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What is Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)?

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

What is NLP?

Tony Robbins admittedly uses it on himself and his attendees. The founder of it was tried, but found not guilty of murdering a prostitute. There are claims of Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Sophie Dahl, Lily Allen, Gerri Halliwell, Jimmy Carr and Russell Brand practicing NLP techniques. Even Robbie Williams purportedly uses one before going stage to quell his nerves. When I first discovered I was doing it, my clients and friends told me to, “Tell NO ONE,” after a quick google. So, what is Neuro-linguistic Programming? Is it real? Does it work? Is it Fake? Is it magic?

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) has been described as a “Self-Help” tool, a “Sales & Communication Model,” a “Psychotherapy Template,” and a “pseudo-science,” (by those who don’t study it or understand it,) along with many more less-than-adequate explanatory labels, but all of these terms are problematic because NLP is not one specific “thing;” NLP is a collaboration of ideas, techniques, philosophies, and models designed to derive positive or desired results in the way humans think and perform.

NLP is a concept describing aspects of communication (internal and external,) personal development, a philosophy, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California, in the 1970s and was derived by modeling the success of family therapist Viriginia Satir , gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, and hypnotherapist Milton Erickson.

NLP focuses on a philosophical concept that our experiences are represented to us by our brains and/or minds in formats which have been developed by our senses (Sight, Smell, Taste, Touch, & Sound,) our past caretaker models (Parents, Teachers, & Mentors,) and a method of categorizations (Deletions, Distortions, and Generalizations) which enable our species to survive and navigate our environments, but that does not mean that our experiences, as they are represented to us, or how we communicate and understand them are in fact “REAL.” This is often summarized by the NLP presupposition: “The map is not the territory.”

NLP’s creators claim there is a connection between neurological processes (neuro-), language (linguistic) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (programming), and that the way we represent these experiences to ourselves can be changed or altered to achieve specific goals and well-formed outcomes.

Furthermore, Bandler and Grinder also claim that NLP methodology can “model” the skills of exceptional people, allowing anyone to increase the speed at which they acquire those skills.[3][4] There are many anecdotal accounts, as well which express, often in a single session, NLP can treat problems such as phobias, depression, tic disorders, psychosomatic illnesses, and some memory and learning disorder-related issues.

Known Problems with NLP

First of all, there are plenty of problems in any field, study, and applications but this is especially true for a soft science like mental health. There have been many NLP Trainers and Practitioners over the years who have claimed that there is something “more” going on while practicing NLP; they have irresponsibly or ignorantly claimed there is possibly a meta-physical or supernatural component to what Neuro-linguistic Programming can accomplish. Outlandish Claims such as curing cancer, healing internal organ defects, and the like have been the biggest problem(s) for the scientific community to embrace NLP and have caused many skeptics to avoid validating the practice in any way, understandably.

NLP, begins every aspect within it by first defining which well-formed outcome one wants to achieve. The first step of NLP, (after adopting the presuppositions) is learning how to create well-formed outcomes. Ironically, one can still learn or naturally acquire many of the skills, techniques, and models within Neuro-linguistic Programming, without forming well-formed outcomes but producing any worthwhile results becomes nearly impossible without that first step.

Because NLP is a communication tool, among other applications and uses, it can be taught and learned to help NLP Practitioners adopt certain skills to:

  • Become better at “reading” the micro-expressions of others while mastering their own (Sensory Acuity)

  • Understand how others shift and move while they think, and alter their own movements and mannerisms accordingly (Mirroring & Matching/Behavioral Flexibility)

  • Memorize ways others and they themselves learn and adopt new ideas & beliefs (consciously and unconsciously) and use that information on themselves and others to teach, “program,” or embed new ideas (Anchoring, Sleight of Mouth, Meta-models, Visualization Models, & Hypnosis, etc.)

  • This small part of NLP has therefore been used to create fiscally profitable programs which teach Salesmen, Politicians, Religious Leaders, and Supervisors across many fields how to use this bag of communication tools to become more persuasive, more convincing, more influential, and more successful.

The problem with this is obvious; not ALL those interested in learning this skill actually have the best interest of others in mind and can use these communication tools for their own personal gain without regard for the well-being of those who interact with them.

