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NLP

'Following our dreams' and doing the things we want to do in life can at times seem impossible. Maybe the opportunities never arise, maybe obligations and responsibilities hold us back, maybe practicalities always stop us at the last moment. A lifetime of routine and habit can make it difficult to break out of the familiar comfort-zone that so many of us slip into without even knowing it. NLP helps us to realise that more often than not, it's not the world or our busy lifestyles holding us back - it's ourselves.

What is NLP?

NLP is a specialist technique used by life coaches. NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming. 'Neuro', Latin for nerve, refers to the way we gather information from the outside world with our five senses. 'Linguistic', the study of language, refers to the way we make sense of that information by organising it into the structure of language. 'Programming' is a way of controlling something. In this case it refers to the way our interpretations of the world control our actions, choices and behaviours in day-to-day life. NLP teaches us that by changing how we make sense of the world, we can then adjust our behaviours and actions in order to make the most of ourselves and our lives.

By harnessing the power of language, NLP-trained life coaches can break down the mental barriers we all unknowingly create for ourselves over time and habit. NLP is considered by many to be one of the most useful and accessible tools to come from modern psychology. NLP can assist stress management, improve empathy and communication skills, resolve destructive relationship patterns and encourage clients to move out of their comfort zones towards fuller, happier, and infinitely more satisfying lives.

NLP - a brief background

Developed in...

California, USA in 1972.

Developed by...

John Grinder and Richard Bandler. Both were enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Grinder was an Assistant Professor of linguistics and Bandler was a psychology undergraduate.

Inspired by...

  • Fritz Perls - the psychotherapist who developed Gestalt therapy.
  • Virginia Satir - dubbed the 'Mother of Family Therapy'
  • Milton Erickson - the first therapist to use hypnosis for medical purposes.

Bandler and Grinder wanted to know: what made these three therapists so good at improving the lives of their clients?

Influenced by...

Gregory Bateson - a British academic famed for his contribution to cybernetics (the science concerned with patterns of communication within natural and mechanical systems) and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Bateson's influence was thought to drive Bandler and Grinder's research towards the idea that we can 'reprogramme' our minds.

Understanding NLP

NLP is a vast and complex subject. Before we look at how it works, what it involves and how it helps, we must first understand the fundamental ideas behind it. We can break those ideas down into three parts:

  1. Subjectivity - at the heart of NLP lies the understanding that each one of us sees the world in a different light.
  2. Maps - our own worlds are made of boundaries and territories that our life experiences draw out for us.
  3. Language - we have the power to shift and redraw those boundaries using our 'control systems', the most influential of which is language.

1. NLP and subjectivity

Imagine this situation: there are two people. Both are experiencing transition in their lives after being made redundant from their respective companies. Due to a lack of work available in either of their locations, both have been forced to move far from home to start new jobs.

Person A:

Person A, although initially upset by the unexpected upheaval, has become accustomed to the idea. He's been utilising his free time by searching for a house to rent and clubs to join while he's there. He's realised that the cost of living is much lower in the new place, and feels pleased at the idea of living in a bigger house and enjoying more luxuries. Although the job is a few steps down from his last one, he knows how lucky he is to have it - after all, many of his old colleagues are still living on benefits. Although he'll be leaving a happy, settled life behind him, he knows that if he's done it once, he'll be able to do it again. By seeing the move as an opportunity for new and better things, Person A has managed to turn a potential source of pain and anxiety into a positive experience.

Person B:

Person B, although in exactly the same situation, is not doing well. The redundancy was a big hit to his self-confidence. He feels like his new, lower-grade job represents his failure. He spends his time off not knowing what to do with himself - he still cannot comprehend that his life has changed forever now.

Before he knows it, it's time to move and he hasn't got round to finding any accommodation. As a result, he's forced to rent the first place he finds, which is a fraction of the size of the property he could have found, had he given himself more time.

Person A and Person B live in the same country; they live according to the same laws, the same social and political restrictions. And yet - their respective experiences of the same situation were incredibly different. If we revisited Person A and Person B in the future, what would we find? Who do you think is more likely to be happier, or more successful? Of course, no one can stay in total control of their lives - unexpected things do happen. We might find that Person A contracted an illness and Person B won the lottery. What we do know however, is that the way we view the world can have a profound effect on how we recover from those unexpected situations. For example, Person A might find that his illness gives him a fresh sense of purpose and an enlightened outlook on life, whereas Person B, with his unlimited wealth, might realise the futility and shallowness of humanity and end up feeling even more unhappy.  

The moral of the story is that, regardless of what happens to a person during his or her life, it is the way they see the world that effects the richness of their experience, and not the nature of the experiences themselves.

So what determines how we see the world?

2. NLP maps

This leads us on to the second idea behind NLP: the idea that each of our lives is a 'map', or model, in working progress. (NLP experts use the word 'map' and 'model' interchangeably but we will stick with 'map'.)

