Saturday, October 05, 2013

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

I began this blog when I began formal NLP training, back in 2004. It was intended to be a public learning diary so that people could see what was on my mind as my knowledge of NLP developed. I have found the act of writing down what excites or puzzles me about NLP to be incredibly useful and I recommend it to anyone learning or practising NLP. The fact that this blog is public (although it’s had few hits) has encouraged me to clarify my thoughts and that has also been very useful.

All good things, however, must come to an end and it is time to move on. I still intend to blog (and more frequently too) and from now on my blog will be on my own website at:

I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wax, Labels and I Don't Know

In Mediation II, published in 1641, Rene Descartes considered the form and substance of wax. Sometimes wax is hard, sometimes it is soft and able to be moulded into any shape, and if it is heated it becomes a liquid. Yet despite all these different forms it is still wax. Descartes concluded that our senses are easily fooled by wax's ability to be solid or liquid, our imaginations cannot stretch to cover all the possible shapes it can be moulded into, and only our minds are able to hold onto the truth that despite all the possible shapes and forms it is still wax. In this simple thought experiment Descartes neatly summarises a problem that has dogged Western thought and philosophy for hundreds of years - the primacy of the cognitive mind and its ability to give things labels. Although western philosophers have moved somewhat from this position, it is still very common in everyday thought. Only a few days ago in an NLP class a participant told me he knew that the wall behind me was orange (dreadful decor) and it didn't matter if the lights were on or off or what shadows were cast on the wall it was still orange. This is pure Descartes - the participant believed that the fundamental reality of the wall colour is in its name not in what he sees and how it may change with lighting conditions.

So what if people like to label things? Well in the context of that training session it was very helpful. It gave everyone the opportunity to explore their own labelling, the structure of beliefs and their differences. In the wider world it's perhaps not so helpful. I think for several decades now, if not far longer, there has been a tendency to label people (good, bad, aggressive, dumb, smart, defensive etc) and then act as if those labels are all they are. Worse than that the labels are often pre-defined and people just get slotted into them with little thought. When we do that something seems to shut down inside as if the human need to understand and be understood has been satisfied and we know all there is to know about the ever changing bundle of energies and contradictions that is a human being. It's an exercise in saving mental effort rather than understanding and it's terribly sad to reduce that all richness to a mere category.

What if we try not to label? Recently, perhaps for the past 30 years or so, the phrase "I don't know" has become a bad thing to admit. It seems to generate a kind of embarrassment as if not knowing in public is like not being dressed in public. It first became noticeable in politics where not knowing all the answers is to be regarded as weak, stupid or lazy; then it could be found in the corporate world where certainty is clung to even when it means the certainty of organisational or corporate failure. Now it seems all pervasive with millions of people connecting to social media every day to tell the world just how certain they are about the labels they have chosen, and how foolish (bad, stupid, evil etc etc) the rest of us are for not sharing their certainty.

The problem (at least as I perceive it) with all this is twofold. Firstly not knowing is not a bad/foolish/stupid state to be in. Without pre-defined categories and labels we have little option other than to pay attention to our senses and be curious, and from that great discoveries and acts of creation are possible. Secondly the kind of knowing we get from a cognitively derived label is superficial. Wax is not just its name, it is all the hardness, softness, solid, liquid variations that it can display. Walls are never just orange. I remember when I was a child asking a relative whose hobby was oil painting how he managed to mix up enough paint of the right shade for all the big blocks of colour like the green of leaves or the blue of the sky. He looked puzzled and then told me there were no big blocks of colour anywhere, ever. In the context of NLP training, coaching or therapy "I don't know" can indicate important changes are underway. As one famous therapist and trainer put it "I don't know" indicates that the client is past all the pre-programmed responses and is no longer playing good girl/boy to please their therapist. As another even more famous therapist put it: "I don't know, but I am curious to discover what is possible".

