Principles of NLP
An example of a principle of NLP is, "Multiple viewpoints are useful". This will not be true in every case, but as a generalization in any field, information gathered by considering many different people's points of view will usually be more complete or useful than information provided by just one source. It cannot be "proven", but it is often a useful working guide. Different practitioners may have slightly different versions of what they consider "principles", but in general there is a fairly high degree of commonality and universal agreement on those most central to NLP.
- 1 Stated purpose of NLP
- 2 NLP as described by its major developers and promoters
- 3 Philosophical stance of NLP
- 4 Self-declared scope of NLP
- 5 Specific principles within NLP
- 5.1 The map is not the territory
- 5.2 Life and 'Mind' are Systemic Processes
- 5.3 Behind every behavior is a positive intention
- 5.4 Rapport
- 5.5 There is no failure, only feedback
- 5.6 Choice is better than no choice (and flexibility is the way one gets choice)
- 5.7 The meaning of the communication is in the response
- 5.8 People already have all the resources they need to succeed
- 5.9 Multiple descriptions are better than one
- 5.10 Other beliefs
- 6 NLP's approach to clinical conditions
- 7 Criticisms of the principles of NLP
- 8 See also
- 9 External links
- 10 References
Note: The principles of NLP are sometimes also described as "presuppositions". In this context both might be valid descriptions, because the NLP principles are also, functionally, presuppositions. However the latter term has a more specific meaning in NLP, as a part of the Metamodel, hence for the purposes of this article the underlying assumptions of NLP will be called "principles", to distinguish them from the metamodel linguistic pattern of the same name.
Stated purpose of NLP
NLP has been described by its creators as "the study of the structure of subjective experience". This merits further expansion:
Subjectivity is distinguished from objectivity in both science and philosophy. Objectivity attempts to be the study of "reality". Subjectivity by contrast is focused on how people experience and conceive reality. It assumes that whilst there may be an absolute reality, and knowing it may be beneficial, for the most part a person does not and cannot in fact "know" it, but can only know what they perceive, and what beliefs they form about it as a result. Thus whilst objectivity looks for true facts, subjectivity looks at perceived reality and personal beliefs.
- (A common example of the difference is that in a dispute between people, often each side has their own view "what happened". Whatever actually happened would be objective reality, whatever each side believed they experienced, saw, felt, heard, thought or believed would be their perception of reality. NLP by definition studies the latter, often highly relevant when exploring human mind and communication)
NLP further claims that this subjective experience of reality is organized, that is, structured, and that the manner of organization varies significantly between individuals. It does not (at least in its original form) speculate as to a theory or science of experience. Rather it simply says, that for any person, their perceptions, thoughts and beliefs are not randomly collected, but are organized, structured and interconnected. Classical clinical psychiatry takes the same stance for example, when it views a person's problems as stemming from childhood - the problem is not random, it has meaning and interconnection within the body of their experience.
But NLP also goes further with this concept. It claims that whatever structure subjective experience may have, people show evidence of it at a micro as well as a macro level. That is, NLP asserts that every behavior, verbal utterance or non-verbal communication, is revealing of how that person structures internally their beliefs and understandings, and that a skilled observer can observe and work with these processes.
Thus NLP also denies wholism, and instead asserts that even if human behavior and internal structure is too complex to understand in full, there are structures and separability, and micro-awareness of patterns within behavior is a good source of information to communicators.
The rest of core NLP, at least as originally formulated, comprises broadly speaking, presuppositions and principles which have empirically been found useful in exploring this field, models which are commonly accepted, or commonly included, and working approaches and techniques which allow these to be utilized.
An alternative characterization is that the rest of core NLP, as originally formulated, consists of strategies for information gathering, flexibility, and problem finding, problem shaping and problem solving in the realm of human life and living.
NLP as described by its major developers and promoters
Richard Bandler (Time for a Change, 1993, p. 2-5):
- You want to become competent at whatever you do. That does not mean to get phobics, who shake in their boots while their blood pressure blows through the roof, to believe, "This is not fear." The object is to get them to stay calm and alert, and to stay in their own lane, and to drive across the bridge, which remains standing.
- Ask yourself; "Can we build better?" To build those things we have to be able to suspend whatever belief system we already have. Keep it out of the way... Those things get very, very personal. We're talking about basic beliefs regarding human capability. Here's the only truth about that. Nobody knows.
