NLP Basics, NLP Introduction

The history of the development of NLP article by Iain McPhee PhD

The history of the development of NLP
It is generally believed, albeit outside the NLP ‘movement’ that the principles of what was to become known as NLP were first pioneered by Professor T.R. Hall author of ‘The Silent Language’ (1959) {Greenwich, Conn., Fawcett Publications.} Hall and his team were interested in discovering what it took to become an excellent skier. In this study, conducted in the Swiss Alps, many 16mm black and white films were made of several skilled skiers. Hall and his team of researchers examined the films and broke down the movements of each skier into their various components which they called ‘isolates’. It was believed that these were the smallest units of behaviour that made up a sequence of behaviours.
Examining the movements through watching the films, they found that even though there were vast differences in styles the most effective skiers seemed to be using the same sets and patterns of isolates. It was discovered that when these isolates were taught to beginners, their skiing improved dramatically. It was assumed that everyone could improve their skiing if they did what good skiers did naturally. In identifying what has been called in the USA, ‘the essence of excellence’, behaviours, thoughts and patterns of successful human processes could be broken down, simplified, and could be taught to others. In (neuro-linguistic-programming (NLP) this essence is called a model. NLP practitioners believe that good practice originates not in the muscles but in the inner thoughts, like words, thoughts, feelings, or pictures. (1).
As Prof. Hall states in his book: “…we must learn to understand the ‘out-of-awareness’ aspects of communication. We must never assume that we are fully aware of what we communicate to someone else.” (2)

These ‘out of awareness aspects’ of communication described by Hall could be important when one person is involved with another in a helping process, like for example the relationship between a counsellor and a client who is seeking help in changing their behaviour. The effectiveness of the counsellor could play a very important part in facilitating any change in their client’s behaviour. Therefore, the ability of a counsellor to communicate and build trust and rapport could be an important part of facilitating any change in a client. What is being suggested is that by empowering clients to take responsibility and ultimately control of what they feel and think about their dependent behaviour, could ultimately lead to successful and even beneficial change in their behaviour.

The development of NLP
Its ‘invention’ as a process for modelling excellence and applying these sets of rules in managing yourself and others was first described by John Grinder, a linguistic professor, and Richard Bandler, a mathematician, at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), around 1975. They used linguistic theory from Noam Chomsky’s seminal work on innate language skills of humans, the emerging theory on cybernetics and computer systems, and principles of Gestalt psychotherapy, and trance induction techniques from hypnotherapy.

In their study of what makes a successful therapist, Bandler and Grinder suggested that successful people often appeared to share common ways of looking, feeling and thinking about themselves and the way they interacted with others. They wondered if this was a process that could be broken down into units, and although they do not credit Hall et al (1959) in their own history of NLP, these models bear a striking similarity to Halls ‘isolates’. Bandler and Grinder were interested if these ‘units’ of behaviour could be measured, modelled; they were interested if this process could be useful for others to be a successful therapist. At the time, Grinder and Bandler were students of Gregory Bateson, a British born psychologist and anthropologist teaching at UCSC. Bateson and Milton H. Erickson, then an effective psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist, are the two figures that gave the biggest influence to the theory, which eventually became known as NLP.
Richard Bandler was in the 1970’s interested in Gestalt Therapy, and studies or what he called ‘modelled’ Fritz Perls, the founder of therapy based on Gestalt psychology, essentially he examined everything he did, and broke it down into units of behaviour. NLP was born when Grinder and Bandler published, in 1975, their first book entitled “The Structure of Magic, I” in which they presented a set of explicit tools, by means of which one could achieve the excellent performance level of such therapeutic wizards as Fritz Perls, as well as Milton Erickson and Virginia Satir, an authority of family therapy.

It is a commonly stated view that the vast majority of face-to-face communication is primarily non-verbal, or to put it another way, words are only a small part of any communication. This can be demonstrated easily by matching and pacing other people’s body rhythms, patterns of speech and postures. It can be very powerful in creating and maintaining a sense of rapport. Try matching the mode and volume of speech with someone, then slowly lower your volume until you are barely audible, the other person will do one of two things, they will either start to match your decrease in volume and whisper too, or they will ask ‘why are you whispering?’ or even both. Next, match the level, intensity and rhythm (pace) of someone’s breathing as you are talking to them, if they nod their head, you very subtly nod your head as well, or even tap your little finger to match and pace this rhythm. You can even subtly match someone’s rhythm of speech as they communicate with you. Try it, but don’t be obvious or you could annoy the person, which will have the opposite effect that you are seeking.
If you attempt to do it with some enthusiasm, you should be amazed at how well both of you should be getting along. You can even create disharmony, break up a conversation, by introducing things, which will break this rapport, like deliberately increasing your speech volume, or breathing rhythms etc. Being able to ‘read’ the situation, and effectively communicate will dramatically increase your chances of reaching a level of understanding, establishing rapport or demonstrating what we might call ‘empathy’. Effective communicators do these things both consciously and unconsciously. People who practice NLP suggest that by learning, rehearsing and practising these effective behaviours, we can become more effective communicators, and get the results that we want or need in many aspects of our lives.

