This is a question that I get asked all the time, not only by people who are on NLP training courses but also by clients, and the general public. It is probably one of the first questions that every NLP practitioner is asked and it is often one of the most confusing answers that anyone can give.
Before I go into some of the problems that people have the explaining what NLP is, I will give you my take what I usually tell clients and trainees when I am asked this question. My answer is simple, and without jargon or, as is often the case, mysticism and mumbo-jumbo.
My answer is this:
And to me, this is a clear explanation as to what NLP is. It isn’t anything fantastic, mythical, or extraordinary; it is a simple tool set that can be applied by anyone to achieve some desired result.
Unfortunately, many practitioners and master practitioners get caught up in the effectiveness of NLP to solve many clients issues that they have a tendency to attribute NLP with “phenomenal cosmic power”. This is often exacerbated by the Trainers who like to fill their courses with mummery and film-flam to add the the exclusivity of NLP, which may have made sense 20 years ago when NLP was still relatively new, but seems a little anachronistic today with the fund of available knowledge accessible by anyone with an interest.
Over the years, much has been written about NLP and with it a number of myths have crept into what people believe about the subject and as with any myth, it has grown in the telling. For many this has led to a misunderstanding of what NLP is capable of, and of what NLP truly is.
So let’s do a little myth busting.
Myth #1 – NLP is Magic
Although some of the most popular books on NLP allude to the magical nature of the tool, such as ‘Frogs into Princes’, and ‘The Sourcebook of Magic’, in reality there is nothing magical about NLP. It is based on some clear, well documented psychological principles, the information about which have been “lost” over the years as the subject has become more popular
Because much of the background material has been removed, as it is of more interest to the clinician rather than the practitioner, what remains is the final result of many years of psychology research, which is hidden away from the general public. And what the practitioner has are the working techniques that can be used directly with clients, with no mystical powers involved, but also none of the groundwork that was used to produce the tools in the first place.
Myth #2 – NLP is Original
Many within the community will tell you that NLP was originally created by John Grinder and Richard Bandler, although this isn’t altogether true. It is true that these two brought together the original ideas, tools and techniques that made up NLP in the early days, however what we know of NLP today is as far removed as the original model T is from a top-of-the-line Mercedes, the concepts are the same but the execution is very, very different.
NLP certainly wasn’t “invented” by anyone, since it is a collection of pre-existing methods that were brought together under a single banner. The Meta model were the language patterns of an experienced therapist, the Milton model that of a highly respected clinical hypnotist, even something as simple as the eye accessing cues were in existence long before John or Richard ever met.
Even today, many people within the NLP community believe the mythical “coming together” of these great minds however, much as the myths surrounding the founding of Apple Computer, the Beatles, and other milestones in history the truth is often far less exciting than one would like to believe.
Myth #3 – NLP is good for everything
NLP is a very useful and effective tool, however it should never be considered a panacea capable of curing all ills, or in the case of NLP solving all of our client’s problems. All too often NLP practitioners look on their skills and capabilities as an almost miraculous ability to help those around us.
Yes, it can be incredibly effective for fears and phobias, making changes to bad habits, identifying problems within a client, and generally helping people to be more effective in their life. These are all great things, and we should be happy that this is enough, however some NLP practitioners tried to use the knowledge to solve problems but are well beyond the capability, sometimes doing more harm than good.
The difference between an NLP practitioner and a good NLP practitioner is the ability to know that there are limits as to what they can achieve, and knowing when the client in front of them has problems that they cannot do with, in which case they should be escalating to a qualified clinician.
Unfortunately the idea of the infallibility of NLP for is back to the hubris of its creators who will often trot out amazing stories of how they solved significant psychologically disturbed individuals problems with their knowledge. This gives the impression that NLP is far more powerful than it truly is, and many of these stories have been blown out of proportion to give a greater impression of both the practitioners and the tools and is truly justified.
NLP is a multi tool, but even they have their limits.
Myth #4 – NLP is Neuro Linguistic Programming
This is one of those statements that will get a large number of NLP practitioners and trainers foaming at the mouth. In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, NLP is not neurological, nor is it linguistic and it certainly isn’t programming.
Although there are many who will contend that NLP uses “Neurology” in reality it is not a neurological tool, and is in fact a psychological one. Yes, I agree that many of the techniques have a physiological component (touching, movement etc.) and that there is a great deal of emphasis put on the practitioner to make observations about the neurological state of the client, however in actuality NLP works at a psychological level rather than a neurological one.
Using the term “Linguistic” within the title appears to be more of a nod to John Grinder as a professor of linguistics than as a real indication of how the techniques work. There is a language component, but no more so than with any of the other talking therapies, or hypnosis. There are language patterns in both the Milton and meta-models however these are less about the use of linguistics and more about the intelligent use of language.
As for “Programming”, where do I begin? Even the originators of NLP question the words place within the name, similarly it seems to pay homage to Richard Bandler, who was a software engineering student, rather than being directly applicable to the toolset. There have been many explanations as to why the word “programming” appears, however I have never found any of them to be truly worthwhile.
NLP as tools and techniques
All of this brings us back to my original assertion as to what NLP is. Tools and techniques are not magical or spiritual, they are things that can be used to achieve the desired result, no one set of tools and techniques can be used for every job, you would not use a handsaw to hammer in a nail, nor would you use a bandage to cure a headache, the right tool for the right job.
Tools are improved and evolve over time, just as the toolset of NLP has improved and expanded way beyond the knowledge and experience of its originators, who themselves built upon the experience and capabilities of those who came before them, NLP will continue to grow as more people learn to use the knowledge on more flexible and exciting ways.
And there are many tools in the toolbox with names that have lost their meaning or the names are no longer suitable as they were created at a time when certain knowledge was available, and often named after the people or practitioner who first created them or used them. The name of a tool doesn’t make it any more or less valuable, however it can add unnecessary confusion when the name just no longer fits.
Offering a clear and reasonable answer to the question “What is NLP?” can go a long way to gaining the respect and confidence of our clients, and covering a simple thing with jargon and buzzwords shows that we have fear of being ‘found out’ for our ability to wield some ‘simple’ tools. The sculptor, engineer and even the surgeon all use simple tools, but they all can do wonderful things with them, the NLP practitioner shouldn’t get tied up with what NLP is, but what they can achieve with the tools at their disposal.
So, when you are next asked to explain what NLP is and what you use it for perhaps it may be worthwhile just stopping and pausing for a moment to consider whether what you’re about to say is clear and straight to the point or full of mythology and mysticism. Perhaps being more direct may serve you better in the long run.