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NLP - No longer plausible?

This article was originally published in the magazine, Training Journal.
To visit their website, click
www.trainingjournal.co.uk.

In a deliberately provocative article, Garry Platt is eager to share some of his views and findings on the areas of NLP that, for him, carry little or no credibility.

We can all observe that during the last 15 years Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) has made major inroads into the world of management, training and development. Some of the claims that have been made for NLP are remarkable. Below are just a few from leading practioners.

Many Fortune 500 executives have discovered, by using NLP techniques, they have achieved management excellence and personal success. Managing with the Power of NLP will enable you to do the same (David Molden).(1)

We believe that NLP is the next generation of psychology. It has been called the New Learning Paradigm and the New Language of Psychology. As a model of the structure of human experience, it may be as profound a step forward as the invention of language ( Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour).(2)

NLP can enable you to achieve those professional and personal goals you desire, to keep on the leading edge of the latest technology of change, to manage your own life, and to have the excellence and skills of anyone you have ever admired (Penny Tompkins).(3)

And, my personal favourite:

Changing the quality of your life is the focus of NLP. You will deal with - vanquish anything that may be holding you back from utilizing the force that can instantly change your life. Empower yourself with the keys to extraordinary achievement. Discover within yourself the force that can change everything (Steve Boyley).(4)

CHALLENGING THE FUNDAMENTALS

It is these kinds of claim and assertion that cause me so much concern. Practioners of NLP have fervent and strong beliefs about its value and usefulness. But my experience has led me to question some of the approaches and, indeed, some of the fundamental aspects of the methodology. It is worth noting that I undertook my Introductory and Practitioner level training some ten years ago with a major provider in London. It left quite an impression on me - part good and part bad. However, most of my colleagues who undertook the same programme were completely convinced of its power and became charged with an almost evangelical fervour. For this reason alone NLP has always interested me because of its deep influence on people who have undertaken the training.

I have generally found that people who practise NLP are not receptive or even prepared to countenance critical reviews of this field of study. Indeed, I have come to recognise that 'Hell hath no fury like an NLP practitioner scorned' as a result of daring to question some of the practises framed by NLP.

Anyone who regularly frequents the UK-HRD forum run by Fenman will understand why I make this claim. When I published the negative findings of a large number of clinical trials focusing on NLP techniques and also the research of Dr Heap, Principal Clinical Psychologist for Sheffield Health Authority (which I will reiterate later in this article - see page 00), the response almost universally condemned the findings stating that they were 'unscientific' or that the particular aspects of NLP could not be clinically trailed, or that the areas studied were minor and insignificant when viewed against the entire gamut of the NLP approach. A mass of anecdotal evidence was also cited to challenge the clinical research findings.

Despite this experience I feel compelled to bring this research to a larger audience, because I continue to question some approaches as having little to no direct effect, and the cited research supports and confirms this view. Others may, of course, interpret the data differently. I have no wish to antagonise the NLP community, but if I do I hope the responses reflect the resourcefulness that NLP should and can endow people with. I have unfortunately experienced little of it to date.

The source for the graphical analysis comes from a German website,(5) which details 180 academic and scientific research programmes focusing on various aspects of NLP. What follows are some of the key findings that can be found there.

RESEARCH

It is claimed in NLP that individuals can have preferred ways of both receiving and storing information. Individuals might have a preference for seeing and visually perceiving problems, issues or situations they encounter. Some people may have a strong auditory preference, favouring hearing and listening to circumstances that they have to deal with in order understand them better and with greater speed.

This preference for visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, gustatory or olfactory sensing can, it is claimed, be indicated in the phrases and words used by these individuals. A person might make the following statement: 'I can't see what you're getting at and it's not clear that you have a valid argument.' S/he has used the words 'see' and 'clear' - potential indicators that a visual representation system might be in use. These indicator words are called predicates. It is proposed that by correctly identifying and matching the representational system of the person with whom you are communicating, a quicker and deeper level of rapport can be achieved.

FINDINGS

The claims for the existence of representational systems and predicates have been investigated by at least 68 groups interested in researching its validity. Their findings, which I shall draw upon, have been published across many different journals, periodicals and academic papers, including: The Journal of Counselling Psychology, The British Journal of Clinical Psychology, The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, and The American Mental Health Counsellors Association Journal.

Many of these publications require and demand a rigorous approach to research and adopt a peer review system to filter out merely anecdotal or flawed research. The results are as follows.

Predicates

Some 32 research studies looked at the validity of predicates; 21 of these studies (66 per cent) found that the use of predicates had little to no influence in building or enhancing rapport.

