Thursday 1 October 2015

NLP - does it work

I like a challenge, and as I have a few hours before my plane leaves Amsterdam, I have decided to use that time to reply to Rob Briner's post asking about the evidence for NLP. 

I'd suggest the question is flawed - it's assuming NLP is something that we can define - something we all have a common understanding about that we can put in a wheelbarrow and investigate.  

However I see NLP as something similar to purchasing, HR, gardening or dancing. That is - a catch all title that doesn't necessarily tell you what competencies, tools, techniques or outcomes anyone is using or getting from doing that activity. I personally put the techniques I learnt on the NLP workshops in the personal development or soft skills category rather than using NLP.

I don't know the research behind dancing, and in fact I would suggest I don't even know what the outcome we think dancing is meeting. I know I enjoy it, and I know I personally get benefit from doing it and watching it. That's enough evidence for me. 

There's lots of varieties of dance, and when millions sit down to watch Strictly Come Dancing on Saturday evening they're not wondering what research has been undertaken for its efficacy. 

Everyone watching Strictly will have a different viewpoint about the benefits they get from watching, and what benefits those taking part obtain. If they don't enjoy watching it they simply turn it off - friends may try to convince them of the error of their ways but they're hardly going to be persuaded to watch by someone showing them a research paper on the benefits of vicarious dance watching. Alternatively millions of people enjoying it won't be persuaded by other research demonstrating how TV watching is bad for them.

That is the Strictly watchers, and non watchers alike, use their personal experience to determine the efficacy of their experience. That experience will then determine whether they continue to choose to experience it.

If I want to get fitter, learn to dance, relax, become more supple or flexible, laugh out loud, or simply spend time with friends there will be a multitude of dance classes, nightclubs (are they still called that?) or DVDs I can use to support me in achieving that outcome. 

To decide which of these different classes we take we will each need different data/evidence.
  • One person may need to try it for themselves and if they have a good experience believe it works
  • Another may need to try it 5 times until they believe it's effective 
  • Someone else may need to know someone who has benefited 
  • Or know 10 people who have benefited 
  • Or know someone in authority who has found it works 
  • Or only know it's effective if their friend believes it 
  • Or read a book on the subject 
  • Or they may need to know why it works
  • Or understand the underlying theory or process it uses 
  • Or see the research that supports why it works
We're all different - the above list provides 10 different means of obtaining evidence. What we each mean by the word 'evidence' is therefore different. My evidence, is not your evidence, is not another person's evidence. There is certainly evidence for the efficacy of all NLP techniques just not the evidence some would like.

I can't persuade someone who wants the research paper that something works based on my experience, in the same way someone else wont be able to persuade me that my experience is invalid because of the lack of a research paper. In the same way that, just because someone only believes in something's efficacy because a professor said so, doesn't mean I'm going to discount my own experience. (Best not muddy the water further with exploring the fact that we often get what we look for in life which presupposes nothing is fact :-)) 

Yes there will be dance DVDs and classes making extraordinary claims but they're the minority and certainly won't be used to judge all dance classes. Why expect the same from those using NLP techniques in their work. It's why I use personal development as the term to describe the tools I use - too many people have chunked their experience of 1 NLP tool or practitioner to mean it applies to all NLP tools and practitioners. Something we don't do when we look for dance, soft skills, communication or influencing experts. 

I don't know what research has been done on every NLP technique - similarly I don't know what research has been done for dancing. I don't know why people haven't tried to justify each of the NLP tool's existence or efficacy. I don't know who would pay for this, and the motivation behind doing it. The things I read about where research is funded seem to be where $billions are involved to counter the nay sayers in order to protect the profit e.g. pharma, FMCG, car emissions and so on - and look where research got them. 

(I'm not saying research isn't valid I'm just saying that for me my own experience will have a higher priority than someone else's research because I trust myself more. That said if someone provides their evidence I will explore it to see if my own criteria may be flawed, or in need of change. After that we may agree to disagree  - we're simply choosing to work from a different map of the world).

I also don't know the research for the category management tools and techniques, supplier management techniques or HR techniques I use every day - but I still use them. 360 degree feedback was all the rage some time ago and now I'm reading it's going out of favour. Did research determine when it was the flavour of the month, and it is now determining it's decline? I don't know - although the research itself doesn't necessarily change someone's good or bad experience of 360 feedback. 

What I do know is since attending an NLP workshop I understand myself better, and therefore as a result can flex my behaviour more easily to adapt to situations and people. The tools I use the most, with myself and others, I use frequently because they work (for me and my clients) eg well formed outcomes, eliciting values, beliefs, use of metaphor, rapport, language, anchoring **, standing in their shoes

I'm sad Rob if you want to know the research before you try out a technique (although now I check your occupation I can understand it's the foundation of what you do). For me that would provide me with a lot of stress because it would impact so many aspects of my life and stop me making any decisions or taking action! 

