A Brief Introduction to Neurolinguistic Programming and Subtle Communication Systems

NOTE: It has been a while since I have updated this material. I have included many concepts from NLP in my online textbook, Managing Information and Relationships, and provide additional information about NLP on the SCS Enterprises Website.

I have left the materials here primarily because they provide a brief history of NLP not available on either of my other sites.


Last update: 15 December 2001

The materials here explains my interest in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and its contribution to my understanding of business communication and to the development of Subtle Communication Systems (SCS).

NLP—A Quick Definition

NLP is basically the study of the structure of subjective experience. I have heard a number of stories about how NLP came to be called NLP. My favorite is the one Richard Bandler tells about the time he was stopped for speeding on U.S. 101 (known as Bloody Bayshore in those days). When asked by the trooper what he did for a living, Richard took a look at the books on neurology, linguistics, and cybernetics he had in the car and said, “Why, I'm a neurolinguistic programmer.”

Whether that story is true or not, the neuro refers to neurology, how we think and how we feel about what we are thinking. The linguistic refers to our use of language to bridge between the external environment and our subjective experiences of that environment. The word programming is based on the presupposition that our subjective experiences have structure and that the structure is both knowable and changeable.

The Beginnings—A Very Brief History

NLP was originally developed by Richard Bandler, a keyboardist in a rock band who was studying mathematics and cybernetics, and John Grinder, a linguist. Basically (and very briefly), they wanted to know why some psychotherapists were better than others, and, of the best, the three they elected to study most closely were Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson.

The foundations of NLP were derived from that study and were originally presented in two books, The Structure of Magic, by Bandler and Grinder, and The Structure of Magic, II, by Grinder and Bandler. Using those techniques in a systematic way, Bandler and Grinder were able to effect rapid and profound changes in human behavior.

Bandler and Grinder quickly developed a following that became almost cult-like. Along the way, they also discovered that they had some significant personal and professional differences. After conducting hundreds of successful seminars and writing several more books, they decided to go their separate ways. Those who had been their early students either "chose sides" or went off on their own to establish their own centers for the study of NLP.

Current Situation

In my opinion, of those currently teaching and practicing NLP, Richard Bandler—and those trained by him—tend to be better prepared than those who have trained with others. I have known and trained with a significant number of the well-known NLP practitioners and trainers. Bandler has continued to develop increasingly sophisticated and effective models for behavioral change, while the others continue to use and teach techniques that he has long since abandoned in favor of faster, more elegant procedures. Information about Bandler's company, The First Institute is available online.

To ensure the quality of NLP training, Bandler started The Society of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Members of the Society are certified by Bandler to possess the requisite skills for conducting such training and subscribe to the ethical standards of the Society. The current president of the Society is John La Valle, whose Web site is located at http://www.purenlp.com/.

Another NLP Web site worth visiting is maintained by Stever Robbins at http://www.nlp.org. This site provides reviews of trainings, numerous links to other NLP sites, and a wide variety of basic information about NLP, including answers to FAQs. If you are serious about NLP (and haven't just wandered here by chance or class requirement), you should see this site.

My Interest in NLP

In the early 1980s, I was a keynote speaker at an academic conference. My topic was communication technology (at this point the only thing I remember about my talk was that I predicted we would have cheap color printers within 10 years). While I can't remember much about my talk, I remember clearly that two others on the program gave a brief presentation on the NLP model of the communication process. After their talk, I asked them for a reading list. They recommended Frogs Into Princes, by Richard Bandler and John Grinder.

I have continued my study of NLP (through Master Practitioner and Trainer levels) because it offers what I consider the most elegant model of human communication available. In developing the core ideas of NLP, Bandler and Grinder drew on and codified information from a wide variety of sources. The fundamental principles presented in Science and Sanity, by Alfred Korzybski, for example, became the Metamodel of NLP, while the language patterns used so effectively by hypnotherapist Milton H. Erickson, M.D., became the Milton Model. (I have more to say about Korzybski in Objective Reality, Subjective Experience.)

In addition to having learned from Korzybski and the best therapists of the time, Bandler and Grinder also had the opportunity to work with Gregory Bateson (see Steps to an Ecology of Mind), who also contributed to their understanding of the relationship among language, meaning, and behavior. From this extensive foundation, Bandler and Grinder developed a comprehensive model for the relationship between language and subjective experience, which in turn led to the development of a number of techniques for influencing one's own subjective experience and the subjective experience of others.

The Metamodel

The principal influence of Korzybski on NLP was that The map is not the territory. (See Objective Reality, Subjective Experience.) In Science and Sanity, Korzybski had specified a series of questions to recover information that had been deleted in the verbal description of a person's mental map, to correct or clarify distortions, and to limit unwarranted generalizations. He thought that we would understand each other better (and behave more sanely) if we used language to create more complete, more accurate mental and verbal maps of external reality. In general, Korzybski wanted people to be more specific about who, what, when, where, and how:

Korzybski intended his model to be used to facilitate communication. Bandler and Grinder took it a step further. They discovered that, while the model could be used for that purpose, individuals tend to violate Korzybski's rules in patterns and that these patterns are important indicators of the mental maps being used. Bandler and Grinder describe this process in The Structure of Magic, Vol I.