Representational systems

Some 36 research studies looked at the concept of representational systems; 29 of these studies (81%) found no bona fide evidence to support the use of representational systems and concluded that they did not appear to play any significant role in communication.

Eye-accessing cues

Linked to representational systems is the NLP concept of eye-accessing cues. Here it is conjectured that the movement of the eyes can indicate any number of things. It is stated that these eye-accessing movements do not always follow this pattern and that NLP practioners have to calibrate each individual they work with to be sure of their conclusions. Some 35 research groups have investigated this theory and when the findings are analysed the following results emerge.

* Only eight of these studies (23%) supported the use and legitimacy of eye accessing cues. * The rest 27 (77 per cent) stated that eye-accessing cues appeared to have no significant positive or negative impact when utilised in personal interactions.

Phobia cures

Phobia cures, often using NLP 'patterns', to change and alter an individual's personal construct concerning the obsession or fear produce better results, though not overwhelming support. A pattern is a sequence of interactions between one person and another, which can allow them to perceive or reframe a situation with greater understanding or in a more positive and constructive way. Some nine research studies that have been undertaken on this issue are detailed and 56 per cent found positive evidence to support NLP's effectiveness.

I have not yet found any long-term studies of this particular aspect of NLP and the implications for the individuals with whom it is used. My concerns are succinctly defined by Mike Mallows, a highly respected NLP practitioner who works using a high level of integrity. He is also an author and speaker. In an article written for the Society for Effective Affective Learning (SEAL) he notes:

However, rapid changes in coping, cognition or concerns, effected through the magic of NLP, can look and feel good (and as a writer, I can make them sound good by relating my successes), but it is essential to bear in mind the broader perspective of an individual's personal ecology. We must consider not only the function or the effects of a symptom, but also the life support system or network that might have ensued from the symptom. Achieving symptomatic solutions, even with NLP, without addressing either the fundamental problem or influencing the learner's wider environment, can result in the 'solution' exacerbating, or even being worse than, the problem.(6)

CORROBORATING VIEWS AND EVIDENCE

As well as myself, other more eminent people have begun to doubt some aspects of NLP, and have raised serious questions about some of its uses and applications - either through published research or through general observations. I would like to mention and quote some of those sources here.

As we mentioned earlier, Dr Heap, from Sheffield Health Authority, has taken a particular interest in NLP and some of the assertions that have been made about it. He has written three papers on the subject and has published his research findings. He can find virtually no substantive evidence to support the claims made for NLP, and writes:

The present author is satisfied that the assertions of NLP writers concerning the representational systems have been objectively and fairly investigated and found to be lacking. These assertions are stated in unequivocal terms by the originators of NLP and it is clear from their writings that phenomena such as representational systems, predicate preferences and eye-movement patterns are claimed to be potent psychological processes, easily and convincingly demonstrable on training courses by tutors and trainees following simple instructions, and, indeed, in interactions in everyday life. Therefore, in view of the absence of any objective evidence provided by the original proponents of the PRS hypothesis, and the failure of subsequent empirical investigations to adequately support it, it may well be appropriate now to conclude that there is not, and never has been, any substance to the conjecture that people represent their world internally in a preferred mode which may be inferred from their choice of predicates and from their eye movements.(7)

Robert Todd Carol of the Skeptics Dictionary website states:

It seems that NLP develops models which can't be verified, from which it develops techniques which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the models. NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience. This is not to say that the techniques won't work. They may work and work quite well, but there is no way to know whether or not the claims behind their origin are valid. Perhaps it doesn't matter. NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether or not it works. However, how do you measure the claim 'NLP works'? I don't know and I don't think NLPers know, either. Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices. Unfortunately, such a measurement may reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enroll in more training sessions.(8)

To my knowledge, Professor Ekman of UCLA(9) has never written about NLP, although he has developed a computer program that analyses facial gestures and can predict with more than 90 per cent accuracy whether someone is lying or not. The system is being trailed by a number of police authorities in Britain for possible adoption in interrogation settings. Eye movements of the type previously referred to are not cited in the research as indicator behaviour and as such would appear to contradict the clear claims of NLP. Experienced NLP practioners have stated to me that they can achieve higher prediction rates than 90 per cent. These declarations would be more acceptable if they were backed up with clinical trial settings and hard research, but to date they are not.

CONCLUSIONS

It is clearly evident that some aspects of NLP are open to question in terms of their reliability or validity - that is, of course, if we accept this research. On the other hand some of the cases proved positive and effective, but was it always due to the cited actions of the NLP practitioner? I could hypothesise that the successful instances could, in part, be due to a 'Hawthorne' effect(10) - that is, the close observation of the individual and mutual interaction was sufficient to increase and develop rapport and led to helping the individual.

