Through this process of sifting they would arrive at a codified model of the significant patterns in the exemplar's behavior.

Another tactic of theirs ran contrary to the contemporary emphasis on understanding. Typically, clinical research focused on studying, at considerable length, those with a particular presenting problem. The hope was that this would lead to better methods of treatment. As Bandler and Grinder pointed out, those with the problem were the least likely to know how to change it. They emphasized change. If they were able to relieve someone of a troublesome problem, it mattered not whether they or the client 'understood' the problem. As a result of this orientation, they sought out people who had had a particular problem but had recovered from it. Through contrastive analysis they sought to define where, in the structure of the person's experience, lay the difference between her having or not having the problem. What they discovered was used to develop methods which could bring about that beneficial difference.

Working with the processes of immersion and codification, coupled with their focus on the structure of experience, Bandler and Grinder created the early developments of what became NLP. They drew together a group of colleagues and, in short order, had produced an array of psychotherapeutic frameworks and techniques. (Those colleagues most influential in the development of NLP were Leslie Cameron-Bandler, Judith DeLozier, Robert Dilts and David Gordon.)

Fritz Perls was the first of what were to be many psychotherapists whose work Bandler and Grinder "modeled." The best known of the others, and the most influential in the development of NLP, were Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson...

By the time Bandler and Grinder studied Milton Erickson, the hypnotherapist, they had honed their immersion and codification procedure. They judged that they were able to model, from an exemplar, the patterns of behavior which led to therapeutic change. Of course, each therapist they modeled was also teaching his or her own form of psychotherapy, and had a theory to account for its therapeutic effectiveness. However, no single description can be exhaustive of anything so complex as a psychotherapeutic process. More to the point, the exemplars could only explicate that of which they were conscious. It was out of their awareness. Patterns of behavior which had been distilled through years and years of therapeutic experience were now automatic, and unnoticed. Erickson, himself, recognizes this in the preface he wrote to one of Bandler and Grinder's books on his work (Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D.)...

Another significant figure in the background of NLP was not a psychotherapist and was, therefore, little mentioned until more recent years. This is Gregory Bateson. Bateson began life as an anthropologist but the depth of his curiosity was not to be contained by any one discipline and, in pursuit of his abstruse interests, he made significant contributions to biology, communications theory, psychology and the development of cybernetics (as it was then known, though today it would be called "systems theory"). In psychology, Bateson is best known for the double-bind theory of schizophrenia and his influence is most widely felt within family therapy and other systemic approaches. While Bateson's influence on NLP appears less tangible than that of others mentioned here, it informed the epistemological stance which underlay Bandler and Grinder's whole approach to psychotherapy.

It was Bateson who encouraged them to model Milton Erickson. In the 50s and 60s, Bateson had run a Communications Research Group and had introduced two of his group, Jay Haley and John Weakland, to Milton Erickson. Through them Erickson's work came to be more widely known. However, Bateson felt important aspects of Erickson's work were yet to be discovered and, impressed with Bandler and Grinder's modeling abilities, suggested they go to Phoenix and study him.

However, the magisterial Bateson was disappointed with the result, feeling that Bandler and Grinder's study of Erickson exhibited "shoddy epistemology," that is, that its descriptions implied linear rather than circular causality and (he may have considered it a consequence of that epistemology) that they had fallen into an obsession with power that he had seen all too often among those who studied Erickson.

The foregoing sketch of the beginnings of NLP shows a couple of iconoclasts casting their questioning gaze on the clinical field. As outsiders, their vision was unclouded by the accepted ideas of the time or by any loyalty to, and respect for, a tradition. In this, they played roles in a story familiar to the history of the sciences, in which contributions are made possible precisely through diving into a field without prior knowledge.

Bandler and Grinder brought a distinctly different orientation to their explorations of psychotherapeutic change. They disregarded theories and sought to deal only with the concrete experience of what goes on within therapeutic interactions. They were only interested in "what works." In pursuit of that, they plunged into experiment, testing out their emerging ideas and refining them in practice. Their aim was to make their discoveries explicit and, thereby, learnable by others.

In this process, as has been seen, they were not careful of the sensibilities of what might be called, the "clinical culture." They did not conduct themselves in a manner expected of clinicians. Regrettably, they upset potential colleagues, and gave rise to concerns about abuse of their work.

Nonetheless, their renegade spirit did launch a new area of investigation within the field and one which, twenty years on, is still fertile. Substantial developments continue to be made. It has been characteristic of NLP that many people, apart from the recognized developers, have been able to make contributions, and innovative perspectives and processes are common to the newsletters, journals and conferences in this area.

III. Neuro-Linguistic Programming as an "open theoretical system"

Bandler and Grinder have never produced a formal theory, that is, a set of interlinked hypotheses, together with their evidence procedure, supported by explicit philosophic and, especially, epistemological premises. In this, they are not alone among the creators of psychotherapeutic schools. Their orientation was quite different, as we have seen. A positive disregard for theory was part of their strategy for taking a new look at the field.

