The theoretical roots of NLP-based coaching
Susie Linder-Pelz & L. Michael Hall
NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) is a communication model; it is about the internal representation of experience and how people communicate with themselves as well as others. In recent years NLP has informed much coaching practice (McDermott & Jago, 2001; Dilts, 2003; McLeod, 2004). Yet ‘the relationship between NLP and academe has been tenuous and somewhat strained, influenced in part by the apparently atheoretical stance of the founders’ (Tosey, Mathison & Michelli, 2005). This paper details the theoretical origins of the NLP model and its roots in established psychological theories. Our intent is to offer an informed view of NLP as well as to contribute to the development and validation of professional coaching practices that are grounded in established psychological theory and research (Grant, 2001; Stober, Wildflower & Drake, 2006). Keywords: Neurology, linguistics, neuroscience, NLP, meta-states, cognitive behaviour, solution focused, self-reflexivity, coaching, self-actualisation. LP (NEURO-LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING) is a communication model; it is about the internal representation of experience and how people communicate with themselves as well as others. It focuses on peoples’ subjective experience and constructed reality (Tosey, Mathison & Michelli, 2005). The ‘neuro’ refers to the way humans experience the world through their senses and translate sensory experiences into thought processes, both conscious and unconscious, which in turn activate the neurological system; ‘linguistic’ refers to the way we use language to make sense of the world, capture and conceptualise experience and then communicate that experience to others; and ‘programming’ addresses the way people code (mentally represent) their experience and adopt regular and systematic patterns of response. (Hall & Belnap, 1999; Corsetty & Pearson, 2000). In the field of general semantics Korzybski (1933/94) articulated an explanatory model of the human mind-body system comprising many interactive parts: mind (meaning, semantics), body (neurology), emotions, and beliefs. That was the beginning of the NLP model.
Korzybski also explained how humans create their unique cognitive ‘maps’ of the external world they encounter. His map/territory distinction explains ‘emotion’ as the registering somatically of the difference between our maps of the world and our experience of it. People construct meanings in their mind and package them in symbols (words), share them and embody them. Words work in their neurology to create emotional states and induce them into various mind-body-emotion experiences (O’Connor & Seymour, 1990; Bolstad, 2004). An even more substantial source of NLP was the Human Potential Movement of which Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers were the leading pioneers. The connection for this goes back to the key figures in NLP and in the Human Potential Movement (Anderson, 1983; Bolstad, 2005). At Esalen in southern California, Fritz Perls was the first ‘scholar in residence’ and Gregory Bateson was the last. The first person in charge of Research and Development at Esalen was Virginia Satir. These key leaders of the Human Potential Movement were also the key people modelled by Bandler and Grinder in 1972–1975 (Bandler & Grinder, 1975, 1976).
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Rogers’ idea that helpful therapeutic relationships required reflective listening. May 2007 1994). 1992. 1996. Cognitive theory – first as RET (Ellis. and beliefs. 1975) suggested that ‘thoughts’ are revealed primarily as words. These. Locke. How we think affects how we feel which in turn affects how we behave (Ellis & Harper. 1933/1994. 1988. Based on his scientific and psychometric research. Craik & Price. A key NLP pre-supposition is that people invent or construct their maps and models of the world because we do 13
. Bateson. too. empathy and separateness of self underlie NLP practitioner skills (such as state management and rapport-building through calibration of representational systems. 2001). empathy and positive regard (Egan. Cognitive reframing and challenging self-talk are used in RET and REBT. The Coaching Psychologist. Grant & Greene.The theoretical roots of NLP-based coaching The Human Potential Movement was launched from Maslow’s modelling study of psychologically healthy people or ‘self-actualisers’ (Maslow. focuses on assisting clients to change and manage their physiological. behaviour and situation (Bandura. Shaw & Emery. 1972. NLP belongs philosophically to the discipline to constructivism (Korzybski. 1979). NLP. So NLP is partly based on the same cognitive behavioural approaches that have informed the solution-focused approach over the past 20 years (de Shazar. 