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NLP clearly falls under the broadest heading of psychology, and perhaps most closely relates to cognitive psychology. But while Grinder had an undergraduate degree in psychology, NLP began quite outside the academic mainstream, and it remains largely divorced from mainstream academic psychology to this day, even though many NLP practitioners do have traditional credentials in psychology and psychiatry.
NLP as a discipline is pragmatic and utilitarian, meaning that it is interested in knowledge that is useful in applications. NLP seeks to discover how people do what they do, especially how experts and superior performers in a given area achieve their excellent results, finding out what is "the difference that makes the difference", and then modeling those behaviors to create transferable skill sets. As a small example, consider the task of spelling english words. (Note here we are referring to the simple task of recalling the spelling of words that one has seen in print before, not the arcane art of guessing how a word might be spelled based only on hearing it pronounced.) Some people remember spellings phonetically, and some even remember them by physically writing the words out, whether on paper or in the air. But as NLP developers discovered, the best spellers, in the sense of those with the quickest and most accurate recall, remember the spelling of words visually, i.e. they literally see the printed word in their mind's eye. And this skill can easily be taught to others. If they apply it regularly, they too can become excellent spellers.
The field of NLP has over time gathered many mini-models and associated techniques that can be applied to various situations. The models and techniques range in purpose from information gathering and building rapport, to anchoring and triggering of internal states, to trance induction and changing beliefs. There are models of internal representations (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc) and their submodalities and concomitant effects on emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. (Accordingly, one early book on NLP subtitled the field as "the study of the structure of subjective experience".) As fallout of the modeling process the field has also developed specific techniques that can be applied to applications ranging from psychotherapy, e.g. curing phobias, handling criticism and flattery, handling grief, stopping unwanted habits and behaviors, etc, to sales and persuasion techniques, to learning techniques, to curing some allergies, and many others.
Despite the numerous mini-models and techniques, NLP lacks a central theory as such, and this is partly by design. However there are a number of principles that have generally guided the development of NLP, most of which have been borrowed from other disciplines.
Perhaps the overriding principle is utilitarianism. NLP is not so much about discovering what is true as in discovering what is useful, what works in any given situation. But beyond mere utility, NLP aims for efficiency and elegance. If one technique can effect a desired change in an hour, then the search is on for another technique that can accomplish the same change in ten minutes.
Utility is measured strictly by experimentation and observation. Observation skills are the first skills taught in basic NLP training. Practitioners and students of NLP are admonished not to take any model for granted, but rather are challenged to try them out in the real world and observe what happens. A principle borrowed from cybernetics is that of a feedback loop. The NLP practitioner, when consciously engaged in some activity, especially one which involves one or more other people, is continually gathering information and using it as feedback to adjust his own behavior. One aspect of this is captured in the aphorism "The meaning of your communication is the response that you get." Also important is that some of the most important information is gathered from physiological cues and signals (gestures, posture, eye movement, breathing patterns, facial expressions, etc), the vast majority of which are given unconsciously, and that these signals must be calibrated to the individual who is providing them.
While students are taught set patterns and models during NLP trainings with very specialized terminology, once they have mastered the basic techniques, students are encouraged to try to do things in new ways, without relying on pat techniques. The principle here, again borrowed from cybernetics, is that the more flexible and adaptable a person is and the more options they have in their behavior, the more successful they are likely to be in their endeavors. Along these lines are statements such as "If what you are doing isn't working, try something -- anything -- else."; the view that there is no failure, only feedback; and the attitude that any behavior of another person can be modeled and learned.
Other principles, borrowed from sources such as General Semantics, affirm the subjective nature of our experience, which never fully captures the objective world, and that this experience differs from one individual to the next, sometimes radically, and can even differ for the same individual when compared across different contexts. As a result, one needs to be aware of these differences when interacting with others, to not make many assumptions about what the other person is experiencing, and to gather information as needed to verify one's understanding of the other's experience.
NLP's development has always been strongly empirical; the techniques and patterns developed in the field come from repeated observations, and all of the most common NLP techniques are continually submitted to testing during ongoing practitioner trainings around the world. Observation skills are the first and most essential ones taught to beginning students in NLP.
NLP does not have as a goal the development of theories. NLP as a field is extremely pragmatic and utilitarian. Practitioners are generally interested in models only insofar as they have useful applications, and any explanatory or predictive benefit is strictly secondary.
While it can be argued that NLP is primarily about modeling human behavior, it remains true that the first subjects of study were experts in the field of psychotherapy, and as a result many of the models and techniques of NLP, perhaps a majority of those taught in basic trainings, have application in psychotherapy. A significant number of those who take NLP training do so because they are practitioners of psychotherapy, whether as psychologists, psychiatrists, MFCCs, social workers, pastors, or lay counselors. Given the historical importance of this area of application it is worth some discussion.
One sometimes hears reference to "NLP therapy" or an NLP approach to therapy. Strictly speaking, NLP does not dictate a specific approach to therapy, believing instead that it is always most beneficial to give the therapist as many options and flexibility as possible. As a result, most therapists find it easy to blend NLP models and techniques with whatever previous training they have to synthesize a personal style that works (better) for them.
