Monday, August 27, 2012

Exploring the World of NLP

by Allan J. Hirshey

A retired financial analyst, Allan has been living in Israel for eight years. Writing social science articles, learning part-time in a yeshiva, voluntary tutoring and counseling, and playing tennis take up most of his time. 

You’ve probably heard the term “NLP” at academic venues and social events. But do you really know what it is? If not, then this brief summary will provide a general framework and enhance your NLP vocabulary.

NLP began in the early 1970’s at the University of California, at Santa Cruz. The co-creators were Richard Bandler, a gestalt psychologist, and John Grinder, a professor of linguistics. Bandler wanted to find out what made certain psychotherapists more effective than their peers.  He then teamed up with Grinder to discover the “magic” of three eminent psychotherapists - Fritz Perls (father of Gestalt Therapy), Virginia Satir (mother of Family Therapy), and Milton Erickson (father of Clinical Hypnotherapy).  Grinder and Bandler modeled the language skills demonstrated by these therapists.  As a result, they created several models of excellence and a new form of psychotherapy, called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

Understanding NLP is made easier by focusing on its three terms or systems. Neuro refers to the mind or brain, how we think, and to our five senses. Linguistic refers to language, how we use it and the way it affects us. Programming relates to our emotions and behavior, resulting from the interaction of the mind and language. All three of these systems “glued” together can be likened to a human communication model - inputting, processing, and outputting information brought in from the outside world (reality) or “territory”. 

The mind makes “sense’ of the world by creating representations of pictures, sounds, and words and generating feelings, tastes, and smells.  What we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell in the world is inputted into the brain as a “sense experience”. The latter is then filtered by our meta programs (habitual ways of thinking), memories, value, beliefs, decisions, and culture and backgrounds.

The filters affect the “sense” experience by deleting (selectively omitting), distorting (selectively weighting), and generalizing (making decisions based on one experience) it. Afterwards, the “‘sense” experience is then shaped into an internalized experience, representation, map, or model of one’s world. The map is then combined with a physiology (heartbeat, breathing level, etc.) to form an emotional state (angry, depressed, terrified, confidant, etc.). The emotional state triggers and determines one’s behavior at any given moment.  

Importantly, our maps determine how we perceive the world of reality, how we express (language) and feelings to others, and what behaviors (ways of interacting within ourselves and with others) we see available to us.  Imbalances between our personalized maps and the real world can result in emotional pain and destructive behavior patterns. The goal of NLP is to bring our unhealthy maps closer to reality, by re-mapping them.

We communicate our map feelings and perceptions with others through a two-level language representation system (deep and surface structure).  This dictum was copied from Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar discipline. Chomsky posited that the deep structure represents the core semantic relation of a sentence which is mapped into a surface structure  (spoken words).  Flow-wise, the map’s language is unconsciously transformed into words from the deep structure into a surface structure.

So what does all this information tell us about NLP?  Here are some major points.

 (a) Our maps are seldom reality. Instead, they represent our internalized perceptions of the world or reality - how we feel things ought to be, rather than how they really are. We don’t experience the world, since we are always deleting, generalizing, and distorting its information.

(b) Since language is not real in the same way the experience is real, it (language) is only an abstraction of the experience. As Albert Korzybski (famous linguist who founded General Semantic discipline) posited - “the map (language) is not the territory (outside world). 

(c) The mind and the body are part of the same cybernetic loop. A change in one will affect a change in the other - there is no separate mind and no separate body. If one’s body is tense then his/her state of mind will also be tense.

(d) Two people witnessing the same experience at the same exact time can present incongruent mental states and behavior patterns. For example, identical twins wake up one morning and see a snake crawling down their open bedroom window. One twin might remain “cool, calm & collective”, phoning the local animal control center. But the other might go “totally ballistics”, screaming and throwing every object in sight at the reptile.

(e) Similar to actual road maps, if our maps are too restrictive, the more difficult it will be to find our “destinations”.  Limited choices of behaviors (ways of interacting within ourselves and with others) can lead to serious mental problems. Therefore, the people presenting the greatest number and flexibility of behaviors navigate through life more smoothly.

A few NLP “tools” designed to re-map unhealthy maps are now briefly described.

Meta Model - the therapist uses an explicit set of language patterns and questions to aggressively challenge the client’s miscommunication patterns (deletions, distortions & generalizations). Therapist: “How’s your social life?” Client: “It sucks!”  Therapist:  “Why does your social life suck?” Client: “Because, I’m a loser.” Therapist: “Who says you’re a loser?” Client: “Everybody!” Therapist:  “Everybody you meet socially calls you a loser?”  “Is that really true?” Extricating the client’s deep-rooted anxieties reconnects the deletions, distortions, and generalizations to his/her original “sense” experience. Therefore, the client’s restrictive map is expanded, resulting in a more objective surface structure.

Milton Model - the therapist puts the client in a trance state via hypnotherapy.  This is done to disconnect the surface structure, making it easier for the therapist to penetrate and probe the client’s deep structure for problems and solutions. The therapist communicates with the client by using vague and expanded language patterns.  This strategy makes it easier and more comfortable for the client to find and choose words expressing his/her true feelings. In NLP lingo, making meaning of someone else’s words, by referring them to your own feelings and experiences, is called a transdrivational search.

Reframing - an approach used when the client feels disempowered, angry, and in despair.  Assuming this was caused by a sudden job loss, the therapist attempts to put a positive “spin” on the situation. This is done by focusing on the situation’s positive sides. Here, the positive sides might include finding a better job opportunity, being able to spend more time with immediate family, and having time to learn new skills in demand that pay higher salaries. Reframing advantages are minimizing fear and panic and creating empowerment feelings.

Today, NLP is a world-wide industry. No longer restricted to psychotherapy, NLP has taken off into other directions - management, business, sales, education, sports, parenting, and law.  Coming into play here is the idea that modeling analyses can also be applied to other areas, not just psychotherapy.     
Is NLP controversial?  It certainly is!  Certain NLP opponents (linguists, psychiatrists, and psychologists) claim that it can’t address learning disorders, depression, phobias, and psychosomatic illnesses.  For example, some critics claim that NLP’s “anchoring” technique (a take-off on Pavlov’s conditioned response theory - remember “Psych 101?”) doesn’t hold up.  Worse yet, some academics claim that NLP’s title, concepts, and practices can’t be validly tested.
In summary, the NLP “industry” needs to tighten up the accreditation of its practitioners and the literature they produce. Furthermore, the “industry” needs to refute the pseudo-science accusations made against it, by demonstrating that its foundations, concepts, and practices are valid.  Establishing a recognized central authority would be a start in the right direction.  

Well, that’s my internalized representation of NLP.  You’re entitled to yours!


  1. NLP is a brilliant study, opening up worlds of perception and curiousity. The Histadrut haMorim offers courses in NLP - in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Be'er Sheva. I recommend the course!

    Thanks for this article
    Judih Weinstein

  2. brilliant study,