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Introduction to NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is an exciting new field of endeavour whose focus is studying and building models of human excellence. To begin with I will define NLP, give a brief history, summarise the key models that form the basis of the discipline and some of its applications. Then I shall describe how it can be usefully applied to working with the unconscious mind to produce change.

I will use a number of metaphors and analogies. Metaphor is one way to communicate with the unconscious mind. Note the internal responses that you have to stories, art and music. You may have had the experience of hearing stories that resonated and yet not understood their relevance consciously.

Anthropologists have a form of research called ‘participant observation’. When they enter into a culture, they experience that culture through full participation. They also step back and observe the patterns of behaviour of members of the culture, as well as their own patterns.

Anthropologists have long recognised that, in studying culture, and by default, patterns of human behaviour, behaviour must be studied in relationship to the framework within which it occurs (that is, context). Context and the framing of context are significant applications of NLP.

Before involving the unconscious mind in producing change, we, as agents of change (or participants in self-change) need to prepare the conditions for change to occur. One of our tasks is sorting and framing the context within which a problem is occurring, or some outcome is desired. Only then can we benefit fully, by engaging in the process of mining the rich resources available through the unconscious mind.

(Thought Experiment:Pause for a moment and reflect on how you live your life. Note the environments that you inhabit and the circumstances of your life. And as you reflect on your experience, you might consider your dreams for the future. In terms of how you live your life and create your future, your behaviour is likely to be the most significant factor in your success. If you had some effective ways to change or enhance your behaviour, that would probably be useful for you.)

One major application of NLP provides a series of methods for changing behaviour, naturally and simply. Rather than attempting to change specific behaviours directly, NLP works best through involving our unconscious minds to create change. Among the NLP community, the unconscious is also known as ‘second attention’.2 Further into this chapter I will define the term ‘unconscious mind’ as used by Neuro- Linguistic Programmers, but first I want to define Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

What is Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)? 

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a relatively new field concerned with the patterns that guide how we live our lives, and our patterns of behaviour. Patterns include not only our observable actions in the world, but also our thinking processes and the organisation of our states of mind. This includes our emotions and how we use our attention with our senses. The focus of NLP as a discipline is finding and creating patterns to create and teach models of exceptional effectiveness. Neuro-Linguistic Programmers are interested in how highly skilled people do what they do. Notice the attention on how rather than why. We are interested in practical processes rather than historical justifications.

NLP is a field concerned with our patterns of behaviour. Click To Tweet

NLP is classified as a behavioural sciencethough, it must be noted, it is distinct from other behavioural sciences, including psychology. The function of NLP is to build models of the behaviour of exceptional individuals or communities. In contrast, psychology studies behaviour in isolation; divorced from the context where it would occur. Witness for example, the research of ‘rat runners’ in the heyday of behavioural psychology, where experiments with rats were conducted in the artificially constructed context of the maze.

Historically, psychology has focused on a quantitative approach to research. It emphasised reductionism and statistical analysis, with the resulting linear descriptions of behaviour devoid of context. Often, results are described using the norm and deviation from the norm with descriptive statistics. Psychology, when applied subsequently as psychotherapy, with the intended outcome of personal change, often takes an analytical approach. This produces conscious understanding without necessarily effecting change for the client.

In contrast, in NLP the emphasis is on modelling the small percentage of high performers in a given population, with the most appropriate research methods being those used in another field that studies the human behaviour of language: linguistics.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

The intellectual foundations of NLP

Through the influence of John Grinder (one of the originators), NLP finds its intellectual foundations in the following: Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar from linguistics; Alan Turing and automata theory; the anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s work, especially with epistemology; and Russell and Whitehead’s work in logic. Interestingly, NLP shares much of its intellectual foundations with the field of cognitive science.

This emphasis on building models of the patterns of behaviour of high-performing individuals is the hallmark of NLP that primarily distinguishes it from other behavioural sciences.

NLP modelling is the process of representing the patterns of organisation of the specific skills and results of excellence of an exemplar. The evidence is that similar results occur within the same context and time frame as that demonstrated by the exemplar. It requires a tacit modelling phase of unconsciously taking up the skill, followed by a phase of building an explicit description.

NLP modelling is the core activity of NLP and is the basis for applications of NLP that exist currently. The ability to work well with one’s unconscious is necessary for NLP modelling.