- The technology presented here only make transformation expeditious. It is not "true" yet. It probably will be at some time, because it has been so functional for so many people. By having them make it so that they believe that they can, suddenly they can do all these things. In part, that's because they do actually do them. In technical terms, they stop screwing around. They go for it.
Steve and Connierae Andreas (Change your mind and keep the Change, 1987, p. x - xi)
- We have presented these patterns as explicitly and systematically as we can, in order to make it easy for you to learn them. We have presented them in great detail, and warned you about all the mistakes we and others have made with them, to make it hard for you to use them inappropriately. Once you have taken the time to learn these methods thoroughly, you can become more flexible and artistic in utilizing them with clients, with confidence that your behavior will remain systematic and effective.
Philosophical stance of NLP
NLP is sometimes described as an empirical epistemology. That is, it is a way of knowing whose evidence is experiment and observation, rather than results derived from some overall theory. It is eclectic, that is, it draws heavily on results from other fields it felt useful, and acts as a "toolbox" [REF] in the sense that it is silent as to any pre-specified purpose or application, leaving that ultimately to the end user(s) to decide. As such, it studies processes (or form), rather than content.
Its approach and philosophy have also been described as closer to a technology than a science, and often identified as similar to engineering, in the sense that its question is "what works" rather than "what is true". Its ultimate end products are, ideally, systematized models and utilizable approaches, rather than beliefs or facts.
Despite originally claiming not to be interested in theory, many developers create and promote NLP-based theories of human experience, often based upon a personal synthesis of core observable NLP combined with other personal or new age concepts. Likewise, although NLP is a means of study and it is implicit that there is no certainty in any given method, many developers promise it will produce results, sometimes extraordinary in nature, often on slender or no evidence.
Self-declared scope of NLP
NLP does not recognize any ultimate mediator in the structure and organization of subjective human thought except the senses, sensory representations, and human neurology and physiology. However it does not place a limit on what may be represented within or by those systems, possibly via synesthesia. So NLP considers it a legitimate question to study the subjective experience of anything that humans claim to experience. This has led to wide proliferation covering for example:
- Recognized communication phenomena such as negotiation and parent-child communication
- Psychological phenomena such as phobias and regression
- Medical phenomena such as pain control, or ways to influence illness/wellness
- Phenomena mediated primarily by the unconscious such as post-hypnotic suggestion, unconscious communications, trance induction and utilization, and perception changes
- Broadly recognized but non-scientific phenomena such as meditation and enlightenment
- Altered states such as alcoholism, depression, dissociation, addiction and religious fervor
- Parapsychological phenomena such as ESP
- Body and lifestyle change such as breast enlargement and finding sexual partners
- Business situations such as sales and management coaching
- "Unpacking" of skills and situations previously regarded holistically, to reveal a way to make them separable and examine them analytically.
- Modelling of dead or famous people from what is known of them, such as Jesus Christ or Nelson Mandela. (That is to say, identifying subjectively what the experience of being these people might be like, and proposing detailed suggestions of the internal ways of thinking, based upon observed evidence, which enable them to be as they are/were)
- Development and systemization of more efficient and varied approaches to working with communication, and human beliefs and subjective reality.
Specific principles within NLP
NLP is a divergent subject, and so different individuals will have different formulations for what they consider "principles of NLP". However there is common agreement that some principles, which date from very early on and in some cases were borrowed from other fields can be identified as "principles of NLP" with annotation describing their universality if need be.
According to Jane Revell, a British NLP trainer, the presuppositions of NLP "are not a philosophy or a credo or a set of rules and regulations. Rather, they are assumptions upon which individuals base future actions and plan for meaningful learning experiences." 
The map is not the territory
"NLP epistemology" follows Alfred Korzybski (1933) and Gregory Bateson's (1972, 1979) postulations that there is no such thing as "objective experience." The subjective nature of our experience never fully captures the objective world. In the view of NLP, whether or not there is an objective absolute "reality", individual people in fact do not in general have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but in fact only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time, about reality.
Significance - It is considered crucially important when working with people to focus on the understanding that their beliefs about reality and their awareness of things (the "map") are not reality itself or everything they could be aware of (the "territory"). Put another way, NLP does not claim that one is working with reality, ie the "territory", but only ever with peoples subjective perceptions and beliefs about reality, ie some or other "map". (Main article: Map-territory relation)
An example of this concept, is human vision. When a person looks at an object such as a ball, he/she does not actually see the ball it's self, rather his/her retina is sending electro-chemical signals to the brain after absorbing the light (photons) which was emitted by the atoms comprising the ball; which were produced because the atoms of that ball it's self previously absored light (photons) which ultimately originated from an external light source (such as the sun). Even after the brain has received visual stimuli, it is accepted by many that the brain must make "assumptions" when processing the information, which can lead to optical illusions (if those "assumptions" are not relevant and proper). Therefore one can say that no one actually "sees" anything, but rather, experiences a map of a map of a territory.