The representational structures of subjective experiences
NLP seeks to understand the ‘isolates’ of behaviour and allow these skills to be understood and therefore utilised by other people. The underlying principle underpinning NLP suggests that if we study and isolate what makes an excellent and effective therapist, these behaviours can be passed on to others.
The foundation of NLP suggests that people have particular ways of understanding their world and tend to favour particular ways of organizing information. For example, some people think almost exclusively in visual images and tend to describe the world around them in this manner. They might for example say things like ‘Do you see what I mean? Does this shed any light on this for you?

Other people prefer to organize thought in terms of how they feel, using language like, ‘this is heavy’ or saying things like ‘I can’t get a handle on this’ etc. Others prefer to organize information and tend to favour auditory information (sounds), using terms like ‘This is as clear as a bell’. These very simple examples should indicate that if we try to find out how our clients organise their thoughts understand their world, and more importantly how they understand their role within it, then we could build an effective rapport by talking to them in ways in which they would find irresistible.
Some simple preferred representational systems (PRS) are:

• Auditory
• Kinaesthetic
• Olfactory & Gustatory
• Visual

People will usually have a preferred way of representing their world, although they will use all of these methods, all of the time, but in different combinations. People in distress usually make most ‘sense’ of their world by generalising, deleting and distorting what their brains are processing and use the PRS they ‘trust’ the most. They may even delete other systems from their conscious awareness, and thus their ability to respond to stress. This is when many people require help, when they have limited access to other choices to respond and behave to stressors and triggers.

Communicating with clients with addictive behaviours
By understanding how a client processes their experiences, we can teach this process (sets of isolates) to the client, allowing them to take control of what attitudes and emotions they attach to images, sounds, etc and other ‘trigger’ cues, which leads to the preferred and continued use of over-learned sets of behavioural patterns. Changing and manipulating how we see, feel, and process our internal and external states is called ‘reframing’.
NLP also suggests that we can discover how people may be accessing and processing information by ‘reading’ what is called eye-accessing cues (EAC’s). While we should be wary of categorising people into discrete categories, NLP can allow us to understand the primary and secondary Meta models that people prefer to use when understanding and explaining their experiences.

Eye accessing cues
Watch a person’s eyes the next time you are speaking to them. NLP practitioners consider the eyes a window into the psyche. Where our clients position their eyes when communicating gives us vital clues as to how they are accessing and storing information from their brains. Eye accessing cues give us a visual indicator of how people access and construct information. By understanding this simple rule, one can tell by where a person places their eyes, what particular part of their brain they are accessing, whether it is visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic information and whether they are remembering or constructing this information.
This type of information is essential for effective communication. Some therapists are able to utilize these subtle cues and effectively establish trust and rapport with clients. It is thought that an ability to respond consciously or unconsciously to these cues makes an effective communicator and an efficient therapist. NLP as a concept therefore offers the potential for these techniques to be taught to people and may even be transferable into all areas of our lives. It must be remembered that this is a generalisation. NLP suggests that by asking the right questions, it is possible to actually ‘map’ a internal structures to find out how he or she is ‘internally ‘wired’. For example, eye-accessing cues (EAC’s) can be seen as:

NLP deals with the structure of human subjective experience; how we organize what we see, hear, and feel, and how our minds edit and filter the outside world and process sensory information in our brains. It also seeks to examine how we describe in language and how we act, both intentionally and unintentionally, to produce results. (3).
A basic principle in NLP is called the ‘Meta-model’. The model explains how we use language (surface structure) to describe our experiences (deep structure). The implication is that the language (linguistic) that we use to try to describe our experience (Neuro) can be subject to syntax errors, called deletions, generalisations, and distortions. Clients can be given new resources to help them change their knowledge, attitudes and behaviour (programming).