NOTE: Many people who consider themselves “empaths” and naturally develop many of the tools taught within NLP shy away from and demonize the very notion of wanting to influence another person, but those with good intentions and who have been given consent or asked for help in an area by someone who is hurting or trying to make a decision should never shy away from this skill-set.


The starting block of NLP comes just before creating a well-formed outcome; the mindset of NLP sets the stage for the whole of Neuro-linguistic Programming, whatever “it” is. The NLP mindset involves a few contingent mental models concerning the world around us. Firstly, we must understand Presuppositions which form the basis for every aspect of the umbrella term “NLP.”

One must first know what a Presupposition is, and then one must adopt the Presuppositions required to effectively practice NLP. This is where many who have tried and failed to practice NLP have done so miserably, and this is the same reason why it is nonsense to say, “NLP isn’t real.”

With just a little education, almost no one would argue the presuppositions of NLP to be false or harmful concepts of approaching others, even if they would argue that some of the techniques or models are ineffective, incorrect, or incomplete.

Presupposition: an idea I bring into the situation already, before we ever begin to speak, interact, or begin a session.

pre·sup·po·si·tion/ˌprēˌsəpəˈziSH(ə)n/Learn to pronounce noun

a thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action.

Regardless of whether someone is learning NLP for sales, therapeutic applications, educational settings, or just to communicate with others better, the Presuppositions one should adopt to effectively practice NLP are as follows:

“Everyone is doing their best.”

“The map is not the territory.”

“There is no failure, only feedback.”

“People are not their behaviors.”

“People always have the resources they need.”

“Other people’s interpretation of the world adds value to yours.”

“Wanted or unwanted behavior depends on context.”

If you do not understand or can not embrace the above list of Presuppositions, you will struggle to produce outcomes you desire using Neuro-linguistic Programming. Focus on understanding what each one means and apply them to the core of your belief system about others and the world around you.

NOTE: Inevitably, someone always contradicts these presuppositions by stating that the problem with this approach are sociopaths, narcissists, and psychopaths who you can not apply these to or you will be putting yourself at risk of harm. 2 points to consider 1. these still apply even to them to help you assess their true intentions 2. there are not many of them, most have never trusted someone who clinically could receive this diagnosis. *


There are many “terms” associated with NLP which are exclusive to those who study it and can often seem like their own language, but these terms need to be defined in order to comprehend the application wherein a technique or method can be applied effectively.

My son often mixes up nails and screws when we are doing science experiments or constructing small projects. This isn’t a problem for us, we both know what he means and what we are trying to accomplish, but if anyone else came along, they would be utterly confused and unable to assist or build what we are building using my son’s terms due to them being defined in a way which is foreign to them. Establishing linguistic frames of reference can help us identify more closely with what is being evaluated and discussed. Below are a list of some of the basic terms one should familiarize themselves with before trying to learn an NLP “technique.”

Linguistic Terms

Modal Operator: an NLP term that is used to identify specific words that enable us to identify our “rules.” There are six types of Modal Operators:

Modal Operators of Necessity: “Should, must, ought to, have to, supposed to”

Modal Operators of Negative Necessity: “Shouldn’t, mustn’t, etc“

Modal Operators of Probability: “Could, may, might, had better“

Modal Operators of Improbability: “Couldn’t, may not, might not”

Modal Operators of Possibility: “Able to, can, try, will“

Modal Operators of Impossibility: “Am not, can’t, try not, won’t“

Nominalization: Verbs transformed into noun; a ‘process’ represented by a ‘thing’, inferring that it can’t be changed easily. For example: “Communication is awful at work” feels set in stone. “We need to communicate better at work” is full of possibility.

Predicates: Process words (like verbs, adverbs, and adjectives) describing a subject. Predicates are used to identify which *representational system a person is using to process information.

Psychological Terms

Ab-Reaction: The sudden and violent release of repressed emotion.

Alignment: The stage when you enter your client’s ‘model of the world’.

Belief Change Flexibility: The ability to try out new beliefs for a short time to test their usefulness.

Brain Washing: Changing the thoughts, beliefs, behaviours and/or responses of a client without his or her consent.

Cause-and-Effect: Real or perceived casual relationship involving two or more events in time.