1962) focused on ‘thoughts’ as primary in driving human experience. he talked of self-regulatory activities. self-talk statement. Walsh. 1961) concluded that people have a basically positive direction. Like narrative therapy and solutionfocused brief therapy. suggesting that if something doesn’t work it is useful to try something different. Jackson & Watlzawick. 1975). feelings. 3. Rogers (1955. contract negotiation and not ‘failing’ people. NLP and cognitive behaviour counselling both draw on self-efficacy theory (Bandura. Glasser’s Reality Therapy (1965) talks of the therapist not accepting excuses or blaming. 1991. 1975. neurological and emotional states directly. pacing and leading) as well as traditional approaches to helping skills that emphasise qualities such as congruence. in addition. The NLP Presuppositions (Bandler & Grinder. The motivational power of goal-setting (Latham & Locke. Fisch. Hesketh. 1977). 1997) is a central assumption in NLP as in other cognitive behaviour approaches (Grant. 1986) and his cognitive learning theory regarding the quadratic reciprocity of four domains of human experience: thoughts. possibilities and solutions (not ‘problems’). 1956. Weakland. which in turn was based on the premises of the Human Potential movement of Maslow and Rogers (Hall. REBT (Ellis & Harper. away from building a model of human nature based on sick or neurotic people towards one that explained healthy or self-actualising people. are principles underlying the NLP approach to coaching. are self-directing and autonomous. 1968. He also linked thoughts. From this came the premises of NLP (the ‘NLP presuppositions’) such as ‘people have all the resources for their full development’. of the need for client to take responsibility and of emphasising behaviour change rather than search for roots of problematic behaviour. harnessing strengths and resources. Watlzawick. 2006). 1974). matching and mirroring language predicates. 1976) were derived almost entirely from the work of Virginia Satir and Fritz Perls. 1. Change was about ‘loosening cognitive maps’. NLP also draws from reality theory and learning theory the need for positive and negative reinforcement. 1975. ‘resistance indicates the lack of rapport’ and ‘there is a structure to all experiences’. No. 1974. Rush. Beck. 1970). feelings. setting goals. talking about feedback not ‘failure’. Miller. Vol. His work created a paradigm-shift. focusing on meanings. amplifying what works. experiences and physiology to the change process. Both approaches emphasise the clarification of goals. Later. it utilises all sensory representation systems thereby reducing the towards verbal processing bias inherent in the solutionfocused approach. 2001.
Damasio. The Meta-States model integrated more of Korzybski’s seminal work. behaviours and states can be changed when the conscious mind is bypassed. consciousness. sharing a focus collaboration. Science and Sanity (Korzybski. 1984). Mathison and Michelli (2005) suggest that although NLP has been influenced by many fields and disciplines ‘perhaps the most important [influence on NLP is] the cybernetic epistemology of Gregory Bateson … The cybernetic aspect is reflected. just as it informed the work of others studying the regulation of learning and behaviour (Carver & Scheier. NLP focused on the level of primary states and responses. language. Tosey. 1972). date unknown). visualising a preferred future. McKergow & Clarke. in describing the paradoxes that arise in communication and thought (Bateson. Like the solution-focused approach. 'second order effects’ such as. sensory representations. 1999). solution focused approaches (Norman. To some observers Erickson and Bates are originators of NLP just as they are of other brief. neural/mental patterns. It also brought in more of Bateson’s work on logical levels and types (Bateson. The Coaching Psychologist. pitying pity). changes in body state. NLP added the focus on internal representation systems and the language processes that help clients change those internal representations and physi14 ology in order to change emotional states and behaviours. which depends on the dynamics of calibration and feedback (Bateson.Susie Linder-Pelz & L. precision questioning. 1973. emotion. 1965). thought. May 2007