How people structure their subjective experiences
The Meta-model for Therapy or Meta-model (Bandler & Grinder, 1975 ch.3) is an explicit linguistic model. The Meta-model is an explicit tool for the recovery and challenging of client models subject to the universals of human modelling: Generalization, Deletion, and Distortion. (Bandler & Grinder, 1975a Ch3 & Ch4)
The Meta-model in NLP is a model of (primarily) linguistic models that people have.
In general, a meta-model is a model, which describes a language with which models can be expressed.
Put simply, the meta-model is a set of language patterns (from Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls and Transformational syntax) designed to challenge limits to a person’s internal map of the world (Grinder & Bostic, 2001). Effectively the meta-model can be reduced to asking “What specifically”, or “How specifically?” These questions challenge unspecified nouns or verbs used by your client (Grinder & McMaster 1989).
It is claimed that the Meta-model “yields a fuller representation of the client’s model – the linguistic Deep Structure from which the client’s initial verbal expressions or Surface Structure, were derived” (Bandler & Grinder, 1975 p.44) by offering challenges directed at distortions, generalizations or deletions in the speaker’s language (ibid, 1975 Ch3). The reverse set of the meta-model is the Milton-model; a collection of artfully vague language patterns elicited from the work of Milton Erickson (ibid, 1975). Together these models form the basis for all other NLP models.
The following examples are mainly derived from within a therapeutic context, however, it is also claimed that these same patterns can be noticed and applied to any context.
Example 1: Presuppositions
• Speaker: Only addicts can help other addicts
• Challenge: Am I to assume that you were ‘helped’ by an addict? In what way?
Example 2: Cause and Effect (x means y, or x makes me y)
• Speaker: That drug makes me confident
• Challenge: How, specifically, does the drug make you confident?
Example 3: Lack of Referential Index (never, nobody, everybody, all, …)
• Speaker: Nobody pays attention to anything I say.
• Challenge: Who specifically doesn’t pay attention to you?
Example 4: Comparatives and Superlatives (best, worst, …)
• Speaker: That was the worst withdrawal I ever experienced
• Challenged: Compared to what?
(cf Bandler & Grinder, 1975 Ch3 & Ch4)
You will note that these challenges are not incompatible with the basic principles of motivational interviewing. All that is challenged is the beliefs that support the cognitions clients prefer to use when recalling events, both in the past and in how they predict the future.

Testing the eye accessing cues

This mind-body ‘as one’ is a fundamental part of NLP, fundamentally challenging the mind body dualism of Cartesian logic. Take some time to focus on the way people tend to show their thinking strategies by moving their eyes, and how we can use this to power up our communication.
We have five senses, and we can talk. That’s how we come to know the world. In NLP, we call these channels rep systems – short for representation, and we tend to break them down like this:

Name Symbol Use
Visual Constructed Vc Used to create visual images.
Visual Remembered Vr Used to access visual memories.
Auditory Constructed Ac Used to imagine new sounds.
Auditory Remembered Ar Used to access memories of sound.
Auditory Internal Dialogue Aid Used to generate language, or “That little voice in your head.” Sometimes called Auditory Digital (Ad).
Kinaesthetic K Used to access feelings. This is actually a collection of rep systems and senses, including emotions, sensations of temperature, motion, pressure, pain and pleasure, body awareness, and gravity.
Olfactory O Used to access the sense of smell.
Gustatory G Used to access the sense of taste.

Here’s the entertaining part. People tend to move their eyes in specific directions when they access each rep system. In NLP, these are called eye-accessing cues.

Most right-handed people move their eyes in the directions shown in these diagrams – up for visual, level for auditory, down for language and feelings, to their right for constructed data, and to their left for remembered. Some left-handed people’s accessing cues are mirrored from left to right, and some people may have completely different layouts altogether.
By matching the words a person uses to their eye movements, you can figure out which cues correspond to which representative systems. Once you know that, you can predict with some accuracy what patterns the client uses to think.

As you pay more attention to signals other people send out, you’ll become more aware of how much their nonverbal communication reflects their models of the world. Matching a person’s external behaviour to their internal workings is called ‘calibration’.
The easiest way to start this ‘calibration’ is to ask the client some questions that presuppose that they think in certain ways. For example, to understand what a person looks like when she’s thinking in pictures, ask her a question that requires her to make a mental image. Here are some example questions for each rep system:

Vc – How would you look if you dyed your hair?
Vr – What colour is your car?
Ac – Can you imagine what we’d sound like talking underwater?
Ar – How does Beethoven’s ninth symphony start?
K – How does your right foot feel?
Aid – What happens when you tell yourself you can do this?
O – Do you know what ammonia smells like?
G – What does chocolate taste like?

