The Heart of NLP

“Do not repeat anything you will not sign your name to.”

– Author Unknown

By 1976, they added the concepts of non-verbal information (communication that takes place subconsciously) and representational systems (the ways our thoughts are made up of our senses). These concepts were used to model people, as well as in developing patterns for intervention. 

This brings up a controversial point. I write that modeling is the heart of NLP, but a psychologist, Chistopher Hedberg, has made the argument that the heart of NLP, practically and historically speaking, is these concepts (non-verbal information and representational systems), not modeling. He points out in support of this idea that many of the early published NLP patterns were described strictly as being based on these concepts, and without referring to therapists (models) as sources of the patterns. 

Also, the first published book from Bandler and Grinder, The Structure of Magic, vol. I, was mostly concerned with the use of linguistics to intervene for improved mental health. Transcripts published in the book exemplify this approach. They don’t appear to show any of the modeling or patterns that NLP is best known for. 

These points are important, but they tell us how NLP got started, and what many authors and trainers emphasize. I take the position that modeling is a better candidate for the heart of NLP, because I believe that we can give much more credit to NLP models for the major NLP patterns than is obvious from the writings. 

When they got their start, Richard Bandler was a long-haired, chain-smoking 20-year-old. He had been running a gestalt therapy group reputed to have a high rate of success. He was also making transcripts of sessions of Fritz Perls. Before NLP, Bandler was already doing modeling. However, Bandler was having difficulty teaching other students how to get his results. 

Bandler asked Grinder to observe his group and analyze it for patterns that might explain his results. Grinder was the youngest American professor of linguistics at the time. He agreed, and the two became friends as they worked together. Grinder joined Bandler in examining Pearls’ work. They began to look at other therapists, most notably Virginia Satir, at that time. They reviewed videos of therapists’ sessions and sat in on live sessions. 

In time, they also began studying the theories of Gregory Bateson. He introduced them to Milton Erickson, and they began analyzing his work as well. Grinder discovered that Bandler and the therapists they were studying used similar language patterns, and surmised that these patterns must have been valuable parts of treatment. 

Bandler and Grinder began writing about their discoveries and teaching a psychology course in which they taught their approach to psychotherapy. By today’s standards, this would be strange, because neither of them were licensed therapists, and their techniques had received very little scrutiny. In fact, the university eventually discontinued the course on the basis that it constituted unauthorized experimentation on students. However, they continued their seminars outside of the university mantel, providing training to individuals who later became NLP luminaries themselves, such as Robert Dilts, Judith DeLozier, Leslie Cameron, David Gordon, and Steve Gilligan. 

The books Frogs Into Princes, Trance-Formations, and Reframing emerged from these seminars when John O. Stevens and Connierae Andreas developed them from recordings of the seminars. As the field took form, Bandler coined the term Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Romantic relationships and marriages blossomed from these early liaisons. Judith DeLozier and Grinder married, as did Leslie Cameron and Bandler. John O. Stevens changed his name to Steve Andreas and married Connierae Andreas. The group experimented with abandon on each other and strangers, coming up with countless therapeutic ideas. 

Their wild experimentation was very much in the spirit of the times, when personal development and psychotherapy were much more like the Wild West. Their work became quite popular, allowing them to provide seminars at many locations. These travelling seminars took place from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. At this point, some conflicts emerged.  

The value of NLP had become obvious at this point, and Bandler attempted to secure the rights to the name. To do this, he sued Grinder and others, but lost the legal battles. Bandler and Grinder split, and took different directions, creating new names for their approaches. 


NLP brings attention to how our assumptions affect our behavior and results in life. It asserts that much of this goes on unconsciously. Whether they are true or not, assumptions (or presuppositions, in NLP parlance), make the world go ‘round. Clients often benefit by becoming more conscious of their own presuppositions, and refining them for better results. Meta-model violations such as over-generalizing cause people to leave out too much useful information. 

NLP has its own presuppositions, and they are spelled out in order to make it possible to use them, challenge them, or refine them. The point of the NLP presuppositions is not to be philosophical or get at the truth, but to be highly useful mental tools. The well-known NLP phrase, “the map is not the territory” is one such presupposition. There is no official list of NLP presuppositions, but later in this website you can find a very good and useful collection of them. 

Roots in Modeling, Divergence into New Paths

“That is what learning is.
You suddenly understand something
you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.”

– Doris Lessing 


In the early 1970s, a professor and student at the University of Santa Cruz started the field of NLP. Richard Bandler was a psychology student at the time, and John Grinder was a linguistics professor. Some of their first efforts were in examining the skills of famous therapists. They attempted to identify the internal and external behaviors that made these therapists effective. They saw themselves as creating models of the therapists, or “modeling” the therapists. Bandler was especially gifted at observing subtleties in these therapists’ behavior, especially their body language. In NLP, highly nuanced observation is called “acuity.” 

Grinder analyzed their words for patterns that affected their clients’ behavior and thinking. These two aspects of observation worked together to create very helpful models. This made it possible to teach people how to accomplish feats similar to those of the therapists they were modeling. These therapists included Milton Erickson, M.D, a medical hypnotherapist, Virginia Satir, a family therapist, and Fritz Perls, M.D, who developed gestalt psychotherapy. 

Key early concepts

Early NLP was also concerned with the psycho-linguistic processes of distortion, deletion and generalization. These are the ways our brains attempt to be efficient within our limited processing power. For example, we tend to generalize about what to expect. But if someone says, “All the good men or women are taken,” they are limiting themselves with an over-broad generalization. Bandler and Grinder felt that such processes had very negative psychological and interpersonal consequences if they were not done effectively.