Some Thoughts on Neuro Linguistic Programming

I have long had an interest in the relationship between mind and body.  From personal experience in my aikido training I know that quite small changes in posture can radically change one’s attitude and make the difference between a technique working and not working.  I also know that I can trust my unconscious mind to help solve complex problems and generally point me in the right direction via my ‘instinct’.  For me, these items constitute intriguing hard data.  Looking further afield:  psychosomatic illness is a well-established concept;  it is known that depression and chronic stress affect the immune system, and there is also extensive anecdotal evidence about the profundity of the mind/body linkage – people have died after being cursed, and terminally-ill patients have been suddenly cured.  Then there is the notorious ‘placebo effect’.  This is so well known that, in scientific medical experiments, great pains are taken to ensure that it does not ‘contaminate’ the results by either the patient or the practitioner knowing whether the drugs being administered are genuine or placebos.  (Why the medical fraternity so resolutely declines to study the placebo effect in its own right is a question I would be very interested to hear a logical explanation for).

The unconscious is that part of the mind which contains everything that is not in immediate conscious awareness.  Everything you have ever done is probably in there somewhere.  Parts of it are readily accessible – what you had for breakfast, for example.  Others, less so – what you wore on your first day at work, say.  It is by far the largest and most powerful part of the mind, and it is responsible for the many things we do ‘automatically’. 
It always tries to act in our best interests – evolution has ensured that.  There are times however, when parts of the unconscious do things with good intentions which result in adverse consequences when they reach our actual behaviour.  NLP is a series of self-improvement and therapeutic techniques for communicating directly with the unconscious via physiological signs – muscle tension, colour change, temperature change etc.  It does not attempt to say why its techniques work.  It is wholly pragmatic.  ‘If what you’re doing isn’t working – do something else!’ is perhaps its guiding principle.  From their writings, its originators, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, seem to be hard-nosed, practical men with hearts in the right places.  They take no dogmatic stances and they constantly emphasize the need for accepting personal responsibility and for flexibility of thought and attitude.  It is sufficient for them that the techniques work. (Though I have a personal fancy that the next great leap forward in medical knowledge – akin say to discovering microbes or the circulation of the blood – will be discoveries about the nature of this mind/body linkage).

Imaging and Posture
As the word is used here, posture includes every physiological element that you can sense, however slight:  how the limbs, joints and muscles feel, facial expression, sense of smell, hearing, temperature etc.  The more aware we can become of these, the more precisely we will be able to sense what is going on around us via the messages our unconscious is giving us – virtually every part of the body picks up information about the outside world.
It is no news that mood can affect posture.  We routinely read people’s moods from their posture – ‘You’re looking happy/miserable/sick’ etc.  Few pause to consider however, that just as mood can affect posture, so posture can affect mood.  The simple act of straightening up, relaxing the shoulders and looking upwards will improve anyone’s mood. 
To those who think that our mood is our mood – it’s not something we can (should?) control, we have no responsibility for it, it’ll pass when it’s ready – and that manipulating posture to change it is somehow ‘cheating’, it has to be said that deliberately using posture to change mood is no different from deliberately moving a leg because it has become uncomfortable through sitting in one position too long.  What is the point of suffering an uncomfortable emotional state when a change of posture might alleviate it?  We each have a choice about what we do with our thoughts.  An NLP adage is:  when something happens, accept responsibility.  We can allow our thoughts to wander about aimlessly as usual or we can manipulate them so that bad experiences and images from the past, while being faced and accepted, lose their power to affect us adversely in the present.

An exercise:

  1. Close your eyes and relax.
  2. Remember – relive – some pleasant experience in as much detail as you can:  how everything looked, sounded, felt, in the widest sense of the word, i.e. including smell, facial expression, how the limbs, joints and muscles felt (down to your fingers, toes, face muscles – everything) – every physical and mental response you can recall.  (Which of these aspects dominates – sight, sound or ‘touch’ varies from person to person and is unimportant).
  3. Imagine next this image to be brighter, sharper, louder, clearer, more vivid.  Note how your mood and physiology have changed.  You should feel more positive.
  4. Do the same with an unpleasant experience.  You should feel more negative.
  5. Next, drain this last image of colour, make the sound fuzzier, broken, more erratic, like bad radio reception.  Shrink the whole thing, and see how your state changes.  This image from the past should have lost some of its power to control your responses.

This can be used for changing behaviour you are unhappy with (say, smoking, for example).
  1. Form a detailed image of yourself behaving in the way you want to change.
  2. Form one of the ways you want to be with all the benefits that will give you.
  3. Make the first image big and bright.
  4. Somewhere in this, form a small dark picture of the second image.
  5. Very rapidly, expand the small picture to burst through and destroy the first one, at the same time say ‘Whoosh!’ with great excitement.  This verbalization may seem juvenile but it sends important positive messages to the brain.
  6. The key to this exercise is speed and repetition.  Blow the old image away and do it several times.  The object is to say to the brain, ‘See this old picture? Whoosh! It’s gone – Look at this new one,’ until the old picture automatically triggers the new.

