Not-So-Linguistic Programming

Article excerpt

YEARS AGO AS A GRADUATE TEACHING assistant I was grading an assignment for a class in Applied Linguistics. The students had a broad range of research topics from which to choose, including NLP. Strangely, one student's submission spoke of "achieving peak performance" and maximizing one's potential. The essay was replete with quotes from motivational messiah Anthony Robbins, and examined methodologies with registered trademarks instead of references.

The student had confused Natural Language Processing (NLP) with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). To the public, Neuro-Linguistic Programming is the more salient kind of "NLP". However, this NLP still suffers an identity crisis; in a bookstore I was directed to multiple categories, "Try New Age ... or Self-Improvement ... or Business ... or Medicine ... or Psychology." Despite the name, NLP has nothing to do with neuroscience, linguistics, computer science, or any related fields. These disciplines don't promise to help you quit smoking, or lose weight....

NLP was developed in the 1970s by psychology student John Grinder, and Richard Bandler, a Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The pair created NLP "as a means to investigate and replicate extreme human excellence." (1) According to

   NLP is a behavioral technology, which
   simply means that it is a set of guiding
   principles, attitudes, and techniques
   about real-life behavior, and not a removed,
   scientific theorem. It allows
   you to change, adopt or eliminate behaviors,
   as you desire, and gives you
   the ability to choose your mental,
   emotional, and physical states of well-being.

Still confused? Another source variously describes NLP as "the art of science and communication," "everyday psychology" "commonsense," "a manual for your brain" "the route to get the results you want in all areas of your life" and "the toolkit for personal and organizational change." (3) If these Infomercial-like explanations don't enlighten you, NLP is a controversial, eclectic set of methods of counseling, hypnosis, and communication analysis.

NLP is multi-disciplinary and based loosely on a broad range of theories and methods of varying validity. These are "modeled" on the research of psychotherapist Virginia Satir, hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, philosopher Alfred Korzybski, psychiatrist Fritz Perls, and psychologist Paul Watzlawick. However, with the exception of Satir, (4) the founders did not collaborate with these scholars, so NLP is not necessarily representative of their research. That would be like blaming Richard Dawkins for Intelligent Design.

In further name-dropping, NLP claims to be heavily influenced by seminal linguist Noam Chomsky. In particular, NLP is said to be inspired by Chomsky's transformational grammar, and his concepts of deep structure and surface structure in language. However, this system of analyzing grammar is intended as theory, not therapy. Other than borrowed terminology, NLP doesn't bear authentic resemblance to any of Chomsky's theories or philosophies--linguistic, cognitive, or political. Moreover, Chomsky doesn't patent his theories.

NLP is not any one single theory or approach. The NLP umbrella includes the original Meta Model (modeled after Perls' Gestalt therapy) and the Milton Model (modeled after Ericksonian psychotherapy). NLP now includes a wide range of (often conflicting) techniques, tools, and schools of thought.

NLP aspires to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and may involve face-to-face counseling sessions, hypnotherapy, or self-hypnosis. NLP also involves fringe discourse analysis and "practical" guidelines for "improved" communication. One text asserts, "When you adopt the 'but' word, people will remember what you said afterwards. With the 'and' word, people remember what you said before and after." (5) NLP includes body language theory, such as reading eye movement to detect when someone's lying to you. …