Neuro-linguistic programming

Words: Sharon Rich, Master NLP practitioner

What exactly is NLP?

Neuro – Our neurological processes. The filters through which we process the world: sight, hearing, feeling, touching, thinking.

Linguistic – The language (verbal and non-verbal) we use to communicate with ourselves and others.

Programming – The behaviours and actions we display (consciously and unconsciously) which create the results we get in life.

A quick online search will show you that there are a number of differing definitions of NLP. The principles and techniques of NLP can be applied so universally that you will find it being used in a wide range of areas including personal development, performance enhancement, corporate/sports coaching, creative potential and more.

A wealth of training programmes and courses have spread across the world, each one with its own unique interpretation of what NLP is all about. The problem lies in the fact that, since its conception, NLP has continued to evolve and develop. Like an old family recipe that’s been passed down the generations, with different people adding their own twist, the basic ingredients may remain the same but—depending on whose house you are visiting—you’ll find yourself eating a slightly different meal. 

Where did NLP begin?

NLP began in the 1970s with two men: Richard Bandler, a psychology student at the University of California, and John Grinder, an assistant professor of linguistics at the same university. They were keen to understand why some people excelled in their field while others remained only average. Together they studied three particularly innovative and successful therapists, seeking to identify patterns of thinking and behaviour that could then be modelled by others. With the information they gained from these studies, Bandler and Grinder went on to develop a system of techniques that enhanced learning, creativity, personal growth and communication.

They were keen to study other experts in the field and watched videotapes of Carl Rogers (Person-Centred Therapy) and Eric Berne (Transactional Analysis), incorporating some of these principles into their ideas. Most influential to the development of NLP were Gregory Bateson, Milton Erickson, Virginia Satir and Fritz Perls. From those early experimental building blocks, NLP grew in two complementary directions: as a means of modelling excellence in any field and as an effective set of tools to enhance patterns of thinking and communication.

NLP techniques enable us to make conscious that which was unconscious; empowering us to interact with the world with greater awareness and choice.

To appreciate the extent of the potential in this statement, it’s useful to understand a little about the functions of our conscious and subconscious mind and how they impact our thoughts and our behaviours.

The subconscious mind creates programmes. Information is stored and does not easily change. Growing up, the subconscious mind takes in information and forms programmes that enable us to live; it is the mind of habits. We learn to walk through repetition and then our subconscious mind stores the programme. After that, we don’t have to think about it; we just walk.

The conscious mind thinks and makes choices. It is creative and adaptable. It considers problems and how to deal with them. It makes decisions and enables us to get through the day. The conscious mind thinks it runs the show – but it doesn’t.

In his wonderful book The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton tells us that our subconscious mind is a million times more effective at processing information than our conscious mind. This means that not only is it taking in vast amounts of information from the environment around us that dips under our conscious radar, but that it also has an enormous influence on our thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Neuroscience has discovered that only 1% to 5% of our cognitive activity comes from our conscious mind. 95% to 99% of our actions and decision-making is governed by our unconscious mind. Throughout our lives, our subconscious has been taking in information on a massive scale. From the moment we were born, it has been absorbing and processing our experiences, creating our understanding of the world and forming our beliefs. Our beliefs can be seen as the bedrock of who we are. They form our values, they dictate our choices, create our opinions and shape how we live. Biological programming of this kind makes sense when it comes to efficient use of the brain’s processing capacity. Unfortunately, it can backfire on us when, as adults, we continue to make choices based on unconscious limiting beliefs. These impact our lives through negative patterns of behaviour and an inability to achieve our emotional and material goals.  

NLP helps us shift our negative unconscious programming and make positive conscious choices in our lives.

NLP presuppositions

There are a number of ground rules or foundation principles that form the backdrop to NLP. They are not necessarily true, but believing in them creates a positive and adaptable attitude that feeds into our chances of success in whatever we are seeking to achieve. Here are a few:

The map is not the territory: This refers to the fact that our experience of the world is entirely subjective. We have our own internal ‘map’ from which we take our understanding of the world. However, that is just one perspective and the reality (the territory) is much more than that. This underlying principle helps us remain open to all possibilities and remember that we interpret the world through the information that is available to us, which may not be entirely accurate.

There is no failure, only feedback: Every experience provides a learning opportunity. When something doesn’t go to plan and we get an unwanted result, the most constructive approach is to consider why things went wrong and what we might do differently next time. This allows us to see life’s challenges as a continuation of experiences from which we gain information about what works for us and what doesn’t, focusing on the solution and not the problem.

Every behaviour has a positive intention. This encourages understanding rather than judgement. By positive intention, we mean the behaviour benefits the individual on some level. For example, when one partner shouts jealous accusations at another, the benefit is a release of built-up tension and the positive intention is to create emotional security. In this case, the behaviour would not necessarily lead to the positive intention being fulfilled. By recognising the positive intention behind our actions, we can seek more productive ways to meet our needs rather than getting stuck in negative cycles of behaviour.

The four pillars of NLP

The four pillars are the foundation blocks upon which NLP techniques and strategies are built:

Rapport – Rapport is the basic foundation of communication. The quality of the rapport we have with another person will dictate how successful our interactions are able to be. A good rapport creates a sense of trust and openness. In our personal lives it is, generally, something that is left to chance; we either get on with someone or we don’t. But in our professional lives, we may have to make a bit more effort. This is particularly the case if we work in a ‘helping’ profession such as counselling or psychotherapy. For most of us, what we say is the focus of our attention when we communicate, but in actual fact only 7% of our communication is verbal; 38% is tone of voice and 55% is body language. NLP helps us to develop our rapport-building skills by exploring these nuances in our behaviour and language. Increased understanding and awareness of how we communicate with others can help us create more successful professional and personal relationships.

Sensory acuity – Fine-tuning each of our physical senses in order to enrich our awareness of ourselves and the world around us is an explicit goal in NLP training. Being sensitive to the subtle changes in voice tone, facial expression and even eye movements can provide useful insights into how other people are feeling. For many, interpreting eye movements is a key association with NLP. However, it is actually an extremely small aspect of this work and is taught within the context of enhancing our sensitivity to what others may be thinking. Our capacity to build rapport and create positive outcomes is significantly influenced by our degree of sensory awareness.

Outcomes – NLP is an outcome- (or solution-) based modality. The clarification of goals or outcomes is an integral aspect of NLP work. Our whole life is a series of outcomes, from cooking a meal to making a career change. Sometimes we feel we get what we want and other times not. Often, we believe this is down to chance. In reality, everything we do influences the outcome we are going to get. In order to maximise the chances of getting what we want, we need to be clear about we want. This may seem obvious, but many of us are stuck in patterns of behaviour or lifestyles that we just can’t seem to break out of, even though we feel like we keep trying. NLP helps to properly identify outcomes, recognise the blocks to moving forward and create a life that is in alignment with our goals.

Flexibility – In the same way that a flexible body allows us more movement choices, a flexible mind allows us more intellectual and emotional choices. A lack of flexibility in our mental attitude and approach to life can cause us to stay stuck experiencing life as a series of problems and challenges. In order to work towards our desired outcomes, we need to be open to our blocks and our potential for change.


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