Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is sometimes described as a combination of postmodern therapy and neurology. On a basic level, the model suggests there are clear connections that can be drawn between internal experience (neurology), language, and behavior. Based on these connections, it is theorized that changes in internal experience and/or language can quickly and dramatically impact behavior. These interactions are also recursive, so changing language can change internal experience — a direct connection with postmodern therapies.
Trying to move past these general ideas into specifics of the model is quite challenging. NLP is sometimes described as “a set of techniques designed to make you better at what you do.” You likely will not leave this long introduction to NLP with any better understanding of what it is or how it works than what you came in with. Looking elsewhere, we find a description of the model that sounds a lot like The Secret:
[NLP is based on the notion] that the words we use reflect an inner, subconscious perception of our problems. If these words and perceptions are inaccurate, as long as we continue to use them and to think of them, the underlying problem will persist. In other words, our attitudes are, in a sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Part of the difficulty in determining what it is, exactly, that NLP therapists do is owed to the model’s suggestion that therapy must be subjective. Therapists are then seen less as scientists, and more as artists. Therapy is not to be a prescribed order of techniques, but rather a process customized to each client that respects the clients’ unique experiences.
However you define it, NLP today bears all the markers of a fringe practice in marriage and family therapy.
A small and dedicated group of practitioners. The UK association for NLP listed more than 50 training organizations and estimated that 150,000 people had been trained in the model in some way as of 2000 (Tosey & Mathison, 2003). This group primarily does not consist of psychotherapists, but rather involves “educators, managers, trainers, sales people, market researchers,” and so on. While there are several training organizations in the US, the number of practitioners and academics involved in the model appears to be modest.
Expensive training. Training providers in NLP talk about the artistry of creating a therapy appropriate to each specific client, and that the trend in NLP is toward shorter trainings. Then they ask for $4,000 for a master practitioner training program.
Unrealistic claims of effectiveness. Therapy processes claim a lot of things, but this was the first time I had ever seen one actually claim to be magical:
Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ was specifically created in order to allow us to do magic by creating new ways of understanding how verbal and non-verbal communication affect the human brain. As such it presents us all with the opportunity to not only communicate better with others, but also learn how to gain more control over what we considered to be automatic functions of our own neurology.
The founders of the model, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, believed it to be effective for the complete range of psychological problems that therapists would encounter. Again, the model is vague on what exactly it is supposed to accomplish, although its adherents claim a strong foundation in client strengths, noting that “Each of us is a miracle waiting to happen.”
Weak scientific support. The Wikipedia entry on NLP is blunt: “NLP has enjoyed little or no support from the scientific community. It continues to make no impact on mainstream academic psychology, and only limited impact on mainstream psychotherapy and counselling.” In the presence of little empirical support — and a number of articles that appear to actively discredit the usefulness of the model — NLP adherents do what most fringe practitioners would do, which is to dismiss the research as poorly constructed or irrelevant. Like it or not, though, the effectiveness of any therapeutic model — as established through research — is vital to that model gaining legitimacy with payors and clients alike. For now, NLP lacks that research base, and the legitimacy it would provide.
So, is it worthwhile? Many practices that are now accepted started out as fringe practices, so the label is not always a derogatory one. All fields need some practices at the cutting edge — some make it to broad acceptance and others are weeded out before they can get there. While it may be useful in other fields, NLP seems to be one edging toward being weeded out as a model for psychotherapy. Though the model has been around since the 1970s, clinical effectiveness simply has not been demonstrated, and NLP practitioners express active disinterest in such research. Perhaps it is because the model’s ties to postmodernism leave the it too subjective to be truly testable.
As I detailed in an earlier post, my writings on fringe practices are not meant to advocate for or against their use. I hope instead to provide a relatively complete picture of the current state of these practices — their level of acceptance in the profession and scientific community, their evident effectiveness, and why readers may or may not be interested in them. Comments are always welcomed.
Tosey, P., & Mathison, J. (2003). Neuro-linguistic programming and learning theory: A response. The Curriculum Journal, 14(3), 371-388.