I saw someone do something really well today, and at the next opportunity I will be trying it out myself. I don't need to know what research supports its efficacy - I experienced the words for myself and will see what outcome I get. If it works I may do it again, and I may even tell others. (That said I'd word it as 'this worked for me why not try it yourself' rather than saying "having tried it once I now think it's a miracle cure".)

For me that's what modelling is all about - and NLP started out as 2 academics researching how people did what they did well so others could try it for themselves. The tools aren't something new and were around before someone decided to give put them in a NLP toolkit - they're things people, who do things well, do - so watch 2 people in rapport and you'll be able to learn what rapport is. Yes I learnt this on an NLP workshop - but if prompted you could learn it on a bus or in the pub too. Most things I learn in conversation with others in the pub I don't feel the need to rush to find the research - I may buy a book but I'm assuming that's not what you'd accept as evidence Rob? The lack of research certainly wouldn't stop me trying them out and then sharing it in my work if I found they worked for me. 

Your very question Rob is the essence of what NLP workshops have taught me - we're all different, we're motivated by different things, react differently, have different convincer strategies. What is right for me may not be right for you - it doesn't mean we're either right or wrong - it's just how we make sense of our world. 

I'm sorry I can't give you what you need to know - I'd love to be able to give you the research that proves that a number of NLP techniques are fabulous tools - just because I can't doesn't mean they're not fabulous tools for some people. 

Ok best go through security - see you on the other side ;-) 

** just a thought - anchoring is based on Pavlov's research (ie the guy with the dogs, bell and dog food) and is the basis behind the phobia technique I was taught. That is a stimulus causes a reaction and you can exchange that negative reaction with a more positive one. ie use the same mechanism that you developed the phobia in the first place to make it less intense. It's not magic but may feel like that to someone who has had a phobia for years and no longer has it. The key to getting the technique right is ensuring you understand the stimulus - for a spider it could be seeing it, or it moving, or its legs or something else entirely. Until you understand the stimulus that triggers the reaction Pavlov's theory isn't going to be of any use at all! We've taught ourselves how to be scared for years and we can teach ourselves not to be - someone just decided to put it in the NLP toolkit.


  1. Richard Bandler posited that NLP is "... an attitude which is an insatiable curiosity about human beings with a methodology that leaves behind it a trail of techniques."
    The original questioner at least demonstrates curiosity.
    When running NLP training, perhaps the most important request is for people to turn up with open minds and a willingness to try the ways of thinking, tools and techniques on offer. The first opens the way for the second.

  2. As someone undertaking a PhD right now and using Metaprogrammes to determine cognitive complexity (if I can) I am afraid I have to side with Rob on this one.
    Here is his erudite response to this article. I t think it hits the nail on the head, in that opinion doesn't matter to science, and if something is asserted, it should be testable, despite the words of the cult leader (Bandler). An open mind is irrelevant Geoff...

    So to keep it simple here: 1. In asking about the evidence for the effectiveness of NLP I'm deliberately not referring to your experience or opinions or my experience or opinions or anyone else's. 2. One of the points of doing research is it's about collecting data that is relatively independent of people's opinions and bias. So it's not about what people believe or have seen. 3. It IS about evaluating claims. If you say X does Y even if it depends on many other factors then this is a strong and researchable claim. 4. In terms of my opinion and the ethical standards of many professions it is wrong to make claims in the absence of reasonable or good quality evidence to support those claims. From what I can tell in the case of NLP there is not good quality evidence. 5. I guess many of us can imagine why it's wrong, for example, to suggest to a cancer victim that they should just try to be positive as that will help them recover if the evidence shows fairly clearly that it won't (it does). Or if we can see it might be wrong to say to someone who has recently suffered a bereavement that we can communicate with their dead relative who is sending them messages (assuming dead people can't communicate). Or that it might be wrong to say to someone they should try some NLP technique to resolve some serious psychological problem if there is no body of good quality evidence that shows that this technique is effective. So in a way, I don't think this is necessarily a complicated set of issues. If you are making a clear claim about anything from NLP to a HR practice to a vitamin pill to a soap powder then it's probably researchable and people's experience and opinions are not the best form of evidence to test these claims.

    1. Well Nom de Plume, challenge offered...

      I want to start by saying that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence - so science went for many years without hard evidence to support Einstein's theories, and partly because science was not sophisticated enough to detect or measure the effects he postulated. That did not stop us scientists believing that Special/General Relativity was true.
      My second concern is the use of methodologies appropriate for the 'hard' sciences when investigating 'soft' topics in the social science (aka Human) arena. The number of variables associated with any piece of human behaviour (or belief) is MASSIVE and controlling for them all utterly impractical.
      Thirdly, I am astonished to read your rebuttal of the need for an open mind. As a researcher I would imagine that you need to be open to any outcome, depending on what your data reveals, not be attached to some particular outcome.
      Which is not to say that we should not try to evaluate the success, or otherwise, of NLP. Although we just may be in the same territory as placebos - they work for some people but not for others.