Article from

First published in The A-Z of Alternative Medicine, 1995 (Second Edition)
and then in Positive Health Magazine, Issue 9, Dec/Jan 1996

Different ways to Look at, Talk about, and get to Grips with NLP

Bob Janes

If you haven't already heard of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), the chances are that you will soon (actually, now you've read this far the chances are you'll hear more about it in the next day or so - that's one of the ways our minds work).

Most of us go through life without thinking much about what goes on inside our minds (except maybe sometimes to wish it was 'different'). Heads and bodies are supplied without instruction manuals. If we enquire, then we are told that this is the province of psycho-something-or-others each of whom has a different opinion. None of these are necessarily 'wrong' but they aren't always very helpful.

The founders of NLP took a practical view and said: "It's your brain - if you don't look after it, don't expect anyone else to." They also discovered a model of the way minds work that is straightforward and practical - the start of a user manual.

NLP is only a model. It isn't 'right' or 'wrong' it's only as useful as it is useful. One of the basic tenets of NLP is "if it isn't working, try something else" - and this applies to NLP as much as anything else.
Minds are very complex, each of them is different and as a result we all have different ways of relating to the world. Here are three different descriptions of NLP. Dip into each of them and see which is most to your liking:

  • A description in terms of baking a cake.
  • An interview with James Lawley who uses NLP in his work as a counsellor and business consultant.
  • A more formal description in terms of psychological and therapeutic models.

1. Baking Cakes

Request from the CompuServe NLP Forum:

    "Give me a working set of examples, definitions, ranges that distinguishes NLP from something like Cake Baking."

OK. Here's a short explanation.

When you bake a cake you require several things - a list of ingredients, a recipe, some physical skills. Most of these are available to everyone yet some people consistently make better cakes than others. At its essence NLP is the study of what make the difference between world-class cake bakers and us mere mortals who are just competent.

Most of the time the difference depends on what happens in our heads - so, in your example, the question becomes: What is the difference that makes a master caker? Can you teach someone else how to be a master caker?

The answer to each of these is "Yes", though as you need to take this on trust for a while please handle NLP in that part of your mind where you test things out to see if they work. Now we need to address the question of "How?". Here all I can do is offer a rough sketch but it may give you a framework to build on.

Ingredient 1:

    We record our experiences internally by using only a few main parameters: we see things in our mind's eye; we hear internal sounds (often an internal voice that we talk or listen to); we also feel things (combinations of muscular, sensory and chemical actions in the body). In NLP these three parameters are termed Visual (V), Auditory (A) and Kinaesthetic (K) and most experiences are coded in one or more of these in some kind of combination.

Ingredient 2:

    If we code all experiences in (VAK) terms, then that includes things that we imagine, or anticipate, as well as things that are in the past. It follows then that we can construct (VAK) codings and it further follows that we can change them. [Note that it's quite important that we can tell what is 'real' and what is 'imagined'.]

Ingredient 3:

    The way (VAK) codings work is that they link to one another. So if you see a fresh-baked cake you may begin to feel just a tad hungry! These linkages can be changed (usually by providing a better alternative). So given a choice between feeling depressed or feeling good the mind an be coached to opt for feeling good. It is also possible to associate a (VAK) code to something external, like a touch on the shoulder.

Ingredient 4:

    You can coach your own mind, but it is sometimes easier if someone else works with you. Your mind is more likely to accept this if the coach has good rapport with you. The technology of rapport is well established and involves "matching" of body posture, movements, voice, language patterns, etc. At its highest level this can make the coach have a very rich and open information channel with you and seem to be a part of you.

Ingredient 5:

    Most of the coaching that your mind accepts and uses is taken in the subconscious, it is not that which the 'logical' thinking mind is comfortable with or knows how to deal with. So NLP gets into so-called 'altered states'.

Ingredient 6:

    What minds often do with the coaching is to change the (VAK) coding. For instance, pictures in the mind's eye can be changed in brightness, size, position, framing, 2D-3D, moving or still, colour or monochrome, etc. You can also watch yourself in them or be in them. We also code things into past, present and future.

Ingredient 7:

    In order to do things we combine (VAK) codings in patterns which are triggered at appropriate (or inappropriate times). In baking a cake you might tell when it was nearly done by comparing the smell with an internal coding, look (V) at the cake, touch it (K), hear your mother's voice say "that's done" (A), check with internal codings, see (V) if it feels (K) about right. These strategies can be elicited and taught to someone else.

Ingredient 8:

    All of this coding operates in the structure of a particular individual. This structure will include: specific behaviours, physical states, beliefs and values, and other odds and ends that make up their particular mind-set. Again it is possible to elicit the key parts and to teach them. There are also some common patterns of behaviour that can be identified which are sometimes termed meta-programmes (another big chunk of NLP).