Life and 'Mind' are Systemic Processes
The processes that take place within a human being and between human beings and their environment are complex systems, and they are processes. Our bodies, our societies, and our planet form an ecology of complex systems and sub-systems all of which interact with and mutually influence each other.
Significance - Such systems tend to produce more complex behavior than simple linear processes, and looking from different vantage points may result in quite different – and yet equally valid – descriptions and emphasis of what is important in the system. (Example: the description of a business problem and what is seen as relevant will be quite different depending if you ask the CEO, a worker on strike, or a client). So it is considered important to gather a lot of information from multiple viewpoints to gain a full appreciation of the complexities involved, before intervening, and the same principle is believed true even when working with one individual person. (Main article: Complex systems)
Behind every behavior is a positive intention
This is a model taken from Virginia Satir's belief system, and means that whatever a person does, they are in fact attempting to fulfill some positive intention (of which they may not be aware). It assumes that the current behaviour exhibited by a person represents the best choice available to them at the time. Generating alternatives from this point of view is thought by NLP proponents to be a useful way of helping people to change unwanted or undesirable behaviours.
In a similar vein, psychiatrist R. D. Laing has argued that the symptoms of what is normally called mental illness are just comprehensible reactions to impossible demands that society and particularly family life places on some sensitive individuals. (Main article: Positive and negative (NLP))
Rapport, the term for the relational quality of a connection between two communicating individuals, is a highly subjective term. Good rapport is characterized by a sense of ease with another, trust, and easy flow of dialog. Whilst psychotherapy outcome research - in which the effectiveness of psychotherapy is measured by questionnaires given to patients before, during, and after treatment - has had difficulty distinguishing between the different types of therapy, research has clearly shown, however, that the quality of the relationship between therapist and patient is a crucial predictor of psychotherapy outcome.
Accordingly, most contemporary schools of psychotherapy focus on the healing power of the therapeutic relationship. NLP adds to this, its own focussed insights into what exactly constitutes rapport, factors which allow it to be built and maintained, and how one may distinguish good quality and poor quality rapport in a dialog. (Some content taken from psychotherapy article)
There is no failure, only feedback
NLP (see below) does not view communication in terms of success and failure. Rather it sees in terms of competence or lack thereof, or learning and failure to learn. As a field which utilizes trial and error, not all actions are expected to "work", rather they are intended to explore, and the results should be utilized as a source of valuable learning and new focus, rather than cause for negativity and despair. Do not dwell unnecessarily on the failure, instead explore what you have learned for the next time (c.f. the story of Edison and the lightbulb). This principle is a statement about the importance of feedback loops to learning, borrowed from information theory. (W. Ross Ashby, Cybernetics).
Choice is better than no choice (and flexibility is the way one gets choice)
A large part of basic NLP is recognizing "stuckness", and learning how to open it out in accordance with the saying "One choice is no choice, two choices is a dilemma, three [or more] choices is choice". This is as true for therapist as client. In systems theory the part of the system that can adapt best, be most influential, and has best chance of achieving its goals, is often not the most forceful part, but the part that has most flexibility and least rigidity in its responses. (This ties in with not having assumptions about people, and exquisite observational skills with a broad and flexible repertoire of avenues at the fingertips - all means to achieve this). Richard Bandler word this, The ability to change the process by which we experience reality is more often valuable than changing the content of our experience of reality. 
The meaning of the communication is in the response
Meaning is in the eye of the recipient. This is an "As-if" concept: it may not be true, it may be that the recipient is mistaken, but if you work on the basis that the recipient's understanding of what you say (and not yours) is the important one, it will lead you to communicate in a way that gets the actual message across and heard, even if linguistic gymnastics [ie flexibility] are needed to do so.
People already have all the resources they need to succeed
It is argued that this is useful for the subject to believe when attempting a change. Christina Hall has argued that people's resources are their sensory representation systems and the manner in which they are organised.