Modelling and Mirroring
These are not items which can be easily summarized.  Modelling involves ‘copying’ the posture (in the fullest sense of the word) of someone who already does what you want to do.  This really means spending time with the person and discussing the matter with them in depth.  In the absence of this, it is beneficial to visualize yourself as having already succeeded at what it is you want to do and noting and remembering the physiological responses that come with that.
Mirroring relates to interactions with other people.  At its simplest it is being as relaxed as possible and trusting your unconscious to pick up the signals that others are giving.

This is using a device, e.g. a touch, as a cue to bring about some desired condition immediately.
  1. Form an image of the state you wish to be in.
  2. When it is exactly as you want it to be, say to yourself, ‘Yes!’ and establish the anchor, e.g. pressing the thumb and forefinger together.
  3. Repeat several times until just pressing the thumb and forefinger will bring about the state you want automatically.

At its simplest, re-framing is little more than positive thinking – counting your blessings.  While clichés are frowned on in writing, they are usually true and it is a grievous mistake to bring traditional literary contempt for them into our ordinary thinking.  In our responses to events there are no absolute truths – the cup is both half empty and half full and we can choose which mental view we want and accept the physiological consequences that go with that choice.  Equally we can choose our physiological response and change our mental view.  If we take a dismal view and suffer dismal and disabling responses as a result, then it is a deliberate and wilful choice. 

You are a plumber called out in mid-winter to repair a burst pipe:
(a) It will be a miserable journey through foul weather and an unspecified length of time in a cramped space in which at some point you will be doused in icy water. 
(b) It will be an opportunity to settle into your familiar old van and take a leisurely and relaxed drive watching all the other idiots driving dangerously while you are taking it steady.  You are going to do something you’re good at and you will solve a problem that will bring considerable relief to some poor householder, bring you some income and enhance your reputation for promptness and efficiency.  It’s also perhaps a chance to make a new friend or renew an old acquaintance, and if you get wet, you’ll enjoy having a warm dry down when you get back home.

I can see this example provoking caustic comments but nevertheless both alternatives are valid and available.  The situation is what it is – neutral.  How you view it – the choice of response and the physiological consequences that go with it – is up to you and you alone, and it is important to accept responsibility for this.  Granted, in Britain, where the national sport is grumbling, being constantly and evangelically positive can be deeply irksome to others, to put it mildly.  However, you don’t have to bang on about it.  Just do it for yourself.  Changing your responses from negative to positive is both important and beneficial and is a habit well worth acquiring.  What can possibly to be gained by being endlessly negative?

Reframing can be taken beyond this stage and pursued at a much more profound level to negotiate with those parts of the unconscious whose actions are resulting in something unwanted in consciousness.  The procedures might seem strange but, as mentioned, NLP does not debate how and why, it merely describes techniques that work beneficially.  Fundamentally it should be understood that all parts of the unconscious act for our good
The procedure for establishing ‘communication’ with the parts of the unconscious is as follows:
  1. Make yourself relaxed and comfortable.
  2. Say inwardly, ‘Is the part of me responsible for (whatever behaviour it is you wish to change) prepared to communicate with me in consciousness?’
  3. Take careful note of any physiological responses.  These could be anything:  hands going cold, jaw stiffening, stomach fluttering, eye twitching, brow furrowing etc.
  4. To determine whether this is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, thank the part for the communication and ask, ‘If this response is a “yes”, please intensify it.  If it is a “no”, please diminish it.’

Bandler and Grinder break this more advanced reframing into six steps:
  1. Decide what behaviour it is you want to change, call it X.
  2. Establish communication with the part responsible for X, (call it Part-x), and obtain clear yes/no signals as above.  If you get a no, it doesn’t matter, it means that your unconscious does not wholly trust you and you must respect that.  Despite its denial however, it is communicating in your consciousness simply by giving a ‘no’, so thank it, perhaps apologize to it for having built up such a mistrust, and press on.
  3. This is to separate the behaviour of Part-x and its intention.
    Ask Part-x if it would be willing to let you know what it is trying to do for you. 
    If ‘yes’, ask it to communicate this. 
    If ‘no’, carry on.  This refusal does not matter.  There may be many reasons why Part-x does not wish to tell you why it is doing what it is doing.  You do not need to know – its intentions will be good.
    Ask Part-x if there were other ways of achieving its intention would it be interested in trying them out?
    If ‘yes’, carry on.
    If ‘no’, (unlikely given that Part-x’s intentions are good) tell Part-x that while its intentions are good, the effects of what it is doing are not acceptable to your consciousness and ask it again.
  4. This is to establish behaviour for Part-x so that it can achieve its intention in a manner that is acceptable to you.  (Note – you do not need to be consciously aware of any of these goings on).
    Establish communication with a creative part of your unconscious (you do have one) and ask it to ask Part-x what it is trying to do and then to create as many other ways as it likes by which Part-x could accomplish this.  Ask Part-x to evaluate these and to select three which it thinks will work at least as well as what it is doing now.  Ask it to give a ‘yes’ signal for each one.
  5. When you receive these signals, ask Part-x if it would be willing to accept responsibility for generating these three new alternatives in appropriate circumstances for say, six weeks. 
    If ‘yes’, carry on.
    If ‘no’, go back to your creative part in 4
  6. ‘Ecological’ check.  This is important.  Part-x does not act in isolation.  Changing what it does may result in adverse consequences elsewhere.  Ask ‘Is there any part of me that objects to any of these three alternatives?’  If the answering signals are uncertain, ask for a confirmation of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – intensify for ‘yes’, diminish for ‘no’.  If there is an objection, go back to 2.
While clarity and precision of questioning is important, the above is not a rigid procedure.  It is a device for deliberately communicating with a part of our minds – the greater part – which, by definition, cannot readily be reached consciously, and helping it to work to our greater benefit. 
Take your time.  Establish clear signals – ‘Is this tension in my legs a “yes” or a “no”? – Intensify for “yes”, diminish for “no”’ etc.  You can trust your unconscious.  It does almost everything for you anyway.

