Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Maritha Pottenger

One of the newer psychotherapies in recent years is NLP or Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Proponents pride themselves on being products of a sophisticated technical age. Their promotional literature promises specific, scientific, measurable, testable techniques to assist human functioning superior to the amorphous “caring” which is prevalent in humanistic psychological circles.

The major originators are Richard Bandler and John Grinder. They say they spent years (and lots of videotaping) studying the greatest psychotherapists—people like Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson—to identify and quantify those techniques which account for the great success of these people. According to NLP, that mission has been successful.

As a movement, NLP has mushroomed accordingly. Bandler and Grinder (to my understanding) no longer work together. John Grinder seems to have channeled much of his efforts towards the business community, his promotional materials promising increased efficacy in communication and other areas. His literature also cites very high fees to learn these skills. Leslie Cameron-Bandler (who, rumor has it, is the ex-wife of Richard Bandler despite her book HAPPILY EVER AFTER) has joined with several other people to teach and license people (with exams and all) as NLP practitioners. Steve Lankton has written a book (PRACTICAL MAGIC) on NLP and presumably practices somewhere, and a number of people are either training others or in training for the techniques of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP proponents have a penchant for fairy tale titles and sometimes present the techniques as much easier to learn and practice than my experience supports. But I do feel they have some valuable contributions to make.

I believe NLP has a registered trademark and all. Let me say that all I am presenting in this column is my subjective understanding and interpretation of NLP according to several books which I have read, as a reaction to a very short (couple hours) workshop I attended with John Grinder, supplemented by a one-day workshop with Dave Dobson quite a few years ago when he presented what now appear to me to be NLP techniques, without calling them that. He called his approach a form of hypnotherapy. Milton Erickson was a highly successful hypnotherapist and Bandler and Grinder emphasize their association with him.


One of the things I like most about NLP is that, in their writing, the practitioners emphasize that all of us inhabit subjective realities. We constantly create our version of “reality” through interpretation, the model of the past, censoring, generalization, condensation, deletion, etc. They point out that the brain is largely a filtering mechanism: to eliminate some of the masses of sensory data and information which assault us continually, selecting out those stimuli which seem “important.” Of course, one person’s definition of “importance” can vary widely from another individual’s.

This is not, of course, an original position. Perceptual psychology has emphasized this point of view for some years, and others have acknowledged the relevance of it. NLP stands out by virtue of stating it so emphatically and clearly in their initial positions. This leads to a basic assumption of NLP. No individual is assumed to be “bad, crazy, sick, etc.” S/he is simply making the best choices s/he knows in his/her view of how the world functions. I am fond of this position as it parallels mine in the use of astrology.

As Leslie Cameron-Bandler puts it: “...what people tell us is NOT what happened, but instead what they consciously experienced as happening. ...So if two individuals come in telling two different stories about the same phenomenon, I know they are both right.” (p.34) She continues, “They can’t understand each other; they disagree about what reality is. Your job as a professional communicator is not to concern yourself with ‘reality:’ your job is to concern yourself with process.” (p.35)

Steve Lankton quotes Richard Bandler as replying (to the question of what his model of personality was): “choice.” (p.35) NLP assumes that we all have a number of choices at all times (conscious and unconscious). In a given situation, we are making the best choice we know how consciously. We also have all the resources we need to change. NLP assumes there is ALWAYS a positive intent behind the individual’s behavior. (I make the same assumption working with astrology. The twelve sides of life are ALL potentially positive. The motivations for our behaviors are all positive, even though the behaviors themselves may not be.) Clients are assumed to limit themselves in how they take in and put out information in the world, their social networks and their role enactments. The job of the NLP therapist is to have the flexibility and sensitivity to enable the client to expand his/her options on all these levels.

A major first step for a healer thus becomes to enter the world view, the version of “reality” which one’s client inhabits, as fully as possible. This is essential first just to establish rapport. If we are closely congruent with another person’s view of reality, that individual feels understood and appreciated. We speak their language. Secondly, if our eventual goal is to assist that client in changing a world view, we need to know what it is we seek to change!

NLP practitioners suggest that non-verbal rapport is fully as important as verbal and promulgate a number of techniques to assist the establishment of non-verbal rapport. NLP also assumes that one cannot NOT influence a client. Interaction is a two-way street. We impact the client; the client impacts us. The experience changes BOTH of us.