That said, it is possible to summarize a set of psychotherapeutic principles, a sort of "default NLP approach" that a practitioner may gather from NLP training, especially if they have had no previous training in other psychotherapeutic traditions. Some of these principles are:
Beyond this sampling of general principles there are many specific techniques and patterns for specific situations and types of desired changes. See the references at the end of this page.
In terms of self-help, many of the NLP-derived techniques can be self-applied. But other techniques more or less require the assistance of another (skilled) person.
Some have criticized the manner in which NLP has been promoted. Some NLP trainers make unwarranted claims for the field in general or for the specific techniques that they teach. This is, of course, to be expected in any field, especially one which is unregulated and for which there is no central guiding professional association or guild by which members of the field can hold each other to standards of competence and ethics.
Some complain that NLP has been exploited for commercial applications, such as sales and marketing, or that some practitioners have applied the techniques to activities such as seduction, and that this compromises the ethics of the field.
NLP trainers are sometimes accused of being secretive about their techniques and only making them available through expensive courses, making it hard to assess the validity of the techniques. The field continues to invent special buzzwords for their ever-more-inventive models when the language already exists to adequately describe what they are doing. This makes a glossary necessary, and of course, paying for more classes. However, while there are always new techniques being invented or discovered with their respective buzzwords thus making it difficult for one to keep current on all of them, the vast majority of established NLP techniques are well documented and available in many published books and on the Internet.
Some still complain that the techniques and skills can only be learned in what they consider to be expensive privately taught courses. It is true that acquiring most of the skills in the field does require interactive training, just as acquiring skill in martial arts requires more than book reading. The need for private courses is unlikely to change until the subject is taught more widely in more publicly accessible venues, and until the innovators decide inventing gratuituous terminology is superflous. Colleges and universities do not currently offer any courses in NLP.
Many trainers in NLP and its offshoots have gone to the extent of giving a different name to their brand of NLP, often trademarking their brand-name. This is probably due in large part to the failed attempt of Richard Bandler in the 1980s and early 1990s to acquire legal rights to the NLP moniker through the courts. This practice tends to reinforce the stereotype of NLP as a non-academic discipline.
Some critics of NLP assert that the majority of methods taught as part of NLP have not been scientifically verified and some even classify it as a pseudoscience. This may be in part because the claimed efficacy of some NLP techniques seems unrealistic to traditional psychologists and scientists, but probably has more to do with the aforementioned divorce between NLP's development and traditional institutions of science and psychology.
NLP is not committed to any central theory or fixed set of models. NLP is explicitly eclectic, and practitioners in the field are constantly looking for new models, patterns, and techniques that may be more effective than or complementary to existing ones. Novel ideas are encouraged and experimented with. Those not found to be useful (or not as useful) are ruthlessly discarded. NLP has taken this rather to the extreme, at least in its early days, in that students and practitioners were typically pushed to accomplish tasks in ways other than those had already been found effective, in part to keep practitioners flexible and adaptable, which is hampered if they become reliant on a fixed theory, and partly so as not to preclude the possibility of further discoveries. That said, after thirty years of development there are certain principles, models, and techniques which have stood the test of time and can be pointed to as being, if not anything as cohesive as a theory, at least a stabilized body of knowledge within the field, and it is inevitable that some trainers will teach these (and some students accept them) almost dogmatically. But the originators and movers in the field emphasize that these models are not be construed as being true in any absolute sense, but rather as useful generalizations.
Compared to more idealized versions of the scientific method, NLP does not place much emphasis on prediction. (Note that some sciences lend themselves to predictive theories more than others.) While NLP models which have repeatedly been found to be useful may be regarded as generalizations which will usually (but never always) be useful, NLP as a field does not typically extrapolate these into predictions which can serve as a basis for programs of experimentation over extended periods of time. Rather, such extrapolation typically occurs within a single session by a practitioner working with a subject, the hypothesis - prediction - test - verify cycle being performed within minutes and repeated many times within a given session.
While NLP makes heavy use of the scientific method in the small, the field clearly lacks other characteristics of Science in the large, such as the documenting of experiments and their results in widely recognized refereed journals; the appearance of the subject in course offerings at colleges and universities; and funding for research through public and private grants.
The early NLP developers, and the majority of NLP practitioners today, are more interested in results, discoveries, and practical applications than in gaining status or standing in the mainstream scientific world. Those NLP practitioners who are interested in establishing scientific validity to the satisfaction of mainstream scientists sometimes cannot reach agreement on acceptable experimental protocols. And those NLP practitioners and scientists who do conduct experiments and write up the results usually find that all the recognized mainstream journals have a blanket policy to reject all papers on NLP.
NLP is not so much interested in what is true as in what is useful. It does not seek "scientific truth" as a primary goal; rather it only seeks how to do things effectively and efficiently. From this standpoint, NLP might be more properly classified as an engineering or technology discipline rather than a science.