Chunking: refers to organizing or breaking down some experience into bigger or smaller pieces:

Chunking up involves moving to a larger, more abstract level of information;

Chunking down involves moving to a more specific and concrete level of information;

Chunking laterally involves finding other examples at the same level of information.

Congruence: When all of a person’s internal beliefs, strategies and behaviors are fully in agreement and orientated to securing a desired outcome.

Content: The ‘story’, including the ‘perceived’ cause, associated with a problem. The product of reflection, interrogation and psychoanalysis.

Context: A context is the framework surrounding a particular event. This framework will often determine how a particular experience or event is interpreted.

Criteria: The values or standards a person uses to make decisions and judgments. It is useful to understand your own and other people’s criteria in both business and personal situations.

Frame: Construct of how a situation or event is perceived or the ‘rules’ behind any interaction. Can have a significant impact on what outcome is achieved. Thus changing the frame (reframing) can have a significant impact on the outcome.

Solution Frame: Construct aimed at orientating the subject towards solutions rather than avoiding problems aka Seeking solutions rather than spending all the available time on analyzing problems.

Mental Maps (not to be confused with the Meta-Model): The idea that our experience of life is built up from our own unique mental maps based on our experience, values, beliefs etc. We are more likely to help others change and develop if we can work from their maps rather than impose our own on them.

Modalities aka Representational Systems: The 5 Senses Referring to our five senses, especially when describing how subjective experience is created aka Senses through which the brain receives information about the environment – e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic etc.

Sub-modalities: The special sensory qualities perceived by each of the five senses. For example, visual sub-modalities include colour, shape, movement, brightness, depth etc., auditory sub-modalities include volume, pitch, tempo etc., and kinesthetic sub-modalities include pressure, temperature, texture, location etc.

Neuroplasticy: The ability of brain architecture to be changed by experience.

Rapport: The presence of trust, harmony and cooperation in a relationship.

Secondary Gain: Where some seemingly negative or problematic behavior carries out some positive function at some level. For example, smoking may help a person to relax or help them fit a particular self image.

Generalization: in NLP, one of the three major processes (including Distortion and Deletion) on which the Meta Model is based. Generalization occurs when one specific experience represents a whole class of experiences. Generalization also occurs when one experience is generalized to the whole.

Deletion: in NLP, one of the three major processes (including Distortion and Generalisation) on which the Meta Model is based. Deletion occurs when we leave out a portion of our experience as we make our Internal Representations. When a person speaks, they may not be aware of the whole story of an issue that they have stored inside. They will delete portions of the truth and tell you the bits that they have as their story of their truth.

Distortion: in NLP, one of the three major processes (including Deletion and Generalisation) on which the Meta Model is based. Distortion occurs when something is mistaken for that which it is not, when things are incorrectly included in our Internal Representations. Often, this results in “mind-reading.”

Anchor: A stimulus or trigger paired with a specific response. Anchors may be set deliberately or inadvertently, openly, or covertly.

Trigger: Triggers work similarly to anchors, with one simple difference: they call forth behaviors instead of thoughts or feelings.

Timeline: Subjective construct which metaphorically organizes your client’s or your own past, present and future time.

Time Distortion: Subjective temporal experience that differs from ‘objective’ clock time.

Trance: A natural, altered state of consciousness, usually marked by reduced awareness of external events and increased focus on specific thoughts or feelings. Hypnosis is often described a way of using naturally occurring trance.

Trance Logic: Explanation advanced by the subject to explain behavior induced by post-hypnotic suggestion. These often appear to be appear odd by hypnotized observers – but may still be very useful.

Four Tuple (4-Tuple): A method used to notate the structure of any particular experience. The concept of the four tuple maintains that any experience must be composed of some combination of the four primary representational systems – A,V,K,O where A = auditory, V = visual, K = kinesthetic and O = Olfactory and Gustatory.

Unconscious/Subconscious: Everything that the mind is aware of which is outside conscious awareness.

Values: A label that indicates what’s important to a client.

Value Rules: What has to happen in sensory experience for a value to be met.

Skill-related Terms

Anchor Collapsing: When two different anchors fire simultaneously, the end result is a mixed or neutral state. Neither anchor will remain intact.

Calibration: The process of learning to ‘read’ the unconscious, non verbal responses of others.