To step back from NLP for a moment, it can be more generally said that as human beings we are "Sense-Making Systems." It is our continual concern to make sense of things. We "make sense" in terms of Meaning and Causality: what things mean, and what we need to do in relation to those meanings. In our theories, these two elements get different weightings. Some are more "Theories for Understanding," others more "Theories for Action." (To take an extreme example, a theory proposing that psychopathology is, solely, genetically determined would provide understanding but suggest nothing in the way of psychotherapeutic action.) While NLP has been characterized as oriented more toward action than understanding, any theory for action will contain elements of meaning, though (as the example above shows) the opposite is not necessarily so.

Returning to NLP, the major framework used for understanding our experience is that it derives from how we utilize our representational (sensory) systems, both internal and external. When we are dealing with the past or the future, anything not immediately before our senses, we are operating with internal representations, be they pictures, internal dialogue and sounds, sensation and emotional feelings, even smells and tastes. Within this framework, any psychological problem is viewed as being due to the way in which we are organizing these representational systems. Any traumatic event that we might feel limits us is "only" a representation, as is any aspiration which inspires us to action. Representations can be changed, Even when we choose to work with experiential elements of a different logical type, such as "beliefs," "assumptions," "values," "self-concepts," "abilities," these can also, should it be useful, be viewed in terms of the representations which form them. This is the conceptual framework which gives NLP its characteristic flavor among psychotherapies, as will be apparent in what follows.

While theory-building was not part of Bandler and Grinder's project, any statement about anything carries implicit within it some measure of theory in that it contains propositions and underlying assumptions. Attention will be drawn to those that are particularly significant for NLP. At the same time, it is not intended, here, to construct the missing theoretical edifice.

IIIA. The NLP Presuppositions

Bandler has often characterized NLP as an "attitude." In explaining of what that attitude might consist, he has been much less forthcoming. However, the answer could be said to reside in the "NLP Presuppositions." These vary, both in number and wording from trainer to trainer, but the ones presented below do go some way toward characterizing the NLP approach.

First, though, a word about the status of these statements. They are to be viewed as operating assumptions. Nothing is being claimed about their 'truth'. If it were, many of them would require qualification. As operating assumptions, they provide a fruitful orientation for the pursuit of therapeutic change within the NLP framework. They are presented here, then, with some degree of explication, but no attempt to argue for their truthfulness:

- The map is not the territory.

This epigram is emblematic of an epistemological position associated with the names of Gregory Bateson, from whom it was adopted into NLP, and Count Alfred Korzybski, from whom Bateson adopted it. The import of this is that we are always operating in terms of our "models of the world." Differences between these mental models cannot be resolved by appeal to a 'real world' independent of them.

- The mind and body are aspects of the same system.

In consequence, observation of the body can reveal information about mental processes and adjustment of the body can affect mental processing; similarly, mental processes can affect bodily functions.

- If one person can learn to do something, anyone can learn to do it.

This optimistic presupposition forestalls our setting unnecessary limitation on our ideas about what is possible for our clients (and for ourselves).

- People already have all the resources they need.

Since people already think, feel and act, the processes they go through to do so can be re-organized to enable them to think, feel, and act in ways they judge as more beneficial.

- You cannot not communicate.

This is adopted directly from Bateson who pointed out the impossibility of not communicating, and that, for example, not to answer a question is, nonetheless, a communication.

- The meaning of your communication is the response it elicits.

It is the response to our communication which is the significant factor, regardless of what our intentions may have been, and it is with this we must deal in our subsequent communication.

- Underlying every behavior is a positive intention.

Although we may not like some of our behaviors, the operating assumption is that each of them is an attempt to achieve something beneficial to us. This avoids a confrontive stance toward unwanted behavior, though it is not to say that the behavior is also assumed to have a positive intention vis a vis someone else.

- People always make the best choice available to them.

When a person's behavior either gets them into difficulties or is unpleasant for others, this is due to limitations in the choices they are able to actualize (not those theoretically available) rather than due to their being inherently "bad" or "evil."

- There is no failure, only feedback.

This heartening presupposition points out that an unwanted result to our actions provides us with feedback about those actions which can guide our next, corrective, action. We can only aspire to "failure' if we stop the feedback cycle and give up.

- If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten.

This self explanatory presupposition leads to the advice that "If what you're doing isn't working, do something else."

We see, in these presuppositions, an essentially optimistic view of the person. Rather than our problems being inherent, either in the individual or the world, most of them result from limitations in our model of the world. Change does not require our having to change the world so much as the way we think about the world. As we have seen, this "way of thinking" comprises our general orientations - our assumptions about he world, ourselves and other people - along with the way we use our sensory systems to make sense of both our external and internal worlds. Practical utilization of this conceptual framework is to be found in the therapeutic methods and techniques of NLP...