The Recipe:

    This, as you can imagine, is complex and much of NLP training involves imparting understanding and skills. A lot of the work is done through the very specific use of language. NLP identifies some very subtle uses of language that can have profound effects.

There is more - much more, but this should be enough to give you a basic understanding.

2. The interview

Talking to James Lawley, NLP therapist and trainer, recently Vice-chair of ANLP and Chair of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Section. James continues to be instrumental in the process by which NLP therapists to become validated psychotherapists registered with UKCP.

Q. Tell me James, what is NLP?

NLP brings together the three most influential components of experience: neurology , language and patterning.

Bob, you are in contact with the external world through your five senses: sight, hearing, feelings, smell and taste. Your neurology takes external stimuli and re-presents them to you with a matching set of 'internal representations'. These form your subjective experience; the internal world of your 'mind's eye', or the pictures you make to yourself. It's the conversations, dialogues or arguments you have with yourself. It's your feelings and emotions, over which we used to think we had no control. The important point to realise is that your experience is created by combinations of these internal representations which form repeating patterns. These patterns (or reactions) run over and over again unless they are interrupted or redirected.

Your language determines how you influence and communicate with others, and yourself. It is how we label our experience. Empowering language generates empowered behaviour. Likewise, negative thinking is the result of disempowering thoughts, often internal dialogue out of our awareness, which limits choice.

The patterns you use affects the balance of your life. NLP allows you to use your conscious thinking, your physiology, and your unconscious processes to align yourself with the values and principles by which you want to live.

Q. So, what kind of problem does NLP deal with?

The NLP approach isn't confined to any particular symptoms or applications. It has been successfully applied to fields as diverse as psychotherapy and counselling, sports psychology, education, health, law and business.

NLP makes a significant contribution to helping people lose phobias; deal with trauma; pick themselves up from depression; resolve unhealthy relationships; maintain an appropriate weight loss; stop smoking; and in hundreds of other ways when our lives aren't working and we wish to change.

It's just as important to realise that NLP is not only about solving problems, it's also about the pursuit of excellence, of taking things that are working well and making them even better - in all walks of life. For example: NLP is being used in sports psychology to help access those states of mind and body needed to ensure the repetition of peak performance. An athlete can use positive statements like "I'm going to win this race," but if a voice in their head says "No, way" there's not much chance of success. With NLP, that voice can be changed to "Go for it!"

In education we teach spelling and highly effective learning strategies to children. Doctors and barristers are making use of the same NLP techniques for gathering high quality information from patients and clients alike.

NLP is also used to study how belief systems influence wellness. HOW doctors give information can either be a powerful tool for recovery from illness, or unwittingly introduce a 'thought virus' into their patients thinking.

Q. NLP seems to be very powerful, is it safe?

There are 'Ecology' checks built into its use. Before using any NLP technique or method of exploration, practitioners are trained to make a thorough examination of the effects the change will have in the client's life, as well as in the lives of those around them.

For example, if you wished to move from a co-dependent relationship to an empowered self, ALL of your relationships will be impacted by this change and care taken to support you and prepare you for the effects of those changes on significant others as you move towards your goal.

Q. I'm still not sure how NLP works?

Nobel Prize-winner, Professor Gerald Edelman has spent thirty years researching how the brain functions. He concludes that the ten billion or more brain and nerve cells we have arrange themselves into groups or 'maps' that correspond to our experience. These maps allow you to make sense of the world and yourself. Connections between cells that are frequently stimulated survive and thrive; others atrophy or are diverted to other tasks.

NLP explores HOW you experience and utilise your own unique set of maps. Many people have been told what is wrong in their lives. NLP is about how to change unwanted behaviours - how these unwanted behaviours have been serving you in some way (else they would have changed by now!) - and how more choice can be added so that ecological change can take place.

Q. OK, but what happens if something goes wrong?

All NLP Therapists who are members of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Section (PCS) of the Association for NLP are bound by a Code of Ethics. and are required to have supervision from a more experienced therapist. Through ANLP, they're in touch with a support network from which they can gain advice, or refer a client who needs specialist help.

Should you have any concerns about your NLP Therapy or Therapist, there is a complaints procedure which allows for informal mediation or formal disciplinary proceedings.