Cold Reading: The ability to appear to be an effective palm reader, clairvoyant etc without any psychic ability.

Future Pacing: The process of mentally rehearsing oneself through some future situation in order to ensure that the desired behavior will occur naturally and automatically.

Sensory Acuity: In a general way sensory acuity means how good your senses are at doing what they should do. In the context of NLP, it refers to the ability to use our senses to make accurate observations about ourselves or other people.

Accessing Cues: Subtle behavior that will help both to trigger and to indicate which representational system a person is using to think with. Typical types of accessing cues include eye movements, voice tone, tempo, body posture and breathing patterns.

Hypnosis: A method of focusing or changing some one’s attention, making them more or less ‘suggestible’ to external or internal commands and giving them greater access to their own resources.

Hypnotic Language: A way of leading people into a hypnotic state, often initialing focusing on what is true for them and leading them into useful hypnotic states.

Installation: Facilitating the acquisition of a new strategy or behaviour. A new strategy may be installed through some combination of NLP skills or techniques and/or any combination thereof.

Layering: Using two or more different techniques towards a given outcome to increase the likelihood of success.

Meta-Model: The meta model is a model developed by John Grinder and Richard Bandler that defines syntactic environments by which one can detect and challenge deletions, generalizations and distortions. Using questions from the Meta Model (with care) can help raise our client’s unconscious strategies into consciousness and help them solves their own challenges without us having to make direct suggestions.

Meta-Programs: A process by which one sorts through multiple generalizations simultaneously. As such, meta programs control how and when a person will engage any set of strategies in a given context.

Modelling: The act of creating a calculus which describes a given system. NLP came and comes from modelling successful people. Modelling people that ‘aren’t successful yet’ in a specific context can also be useful as it may give the person ideas how to improve on their own, or ideas for what the coach needs to do next. From our point of view a model doesn’t need to be ‘true’ it just needs to work!

Outcomes: Well-Formed Conditions In NLP, a particular outcome is well-formed when it is:

Stated in positive terms

Initiated and maintained by the individual

Ecological – maintains the quality of all rapport systems, and

Testable in experience – sensory based.

Some suggest a further step – 5. What is the smallest action that will get you started.

I personally use the PURE Model developed by my friend and colleague, Mayur Bardolia. Positively Stated, Under Your Control, Real (4-Tupled), & Ecologically Balanced.

Overlapping: Extending processing ability and expanding experience by moving from one representational system to another.

Pacing-and-Leading: Pacing is when you enter the other persons model of the world on their terms. Once you have paced another person, established rapport and shown that you understand where they are coming from then you can lead them to a desired outcome. Leading is when you use the influence that you have built up from pacing.

Priming: The use of words covertly to trigger a specific psychological response from the listener.

Reframing: Changing a negative response to an experience into a positive or neutral one by placing it into a different context or meaning.

Stacking (Anchors): Two or more different different responses set to be activated by the same stimulus. Most commonly, stacking is used to create a particular resource state.

T.O.T.E. (Feedback Loop): Developed by Miller, Galanter and Pibram, the term stands for the sequence Test-Operate-Test-Exit, which describes the basic feed-back loop used to guide all behavior. Useful in establishing strategies.


Maybe, after reading this article, and seeing some basic terms, you have decided you would like to learn more about Neuro-linguistic Programming. Perhaps, to some extent you have decided you would like to learn how to practice NLP. One thing I hope I have opened you up to is the possibility that NLP is often misunderstood, misrepresented, and criticized unnecessarily by many and can be useful to many people in many situations.

There are many qualified and ethical NLP trainers and practitioners I am happy to recommend and have found extremely helpful along my journey. For my complete list of recommended professionals, or if you are thinking I may be the right Coach to help you or your company uncover the ways NLP could improve your life, business, or success, it may make sense to reach out for a FREE 15 minute phone call or maybe let’s have a pay-by-the-minute session by clicking below, and quite literally remember to:

“Be Your Own Hero.”

Check out this podcast interview I was featured on to learn more about NLP & Hypnosis. You can also CLICK HERE to subscribe to Joyce Strong‘s Podcast Totally Well Podcast & TV Show; Joyce is also a Health & Wellness coach and I highly recommend checking out her business website by Clicking HERE.




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