Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP as it is called, is a field of therapy and ways of change that emerged from the work of Milton Erickson, Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir. It is a discerning approach that pays close attention to the possibilities for change in others through modeling behavior as well as through defining in sensory terms desired outcomes in life. This perspective highlights the ways in which our beliefs and presuppositions in life affect the results that we achieve. NLP suggests a number of proposals that, if adopted, can lead to desirable results and empower people to achieve higher levels of self-actualization.
These principles are not claimed to be universally true. You do not have to believe that they are true. These presuppositions are presupposed to be true and acted on as if they are true. A person who practices them discovers that they are true by the results that occur. If the results are desirable, they continue to act as if they are true. They form a set of ethical principles for life which I will set forth.
- People respond to their experience, not to reality itself. Our senses, beliefs and past experiences give us a map of the world from which we operate. A map can never be exactly accurate, but some maps are better than others for finding one’s way. When maps are faulty and do not show the dangers, travelers are liable to run aground. NLP is the art of changing these maps, to give greater freedom of action.
- Having a choice is better than not having a choice. The more choices one has, the freer that person is and the greater influence he or she has.
- People make the best choice they can at the time according to their map of the world. Give them a better map and they will make a better choice.
- People work perfectly. No one is wrong or broken. They are carrying out their strategies perfectly, but the strategies may be poorly designed and ineffective. If we consciously discover our strategies, we can change them to plans of action more useful and desirable.
- All actions have a purpose. Actions are not random; each action is always trying to achieve something, although the actor may not be aware of what that is.
- Every behavior has a positive intention. All our actions have at least one purpose – to achieve something that we value and that will benefit us. NLP separates the intention or purpose behind an action from the action itself. People are not their behavior. When offered a better choice of behavior to achieve their intention, they will take it.
- The unconscious mind balances the conscious mind; it is not malicious. The unconscious is everything that is not in consciousness at the present moment. It contains all the resources we need to live in balance.
- The meaning of the communication is not simply what is intended, but also the response you get. There are no failures in communication, only feedback. If you are not getting the result you want, change what you are doing. Take responsibility for the communication.
- We already have all the resources we need, or if we lack resources we can create them. There are no unresourceful people, only unresourceful states of mind.
- Mind and body form a system. They are different expressions of the one person. When we think differently, our bodies change. When we act differently, we change our thoughts and feelings.
- We process all information through our senses. Developing our senses so that they become more acute gives us better information and helps us think more clearly.
- Modeling successful performance leads to excellence. If one person can do something helpful, it is possible to teach it to others by example.
- If you want to understand, act – because the learning is in the doing.
These presuppositions have led to the creation of a number of powerful strategies for change. An example is the New Behavior Generator. To illustrate, a husband and wife enjoyed bicycle riding. Each time they came to a steep hill, the husband was able to remain seated on his bike and peddle all the way up the hill, but his wife could only make it half way before she got off and walked her bike to the top. One day she asked her husband how he was able to make it to the top while seated; he explained that he put his head down and focused on his feet pushing the peddles around and around. While doing this he imagined the muscles in his legs, arms and stomach getting stronger and stronger. He pushed through the stress as he noticed the helpful exercise in his muscles. He visualized and felt the benefits to his entire body as he pumped up the hill.
As she listened to this story, she understood immediately that her strategy was entirely different. Wishing to be able to ride all the way to the top, she focused her eyes on the top of the hill. She said over and over to herself, “I think I can, I think I can.” The very next time they went on a ride she copied her husband’s strategy and was able to make it all the way to the top of the hill on her bike.
Another example of the power of this approach has been my losing sixty pounds without feeling like I am on a diet. The strategy that I have used has been to first clearly state my desired outcome in terms of what NLP calls a Well-Defined Outcome. The well-defined outcome starts with the question “What do you want?” If you want something, and you are clear about it, and committed to achieving it, the odds are that you will be successful in the end.
Of all the NLP strategies first is a well-defined outcome. The criteria are:
- It must be stated positively, that is, state what you want and what you do not want.
- It must be something that you can initiate and accomplish.
- You must be specific about the when, where and who.
- You must break it down into small steps.
- It must be stated in sensory terms, that is, what will you see, hear, feel when it is accomplished, or how will you know when it is accomplished.
- Do an ecology check using these two questions: Is there any reason that I may not want this outcome? Is the outcome congruent with my values?
The best way to learn NLP is to explore and practice the many strategies for change experienced in a group. In this approach you “do” to learn. You can read volumes about how to play tennis, but you do not begin to learn until you get on the court with racket and ball.
Anyone can learn anything by modeling. This particular insight has been very helpful to me personally. I realized that I could observe others who were able to do something that I wanted to do and simply copy their behavior and their thought processes as they successfully accomplished their tasks. As I mentioned earlier, one of my recent accomplishments has been losing sixty pounds. This weight loss came about by focusing on the fact that I wanted to get healthy. I wanted to make it to the top of the hill. I did not begin with wanting to lose weight; I wanted to get healthy.
My daughter runs triathlons. She is very healthy and I recognized that I could do much of what she does. Neuro-Linguistic Programming stresses that we state what we want rather than what we don’t want. For years I conversed with myself, “I don’t want to be fat.” Changing the language to “I want to be healthy” has made the difference.
I use this approach with clients to help them focus on why they are coming for therapy. I help them state their therapeutic goals in positive and achievable language. Once people state an outcome positively, in sensory form (meaning what will you notice when you have achieved your goal), they are more likely to attain their goal. Reframing is a powerful intervention. For example, a woman came to me upset because she was always yelling at her husband. She stated that just about anything he said caused her to be angry. She explained that she did not want to continue yelling and losing her temper. I suggested to her a positive way to frame her desire as adopting the goal of understanding what triggered the anger in her. I suggested that she might adopt the goal of understanding the buttons that got pushed which brought forth her rage. I asked if her anger might be fueled by an experience that had been hidden from her. This helped her identify the experiences that lay behind her rage.