A 'map' is only a representation of a place, not the place itself. NLP uses the idea of the map to illustrate how we can only ever view our own representations of the world, and not the world itself. It's like we're all wearing special goggles overlaid with a unique pattern that blocks out some parts of the world and focuses in on others. This means that, although we all live in the same world, we all have our own unique view of it. Even identical twins have different maps, despite sharing the same genes and the same upbringings. The truth is, no one experience can truly be 'shared' - it is logistically impossible because no two people can ever be standing in exactly the same place at once. Even two people witnessing the same event from slightly different angles can come away with different experiences of said event. Whether we know it or not, every single thing that happens in our lives has an impact on the future - whether that be our future beliefs, our behaviours, or the decisions we make, every second makes its mark in some way. Every day our experiences shape the boundaries and territories of our maps, and every day we must learn to live within those boundaries and territories.

Understanding that we all see a different version of the world is fundamental to NLP. Life coaches use NLP to understand how some of their clients manage to back themselves into corners and ruts that hold them back in life. Even the most bizarre behaviour can be understood when viewed within the context of that person's map. For example: think for a moment back to Person B in the NLP and subjectivity example. This was the person who limited the richness and diversity of his experience by dwelling on the past and leaving his future to chance. Person B's map of the world was restrictive. All he saw around him was failure and disappointment, to such an extent that he made life even harder for himself. That's not to say that Person B was bad, weak, or mentally ill - he was simply behaving in the only manner he could within the boundaries of his map. The nature of cause and effect means that something that happened to Person B many years ago, such as harsh rejection, some form of loss, or a public humiliation, may be preventing him from seeing the bright side of things now.

3. NLP and language

And so we come to the third idea behind NLP: that we can, to some extent, reshape and redraw our own maps by 'reprogramming' ourselves.

Is it really possible to 'reprogramme' our brains to view the world differently? And if so - how do we do it? We are not machines, or computers - we don't come with an instruction manual; we don't have a control panel, or lines of source code to rewrite. Our brains are incredibly complex organs. They carry out millions of processes continually that even we're not consciously aware of. In fact, our neurons make around one million connections every second - few of which actually make it into our conscious minds.

Even when you're slumped on the settee watching your favourite soap opera, your brain is busy processing and filtering the smell of your discarded take-away, the feel of the sofa fabric on your skin, the box of tissues on the coffee table, the digestive fluid slowly breaking down the food in your stomach - leaving you free to focus your attention completely on what's happening on TV.

What has language got to do with it?

Once our brains filter out the millions of signals from the outside world, how do we then make sense of the left-over information? The answer is: by compartmentalising concepts (such as 'tree') and attributing them with a sound. These sounds, representing concepts, are known as words, and these words are arranged according to a structure known as language. By learning words in relation to other words, we soon begin to build links between each one (a perfect example of this is the word association game. E.g. tree = green, green = grass, grass = cow, cow = farm, farm = tweed, tweed = rifle and so on...), which eventually forms a huge network of words, meanings and associations that not only describe, but also shape the world around us.

While it does give us the ability to formulate, express and communicate our thoughts, language also imposes more limits and filters on our experiences of the world.

For example, imagine you meet a woman at a party who begins to talk about how she studies at Oxford and enjoys playing Polo. On the surface you know just two things about this women: a) where she studies and b) what she likes to do with her spare time. Anything else you infer is a product of your own view of the world. What do the words Oxford and Polo mean to you? People familiar with Oxford University's prestigious reputation, and polo's name as 'The Sport of Kings' may form the opinion that: 'this person must be wealthy and well-educated'. From here, deeper opinions can be formed depending on the ideas they associate with the words 'wealthy' and 'well-educated'. While one person might be thinking: 'this person is probably a snob', another might be thinking: 'this person could teach me something interesting'.

Now imagine that there was a brand new word introduced to the English language, one that translated directly as 'I go to Oxford University and play polo but I come from a middle-class family and never take myself too seriously'. If the woman describes herself using this new word, immediately a distinction has been made that may affect your perception of the woman, which may in turn affect the way you interact with her.

A real-life example of this can be seen in the American-Indian language of Maidu. Although humans are physically capable of distinguishing 7,500,000 different colours on the visible colour spectrum, speakers of Maidu only have three colour categories:

  1. Lak - red.
  2. Tit - green and blue.
  3. Tulak - yellow, orange and brown.

While an English speaker will distinguish between a green mug and a blue mug, a Maidu speaker will simply identify two 'tit' mugs. It's hard for an English-speaking person to imagine ever compartmentalising green and blue as the same thing, but it shows just how far language can distort our perceptions of the world.

