NLP 101:
The Ultimate Introduction to NLP

DISCLAIMER: What I'm about to present you here is a model of NLP. It's not the ultimate truth as to what NLP is. It is also not widely shared.

The purpose of this guide is to slice and dice NLP in a way that makes sense to you. It will create simple buckets of understanding in which you will be able to fit everything you read and learn into a coherent whole.


A Quick Trip Back In History...

To make sense of the description I'm going to give you here, it's important to understand how this shindig all started.

We need to know:

  1. Who were Richard Bandler and John Grinder
  2. Why they met
  3. Who they modeled

Let's get going...

NLP begins when these two guys...

Young Richard Bandler

Richard Bandler

John Grinder

John Grinder

started collaborating at the University of Santa Cruz.

To make a long story short, USC student Richard Bandler was assisting Gestalt Therapy founder Fritz Perls in recording his group therapy sessions.

More or less as a game, Bandler started "imitating" the way Fritz Perls spoke with his patients.

To his surprise, he started producing therapeutic results similar to Fritz Perls's, with one key difference: Bandler had no clue HOW it was happening.

Bandler enlisted John Grinder, a PhD from the linguistics department, to assist him in figuring out the mysterious HOW.

Grinder successfully worked with Bandler to build a formal model of Fritz Perls's therapeutic techniques.

Due to their success in this engagement, they went on to model two other renowned, very effective therapists: Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson.

In summary, they...

...modeled the therapeutic techniques of
these three super-therapists...

Virginia Satir

Virginia Satir

Milton Erickson

Milton Erickson

Fritz Perls

Fritz Perls

... so that they THEMSELVES had the skills AND were also able to teach them to others.

In so doing, they crafted a model of language in therapy based on their work in modeling Virginia Satir and Fritz Perls, which they published in the books "The Structure of Magic I" and "The Structure of Magic II."

They also crafted a model of the hypnotic techniques of Milton Erickson that they published in the two volumes of "Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton Erickson."

Their modeling work also yielded several distinctions about how people process information cognitively, which they encapsulated in the:

  • Representational system framework
  • Submodalities framework
  • Eye accessing cues framework

These frameworks became the essential NLP toolkit.

Note: if you want to get a full account from the horse's mouth, be sure to read these two books that John Grinder co-authored:

The Origins of Neuro Linguistic Programming
Whispering In The Wind

Both books share fascinating anecdotes and specific pivotal moments of the foundation of the field. If you're serious about learning and mastering NLP, you cannot skip these two works.

Do Not Confuse NLP With Its Models

Once again, it bears mentioning...

What you're about to read is not gospel, universally accepted truth about NLP. NLP trainers may or may not agree with what I'm about to share with you.

I'm offering you this distinction because it makes it easier to organize your learning.

The models that Bandler and Grinder produced as a product of their effort — the model of language in therapy and the patterns of Erickson's hypnotic techniques — ARE NOT NLP models.

They are, respectively, therapy models and hypnosis models produced by NLPers. There's a big difference between the two.

They belong to their respective fields — not to the field of NLP.

So much so that, in the beginning, Bandler and Grinder taught these models and patterns exclusively to therapists so that they could improve in their practice.

Think of it in terms of guitar-making vs guitar-playing...

Jim Olson

Among the artists who perform on his guitars, you will find people such as:

  • Leo Kottke
  • David Crosby
  • Paul McCartney
  • Graham Nash
  • David Wilcox

and also...

NLP is a bit like luthierie (the art of guitar-making).

Just as the work of a fine luthier enables a musician to perform at the highest possible level, the work of a fine NLP practitioner enables someone from a specific field to perform at his or her highest possible level.

An NLP practitioner brings NLP models with him into the field of hypnosis, distills hypnosis models and then leaves the field of hypnosis.

An NLP practitioner brings NLP models with her into the field of sales, distills sales models and then leaves the field of sales.

Think of NLP as you would the machinery used to build a car. These machines are not cars. They are used to build cars.

Likewise, NLP is not a therapeutic model. It can be used to build therapeutic models.

How NLP goes beyond therapy

NLP remains agnostic as to its applications.

Once you master NLP, you can derive applications in various fields, including therapy, counseling, leadership, writing, music, publishing, advertising, public speaking and many others.

Don’t box NLP into a particular area of application. In their book Whispering In The Wind, John Grinder and Carmen Bostic StClair create a parallel between how physics relates to engineering and how NLP relates to communication.

Quoting them:

The required distinction is the same as the distinction between physics and engineering, or medical research and clinical practice, or chemistry and pharmacology. Physics, for example, is the study of the patterns that govern the physical phenomena about us. Such studies over centuries have resulted in the coding of certain patterns, principles, laws of nature… An engineer designing a bridge will draw upon this body of tested and verified patterning (especially the computational formulae) to carry out his work. He is said to be applying the principles of physics in order to work how specifically the bridge should be constructed. Physics – the study of the fundamental patterns of physical phenomena – can be applied in multiple instances from bridge building to the design of extraterrestrial vehicles. Such examples are applications of physics, pure and simple.