Richard Bandler coined the term Metamodel for the most important of Korzybski's rules to express its overall importance in relation to an individual's subjective experience, or mental maps. Statements in violation of the principles are typically called Meta Model violations.

The Milton Model

In working with Milton Erickson, Bandler and Grinder noticed that Erickson was "artfully vague" when working with clients. He would violate the meta model with regularity and use language in other ways that required his client to supply missing information:

When we hear such phrases, our natural inclination is to allow our unconscious minds—the part of our minds that lies outside of our immediate conscious awareness—to fill in the deleted information in a way that makes sense to us.

Erickson also used presuppositions and embedded commands to encourage appropriate change in his clients:

For more information about the Milton Model, see Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., Vol I (Bandler and Grinder) and Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., Vol II (Grinder, DeLozier, and Bandler).

Sensory Experience

Although Aristotle hinted at it and others have discussed one or more aspects of it, Bandler and Grinder were the first to systematically examine the role of the senses in the construction of subjective experience. What we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch is the raw data of experience. Our senses (sensory systems or sensory modalities as they are often called in NLP) are where the internal and external intersect. Our internal mental maps are constructed out of things we have seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched.

Our senses, however, are limited. Even if we have all of them and they all work as well as they should, we are not able to see, hear, taste, smell, or touch everything actually in the environment. We need microscopes to see things too small to see with the "naked" eye. We need telescopes to see things at a distance. We are able to hear only a small portion of the sound actually in the environment—some sounds are below our hearing threshold (low volume), and some are out of our frequency range (either low or high). In comparison with those of many animals, our senses of sight, sound, and smell are particularly limited.

As we use our senses to construct our mental maps of external reality, we delete a great deal of information. We also distort some of the information we do perceive, and we generalize about it as well. In addition to the deletions and distortions introduced by our having biological limitations, at a very early age we begin constructing beliefs that further influence what we perceive and the meanings we attach to our perceptions. We also develop preferences for how we perceive.

Some people develop a preference for—and attach greater significance to—information they perceive visually. For them, seeing really is believing. When they do what they call thinking, they show themselves pictures (either moving or still), and they use a lot of visual vocabulary in conversation (if you see what I mean). In NLP, people with this preference are known as visuals.

Others develop a preference for information they perceive auditorily. What they hear has special significance. When they do what they call thinking, they have internal conversations, sometimes with themselves only and sometimes with a whole cast of characters (if you are listening to what I am saying here). In NLP, these people are called auditories.

Still others, who are known as kinesthetics, develop a preference for the senses of smell, taste, touch, and the way things feel to them emotionally (if you have grasped my meaning and this may either smell funny or feel right to you).

While people who have all their senses intact can and do use them all, their preferences for different systems influence the way they process information and communicate with others.

Rapport and Communication

Because they are focused on different qualities of experience, someone who is processing primarily visual information, may have difficulty establishing rapport and communicating with someone who is processing kinesthetic information. A person for whom the visual sense is the most important may be more concerned with how things look than with how they smell, taste, or feel. The reverse would probably be true for a person for whom the kinesthetic cluster of senses was the most important.

More information on how the sensory modalities influence communication, establishing and maintaining rapport, and related subjects is available in the corresponding sections of Managing Information and Relationships, especially see Part II, "The Communication Process."

NLP and Subtle Communication Systems

My view of communication changed once again when, about two years ago, I was invited to teach NLP to a group of holistic therapists at the Holistic Alliance in St. Joseph, Michigan, and I was introduced to bodywork and energy-medicine. I had been interested in and aquainted with Reiki and Therapeutic Touch for several years, but I had not thought about the way in which work with the Human Energy Field could be combined with the language patterns and procedures of NLP to create a new model for understanding and changing human behavior.

In collaboration with Rev. Debra Basham, a Certified Healing Touch Practitioner, I began exploring the full range of what is usually called "other-than-conscious communication." The phrase, "other-than-conscious communication" refers to everything that takes place during the communication process of which the participants are usually not fully conscious. Much nonverbal communication, for example, is outside conscious awareness. Nevertheless, it exerts a powerful influence on how messages are interpreted.

Subtle Communication Systems is the result of that collaboration. Although its principal application is therapy, all communication contains subtle components, and the greater awareness communicators have of these components, the more effective they can be. Many nonverbal gestures, for example, are influenced by the energy centers in the body typically called chakras. Whether we think of the chakras as real or metaphorical, we can have a better understanding of what is being communicated when we recognize gestures based on them.

Remember that most people greatly overestimate their own skill as communicators and that it is impossible to be too effective at communication. The time and effort you invest in improving your communication skills will pay off—both financially and in terms of the quality of your relationships.

Richard Bandler frequently asks, "How much pleasure can you stand," and enhancing your communication skills is the best way to begin to finding an answer now.


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