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Science and NLP

I learnt a new word today: scientism. It means one of two things: either the belief that only the scientific method and science can explain the world and anything that cannot be explained that way is ignored; or the extension of the scientific method into areas where there is insufficient evidence or quality of evidence to draw any valid conclusions. There does seem to be tendency at the moment for NLP trainers to reach out for anything that seems even vaguely scientific if it appears to support any of the ideas or techniques in NLP. There are a few significant problems with this: firstly (and I speak as a trained scientist) be very wary of any breakthrough idea in science that is announced in the mainstream media rather than in a refereed science journal. People with flakey ideas or who have only done half the work can dodge scrutiny by publishing in papers and magazines where there is no checking. Secondly there are very few NLP trainers who read enough academic research papers or go to enough conferences to know with any degree of authority what the issues and breakthroughs really are in any branch of science. Thirdly there is the danger of misinterpretation when a relatively clear piece of research work is distorted to produce a more appealing message (ask Albert Mehrabian about this one - but only using body language and voice tones without words). A recent example that has caused NLP folks to hit all three of these problems is the excitement over the hormone oxytocin. There has been a huge song and dance about this hormone, apparently it’s the wonder of our age (other wonders of our age are also available. Your credibility can go down as well as up), from TED talks, to books, to nasal sprays (I kid you not). Even the people who mutter darkly about contra-indications and links with depression and rage are muttering in the mainstream media. About the only thing we can guarantee about the oxytocin story is we don’t know what the story is. In which case why get involved?

More fundamental than any of this, however, is the question of the applicability of science to NLP at all. Whatever we do with NLP, either modelling someone or applying existing models, our personalities, beliefs and skills are fully involved. If I were replaced by someone else any NLP session would be different, even if the same models, patterns and techniques were used, simply because a different person brings his/her own personal qualities into the equation. This same is true of course for the client; if the client were replaced any NLP session would be different. So if the whole of both the NLP practitioner and client are involved what can be measured scientifically? Well the effectiveness of any NLP pattern, model or technique cannot be measured as you can never be sure that it wasn’t some other facet of the practitioner that had an effect on the client, or whether the client changed spontaneously for his/her own reasons.

The responses of people to this uncertainty seem to depend on whether they are biased in favour or against NLP. Those who are anti often resort to one of the forms of scientism by denying that anything useful or significant happened because it can’t be measured scientifically. This is why back in the early days Richard Bandler and John Grinder said they weren’t interested in the scientific validation of NLP, you cannot show that changes in clients happen because of NLP, and in any case it doesn’t matter provided the client gets what he/she wanted. Those in favour often resort to the other form of scientism, they survey their clients and collate the data to produce numbers and percentages. My favourite one is the claim that NLP training causes a 38% improvement in well being. Even if (and it’s a big if) completely clean questions are asked that don’t influence the client towards giving a favourable answer, data about clients’ opinions are only valid on the day the questions were answered. Ask opinion polling organisations, they all state this very clearly in their results. Opinions change frequently and for all sorts of reasons. Having a stack of data gathered over many years, and turning it into numbers is not science.

The strength of NLP lies in the engagement with each person’s subjective experience of the world and the only thing that matters is each person’s subjective assessment of how that subjective experience has changed as a result of NLP. Stating that NLP is not objective misses the point, and attempting to create some objectivity by playing games with numbers is also a distraction.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