Use specific questions. If you asked, “what does your favourite food taste like?” rather than “what does chocolate taste like?” Then the person has to sort through all the foods they like to find out which is their favourite. They might make pictures of the food, or remember making comments about a great meal before they ever get around to thinking about how it tastes. The taste of sweet milk chocolate, on the other hand, is very specific.
With practice, you can learn to consciously embed sensory-specific language into your normal conversations. Not only will this make whatever you’re saying more involving, it will give you the chance to covertly gather information about your audience.
Two cautions: first, occasionally people are unaware of how they store information. For example, some totally ignore their visual images. They say their car is red. If you ask how they know, they say they tell themselves. But their eyes suggest they make an image and then talk about it. Why argue? Just pay attention, trust your senses, and make use of what they tell you.
Second, if a person looks up, all it means is that they looked up. This eye accessing stuff can be useful sometimes. It’s not reality as such, it is about interpretation and generalised information, but much better than no information at all!
Finally, as you train your senses and gain confidence in NLP, you can become more specific. What does a person’s eyes (face and body) do when they think about love? About money; About you? Where in the space around them do they make these images? Pay attention, and people put their entire cognitive map up for show.

Again, the EAC’s are generalisations, some people will reverse these patterns, but they do work, but remember that every individual can be different. These EAC are maps or guides about what might be going on at another level. Remember that the map is not the territory, and the menu is not the food. The principles of NLP, if properly learned and utilised can allow you to ask questions to elicit the response you are anticipating and taking notes to help you understand and separate the surface structure from the deep structure. The way that a person understands and explains their world is useful in a therapeutic situation. An NLP practitioner can use this information to help change a client’s internal thoughts feelings, beliefs, and behaviours. This technique called ‘reframing’, utilises this knowledge, and by ‘anchoring’ positive or desired thoughts and feelings, and by testing these, clients can be given additional internal resources which, if they choose to utilise them, can help in maintaining a desired change in thoughts, feelings or behaviour. Further information on understanding the techniques used by NLP practitioners can be found at

The application NLP in addictions
According to NLP practitioner Sid Jacobson in his review of NLP titled ‘NLP: Logic, addictions and co-dependency’ first published in 1999, (6) he sets out to explain how beliefs can directly and indirectly affect health. In this article, he makes clear distinctions between sets and subsets and logical category types. Since most logic can be expressed both as cognitions and behaviour, many health issues can be addressed at the level of one’s beliefs. In communicating with clients, it is important to remember that there will be different levels of meaning, which can be interpreted in many different ways. These levels of change can be expressed in many ways, for example by following Prochaska and Di Clemente’s cycle of change (see Bolstad and Hamblett, 2000). Jacobson uses the following categories:

• Spiritual
• Identity
• Belief
• Capability
• Behaviour
• Environment

All of these levels of change are important, and for Jacobson, these levels can all operate differently from each other. From an NLP practitioner’s perspective, any change or solution people want or need to make in their lives will only occur if it is understood by both therapist and client, and in language and concepts, at the appropriate level to the problem.
Dependence and addiction are health issues, social issues, and political issues. They can also be Legal issues, educational issues, family issues and so on. They affect, and in turn are affected by a person’s sense of their own identity, their spiritual identity (in terms of attachments they have or make, their level and sense of purpose or ‘being’ in the world). This creates the opportunity for much confusion of logical types and or levels, certainly for the client, and potentially for the unwary therapist.

Taking this model from Jacobson as a basis for attempting to understand clients’ thoughts, feelings and sense of their world, the solution(s) to any problem depends on how the problem is perceived, or stated to begin with.
Here is an interesting way of looking at communication and the logical levels expressed by Jacobson.

Say out loud or listen to your internal voice and repeat the following sentence:

“I don’t think I can stop taking drugs now”.

It is obviously a loaded sentence and it can be said in a variety of ways without ever changing the words. Let’s see what happens by just emphasising one or two words at a time. Read the sentence out loud again, emphasising the bold section, and see, and get a feel for how the meaning is affected:

“I don’t think I can stop taking drugs now”.

