Does NLP Really Work?

NLP is a controversial modern approach to therapy and persuasion that is popular in some businesses and particularly among salespeople. While some psychologists have historically found it interesting for clinical and therapeutic application, it is surrounded by some dubious scientific claims and even quasi-religious zealots which give the practice a bad name. It’s considered pseudoscience basically but it does have some interesting ideas.

The question is: just how much of it is useful? Are NLP courses worth your money? And if not, why not? Is it deserving of its ‘pseudoscience’ label?

What Is NLP?

NLP was created by John Grinder and Richard Bandler with the aim of ‘modelling’ exceptional people so as to acquire their skills in communication and self-discipline.

NLP looks partly at how our language shapes and communicates our feelings implicitly, as well as the role of body language and our visualizations. By listening carefully to someone’s language we can understand more about them (for sales, dating or counselling) and likewise for watching the way they stand and conduct themselves. On the other hand, by changing our own language, body language and perceptions we can influence others or even change our own feelings on a subject.

Influencing Others With NLP

For instance then, how would you go about influencing someone for sales purposes using the principles of NLP?

One technique you might use in this context is ‘establishing rapport’, whereby you will subtly mimic the vocabulary and body language of the person you’re speaking to in order to make them feel more at ease with you and to help them to warm to you. From here you can then subtly start to take the lead by changing your own body language and getting them to mirror you.

NLP also suggests trying to ascertain the method of ‘encoding’ someone uses. Practitioners claim that people can be either more visual, acoustic or kinesthetic and that this can be established by carefully listening to their speech:

See what I mean?’

Hear what I’m saying?’

‘You feel me?’

By then appealing to this dominant sense, you can improve their receptivity to your message.

Another NLP claim is that someone who has said ‘yes’ three times will be much more likely to say ‘yes’ again. Thus you can improve your chances of a positive response by first asking three generic questions with positive answers (‘Nice weather isn’t it? Don’t you just love sunny days? Don’t we live in a beautiful country? Can you sign here please?’).

The Meta Model and Milton Model

The Meta model and Milton model are approaches to communication that can be used either in persuasion or in therapeutic contexts.

Here the idea is to look for implicit communication – hidden messages within what someone is saying.

For instance, the Meta model looks at things that someone might say that include over-generalizations or presuppositions. If someone says ‘everyone hates me’, this would contain a generalization (‘everyone’) and a presupposition (called a ‘mind reading violation’ – how can you know what people are thinking?).

Using awareness of this, you can then challenge these kinds of statements for persuasive or therapeutic purposes. Just ask them: ‘what makes you think that?’ or ‘how can you know that?’ and you will challenge their belief by taking away some of the foundations that it is based on.

The Milton model turns this idea on its head and looks at how you can use a similar strategy in your own communication. Here you are purposefully leaving out the details when making statements or asking questions so that the person you are speaking to will fill them in themselves. This can actually enable you to learn more about them or even to subtly manipulate their beliefs.

The Milton model is even used in hypnosis. Here, implicit statements are used as a way to get particular ‘suggestions’ in ‘under the radar’ so that the listener feels almost as though they were their own ideas and thus is more likely to believe them.

So, Does it Work?

The techniques and practices we’ve looked at here are some of the better and more popular ones used in NLP. There are many more besides and not all of them are things that have a lot of merit.

One example is the use of ‘accessing cues’. Here NLP teaches that we can tell whether someone is remembering or inventing information and just how that information is stored, by watching the direction of their eyes change. Looking up and left for instance is supposed to represent ‘visual recall’, whereas someone looking left and in the middle is using an ‘auditory construct’. This has not been backed up by evidence and is generally considered to be incorrect.

Another technique that NLP uses is something called ‘framing’ and this is something that can be used in order to alter your own perception of an event. Effectively this is a form of visualization wherein you visualize memories and stimuli in particular ways – either as being very small for instance, or as being black and white, or as being viewed through a screen. This way you can ‘shrink’ the importance of the events and distance yourself from them. Again, there is no evidence to support the efficacy of this technique and research looking at the effectiveness of NLP in therapeutic settings generally has not suggested it to be useful.

A lot of NLP is accused of being based on ‘anecdote’ and personal testimony as opposed to scientifically falsifiable processes (1). Worse are the ways that the NLP has developed in some ways, with zealous practitioners claiming a connection to quantum physics for instance and making other very dubious assertions.

All these issues hurt NLP but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should throw the baby out with the bathwater. For all its problems, there are some interesting ideas here. Looking more carefully into someone’s use of language and their body language for instance can be very helpful in understanding more about them and likewise you can certainly use these for persuasive means. There is a lot more to be examined here too and it’s definitely a generally interesting topic.

NLP actually has quite a lot in common with CBT or ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’ in that it looks at the way that our thoughts and our language influences our behavior and our feelings.

If you want to make good use of NLP then, try learning the basic principles alongside CBT and comparing them for your own use. Make sure that when reading the NLP material though that you apply a very critical lens and certainly don’t a) buy into any of the quasi-mysticism surrounding it and b) don’t spend lots of money on an expensive course!

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