A Brief History of NLP, 40 Years of Modeling: Who, What, When, Where

“Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.”

– Edward R. Murrow 

Lack of a Proper Definition

NLP is difficult to define, because it takes on different forms, depending upon how you are exposed to it. This article will help you understand NLP by providing a brief history that puts the main ideas into context. Although NLP has been defined in various ways, I feel there is a definition that stands above the rest, because of how NLP developed:  

NLP is a methodology for producing excellence. 

I found that Wikipedia recently had a definition that basically said the same thing, but offers more detail, as follows: “Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a field of human endeavor concerned with empirically studying and modeling human performance and excellence, with the goal of creating transferable skill sets.” 

Many things to many people: 

Many people are exposed to NLP as a collection of techniques for manipulating people, sales, or even seducing potential lovers. But NLP got its start as a therapeutic system for resolving personal challenges such as phobias. This is where it has had its greatest influence and is what its core literature primarily covers. 

The schism between NLP as a compassionate method of change and NLP as a form of crass manipulation exists because of the nature of NLP as a field. Since it is about producing models based on successful behavior, it can take many forms when you just look at the techniques. Since much of it is concerned with establishing rapport and utilizing techniques of persuasion, it can be used for selfish manipulation. It’s kind of like the weather: air and water can take many forms.  

In whatever form you find NLP, one thing that you should see is practicality. NLP is concerned with getting good outcomes in whatever endeavor to which it is applied. This is why I refer to it as a methodology, rather than a science. Although NLP involves observation, experimentation, and feedback, which constitutes a scientific mindset, it does not emphasize developing and testing theories that get at the basis of the realities it explores. Its theories are very focused on getting results. From a scientific perspective, NLP might be viewed as too superficial. But from a personal point of view, NLP is very deep and very practical. 

Like most endeavors, NLP can and does benefit by “consuming” science–that is, by using the information that scientists produce. There has been great progress in psychology since the early days of NLP, and those NLP practitioners who keep abreast of the research will be able to focus their efforts more efficiently. That’s because many psychological myths tend to crop up until science takes a good look at them. For example, the mind does not have as big an impact on as many health conditions as was once claimed. 

Claims and Testimonials

Another factor that has caused NLP to take many forms is the profit motive. There have been many wild claims made for NLP in order to boost sales of media and seminars. Unfortunately, this can cast suspicion upon legitimate claims. It can be difficult for people to tell the exaggerations from the truth, because NLP can have amazing results in a variety of areas, ranging from personal problems to business success. 

The current recognition that therapeutic approaches such as EMDR can have rapid results, has made the claims of NLP appear less extreme, especially where problems with anxiety are concerned. But bare in mind that NLP can’t be validated as a whole through research, because it is many things. What can be researched are the specific interventions (patterns) of NLP.