Many of the tools and techniques proposed by NLP are non-verbal. It seems likely that they are/were used by skilled psychotherapists on an intuitive level, often without conscious knowledge of what exactly was happening. One basic tool is called mirroring. This dates back at least to Moreno, the originator of Psychodrama, if not before. The alter egos in Psychodrama mirror exactly the posture, position, bodily expression of the individual they are attempting to empathize with. The NLP people suggest not just mirroring bodily position (and as closely as possible) but also mirroring such subtle indicators as language (especially verbs) and eye movements.


A part of NLP theory is that people have a choice of three representational systems in which to receive and output information about the world. They define these systems as visual, auditory and kinesthetic. The common eye movements associated with the various “types” include visual people looking up, auditory people looking down and to the left, and kinesthetic people looking down and to the right. It is not that visually-oriented people will ALWAYS look up, but rather that a preponderance of their glances will be upward. The visually-oriented individual is supposedly the most common in our society. Visual people use expressions such as, “I can see what you are saying. That is crystal clear.” Auditory types are fond of “I hear you. That rings a bell with me. You’re coming in loud and clear.” Kinesthetic types may tell you that they are “getting a handle on what you are saying,” or “can’t quite grasp it.” Or, they may query as to whether a statement “feels right to you.”

The NLP approach suggests a quick analysis of each client’s major representational system (based on eye patterns, verbs, etc.). Then, you mirror the client’s system. If the client is auditory, you search for auditory language and do a lot of looking down and to the left. If s/he is visual, you look up a lot and use visual analogies. If s/he is kinesthetic, you go for feelings, sensations and lots of eye movements down and to the right.

The idea is that all of this mirroring assists the establishment of rapport. The client, often on a nonconscious level, feels understood. Furthermore, once rapport is established, the healer can begin to LEAD the client. That is, if you change body language slightly, after fitting to the client, the client will generally oblige by now following you. It is like a subtle non-verbal dance. First the client led, now you lead.

One purpose for leading is to enlarge the client’s options. This is done on the usually less than conscious level by bringing in other representational modes. So, with a heavily visual client, you would establish rapport on the visual level. Then, you would begin looking up, and gradually lead glances from above to below (right for kinesthetic; left for auditory). You would lead in terms of predicates as well, bridging from the visual to either the kinesthetic or auditory. “I want you to visualize beginning to hear your reactions.... As you look very closely at what you are doing, some feelings will begin to emerge...”


The assumption made by NLP practitioners is that many miscommunication difficulties are a result of the participants speaking a “different language.” For example, someone who is highly kinesthetic might find it difficult to understand a visual partner’s concern with a messy room, while the visual partner might not realize how vital it is for the kinesthetic individual to immediately make physical contact upon arriving home.

The kinesthetic partner wants a hug and a kiss upon arrival, while the visual partner is expecting some notice or inspection of the surroundings. The latter may feel pawed or that his/her space has been invaded, while the former feels as though the partner is rejecting him/her and cares more about the house or environment than about him/her.

The NLP therapist would attempt to make bridges between the two individuals. Such therapists “translate” from one language to the other. They help make analogies from one system to the other. They assist people in being able to relate to and communicate in all representational systems.

Naturally, tone of voice, gestures and body language are also important in establishing and maintaining rapport and these are all a part of NLP training.


Leslie Cameron-Bandler breaks therapy into three basic steps: 1) Establishing rapport; 2) Gathering information; 3) Changing client world views. These are not separate, discrete steps, but overlap and merge with one another throughout the therapeutic process.

The process of collecting information for Steve Lankton includes two basic questions:

1) What is the present state of the client?

2) What is the desired state for the client?

Later questions might cover:

1) Has the client ever achieved this desired state before?

2) What prevents the client from achieving that desired state now?

NLP theory includes a recognition of the importance of language. NLP realizes that language is only an approximation of our inner experience. Practitioners strive to get as much exactitude from their clients’ utterances as possible. They seek clarity about what exactly the words used mean to THAT CLIENT at THAT TIME.