Q. I've heard that NLP involves hypnotism. Is that true?

The originators of NLP studied a number of eminent therapists including the work of Dr. Milton Erickson, a clinical hypnotist and a master at helping his clients achieve happier and more fulfilling lives. They discovered that one of Dr. Erickson's most effective tools was his use of language. They incorporated much of his approach into NLP and combined it with other therapeutic models. This means there are times when a very relaxed, inwardly focused state might best serve your needs. This is akin to the 'visualisation' and relaxation used by many therapies.

Some therapists, however, use a combination of NLP and formal hypnosis. It is always useful to discuss a therapist's method before you start so that you can discover a fit with your own preferred way of making appropriate changes to your life.

Q. How does NLP compare with other forms of therapy?

As well as the work of Milton Erickson the originators of NLP studied Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, Virginia Satir a developer of Family Systems Therapy and many other outstanding performers in different fields. NLP was born by identifying what was effective, regardless of the approach being used. Thus NLP has unique elements as well elements which overlap with other approaches.

Q. Why should I choose NLP?

NLP focuses on what you want, how you want to be, and how to find the resources and attributes you already have to assist you in making changes. This means dramatic improvements in your life can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time.

3. Definitions"

The psychological model

The foundation of NLP is a way of thinking about people which has proved practical and effective in a wide range of applications and situations. This way of thinking is not held to be 'true', just as a useful model for practical purposes. The model is organic and changes as new applications are explored; it is broadly based and draws on and integrates concepts and understanding from many areas of psychology and psychotherapy. The strongest strands are from the Gestalt, Family and Brief therapy schools and Humanistic psychology; next the fields of systems thinking and linguistics, especially the work of Bateson, Watzlawick, et al and Chomsky's transformational grammar; there are also recognisable strands from Behavioural psychology and the concept of the unconscious taken from psychodynamic theory.

The NLP model holds that each individual constructs their own 'map of the world' based on their perception of their experience and that they act, in accordance with their map, in the way that seems best to them at the time. The map is constructed by the individual taking their sensory experience of the world (what they see, hear, feel, taste and smell); applying internal filters (derived from their map) to those inputs which delete some parts of the experience; distorting the experience to fit with the expectations of their map; and, sometimes, generalising the experience by inferring patterns or rules which are then added to the map.

The map is stored by the individual in their mind and body as a set of experiences (images, sounds, feelings, tastes, smells) which can be linked into patterns. These may link external experience to internal: The taste of the madelaine recalls my youth; internal experience to internal: When I imagine them together I feel jealous; or internal to external: I tell myself "one more won't hurt", so I take it.

The individual encodes their experiences so that they can distinguish between experiences which are 'good' and 'bad', 'real' and 'imaginary', 'past', 'present' or 'future'. This coding is effected by changing the form of the internal representation, e.g. 'good' experiences may be imagined as large full-coloured pictures, 'bad' ones as small black and white images. This coding may be so familiar that it is out of conscious awareness, as driving a familiar route may be done without awareness.

The therapeutic model

The NLP therapist assumes the NLP model to be true for practical therapeutic purposes. The client thus presents with a 'present state' which is in some way unsatisfactory, and a 'map of the world' which embodies their perceptions of their past present and future. The emphasis of the therapist is on how the client constructs their present state, not on analysis of why.

NLP psychotherapy is a client centred therapeutic approach. The basic remedial model for change is that the client is able to find resources in their own experience to add to the present state so they can reach a more desirable state.

The role of the therapist is that of an active facilitator. The NLP therapist helps the client: identify their desired state; be sure that this state is appropriate, or 'ecological', for the client as a whole; and then to identify an apply the appropriate internal resources. To be effective, the therapist builds a high level of rapport with the client using a set of techniques identified in the NLP model but widely applicable to other human communications.

In working with the client in this way the NLP therapist can draw on a broad set of techniques based on the NLP model which have proved effective in dealing with different forms of limiting present state. Some of these techniques operate at a simple behavioural level, others involve the client in changing limiting beliefs and thereby opening up more choices. Whilst considerable time may be taken in working with the client to gain a clear understanding of the present and desired states, the change process is typically brief compared with other types of psychotherapy.

As in all therapies there are dangers of creating expectations which cannot be realised. NLP psychotherapy stresses the concept of ecology, for client and therapist, in change work and ecological steps are built into most of the techniques. The changes sought must be truly representative of the whole person and not just appropriate to one part or careless of the potential adverse consequences of change.

©1993, 1994 Bob Janes & James Lawley

Last modified 11.1.01


Bob Janes is an independent consultant, writer, coach and trainer fascinated by communication in personal and organisational development. He has just completed an MSc thesis exploring affective and cognitive approaches to organisational change. He has an increasing interest in the melding of thought from many fields in the study of subjective experience. He can be contacted through his web site at where you will find more of his many book book reviews written for Rapport.  

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