Is NLP the longest running fad ever or the very solution we need in these darker economic days? On the eve of the annual NLP Conference in London, we sent Mike Levy to find out more.
In his recent book, 'Tricks of the Mind' television illusionist Derren Brown says that NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) is "The Frankenstein grandchild of Ericksonian hypnosis". More than 30 years after the publication of 'The Structure of Magic', the seminal work on NLP by Bandler and Grinder, has the set of techniques come of age or had its day? Is there any scientific proof to underpin the claims made by practitioners? And if not, does it matter?
These, says Michael Breen, are evergreen questions: "They were asking them back in 1988 and they come up every 10 years or so." Breen, who taught NLP with Bandler and Paul McKenna, has predictably strong views about the current state of NLP. "It's no use asking about scientific validity: NLP is not and never will be a science. It is a discipline that people will take pot shots at and then steal its contents."
Michael Breen, NLP trainer
Breen who spoke at last year's NLP Conference, says that the discipline does not look for absolute truths: "NLP looks for clues to see what works in human behaviour. NLP cannot be controlled – the best new work is coming from people nobody has heard of. And that is how it should be."
There is, says Breen, an inbuilt and elusive quality about NLP which depends hugely on the skills and insights of the practitioner: "It is not about a corpus of knowledge or a set of testable qualifications. NLP was created to create new stuff, not to copy other people's work."
His point is that for him, NLP is a facilitating tool that opens up endless possibilities when it is in the right hands. "It is a behavioural skills set, an art, a discipline that when used well can have amazing results."
What excites Breen most about his discipline is what his students can do with the tools: "Someone who takes what they learn about NLP and goes on to do something completely new with it: that is what really turns me on." He cites a student who developed his own set of tools based on Houdini's famous escapes. "It's a lovely little tool and it works – that is NLP."
"The best practitioners are those who already possess competencies that can be built on. However, no two practitioners should ever do the same work. That is why NLP is not a science."
Sue Knight, author of NLP at Work
Flourishing in the downturn
Sue Knight, best-selling author of 'NLP at Work', agrees: "NLP is a study of what works best – the most important test is: does it work for you and achieve the results you want?" Knight, a speaker at this year's NLP Conference, thinks that the discipline is flourishing with the present downturn providing new and exciting opportunities.
"NLP is perfectly suited to these times. What makes excellence in leadership and how do we best deal with business adversity are some key questions today. My programmes on leadership here and in India are bursting at the seams. The crash in the financial world is a demonstration of what happens when you do not have excellence in leadership. People are now looking for new ways of leading business. NLP answers that call."
For Knight, NLP is now far from marginal: "Looking back over 20 years as a practitioner, there was a time when most people on my courses paid for themselves – now almost all are backed by their employers." So Knight believes that NLP has never been stronger.
Marielena Sabatier, co-founder of Inspiring Potential, agrees with that view. She is another keen advocate of NLP. A few years ago, she took her MBA and immersed herself in the no-nonsense world of high corporate finance. Then came a complete change of career – running a thriving coaching company whose focus is leadership development and interpersonal communication skills. But isn't NLP a little too fluffy for her? "Not at all. It has so many uses – improving inter-personal communications, challenging the presuppositions behind the way we see ourselves in the world, helping us to become more tolerant of other people's viewpoints. I find that NLP really opens the mind to new possibilities."
Lack of evidence?
Is she worried then at the lack of hard scientific evidence behind NLP? "No, it is an amalgam of already tried and tested therapies and ideas. To me, NLP really explains how the brain works – and I'm the kind of person who, if it doesn't make sense, I go back to the roots of an idea." That said, Sabbatier regrets the sheer number of NLP schools out there: "It makes a single accreditation body less, rather than more, likely to succeed."
Marielena Sabatier, Inspiring Potential
Accreditation is something of an anathema to Breen but he is excited about the future of NLP: "Not in terms of more paper qualifications. There should never be an NLP 'profession'. Without all that NLP has reached the point where it has percolated through the culture," he says. "It is everywhere but it doesn't necessarily smell like NLP – and that is exactly as it should be. NLP is essentially about transformation and in that quality, the very nature of NLP must keep evolving and transforming."
The future, says Breen, will be online – NLP will be democratised and that could be bad news for traditional classroom approaches. New technology will hit the NLP profession very hard – putting learning into the hands of the learners will mean that NLP will change its form, content and mode of delivery." Breen, for one, cannot wait for the next 30 years.
For more information:
For those looking for research underpinning NLP, there are a number of respected papers such as the one produced by Ashley Dowlen, an Associate at Roffey Park. His 1996 paper 'NLP - help or hype? Investigating the uses of neuro-linguistic programming in management learning' is a good overview of the evidence. He finds that, "...the use of language patterns to enhance effective communication tends to get support and appears to be among the more reliable evidence. The use of the 'outcome' technique receives some support, as does the meta-model questioning method. The evidence on the ability of NLP approaches to bring about change in emotional state is far less conclusive. In general terms, the eclectic nature of NLP may be its strength, particularly if the collection of approaches is new to potential users, and in general terms there are a number of references to the value of NLP techniques for developers."
For the whole report see the Emerald Insight web page: www.emeraldinsight.com
About the interviewer: Mike Levy is a freelance journalist and copywriter with 20 years' experience. He is also a writing and presentations coach. He especially loves playwriting and creating resources for schools. Mike is director of Write Start Ltd. For more information go to: www.writestart.co.uk
For more information about the NLP practitioners Mike spoke to see the following websites:
For more information about the NLP conference go to: www.nlpconference.co.uk/