Multiple descriptions are better than one
Because of the systemic nature of human's lives, often a person in a situation cannot see answers that a person standing outside can. So by moving between different perceptual positions, it is claimed that one can see a problem in new ways, or with less emotional attachment, and thus gather more information and develop new choices of response.
Although the following are not always described as "principles", they are approaches implicit in classical NLP. Sometimes the wording varies widely:
- NLP is generative - it seeks to assist a client to generate new ideas, and successfully explore their previous beliefs about reality in order to help find ways to more effectively achieve their goals.
- Structure matters more than content - if two problems share a common psychological structure, then they can probably be approached similarly. often it is the structure of the problem (how it is maintained, what type of beliefs are reinforcing it, how the client thinks about it to themselves) that matters most, rather than the details of the situation in which it is embedded. This is an embodiment of the form/content distinction, also favored by Western psychiatric medicine (an innovation first argued for by psychiatrists Karl Jaspers and Kurt Schneider).
- If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you always got - also sometimes described as "If what you are doing isn't working, try something else". NLP views goals as rich subjects to explore, and the principle of constantly back-tracking to find new solutions and approaches is inherent in the methodology.
- Use whatever works - also known as the principle of utilization. This comes from the work of Milton Erickson, who was famous for turning peoples self-perceived defects, or limitations, to positive use, and NLP works on the basis that if it helps, then it can be considered usable. Thus Erickson used a girl's poor dental appearance (which she was convinced made her deeply unappealing) as a positive means to find a husband, a man's Jesus delusion to obtain him work as a carpenter as part of his eventual healing and rehabilitation, and Bandler describes shouting at a client to leave, then calling out of the window to his wife to catch the client as he left when he was in a different state of mind, to actually do the real work with him.
- There are no resistant clients; there are only incompetent (or less skilled) therapists - resistance is a communication. It is providing information about a client's inner world. It should be respected, explored, treated as valuable information about how the patient's psyche is trying to help them (sometimes dysfunctionally), and utilized to inform the client and make changes more beneficial. In previous therapies, resistance was treated as a hostile force to be fought, beaten and overcome, and the basis for a belief that "the patient wasn't ready to change".
- NLP does not believe in patient-blaming. In NLP's view, resistance to change is an unconscious communication saying "Not that way, this way!" and a client finds their attempt to change blocked, only if and so long as, they are trying to force change without understanding or respecting their other needs and values (that is, without regard to ecology). Patients who do not change, are usually respecting some other need; the more competent the therapist, the more likely such needs can be helped to be met in other more useful ways.
- If something can be done effectively and ecologically in ten minutes, don't spend an hour doing it - NLP is critical of the belief that many sessions are needed for some problems. It is supportive of brief therapy and brief intervention, that is, it believes that an appropriate change to how a person thinks about a situation is often all that is needed to help them, and that therefore the job of therapy is to explore efficiently, how a person subjectively understands, represents and experiences their problem, how they are holding it in place, and how they may be encouraged to further their goals by changing those underderstandings about it.
- NLP incorporates the body as well as the mind - the body impacts on the mind, as the mind impacts on the body. How one stands, walks, moves, breathes, and holds muscle tensions, will have an impact on a person's emotional state.
- NLP is based upon sensory observation - evidence of patterns and structures seen in others are always in principle both tangible and objectively visible. NLP (at least in its original version) rejects as "evidence" anything which has not been received through the senses (internally or externally). Thus "mind-reading" or supposition is not acceptable as a basis for belief in what is going on, although speculation, hypothesis and logic are normal means of determining possible patterns and directions to explore. These however must be tested, again through sensory evidence, and not assumed to be true. Richard Bandler words this, All distinctions human beings are able to make concerning our environment and our behavior can be usefully represented through the [five] senses. 
- Good NLP is 90% information gathering and testing, and 10% changework - Since NLP is the study of personal subjective reality, which is idiosyncratic, and human situations are systemic and complex, and the subject is not fully understood, NLP employs a heuristic and (in some ways) iterative approach, whereby a situation is explored without preconception rather than analyzed or categorized.
- It is claimed by practitioners that a sufficient understanding and appropriate experience will often make clear how a situation can be better helped, even if this takes considerable time, and so a practitioner is continually trying an approach, observing feedback, forming hypotheses, and testing their understanding with the client. In the end, formal changework (ie, change techniques as opposed to exploratory techniques) is often a minor component compared to the benefit to the client through good exploration.