. Gallanter & Pribam. 1998). No. Beavin & Jackson. p. especially Paul Watzlawick. Vol. Galanter & Pribram. 1960) informed the work of Bandler and Grinder that lead to the Strategy Model in NLP (Dilts. Damasio. Hall developed the Meta-States model supported by evidence obtained by modelling neuro-linguistically the way in which people think and feel about primary states and thus experience ‘states about states’ (Hall. the MetaStates model brought in Korzybski’s ‘structural differential’ (or level-of-abstraction) model relating to the effect of one state upon another (‘first order effects’ vs. Wiener. sense of self. feeling. Erickson worked with clients on the problems to be solved rather than on the causes of the problem. 3. (Pert. Whereas NLP was launched with Korzybski’s cognitive-behavioural distinction (‘the map is not the territory’). focus on solutions and resources. philosophy and techniques. In 1994. step back and notice the problem is the problem. 1972. During its first years. for example. 1995).175). to ‘the partnership between so-called cognitive processes and processes usually called ‘emotional’’ (Damasio. Michael Hall not deal with ‘reality’ or ‘the territory’ directly (Bandler & Grinder. They attest. especially with the highly skilled use of language. 2006. for example. 1994)/2002). To these shared assumptions. 1978. Both NLP and solution-focused approaches are constructivist and humanistic.’ The TOTE (test-operate-test-exit) model of self-regulation (Miller. The Meta-States model also incorporated the insights of Bateson and his associates. Watzlawick. 1933/1994) with NLP. 2000). 1975). 1994. 1980. 1999). as well as current work in meta-cognition (Metacalfe & Shimamura. 1. Hall & Bodenhamer. 1967. 1960). He showed how rapidly perceptions. in NLP’s adoption of the TOTE (test-operate-test-exit) mode of functioning (Miller. finding out what works and what doesn’t. NLP was informed by cognitive therapy (Beck. 1976. feedback. By the 1990s neuroscientists were providing detailed evidence of the complex neural and biochemical feedback and feed-forward loops that explain the interactions among perception. Watzlawick. 1994/2006. Watzlawick. 1997. 1976) and by Erickson’s Strategic Therapy (Zeig. Watzlawick. decision-making and other behaviours. 2004). Battino & South. Their findings support the mind-body-emotion system that was described by Korzybski (1933/1994) and the many ways NLP practitioners assist clients’ communication with and through their nervous system (Bolstad.
’ NLP-based coaching is an example of such an approach. Mathison & Michelli. integrating as it does a disparate but significant body of established knowledge and theory.The theoretical roots of NLP-based coaching By modelling self-reflexive consciousness and the way it creates layers of thoughts-andfeelings and embeds unconscious belief frames which. Grinder. As NLP is useful for describing the intra-personal and interpersonal processes. Therefore. NLP authors tend to quote one another rather than linking with the wider worlds of psychotherapy. one of the significant tasks before us is the integration and application of this disparate knowledge base into a coherent body of knowledge that applies to and guides coaching. It also offers a response to the challenge articulated by Stober.au
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Susie Linder-Pelz E-mail: Susie. 3. Bandler et al.’
John Martin (2005) notes that ‘NLP originally developed as a form of psychotherapy in the 1970s. reactions. we believe it is worthwhile for coaches to understand it and learn to use it skilfully. The primary states and meta-states distinction in NLP parallels the distinction in neuroscience between primary and secondary emotions (Damasio. May 2007
. and an understanding of the uniqueness of each client … [Coaching has] roots in a number of fields.’ This paper has taken a step towards evaluating NLP in an informed way. in turn. Tosey. Mathison and Michelli (2005) have demonstrated how NLP is a structured and systematic means of mapping the subjective experience and constructed reality of people experiencing transformative learning or coaching. 1994/2006). affect our actions. as well as outcomes. of transformative learning/change. the Meta-States model has brought a much more systemic approach to NLP. Wildflower and Drake (2006) who called for coaches to ‘begin integrating evidence from both coaching-specific research and related disciplines. As the founders of NLP 25 years ago (Dilts.com. 2005). their own expertise.. so it can be difficult to evaluate them in an independent and broadly informed way. communication training etc and their methods have often been experience-based rather than research based.lp@veritel. identify and utilise the multitude of patterns that will constantly be offered to you in your sensory experience by clients. 1980) said: ‘Your ultimate success at helping people achieve their desired outcomes – including managing change – will depend on your ability to observe. We have argued that the NLP model of communication integrates evidence from various disciplines and is a useful model for coaches because it allows them to codify and respond appropriately to their own and their clients’ experience (Tosey. In other words. NLP enables coaches to codify and respond to their own and their clients’ experience. and behaviours. It has more fully introduced neurolinguistic feedback and feed-forward loops of information and communication. 1.
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