One technique is what are called meta-questions. These are used to elicit additional information. Therapists prone to making assumptions do not use many meta-questions. Such therapists translate clients’ words into their own experience, assuming they “know” what the clients mean. NLP questions also serve the client. They help to illustrate assumptions and often lead to an experience of more options.

Meta-questions can focus on eleven processes.

1) Deletion—where material has been left out of a sentence completely. For example, if a client says, “I’m incapable.” a therapist might inquire “Of what?” “The choice was made.” might elicit “By whom?...When?...About what?...Between which options?” “My temper is better” might suggest “Than what? About what?”

2) Referential Index deletion is the term used when something is introduced into the sentence, but not specified. For example, “Things really get to me.” What things? How? Also, “Something ought to be done about it?” What ought to be done about what? Who should do what?

3) Unspecified verbs may be challenged. The general purpose, again, is to avoid a lot of assumptions on the part of the therapist. Meta-questioning offers the therapist the opportunity to gather very clear information from the client. “She doesn’t love me.” might lead to questions like “In what way does she not love you?” or “What indicates to you a lack of love on her part?” Or, “I’m stuck.” might suggest questions regarding HOW the individual is stuck, or in what areas.

4) Nominalizations (verbs turned into nouns) are often questioned, as NLP theory suggests that nominalizations result in a world view of static, unchanging existence, whereas verbs emphasize the process of life, continual change. “There is no intelligence here.” might elicit questions on “Who is not being intelligent? In what way are they not being intelligent? (or, in what way are they not thinking if thinking is a reasonable synonym for being intelligent).

5) Modal operators are another red flag. These are such words as cannot, must, should, ought, etc. These place limitations on the client’s model of the world and are questioned. For example: “I can’t do that.” might elicit: “What is stopping you?” or “What would happen if you did?” These are considered of first importance, to be questioned before the previous four.

Other kinds of statements which will be questioned include:

6) the lost performative (where the authority behind shoulds and oughts is deleted), e.g. “They should know better.” (“Who says they should know better? How?”)

There are also 7) generalizations, where a whole class of experience is lumped together. E.g., “Modern art is awful.” (“All of modern art? According to whom?”)

8) Universal quantifiers are also a focus of attention. This is another form of generalization. “I’ll never do that again.” or “Everyone is against me.”

9) Presuppositions point to certain elements which must be true in order for the statement to be valid. E.g., “My lover tried to fool me again.” presupposes a lover and a lover who has tried to fool the client in the past.

Also examined is 10) Causal modeling. This is the linking of two or more situations in such a way that cause and effect is implied. E.g., “My family makes me happy.” “As I talk with him, I get more and more irritated.”

Another warning signal is 11) Mind reading. This applies to any statement which implies the speaker has knowledge of other people’s internal states. E.g., “I know what you are thinking.” or “You knew I would do that.” or “You believe I did that because I love him.”

Steve Lankton emphasizes that these linguistic red flags operate on different levels. He ranks them in terms of importance and order. First, he questions presuppositions, causal modeling and mind reading. The next level to challenge is universal quantifiers; generalizations, lost performatives and modal operatives. The third level of questioning is deletions, referential index deletion, unspecified verbs and nominalization.


There are a number of techniques which NLP therapists utilize to assist clients in changing their world views. Some are anchoring, dissociation, reframing, changing history and role plays. Anchoring is a specific process which brings certain experiences to the client in the immediate interaction and then connects those experiences to a sensory trigger (or anchor). The anchor could be visual, kinesthetic or auditory (or a combination of two or three). The more sensory modalities involved, the more the anchor is likely to last and be firmly available.

For example, suppose a client is having difficulty being assertive. The therapist might ask the client to recall the last time she was successfully assertive. (This picks up on the fact that all of us have tremendous resources in our past history. We have only to call upon them.) Recapturing that experience, the client will begin to look, act and FEEL more assertive in the present consultation. Observing carefully, the therapist can note when that experience is at its peak and “anchor” it—perhaps with a touch, or an auditory cue (snapping fingers) or a visual cue (a gesture). That anchor can be “fired off” at any time. Like reinforcement conditioning, the person will re-experience the feelings of assertion when that anchor is triggered. Unlike most conditioning processes, according to NLP, anchors can be established in a single session.