The proposed NLP techniques might actually be an irrelevance. An NLP practitioner may possibly say 'So what, if it works it works!' - a pragmatic response for which I have some sympathy. But by maintaining a particular framework over another despite clear evidence to the contrary, aren't we limiting and denying ourselves the opportunity for even more flexibility and extending ourselves still further?

People used to believe that the world was flat and were frightened to venture too far from land for fear of falling off the edge. By maintaining beliefs in systems that have apparently been exposed as flawed by numerous research studies, are we not, as NLP practioners, stopping our own development?

Most evidence supporting the aspects of NLP I have focused on appears to be unsubstantiated, uncorroborated or entirely anecdotal. Some people would contend that representational systems, eye-accessing cues and predicates are minor aspects of NLP. An analysis of the published literature does not support this view. Every publication I have encountered on NLP devotes entire sections or chapters to these issues. In 15 popular books on NLP that I have analysed in detail these topics on average occupy 18 per cent of the total wordage printed.

That aside, NLP does work for some people; their strong defence of its properties and their numerous satisfied customers stand testimony to this. What is equally true is that there are also many people for whom NLP has minimum value, it having little to no affect for them. Does that make NLP bogus? No, it does not. But the research and the findings of the investigators certainly make it clear that NLP cannot help all people in all situations, which is frequently what is claimed and what practioners assert. In that sense NLP is no better than any other process or system. The immoderate claims that are made for NLP might be viewed a little more critically when viewed against this background.

What conclusions can we draw from this body of evidence that casts more than a shadow of doubt over certain aspects of NLP? Well frankly, a degree of objectivity and healthy cynicism of some of the claims made would be a good start. I would also suggest that a realisation that NLP will not always work and that some other systems or approaches might be better applied would also be useful.

I also wonder, if these questions about NLP that have been raised cannot be objectively refuted with detailed and substantiated evidence then what other aspects of NLP can we trust? We must each answer this question individually. I just hope it is done objectively and realistically using the facts.

NLP often uses metaphors and stories to make its point and to help people learn and develop. I am going to do that here, with a story of my own. And this story is aimed at all us NLPers who are hanging on desperately to something that may not be helping us.

In the tradition of NLP, a story

An individual was walking along the top of a cliff one day and accidentally slipped. As he fell over the edge, he grabbed the branch of a tree that was growing out of the side of the cliff face. Swinging in mid air, he began shouting hoping to attract someone's attention and get help.

'Help me! Is there anyone there who can help me?'

As the person hung there helplessly, bawling at the top of his lungs, a voice spoke in his ear: 'I can help you.'

The person swung round on the branch, but couldn't see anybody. 'Who said that?' he asked.

'I can help you,' came the reply.

'What do I need to do?' the individual demanded.

'You'll need to let go of the branch,' the answer came back.

The individual thought for a moment, weighing up the challenge that was before him. Eventually he began shouting again: 'Is there anybody else up there?'

Alas, there was not.

AND FINALLY

It is important to understand that in writing this article I have merely followed Dr John Grinder's (one of the founders of NLP) advice:

I would ask the person entering training to be an active skeptic - more specifically, that they question everything, demanding first hand evidence (that is, personal experience) for each and every claim issued by the trainer(s).(11)

I have done just this, and the answers have been less than satisfactory.

Garry is happy to receive feedback or comments - positive or negative - on this article. He can be contacted at (tel) 01926 336621 or (e-mail) garry.platt@wgrange.com

 

A follow-up to this article giving an opposing perspective was written by Sue Knight an appeared in the June issue of Training Journal. Click here to read the reply

References
1. David Molden,
Managing with the Power of NLP, Financial Times Prentice Hall, 1996.
2. Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour,
Introducing NLP, Thorsons, 1994.
3. Penny Tompkins, The Developing Company. Visit (website)

4. Steve Boyley. Visit (website)

5. NLP Research Database. Visit (website)

6. Mike Mallows,
Sensation, Survival, Status, SEAL (Society for Effective & Affective Learning) newsletter, October 2000. 7. Dr Heap, Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic practices, Croom Helm,1988 or visit
8. Robert Todd Carol, Skeptics Dictionary. Visit (website)

9. Professor P Ekman. For information on this research, visit (website)

10. Hawthorne effect: initial improvement in a process of production caused by the obtrusive observation of that process. For further information visit (website)

11. Interview with Dr John Grinder, 1996. Visit (website)

The above is the text of the article, which appeared in the May 2001 edition of Training Journal.

 

 

©2001 Sue Knight
All material published on this website is copyright Sue Knight unless otherwise stated. Unauthorised copying of any material is forbidden.