In NLP courses we are frequently asked to “Associate into” some state or other and often there is very little thought given to the immensity of what that means. The ability to bring into being now all the feelings, the muscular tensions, the breathing rate, and heart rhythms from another time complete with mental images, sounds and even remembered or imagined smells, would be regarded as almost magical if we were not so used to doing it. How many times have you or someone you know thought about an argument in the past and got angry again? How many times have you or someone you know thought about an exciting event in the future and got excited now? We do things like this so frequently that most of us don’t think of association as a skill, and some of us think that it actually has very little to do with our mental processing but is instead some property of the wider world that is making us have strange feelings at odd times and places. As if the world could just push a button on our foreheads to make us feel a certain way. It’s when we look at more extreme examples that we can begin to appreciate the skill involved. Consider the winter sport of biathlon which combines cross country skiing and shooting. The athletes need to ski several kilometres between target ranges where they need to stop and shoot at tiny targets with the rifles they’ve been carrying on their backs all around the course. The very best biathletes are able to associate into a calm, slow breathing state whilst shooting, dropping their heart rates from nearly 200 beats per minutes to around 60. The moment they set off skiing again the breathing and heart rate return to more rapid levels. This appears to be an astonishing feat, but it is one that every human being has the mental and physical equipment to achieve.

The ability to associate into states from other times both in the past and the imagined future is a vital element in how we learn and develop as human beings and I don’t just mean conscious learning in a ‘Today I learnt in school...’ kind of way but also more systemic learning in which the body and unconscious make subtle and long lasting adjustments as a result of changing from the here and now, to experiencing a state from another time, and back again. The mental processing involved is multi-layered and beautifully sophisticated. To illustrate imagine you are working towards a major life goal but you’re stuck, downhearted and losing your belief a little. It requires a distinct mental process to imagine a time in the future when the frustrations will be overcome, and at least one other process (perhaps more) to bring that future to life in your body now with all the feelings, internal sounds and images. Another mental process is also required to track the differences between what was the here and now, and the new state. Without this process there can be no learning or change to bring you out of your downhearted state, just the momentary relief from a sequence of states. There may be other processes running as well, perhaps one to keep some things the same as the two different states are experienced. I’m not claiming that different brain areas are involved or even that different types of mental process are being used (I’m not a neuroscientist so how would I know?), only that a minimum of three (maybe more) different things need to be done at the same time, all interacting with each other. Quite brilliant.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Requisite Variety

At the risk of being labelled an NLP nerd, there is something called the Law of Requisite Variety, which (like so much else) doesn’t originate in NLP but is borrowed (from the field of cybernetics). We like it so much we’ve built it into the key assumptions (the rather grandly named NLP Presuppositions) that NLP rests upon. Put in its purest form the law states that the more the control system of a machine can be adjusted the greater the amount of fluctuation in the performance of the machine it can cope with. This is obscure to say the least (even for nerds) so it is normally reinterpreted for NLP folks as the person in a group with the greatest flexibility of behaviour will have the greatest influence on the group. Good trainers will avoid telling you that the NLP Presuppositions are true, they will tell you they are useful, which means they encourage a helpful mindset when you are using NLP and whether or not you accept some or all and adopt them as part of your life’s philosophy is entirely up to you. The NLP interpretation of the law has one very obvious application which is to encourage NLP practitioners to focus on their own flexibility when struggling to build an effective working relationship with someone.

There is another application which I think is incredibly important. In seeking the flexibility of behaviour I may need to reach someone it is possible that I may need to abandon NLP itself. This, in my opinion, is what prevents NLP becoming a cult. Right at its foundation it contains the possibility that it is incomplete or perhaps wrong. Heaven knows I’ve encountered a few people who regard the models and techniques of NLP as if they were holy writ, and often that seems to be a stage in their learning process, but without the law of requisite variety I fear there would be no next step in the learning and NLP would become (more) rigid and dogmatic and less effective as a result.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Learning From Problems

So the story goes for a number of years, when he was a boy, Milton Erickson didn't know that words are arranged alphabetically in dictionaries, and so he would painstakingly read through his copy from the beginning each time he wanted to look up a new word. When one day he suddenly had a blinding revelation about how the words were arranged, rather than feeling irritated or foolish about the time spent reading his dictionary, he thanked his unconscious for keeping the knowledge from him until all the reading had improved his vocabulary. So what thanks can I give and what did I learn from having an ear infection for a week which badly affected my hearing in one ear? To be honest I may not currently possess (or be in contact with) sufficient flexibility to go as far as thanks, but I did learn a fair amount about how I use sound (my auditory representational system, to put it in NLP-ese).