Dissociation is used to deal with unpleasant memories or experiences. The general steps are as follows:

1) Have the client retrieve an experience of comfort and security that is strong.

2) Anchor that experience of security.

3) Keeping the security constant, have the client SEE AND HEAR (using visual and auditory only—keeping kinesthetic for experience of comfort here) the disturbing experience OVER THERE (as if watching a movie).

4) Have a part of the client (preferably a part identified as adult, intelligent, etc.) float over there and just watch and learn from the experience being replayed (like a movie).

5) Go through the disturbing experience (which you wish to dissociate) OVER THERE holding the comfort and security constant HERE. Allow the client as much time as necessary to complete the re-run of the incident.

6) Re-integrate the kinesthetic part of the client.

7) Re-integrate the visual and auditorily observing part of the client.

8) Anchor the change to experiences that are likely to occur in the future so that it will be generalizable.

This process enables clients to re-experience disturbing images and impressions without having to be distraught and overcome by them. The client uses resources already available to observe and learn. The client utilizes his/her knowledge of security and comfort to support him/herself through the process of dissociation. Like much of NLP, it is based on the assumption that all of us have the needed resources already available to us.


This last assumption is also an important part of the technique of reframing. The essence of reframing is the assumption that any problem can be turned into an asset. This is one of my favorites as it fits exactly into the kind of astrology we practice. There are no malefics. Everything CAN be expressed in a positive way.

The steps in reframing are:

1) Identify the problem part—be it a habit, a feeling, a behavior, a disease, etc.

2) Establish a communication channel with that part. NLP does not generally use words for this sort of communication. Any external change—in face color, twitches, or other sensory cues will be accepted as a signal. If you think you have a reaction, ask for confirmation. E.g., “If a twitch above the left eyebrow is to be a yes, please do it again.” (This is a way of communicating with the unconscious of an individual.)

3) Identify and separate that part’s positive intent from the manner in which it tries to fulfill that intent (e.g. the undesirable behavior, disease, habit, etc.). NLP emphasizes the importance of always ASSUMING a positive intent.

4) Have client access a “creative” side and anchor that creative part.

5) Get creative part to come up with three ways to satisfy the positive intent without engaging in the problem behavior. (Firing the anchors established in steps #3 and #4 may be of assistance here.) I find it interesting to note that Virginia Satir recommends encouraging clients to deal with three or more option at any time as two choices often end up as polarities.

6) Get the original part to “take responsibility” for setting the new behaviors into action. This anchors the new ways to the stimulus that formerly elicited the undesirable behavior.

7) Do an ecological check—this is simply to ask if there are any other parts that are unhappy with the changes. If there are, return to step #2 and repeat the cycle as needed to satisfy all parts.


Changing history has some related ideas. NLP theory assumes that history is subjective. We remember our experience and our interpretation of events—not what “objectively” occurred. And, we are continually changing history ourselves by re-interpreting what we recall of the past. The therapist can assist in this by anchoring positive experiences (e.g. confidence, trust, whatever is needed) and then going back in history to traumatic or difficult experiences. These can be replayed with the addition of the positive anchors, allowing a new synthesis of the former memories.


Role plays are a common tool for many therapists and perhaps need no further exploration here. By rehearsing in a comfortable, secure environment, the individual can anchor the needed qualities for use in the future in what was anticipated to be traumatic. It is another form of anchoring and utilizing present resources to assist in resolving problems.

The above is a brief summary of some of the techniques and tools of NLP. For those wishing to read further, some references are listed. This is a small taste. I encourage those interested to pursue the theory further. I think NLP can easily be integrated into humanistic, psychological astrology.


Bandler, Richard and John Grinder, FROGS INTO PRINCES

Bandler, Richard and John Grinder, THE STRUCTURE OF MAGIC, Volumes I and II, (Palo Alto, Ca.: Science and Behavior Books, Inc., 1975 and 1976).

Cameron-Bandler, Leslie, THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER (Cupertino, Ca: Meta Publications, 1978).

Lankton, Steve, PRACTICAL MAGIC: A Translation of Basic Neuro-linguistic Programming Into Clinical Psychotherapy (Cupertino, Ca.: Meta Publications, 1980).

Copyright © 1983 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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