With the emphasis on the personal pronoun “I”, the person is clearly saying that HE or SHE does not think the drug taking can be stopped. What is implied is that SOMEONE ELSE thinks the he or she can stop, even though the client taking the drugs is not sure. This may be more a statement about the relationship between the people in the clients’ circle, than the drugs use per se. It could also be a statement about the persons perceived identity, or their beliefs about who they are, more than what they can do. Try it again with a different emphasis:

“I don’t think I can stop taking drugs now”.

The sentence is now about what the person thinks or BELIEVES, rather than about who they are, or who they are in relation to others. It is also a negative statement, i.e. it says something about what they CANNOT do rather than what they CAN or ARE doing. It is a clear statement of belief, and is extremely revealing about the clients expectancies. Here is another way of emphasising the statement:

“I don’t think I can stop taking drugs now”.

Now the client is again talking about their levels of self-efficacy in relation to other peoples in their perceived circle of influence. What is implied is that THIS person cannot stop, but OTHER people can, and do. This is stated as an identity level issue, comparing themselves to other people, and their sense of power or mastery over their ability to control their behaviour. (It would be interesting to explore whom they have in mind when this aspect is explored) Again, the question can be stated as:

“I don’t think I can stop taking drugs now”.

This is addressing the specific behaviour. This client will have started and stopped many things, but not necessarily TAKING DRUGS. It is not a statement about general levels of perceived self-efficacy in isolation, only specifically in this instance. It does not emphasise the beliefs are the identity aspects at all. Again if the statement is expressed in the following way:

“I don’t think I can stop taking drugs now”.

This manner of emphasising the sentence focuses on things outside the client, perhaps in their environment or from their deviant sub culture (in a sociological sense) or peer group. Again, this puts a very different level of meaning to the statement even though the words are the same. It suggests that the person could stop taking drugs but just not NOW. Perhaps something about their job, family or community, the time of year, stressors, or some other factor we could only GUESS about. What is expressed here is that at the present time, something external to the client is perceived as preventing a behaviour change. It is not necessarily about their ability, their beliefs or sense of self at all .

One sentence many different interpretations. Any one of these beliefs can affect and even exist on one or even all of these different levels from spiritual to environmental. The use of the principles of NLP can deconstruct meta models used by clients, and allow greater awareness of the cognitions that can create problems in repetitive patterns of destructive behaviour.

The faster the addiction business grows, so the levels of meaning become less easy to comprehend, and the more that beliefs and concepts and levels are generalised. From the AA maxim that ‘One drink equals one drunk’, to an opinion expressed as ‘you are a bad student if you don’t…’ or even ‘good teaching should always be about… ‘. The list of generalisations could be endless. The issue with a generalisation is not that they are very wrong; it’s just that they confuse and cloud issues, rather than illuminate them. This can easily impact and even affect the helping process, whatever the treatment modality.

NLP allows us to understand and clarify the logical levels, and how to hear them in everyday language is an excellent way to help you and other people communicate more effectively. Most importantly, it could add to your bag of tricks when it comes to facilitating change. Research has found that the most successful therapists are ones who don’t rely on SPECIFIC techniques or rigid models of therapy.

However not everyone agrees with the claims put forward by the NLP adherents. Robert Todd Carter sees many flaws in the philosophy underpinning NLP. It seems that NLP develops models, which can’t be verified, from which it develops techniques, which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the models. NLP makes claims about thinking and perception, which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience. This is not to say that the techniques won’t work. They may work and work quite well, but there is no way to know whether the claims behind their origin are valid. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether it works or not. However, how do you measure the claim “NLP works”? Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices. Unfortunately, such a measurement may reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enrol in more training sessions.

Visit the following website on more information on the critique of NLP.

Further information on NLP can be found at these URL’s

Studies on the efficacy of NLP in facilitating change in addictive behaviours.

1. Andreas, S., & Falkener, ‘Neuro Linguistic Programming’ (1996: p315), USA

2. Edward T. Hall ‘The Silent Language’ (1959), cited in Lewis. B & Pucelik., (1993) ‘Magic of NLP Demystified’, USA.

3. O’Connor, J., Seymour J., (1993) ‘Introducing NLP Neuro Linguistic Programming Psychological skills for understanding and influencing people’, revised edition, Harper Collins, London.

4. Bolstad, R., Hamblett M., (2000) ‘Transforming recovery: NLP and Addiction’ published from
5 Bandler, Richard & John Grinder, 1975. The Structure of Magic I: A Book About Language and Therapy. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behaviour Books

Article by Iain McPhee PhD