“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” – John F. Kennedy

All through my career, I’ve had to respond to a variety of myths and misconceptions about Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP has been called a pseudo-science, a cult, even a “quasi-religion.”


Most of us who are active practitioners and trainers are usually too busy helping clients to respond to everything that’s said about NLP. But let me take a moment to respond to a couple of common misconceptions:


1)    NLP is just a form of manipulation.

Let’s use the analogy of a hammer. Could a hammer be a tool of destruction? Absolutely. It could be used to smash a precious statue or demolish a window. But most people use hammers to build things, like houses and bridges. Destruction is possible but not as common. In the same way, NLP is a tool that is typically used for positive purposes. But it depends on the motivation of the person who wields that tool.


It depends on whether the intention is to manipulate or influence people.


When I think of manipulation, I think of someone who cares only about his own needs, a person who puts his self-interest above that of others. But an influencer can be very positive. As parents, we want to influence our kids to be healthy and safe. As friends, we want to influence our friends to be happy and fulfilled. As business owners, we want to influence our clients to be successful and prosperous.


We want what is best for those in our “sphere of influence.”


Let’s revisit the hammer. If you want to build a house, don’t you want the best hammer you can get? Would you ever think, “Yeah, I want to build a house but I’m not going to use tools.” Would you worry that “If I use tools to build the house and learn how to use them properly, would that be an unfair advantage?” Of course not! If you want to be an effective influencer, NLP is one of the best tools you can learn.


Could someone wield a hammer and destroy things? Yes. Could someone learn NLP and try to manipulate others? Yep. But in our training courses, we emphasize the ethical use of all techniques. And people who want to use NLP for manipulation are often disappointed because “mind control” (with the exception of extreme brainwashing techniques) is a myth. You can’t make another person do something that is unacceptable to their personal beliefs or values.


2)    NLP doesn’t work.

After many years of teaching and using NLP, I actually went back to get my PhD in Psychology to see if I could find anything that worked better.


I didn’t.


Those who say NLP doesn’t work are often like Professor Aldert Vrij and Shara Lochun,  who wrote an article in 1997. In that article, Professor Vrij describes witnessing two police officers using NLP-related matching & mirroring techniques to interview a suspect. Professor Vrij wrote:


“Recently I … was asked to assess videotapes of a police interview.  My first impression was that both detectives were behaving ‘strangely.’  I then discovered that they were both imitating the suspect’s movements. The whole situation looked bizarre and the approach was not effective.  The suspect was silent at the beginning of the interview and remained silent throughout the interview.”


Professor Vrij uses that incident to conclude that NLP does not work.


Alrighty then!


Of course, we’re missing some critical information. Was the suspect a hardened and experienced criminal who had just been told to put a sock in it by his attorney? Were the two officers at all skilled or experienced at using the NLP technique of matching & mirroring? Had the suspect dealt with these officers previously? And given the situation (which we don’t know much about), was that even an appropriate technique to be using?


It’s kind of like saying a hammer doesn’t work when it’s being wielded by a two-year old who is trying to screw a light bulb into a toaster. Yep, that hammer definitely doesn’t work!


I agree that we could use more research on the efficacy of NLP (and we’re beginning to get more). But until then, I feel pretty good about the organizations who consider NLP to be a viable therapeutic and communication tool, like The British Psychological Society, the UK Council of Psychotherapy, Washington State Psychological Society, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police to name a few.


And I feel really good about the results we’re getting.


Until next time. . .


Dr. Matt