TOM'S COACH looks at him and begins: “The big conference room is full, and all eyes are on you at the podium. Try to picture it. Can you sense the crowd's anticipation? Who's sitting in the front row? How do you feel standing at the microphone?” These words awaken in Tom memories of earlier presentations, and the 33-year-old business manager gets queasy. He knows his company's future could hang on his upcoming pitch. So he has agreed, on the advice of co-workers, to try something called neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to steady his nerves.

Tom's coach tells him to back away from the podium, then asks, “When was the last time you felt really good? Put yourself back in that situation.” Tom, an accomplished runner, pictures himself triumphantly crossing the finish line at the end of his last marathon. “Close your eyes,” the coach continues. “What do you see? How does it feel?” Tom sees the crowd and his girlfriend, who is beaming. “Try to hold on to that feeling while you come back to the present.” The trainer now tells Tom to imagine making his presentation without losing his feeling of elation. Because Tom cannot do it initially, they repeat the procedure several more times. The goal is to make the topic of a future presentation act like a signal that triggers positive feelings.

These techniques are part of neurolinguistic programming, which was developed in the mid-1970s by psychologist and linguist John Grinder and psychology graduate student Richard Bandler, both then at the University of California at Santa Cruz. They were trying to understand why some people handle pressure situations with ease and others do not. They looked closely at the work of three well-known psychotherapists: Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy (which emphasizes self-awareness of one's feelings); family systems therapist Virginia Satir; and hypnotherapist Milton Erickson.

After much work, Grinder and Bandler claimed they had distilled the crucial elements of those techniques into one simplified therapeutic model. In contrast to other methods, NLP techniques were easy for laypeople to learn and even to teach, qualities that would open up the potential for those outside the psychology establishment to provide therapy.

Since then, Grinder and Bandler have gone their separate ways, and each has built a large business marketing NLP techniques. Bandler claims a trademark on both the term and its acronym, and in 1997 he sued Grinder for unfair methods of competition. NLP has become very popular among management and performance consultants, including “mental coaches” who advise everyone from business executives to athletes on skills ranging from public speaking to visualizing victory during competition. The techniques are also taught through seminars to entire companies, purportedly to show attendees how their firm can achieve maximum success. But NLP's steady rise has taken place with little scientific proof of its effectiveness, and its pop nature has caused some psychologists to discount the approach's validity. Is NLP a viable form of psychotherapy or a persistent fad?

Seeing Is Believing

Using simple exercises, NLP coaches try to help clients change their thinking, feelings or actions. Therapists also use NLP to treat psychological problems. For example, a patient who cannot shake the visions of a severe car accident, which causes him to feel that another crash is an ongoing threat, can consciously imagine the scene as blurry, less significant and more distant. As the image loses definition over time, the emotional sting subsides as well. NLP therapists tend not to ask, “What do you see?” but rather, “How do you see what you are seeing?” These techniques derive from several ideas: the assumption that all behavior derives from neurobiological processes, the belief in language as an instrument to order thoughts and behaviors, and the notion that thoughts and actions can be organized, or programmed, in a way that optimizes results. Hence, neurolinguistic programming.

Perhaps the greatest strength of NLP is that the techniques are easily grasped. The subject is given training exercises that can be practiced on his or her own. For someone like Tom, who wants to achieve greater self-confidence during public speaking, this is not much of a problem. But in other cases, such as someone who wants to drastically change careers because of dissatisfaction, useful therapies can be much more complex. Some critics question whether the simple steps can help at all in such cases.

The methods on which NLP draws are not new [see box above]. For example, the “anchoring” Tom did comes from hypnotherapy. Some practitioners are accused of overestimating both the effects and the utility of these exercises. Purveyors who have a superficial outlook tout NLP as a panacea for all kinds of problems. NLP's respected proponents are more selective, of course, but even they have little scientific explanation for why the techniques supposedly work. In contrast to long-standing, proved approaches, such as behavioral or talk therapy, just a few isolated peer-reviewed studies have explored NLP's effectiveness, and these have found evidence only of very limited effects.

It is not as though Grinder and Bandler hadn't tried to give their invention scientific underpinnings 30 years ago. They used then current brain research to explain how their techniques worked. But they started from a number of presuppositions that had not been scientifically validated. For example, the researchers postulated that each individual preferentially uses a certain sensory channel such as vision or hearing. If that were so, each of us would perceive information in a different way, a mechanism for which there is no evidence. But NLP's proponents say the proof is in the pudding. This is usually followed by an invitation to attend an NLP seminar and try the techniques directly.

Mind Control

Many people outside the business community are leery about NLP. It is not uncommon to hear comments such as “It's some sort of mind control, right?” NLP supporters scoff at the notion that the exercises are simply instruments of manipulation. They say the techniques are transparent and that people come to sessions looking for personal change, a situation that cannot be called manipulation in the sense of devious mind control. Interestingly, NLP is gaining ground among physicians who are involved in wellness training, to help them communicate better with their patients and to work more effectively with patient groups with specific ailments, such as asthma.

And what about Tom? Will he become an ardent advocate of NLP? That will probably depend on how his presentation goes. If he aces it, he is likely to seek the services of his coach again for other difficult problems. And then neurolinguistic programming will perhaps become firmly anchored in his brain.