Why has the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) been so widely criticized by professionals and lay people around the world? What can NLP trainers and practitioners do about it?
After 25 years practicing as a clinician, NLP and life coach trainer, here are my conclusions and top suggestions for NLP trainers and practitioners who must deal with criticism and stigma in the field of NLP.
But first, let me say this….
In my lifetime, I don’t know that I’ve witnessed a greater ‘tragedy of opportunity’ for psychological science and related fields. When Neuro-Linguistic Programming is dismissed out of hand, it’s an epic loss for the body of knowledge that is modern psychology.
After all, Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a universally adaptable and intellectually sophisticated field of practice. Those of us who get this, however, suffer a certain fate that seems to have been written in the stars decades ago. We’re doomed in some circles to carry a certain stigma that comes with Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
Is the criticism deserved? Yes and no.
Let's look at how (in my opinion only) this all came about. And I won't take the easy way out and make lame excuses for NLP, such as:
• People criticize what they don’t understand.
• People fear powerful technologies.
• The establishment is rigid and closed minded.
• The name Neuro-Linguistic Programming is confusing.
My response is more aligned with a favorite NLP presupposition: The meaning of your communication is the response you get. Am I right, fellow NLP trainers?
Here are four reasons why Neuro-Linguistic Programming has been widely criticized.
1. At least one of the early NLP pioneers made a name for himself by being critical of psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and others in traditional mental health.
It didn’t help NLP that this man was nasty, arrogant, and hypocritical toward the mainstream. In spite of other more professional and congruent early NLP developers, the loud mouth jerk of NLP got most of the attention.
This, of course, did bring notoriety to NLP in professional communities but also sabotaged the field of NLP from the get-go. The path of credibility - being taken seriously by researchers - was basically blocked because those researchers were mocked.
Think about it.
You have a model that could revolutionize mental health treatment. So, start by offending everyone in mental health.
When you think of the possible approaches to being recognized as credible by the mental health establishment, pick the tone of an effective message:
a) Hey, mental health establishment: We’re developing some revolutionary stuff over here that can enhance the results you’re getting with clients. Come check it out. Let’s work together….
b) Hey, mental health establishment: You guys are IDIOTS! Come see how much better I am than you are...!
2. NLP pioneers were hippies who wanted a grassroots movement, not another profession.
It was the University of Santa Cruz in the early 1970’s. And that’s probably ‘enuf said’.
Moreover, NLP developers were intentional in their efforts to avoid ‘professionalization’ of the field. They weren’t about to become ‘the man’!
Fittingly, they avoided such nonsensical professional practices like: Trademarking their brand (NLP is and always was in the public domain. Everyone owns it)! ‘The man’ never had a chance to own NLP. Of course, one NLP developer attempted to become the man decades later (by suing everyone who helped make him rich) but he failed miserably.
Hey, what are the submodalities of that irony?
Attempting scientific research. To NLPer’s back in the day, scientific research must have been just another acid trip. After all, scientific research is based on the scientific method, a mere philosophy, which is very close to metaphor, which is…..highly subjective, dude!
What’s the point of getting validated by a bunch of self-deceiving researchers who don’t even know they’re trippin’?
(The professional credibility of the field, that’s what.)
Regulating trainers and training. The field of NLP has never been consolidated under one organizing body that monitors how NLP trainers and training happen. It’s a hippie dream...no one’s in charge! Spread the love however it works for you, eh...you do your thing, I’ll do mine.
Basically, and for reasons that made sense at the time, the field of NLP was set up to fail at the ‘professional credibility’ game. Of course, this doesn’t make NLP any less effective (or credible). It just makes convincing skeptics a lot harder. I guess that will forever be their loss.
3. When you never do the same thing twice with a client, it’s hard to validate with science.
If you’re a highly skilled NLP practitioner, you never do the same thing twice with clients. The NLP techniques are not step-by-step protocols written in stone. They are more like a variety of building blocks that you can stack together in a million different ways.
Every intervention is custom.
NLP practitioners understand clients don’t show up with predictable, preconfigured problems that have preconceived solutions. Sessions with clients are dynamic events that can go any direction, all based on observation and feedback.
What is there to test scientifically? How can you set up a study with the proper controls? That’s tough to do with NLP. In fact, if you set out to study some cookie-cutter method based on NLP, you wouldn’t really be testing NLP anyway.
Clinically controlled scenarios aren’t the best fit with NLP.
4. Some NLP trainers are indeed scam artists
Remember above when I mentioned NLP has no single organizing body? In short, nobody owns NLP. Therefore, any schmuck can learn it and come up with who-knows-what slimy application. And boy do they.
● Get women into bed NOW with these NLP seduction tricks!
● Customers will be handing over their wallets and driving home any clunker with these NLP sales techniques!
● Get anyone to do anything you want by learning NLP mind control!
It sucks for legitimate NLPer’s to share the same brand with these shysters.
Is it wrong for men to seduce women? I don’t know. It depends, I suppose. But highlighting NLP as a tool to make it all happen is unfortunate to anyone NLPer who wants to be taken as a serious professional.
Is it wrong to sell stuff using high levels of influence? You decide. Used car salespeople (bless their hearts) may not be the best ambassadors for the science of NLP.
Should you be trying to control people’s minds for your own selfish purposes? Uh...no. But this doesn’t stop toddler-minded people from trying and letting the world know!
The point is, slimy sensationalists have gotten a lot of press under the NLP banner. These guys and gals don’t exactly reflect the purpose and integrity of the average NLP practitioner.
What can NLP trainers and practitioners do about all this?
Here are ways to fight back against the stigma and grow your NLP practice:
Acknowledge and disavow the riff-raff.
If you haven’t guessed, I believe there really are NLP trainers and practitioners who are unethical people. Let’s face it. Most fields have a dark side full of greedy, manipulative types who are mostly out for themselves.
• Some car salespeople knowingly sell lemons.
• There are financial advisors knowingly sell products that give them the highest commissions.
• Many scientists and researchers and politicians sell out to corporations.
• And there are those pastors and religious leaders prey upon the hopes and prayers of their communities.
In other words, the bad apples are out there in every field. Nothing any of us can do about that. Just don’t deny it. And do distance yourself from NLP gurus that aren’t ethical.
Acknowledge the criticisms and respond with legitimate rebuttals. Then work to keep the field of NLP as clean as possible.
Mike Bundrant is a retired psychotherapist who now trainers life coaches, counselors and those seeking personal development. He is a co-founder of the iNLP Center, which teaches students in 71 countries worldwide.