An introduction to neuro-linguistic programming: pseudoscience or useful framework?
Neuro-linguistic programming [NLP] is contested as actual science. However, I still think it's worth exploring briefly and what takeaways may prove useful.
Having read the neuro-linguistic programming literature to discover what, if any insights there are for marketing strategy and satisfy my own curiosity on the subject, I thought it would be worthwhile to share a brief introduction of it with you today (without getting too complex and in plain English). The articles around the web and books about this concept are lengthy and use a ton of technical jargon, so I’ll try to share just the useful bits of information on the subject so you’re aware of the concept, and what you might gleam.
Again to reiterate, NLP is considered hogwash by many. But of course, all of this is debatable and even if it’s not a great framework, we should understand it as plenty of people are indeed using it. This happens a lot with pop-psychology concepts that catch on, a process by which can sometimes weirdly make them real things (as ex: Malcolm Gladwell’s essentially arbitrary but now very famous ‘10,000 hours’ proposed in Outliers, still to this day many strive to get to this number specifically).
Definition of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)
Neuro-linguistic programming is defined as a model of interpersonal communication concerned with the relationship between patterns of behavior and the subjective experiences behind them. There is a system of therapy based on this which educates people in self-awareness and effective communication, and then seeks to change their patterns of mental and emotional behavior.
A disclaimer: no empirical evidence
This is a subjective model, as there is a lack of empirical data for the results. With that said, we can treat it as it is – an interesting theory – and ponder what we see as true from our own communications and marketing experiences.
Frogs Into Princes - a popularization of NLP application in therapy, business and sales
Richard Bandler and John Grinder helped popularize the idea of NLP in a book published in 1979 titled Frogs Into Princes (note this book is from several decades yet has an impressive 4.5 star rating on Amazon, it’s fairly safe to say it has stuck with certain groups).
Bandler and Grinder believe that all theorists/experts in human communication (whether therapists, marketers, bloggers, salespeople, etc.) share common traits:
Everything they do in their work was in active pursuit of a clearly held goal or objective, rather than reacting to change
They are exceedingly flexible in approach and refuse to be tied down to using their skills in any one fixed way of thinking or working
They have a strong awareness of the non-verbal feedback (unconscious communication and metaphor) they are getting, and actively respond to it – usually in kind rather than by analyzing it
They enjoy the challenges of difficult clients, and see them as a chance to learn rather than an intractable “problem”
They respect the client as someone doing the best they know how (rather than judging them as “broken” or “working”)
They have certain common skills and things they are aware of and noticed, that are intuitively “wired in”
They work with precision, purpose and skill
They keep trying different approaches until they learn enough about the structure holding a problem in place to change it
As a result, Bandler and Grinder claim that there are only three behavior patterns underlying successful communication in therapy, business and sales:
1. To know what outcome you want, to be flexible in your behavior,
2. To generate different kinds of behavior to find out what response you get, and
3. To have enough sensory experience to notice when you get the responses that you want.
Basic Techniques of NLP
These techniques are described in great detail in texts on NLP, but I’m going to oversimplify them on purpose for you. If you’re highly-versed here or a true NLP believer, certainly you can add in the comments, I’m not going to go into great detail because I want to keep this as an introduction.
Simply put, rapport is attained by mimicking the body language or vocal inflections of someone else to put yourself on the same level as them. It’s a mix of copying the conscious and subconscious cues of the words and actions of someone else so they feel at ease.
Anchoring is similar to classical conditioning, wherein a conditioned response is assigned to a stimulus.
Swish is the disruption of a normal pattern of conditioned behavior by switching it with a new, desired response.
Reframing involves changing the way a stimulus is perceived, thus changing the the elicited response.
6 step reframe:
Identifying the context where the unwanted behavior pattern occurred,
Establishing unconscious yes/no signals,
Confirming that the behavior has a positive intent,
Finding a number of ways of fulfilling the positive intent,
Selecting the best of the possible alternatives generated in step 4,
Checking that the selection is ecological, that is, it is acceptable to the individual and in relationships to others.
After initial studying of NLP, I did note there are ideas here not just for therapists and those interested in personal development, but also some for marketing and comms pros. Whether the ideas are proven or scientifically valid, it is interesting to read through the studies which have been done as there are still insights to gain from subjective material. Many of these techniques are actually being used at scale if you stop and think about it – whether we consider them “NLP” or not.
Separately from this particular concept, as a marketing pro I have found psychology and sociology books, case studies, podcasts and theories are invaluable learning tools to help inspire differentiated ideas and strategies – perhaps more so than business books, which encourage more traditional lines of thinking. The understanding of how our minds work and process ideas, as well as how we interact with others is just as valuable, arguably more so, than the latest trends in technology or methods of work. The more we learn the how and why of communication, influence and interpretation of ideas/how our brains work with them, the better we get at marketing.
Addendum: Scientific criticism of NLP
In the early 1980s, NLP was advertised as an important advance in psychotherapy and counseling, and attracted some interest in counseling research and clinical psychology.
Numerous literature reviews and meta-analyses have failed to show evidence for NLP's assumptions or effectiveness as a therapeutic method. While some NLP practitioners have argued that the lack of empirical support is due to insufficient research which tests NLP the consensus scientific opinion is that NLP is pseudoscience and that attempts to dismiss the research findings based on these arguments "[constitute]s an admission that NLP does not have an evidence base and that NLP practitioners are seeking a post-hoc credibility."
Surveys in the academic community have shown NLP to be widely discredited among scientists. Among the reasons for considering NLP a pseudoscience are that evidence in favor of it is limited to anecdotes and personal testimony, that it is not informed by scientific understanding of neuroscience and linguistics, and that the name "neuro-linguistic programming" uses jargon words to impress readers and obfuscate ideas, whereas NLP itself does not relate any phenomena to neural structures and has nothing in common with linguistics or programming.
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