BBC Radio 4: The Power to Persuade: The Story of NLP

December 5, 2010 in NLP, Speech by

I listened to the BBC 4 radio program on NLP, and I must say I was rather impressed. It seemed to strike a perfect balance between the proponents and critics, it had some of the manic ramblings of one of the co-creators, Richard Bandler, and finished with a point that had been ringing around my head: Where is the proof?


First off, as a voice coach, I was less than impressed with Andy Bradbury’s slightly choked and hoarse induction for the host of the show, who was trying to get cured of his pill-swallowing phobia. He stated “I still don’t know if I’m cured,  I’m still too anxious to test” which seems to me like an indication that he’s not.

NLP is about being mindful of what you say, and how you say it. A major part of that, which is often ignored or under-represented, is how you sound. Hoarse voices make the listener aware of the idea of an itchy throat, and croaky speakers will often find their speeches punctuated by coughs and throat-clearing sounds in their audience. The reporter had a much smoother hypnotic voice than his hypnotherapist.

Richard Bandler

They interviewed Richard Bandler, who is a bit of a nutter. He is half of the source of the brilliance behind NLP and is the major problem with the whole field. At one stage during the interview he goes berserk, screaming about how he’s ‘pissed off’ at psychotherapists who dismiss his work. When first presenting his ideas, he stood on a stage and told a conference full of psychotherapists that they were useless and ineffective. It really didn’t get off to a good start.

When presenting an idea to a potentially hostile audience, one is well-advised to match where they are at. Talk in a way that you identify yourself as an ally, a person just like them. Then pace them through their current experience ‘You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this’ then lead them ‘and that is the art of subtle persuasion.’ Don’t tell people they’re idiots, even if they are, because no-one thinks of themselves as an idiot, and to maintain that illusion, they’ll disregard or discredit what you say.

The thing is: Bandler knows this. ‘Matching, pacing and leading’ is a tenet of NLP.

It seems Bandler, with his sketchy history that involves a rather suspicious double homicide, wants to keep it all to himself. John Grinder, a linguist and the other co-creator and he have long since separated ways. Any method that claims to teach interpersonal skills and has that kind of history is bound to struggle.

The story could have, and should have focused more on the business and sports psych applications of NLP, which is where it’s really gathering speed and entering the mainstream gaze.

The research

The radio story also focused on the scientific validity of NLP. Research is lacking, and considering how long it’s been around, that’s woeful for something that makes claims as a tool of psychotherapy. Having written that, I realise that most of the interventions, and many of the drugs in the field of psychotherapy are patently unproven and often dangerous. Regardless – anything testable should be tested.

The idea of testing the use of NLP in the classroom sounded good, but the point of scientific validity is a very sticky one with NLP. Pure NLP is the art of ‘modelling’ – of recognizing excellence and replicating it. The idea of doing research on the difference between NLP-trained and non-NLP-trained teachers is that they’re testing the training, not the effect. Some people are highly trained, but totally suck. It’s not like surfing or driving, it’s about altering your personality to fit with your outcomes. Some people just don’t do it, and some untrained people already are.

And, if you’re assessing who’s good at ‘NLP’ – then you’re testing who’s effective at teaching. NLP doesn’t say that you should do this in this situation and that in another; it has methods, which might be effective, but it always demands flexibility. Whatever works is the structure of success – so you’re testing teachers who are good at teaching and then calling that NLP.

NLP as a process of modeling is totally unscientific because it lacks a vital element of science: Falsifiability. If you test the eye accessing cues and find that there isn’t any evidence that people look up and to the left when recalling an image, then eye accessing cues aren’t NLP any more, because NLP is a study of what works. That stuff I wrote before about matching, pacing and leading, though almost impossible to test, could be false too. If it is, then it’s out. If Cognitive Behavioural Therapy does work, as research suggests that it does, then it’s in. Ditto with Provocative Therapy and Clean Language.

This also presents a problem. People can and do trot out any old crap and call it NLP. I saw an ad for ‘NLP for Cats,’ which is strange, because unless you’re on acid, cats don’t talk.


How do you test that!?

I call NLP ‘The practical application of the placebo effect’. For every person it’s different, and each situation is unique, some things will work well, often, and some things just won’t. It’s about jiggling through each to find what works when, develop hypotheses and test them, all the while painfully aware that it could all be a great big illusion. In fact it is an illusion. As an NLP practitioner, you’re placing faith in the illusion.

The question is this: If I use breathing techniques and provocative style to coach someone to use their voice effectively and develop their confidence, to become funny and fun and friendly and happy, and at the end they believe they are; or I smoke some strange herb and do a shamanic ritual and shout rambling prayers to the God of Snot and get the same results, then what does it matter?