There is an self-referential element – ‘the eye seeing the eye’ – in this inner ‘talking’ to oneself.  It would be naïve to imagine that the mind is divided into tidy, ordered parts which ‘talk’ to one another.
Everyone recognizes consciousness – self-awareness – but no-one knows exactly what it is or how it comes about.  The human body has some 10 to the power 13 cells, most of which are in a permanent ferment of highly complex chemical activity.  (10 to the 13 is ten million million.  It is a very big number:  10 to the 13 millimetres = 12 round trips to the moon!).  Our brains have some 10 to the power 9 neurons, each of which has between ten and a hundred thousand connections.  With countless elaborate physiological feedback mechanisms and levels of organization within us we are unbelievably complicated. 
I suspect that the very act of pausing quietly and concentrating on physiological responses will, for many, start to break long-established patterns of thought and (tense) behaviour and set them on the way to an increased, relaxed, awareness that can only improve mental, physical and emotional balance and in so doing, help to smooth a way through many problems.

However unusual NLP techniques may seem, they are well worth a try.  They are methodical, wholly pragmatic, make no judgements, do not involve any changes in lifestyle, and are quite free from any New Age nitwittery.  They also work.  In his seminars, Anthony Robbins uses them to empower people so they can walk across beds of hot coals.  As he himself states, there is not a lot of call for this but most of us would deem it ‘impossible’ and the fact that it can be done after only a day of practising mind/body techniques is a dramatic demonstration which understandably has a profound effect on those who do it.  On a more personal level, I have always ‘reframed’ events, though never under that name, i.e. made the best of what was happening, but reading and thinking about it has made me use it even more effectively.  I have actually used the more advanced six step reframing to help me demolish years - nay, decades - of ‘not being able to’ memorize piano music and with a small problem of jaw stiffness at the dentist. 
The message of NLP is not new:  always we have choice.  NLP can help you realize just how much choice you really have.

Anthony Robbins adds a touch towards the end of his book which gives a keen insight into him:
‘Give’, he says.  ‘If you see a beggar or someone in need, don’t question the rights and wrongs of their circumstances – just give them something.  Further, if you were thinking of giving 50p give a £1’.  This is much more profound than it appears.  There is nothing like giving to put you into an open, receptive mood, with all the physiological benefits that this brings.

Useful NLP Adages
If what you are doing isn’t working, do something else.
There are no mistakes, only outcomes.  There is no failure, only feedback.
It’s not what happens to you that’s important, it’s what you do.
When something happens, take responsibility.
Don’t focus on blame, look for solutions.
The meaning of a communication is the response it gets, not the communicator’s intent.
Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you are right.
Pay attention to what people do, not what they say they do.
Nothing has power over you other than what you give it through conscious thought.
The map isn’t the terrain.  The blueprint isn’t the building.

Frogs into Princes – Richard Bandler and John Grinder
Reframing – Richard Bandler and John Grinder
Unlimited Power – Anthony Robbins. 
Understanding Neuro Linguistic Programming in a week – Mo Shapiro ISBN 0 340 71123 X
Principles of NLP – Joseph O’Connor, Ian McDermott.  ISBN 0 7225 3195 8
Introducing NLP – Joseph O’Connor, John Seymour.  ISBN 1 85538 344 6

Bandler and Grinder’s books are edited transcripts of symposia and are not very good for organized study.  They are worth reading though, as their conversational approach does give a vivid insight into the attitudes that inform NLP.
Robbins’ book is full of rather daunting cheer-leading razzamatazz but is well worth reading.
The others are less anecdotal and more along the lines of conventional textbooks.  They are all worth reading, O’Connor and Seymour’s book probably being the most comprehensive.

(December 2001)
Since writing these notes I have learned a couple a tai chi forms.  The opportunity that these offer for the body to ‘remember’ how to be relaxed (and thus more aware) while moving, is not to be underestimated.  It is not necessary to believe in chi or any mystical flim flam to gain great benefits (and enjoyment) from doing the forms and I would recommend them to anyone.  I find that the mutual feedback between my aikido, tai chi, and just thinking about these things is profound.  

Roger Taylor