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See Inside June 2005

Psychotherapy Lite

Neurolinguistic programming has become a favored pop psychology technique because it is easy to follow. But does it work?


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?

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