- Note that the divide between exploration and formal change is an artificial one: good exploration will encourage spontaneous re-evaluation and change, and changework is valued and not considered a 'failure', even if it does not progress the situation, because it is still a valuable source of information.
- Conscious understanding is not always needed - unlike traditional therapies, effective change, and/or learning at an unconscious level, are emphasised over and above conscious understanding. According to NLP, change does not always require interpretation and analysis, it requires development of ones map of beliefs about the world and oneself, so that what was previously inaccessible becomes possible, and this can be effected in very many ways. Thus according to Haley, Erickson was notable amongst psychiatrists, because he would respond to metaphor with other metaphors, rather than by attempting to "interpret".
- "He does not translate unconscious communication into conscious form. Whatever the patient says in metaphoric form, Erickson responds [matches] in kind. By parables, by interpersonal action, and by directives, he works within the metaphor to bring about change. he seems to feel that the depth and swiftness of that change can be prevented if the person suffers a translation of the communication." (Haley, "Uncommon therapy", 1973 + 1986, p.28)
- Everyone is different, always check, never assume a pattern is universal - NLP asserts that this internal structuring, or organizing, of personal experience is highly idiosyncratic. That is, it is either unique to each individual and develops during their life, or any higher organizational function that would explain its development is not yet identified so it might as well be unique to each individual.
- So whilst it is claimed there are consistently useful ways to approach studying an individual's subjective experience, every pattern is a generalization and will have exceptions or new variations. So even core NLP models such as the VAK model, cannot always be assumed to hold true, but must be tested or confirmed first.
NLP's approach to clinical conditions
Main article: Therapeutic use of NLP
NLP does not have the same model of "problem" and "solution" as clinical psychiatry, instead its model is based upon helping clients to overcome their own self-perceived problems (subjective) rather than those that others may feel they have. It seeks to do this while respecting their own capabilities and wisdom to choose additional specific goals for the intervention as they learn more about their problems, and to modify and specify those goals further as a result of the extended interaction.
This differs from common clinical practice based upon certain conditions defined as "illness". NLP interventions are not usually guided by DSM's list of illness criteria; rather it views any condition whereby a person subjectively considers their life could be improved, equally appropriate to work with. For this reason NLP does not necessarily see presenting symptoms in terms of "illness" and "cure", per se.
By design, NLP is also an entire model of diagnosis and therapeutic intervention. The NLP diagnosis determines the NLP intervention, and every interaction in the treatment modifies the approach, as shortcuts, relevant values and limitations to change make themselves known.
So in a sense the efficacy of any intervention is in many ways considered to be a client judgement, insofar as it is usually the client who has the perception of a problem and sought help in the first place.
Criticisms of the principles of NLP
Main discussion: Neuro-linguistic programming#Criticism
Criticisms of NLP's actual principles (as opposed to NLP itself) generally fall into two camps:
- The subject is open ended, that is, it does not specify how the information it obtains should be used, or what can be done with it. So NLP becomes very prone to quackery, incorporation of pseudoscience, and manipulative uses.
Blame for this is especially directed towards the principle "Use whatever works", which opens the floodgates for idiosyncratic dubious or fraudulent developments masquerading as "the latest thing".
- The principles are non-verifiable, that is, they are not testable nor have they been tested.
NLP practitioners tend to respond:
- NLP is by design open ended, it adds richness and allows incorporation of new ideas. Some see the incorporation of idiosyncratic models as positive, others as negative (although none have authority and few act to stamp them out).
- NLP is an empirical field, it learns by trial and error. It asserts that certain principles are useful, and practitioners and the core principles at least have a degree of support amongst others who have studied human life, psychology and communication. They are intended as axioms, so to speak, that is, generally useful working assumptions and principles (that seem to incorporate important knowledge about these fields), rather than constructs derived from some "theory of experience". As such, practitioners would tend to agree with the statement that that although we don't know if they are literally "true", we do know that they are consistently useful.
Stronger criticism is usually levelled at NLP as a whole, for the pseudoscientific hype, exaggerated claims and commercialization often associated with it by some of its practitioners, and this is discussed under the main NLP article.
- List of NLP topics
- Cognitive Psychology
- Cognitive Linguistics
- General Semantics
- Logical Positivism
- Transformational-Generative Grammar
- Subjective character of experience
- Philosophy of perception
- Map-territory relation
- A full presentation of NLP, how its different fields interconnect, and principles behind them
- NLP entry in the Skeptic's Dictionary