Firstly I didn't go deaf in the affected ear, instead it picked up internal sounds like the movement of my jaw and my breathing. The noise of chewing was fairly strange but the noise of me brushing my teeth was the kind of sound you would only expect to hear in a science fiction film. The effect of all the internal sounds was that my internal dialogue was drowned out unless I was completely still. I think I only noticed all effects of the ear infection because my internal dialogue was missing - there was no commentary only experience. An experience that really surprised me was that I found driving very difficult: I wasn't sure how close I was passing to parked cars and turning out of busy junctions required 3 or 4 times more visual checks. Now I'm fully recovered and can do a compare and contrast I think this is because I use my hearing to locate and track objects in space. The sounds they make may be very quiet but if I can be aware of changes then I can place them and track their movements. I also found it much more difficult threading my way through crowds of people and it seemed that my peripheral vision was impaired on the side of the affected ear. On my To Do list next time I'm in the city centre is to understand this a little more. I think sounds of movement cause me to move my head enough so that peripheral vision provides information about how close people are and how they move, and with a blocked ear that wasn't happening. What interests me most is I didn't experience my driving issues as peripheral vision problems (it was the hearing I missed), but when walking I experienced a visual problem.

I'm glad that I know more now about how I use and cross-reference my auditory and visual representational systems. It's much more subtle and complex than I thought. I still can't quite reach thanks but I'm appreciative of my ability to turn an irritating problem into a learning experience.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


What does a nodding head mean? The reason I ask is that at the NLP Conference a famous member of the NLP community said that nodding whilst a client is explaining his/her problem reinforces the problem because in effect a nod is a non-verbal "Yes". So we were all asked to practise listening to each other talk about an issue or problems without nodding, and challenged to do that without breaking rapport. This idea apparently comes from another famous NLPer, so that's two big names in NLP who think a nod means yes, saying yes during the explanation of a problem is a bad thing, and that refraining from nodding is a positive and supportive way to help people with problems. I think it's fair to say that I had some qualms about this and decided to do a little impromptu modelling of nodders and nodding and indeed it took less than 20 minutes to identify 3 different uses of nodding (there may well be more - feel free to investigate). There is the pace/lead nod where the listener nods with a rhythm that matches (and sometimes sets) the pace at which the speaker communicates; there is the acknowledgement nod where the listener nods to indicate that he/she understands what the speaker has just said (the more emotional the statement the bigger and/or quicker the nodding tends to be); also there is of course the simple yes nod. Nodding would appear to be more complicated than some thought, and frankly that was really easy to discover, which in turn makes me wonder about the thinking process that led up to the not nodding idea.

There is another aspect of all of this that makes me deeply unsettled rather than wonder, and that's a mindset in which it seems OK to treat people this way. Just for one second put yourself in the position of someone with a problem (and not one of the collection of trivial ones NLPers carry around with them for practising new techniques on) who is seeking help. The fact that you come to seek help indicates two important things: 1. You are already in a process of change indicated by the fact that now is the right time to work on this and not some earlier time. 2. In seeking help you indicate a belief that you may struggle with this on your own. Both of these are signs of involved and complex mental processing and the resources involved in both are obvious assets that can be used to help solve the problem. In response to this the not nodding things shows that the practitioner just sees the problem as a stuck state you need to move on from and not a source of anything useful. Also unless the practitioner abstains from nodding completely he/she is signalling to you that discussion about solutions is good and problems bad. Add all that up: it indicates a condescending frame of mind, a denial that problems often contain their own solutions (or at least the energetic and reasoning foundations of solutions), and a deliberate attempt to manipulate clients.

And what did I do when the NLP luminary asked whether we all understood this wonderful technique? Obvious - I refrained from nodding.