By altering our use of language, we can expand the limits of our maps and make the life-changes we want to make. For instance - what does 'failure' mean to you? To some it may represent a dead-end, a block in the road. They might associate the word 'failure' with a sinking feeling in the stomach, with a certain colour, or a certain smell. These associations go on to shape how a person reacts to failure (not meeting a goal) in the future. However, to other people the word failure might represent new beginnings, fresh-starts and acquired wisdom. By altering the way different words and associations link up in the network of our vocabularies, we can eventually change the way we think and the way we live our lives.

How do life coaches use NLP?

We convey meaning in a wide variety of different ways - through pitch, tone, volume, pace, facial expressions, body language and of course words. Most of our meaning is communicated unconsciously. Life coaches specialising in NLP are trained to pick up on these subtle clues that give away how their clients are really feeling. By unveiling their clients' unique maps of the world (how they see the world), life coaches can identify any self-imposed restrictions and then help to challenge them.

The three main types of limiting beliefs are thought to be:

  • worthlessness
  • hopelessness
  • helplessness.

By thinking thoughts such as: 'I'm not good enough', or 'other people are better than me', you set yourself up for failure. Taking a defeatist attitude can really limit your experiences and your accomplishments. 

A life coach will uncover these limiting beliefs by asking the following questions:

  • Why do you feel undeserving of happiness or success?
  • Why can't you succeed?
  • What is preventing you from succeeding?

These questions can help to reveal the thoughts and feelings that cause the limiting beliefs. A life coach will then start to explore and challenge these limiting beliefs in a bid to help transform them.

What to expect in an NLP session

Although different life coaches may have different practices, the standard NLP session will follow the same basic pattern:

1. You will be asked to state what you want to change and what problems you want to overcome. Your life coach will pay close attention to what you say and how you say it, and tailor their questions according to your responses.

2. Your life coach will work through different exercises with you in order to piece together your map of the world and introduce new thought processes in order to widen your boundaries and territories. All you will be required to do is sit back and relax - there will never be any physical contact, aside from a quick touch of the knuckle in some exercises.

3. Your life coach will probably give you a few exercises to take away with you and practice. This will help you get accustomed to the techniques you learnt during your NLP session. Although the main neurological changes will have occurred during the session itself, they may need to settle in and develop as you get back into the routine of your life.

4. In your next session, you will be asked to report any changes you've noticed and then, when you're ready, move on to the next change you want to make.

NLP is so popular because it is future-focused. It explores future possibilities and solutions, rather than encouraging you to dig up your past. NLP is about adding choices and widening perceptions rather than dwelling for too long on the problems

How can NLP help?

Because it is essentially a tool-kit for the mind, NLP can help all areas of life. It is particularly effective for improving the following situations:

Anxiety and stress

The problem with anxiety is that it can often feel irrational - you know you shouldn't feel anxious, you might even know you don't need to feel anxious, but you do. So how can you possibly stop it?

NLP is an effective method for fighting feelings of stress and anxiety because it identifies the thought patterns that lead to those feelings. As soon as these unconscious thought patterns are bought out into the light and made conscious, they can be challenged.

Business

Because NLP is an excellent tool for understanding people, it is immediately applicable to business. By learning techniques from your life coach, you will be able to improve how you communicate, empathise and negotiate with your colleagues, business partners, employees and bosses.  

Arts and creativity

Writer's or 'artist's block' is something that affects most creative spirits at some point. Sometimes, it simply becomes impossible to adequately express what you want to express. An NLP session could be used to identify what is creating that block. Your life coach may develop exercises for you to complete, designed to unleash and channel the energy you've been storing up.

Fears and phobias

Like with anxiety and stress, NLP is great for revealing the thought processes behind what we might consider 'irrational' behaviour. Really, no behaviour is completely irrational - we are products of our pasts and something along the way will have kick-started those fears. NLP can help to change the thoughts and feelings we have about the things that scare us so that we no longer have to avoid them.  

Health and wellbeing

One of the most important ideas underpinning NLP is that the mind and body are closely and intricately connected. By improving the way we approach and think about the world, we can effect the health and wellbeing of our bodies.

Relationships

Relationships are based on how we communicate with each other. How we communicate depends on the kind of people we are and the ways we view the world. We all have what we might consider 'bad character traits' that have the unfortunate habit of ruining relationships. This could include being argumentative, distrustful, jealous, insecure and so on. NLP can help you become more aware of how you communicate. It can help you to understand that other people might have different views of the world and that your way of thinking is not necessarily right. Developing empathy skills can make it easier to build strong and lasting relationships - whether they be with friends, family members, or lovers.

Sport

NLP is a fantastic tool when it comes to sport. It's so easy to give up when we become exhausted or feel like we can't go on anymore. To really excel in sport, athletes must be able to push through these feelings with incredibly high levels of focus and motivation. NLP can help to break down the mental blocks that are so easy to develop when our bodies become exhausted. To get good results, it is essential to have confidence, to know you can do something and to focus your mind on achieving that. NLP helps nurture all of these qualities in order to bring sports-people to new levels of personal excellence.

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