(Thought Experiment:, Consider for a moment some of the people you have met who are absolutely exquisite at what they do. Select one of those people and run a short movie of that person doing what they do so well. Make the images large enough to see in detail what the expert is doing. Would you like to have a way to perform with a similar level of excellence to that of the expert?), 

There have been some superb models developed in NLP which apply specifically to assisting people in personal change related to life skills, business, sport, presentation and learning. These patterns and models involve the unconscious in producing change in behaviour and experience in the consciously defined context where change is desired.

A very important distinction

Another important distinction in understanding the field of NLP is the following set of categorisations:NLP modelling and NLP application, within which there is a further distinction for NLP training. NLP modelling is the heart of NLP from which new patterns are discovered and new models are created. NLP modelling is the core activity of the field. NLP applications are the products of the NLP modelling process and of design based on the creative combination of modelled patterns. NLP packages of patterns and models have been applied to psychotherapy, coaching, management, organisational development, presenting, sports performance, derivative trading and education, to name a few. The output of the NLP modelling process can be applied to any area of human endeavour. One major area of NLP application is personal change.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

NLP is also an epistemology

Epistemology, a branch of philosophy, is the study of human knowledge: how we know what we know. The anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, makes a distinction between Epistemology with a capital E, the study of human knowing, and epistemology with a lower case e for individual and cultural epistemologies. Bateson goes further, with his view that Epistemology is rooted in the biological and is a branch of natural history, thus, “… the science that studies the process of human knowing”.As people, we cannot avoid having an epistemology. We all have some framework, generally unconscious, for organising how we know the world. An interesting question is, ‘How do you know what you know?’ As NLP is a field that has a methodology for building maps or models of human behaviour, it is an Epistemology.

Epistemology, a branch of philosophy, is the study of human knowledge: how we know what we know. Click To Tweet

What is the relevance of this to people, especially those who want to create change? NLP provides a practical methodology for people to examine their own epistemology. Many of the problems that people experience have their roots in the individual’s process of knowing what they know. NLP provides patterns of organisation that can then be applied to create lasting change in what is often perceived to be an intractable problem. There are patterns of organisation that many of my clients and I have found ideal for facilitating work with the unconscious mind.

Orientation to patterning and modelling

Patterns are the stuff our lives are made of. There are patterns of culture, patterns in organisations, in families and of course individual patterns of behaviour. So, what is a pattern? A pattern is any repeating sequence of behaviour so that, when the first part of the sequence is observed, the second part of the sequence can be predicted. Before a cat pounces, it crouches down, the ears flatten and the tail waves. Then it pounces. Because we can predict that the cat is about to pounce by observing the particular movements of the crouch, we can say that we have detected a pattern.

Patterns are the stuff our lives are made of. Click To Tweet

There are cues available in people’s non-verbal behaviour that are parts of sequences of behaviour. Learning to track these patterns of personal organisation is invaluable when assisting others in creating change. That is, we assist others in changing their patterns.

(Thought Experiment:, Pause again and reflect on whether you could review an interaction you had with someone, as if you were an outside observer, watching and listening to your behaviour as you related to the other person and they to you. You might begin to notice patterns of responses in both your own and the other’s non-verbal behaviour. Notice sequences of response that repeat over the course of the interaction: patterns. And with an awareness of patterns, there may be some that you would like to change. You might even find yourself imagining some alternative ways of responding.)

In NLP, we attend to tracking and changing patterns rather than to the content of a person’s experience. If we track the pattern of how people do what they do, then we can assist them to change the behaviour. If the pattern is useful, we could emulate the pattern. Doing this is part of the process of modelling. In creating change at the unconscious level, a skilled consultant identifies particular patterns that make up a problem state, and they may identify useful patterns that would support the desired state. Then they intervene in some way to assist the client to change the patterns.

(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP you can get a copy of  our latest Kindle book ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

By Chris Collingwood, NLP Trainer at INSPIRITIVE

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Chris Collingwood

Christopher Collingwood, BA (Psych)., MAppSci Social Ecology, a director of Inspiritive Pty Ltd., has over 21 years experience in coaching, consulting and leading seminars in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. He holds the Graduate Certificate in NLP, is an NLP Trainer Assessor, and has undertaken extensive training with the major developers of NLP, including Dr. John Grinder, co-originator of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.