Comparably, the modeling of geniuses done by Grinder and Bandler created the field of NLP, resulting in a series of models of excellence. These models coded patterns that govern the patterns of interactions among people in certain contexts (change work, hypnosis…). A business consultant addressing a challenge within a client company will draw upon the patterns. She will be said to be applying this body of tested and verified patterns in order to determine how specifically to resolve the challenge.

NLP – the study of the fundamental patterns of excellence in human performance – can be applied (in the context of business practice, for example) to management practice, strategic planning, personnel, recruitment, new product design… Such examples are applications of NLP, pure and simple.

In other words, you’re absorbing, coding and transferring the patterns of thought and behavior of people who distinguish themselves in their field.

How you choose to apply the patterns you uncover is up to you.

When are you studying what?

When you are studying the patterns that Bandler and Grinder distilled from their modeling of Fritz Perls, you are not studying NLP. You are studying Gestalt patterns.

When you are studying the patterns they distilled from modeling Milton Erickson, you are not studying NLP. You are studying hypnotic patterns.

When you are studying the patterns they distilled from modeling effective spellers, you are not studying NLP. You are studying spelling patterns.

Of course, a question comes to mind:

"When am I studying NLP?"

Let's address this now...

NLP Consists Of 4 Components

To master NLP, you must learn and master 4 components:

  • A unique modeling methodology
  • An epistemological framework (the code)
  • A tool
  • A skillset

You are studying NLP when you are studying and practicing any of these four components.

Let's take a look at each of them one by one.

1. A unique modeling methodology

I've written extensively about NLP modeling, so I will only give you the gist on this page.

The modeling we are talking about here has 6 distinct steps:

  1. Identify a model
  2. Assimilate their behavioral patterns unconsciously
  3. Produce results similar to those of the top performer
  4. Clean up the pattern
  5. Code the model
  6. Pass it on

The main distinction in the NLP modeling process is Step 2.

Most modeling approaches operate "from the bleachers." This means that most modelers build models by observing how their exemplar does things, analyzing what their actions appear to be and codifying them.

NLP's methodology REQUIRES the modeler to absorb the behavioral patterns BEFORE they try to understand or analyze them.

The modeler always relies on an objective criterion that determines whether (s)he has effectively absorbed the patterns: (s)he has to produce a result similar to those of the outstanding performer (s)he is modeling.

If you truly want to master NLP, you must master this modeling methodology.

2. An epistemological framework (the code)

You'll notice that step 5 of the modeling methodology is "Code the model."

This presupposes that a code exists and that you know it.

The spelling strategy is coded like this (this is a really simple code):

Ve or Vi → Ki

If this makes no sense to you, it simply means you have to learn the code.

It isn't hard, but you have to learn it.

Think of it as an alphabet and a syntax that you have to learn in order to be able to write in "NLPese."

3. A tool

Mastering NLP means mastering the Meta Model.

Bandler and Grinder built the Meta Model using the framework of transformational grammar — an important model in linguistics.

We use the Meta Model to build a map of our exemplar's model of the world.

Here's a useful analogy to understand the use of the Meta Model...

Think of a city — Los Angeles, for instance.

Now, think of a street map of L.A.

That map is a model of L.A.

The set of distinctions you use to be able to build that map/model of L.A. are the Meta Map or Meta Model for building maps.

Likewise, the Meta Model in NLP is the tool we use to create our models of excellence.

Study it until you have it fully internalized.

I can't tell you how often I run into NLP Practitioners certified at the highest level (trainer even) who do not have a solid grasp of the Meta Model.

Mastering the Meta Model doesn't mean learning a few questions about the well-formedness of sentences. It means understanding with precision how language fits together and how it maps to underlying neurological structures.

i.e, mastering the Meta Model requires that you APPLY YOURSELF.


4. A skillset

Here are the skills that I encourage you to sharpen as you journey towards your mastery of NLP.

1. Sensory acuity

It's important that you sharpen your senses so you can make ever finer visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory distinctions.

Any exercise that sharpens your sense of observation, hearing and touch will increase your sensory acuity.

2. Calibration

That's the second level up from sensory acuity.

Calibration is the science of knowing someone's mental processes from observing external physical cues, like micro-facial movements, tics or intonation shifts.

3. Intonation

Learn how to use your voice skillfully in the three major tonalities — interrogation (asking), declaration (stating) and injunction (commanding).

4. Hallucination

I would say "visualization," but that word is limited to the visual sense. Hallucination involves all five sensory modalities.

5. Rapport

Rapport is a state of responsiveness. When you sign up for dailyNLP, I send you a full training guide on rapport. Take advantage of it.

6. Anchoring

Anchoring is a naturally occuring phenomenon by which we link external cues (a particular facial expression, for instance) to an internal reaction (laughter, for instance). We are anchoring constantly whether we know it or not.

A competent NLPer uses anchoring consciously and voluntarily.

Is NLP a Pseudoscience?

A while back, I was part of a group led by Tim Hallbom (certainly a credible authority in the NLP world) who worked together to try and alter the contents of NLP's Wikipedia page.

We did not succeed in our mission. However, during our project, I addressed several of the criticisms directed at NLP.

I'm including them here so you can evaluate the field at the light of my rebuttals.

“Preferred representational system” is a bogus notion

The experimental research that does exist was mostly done in the 1980s and 1990s. It consisted of laboratory experimentation testing Bandler and Grinder’s hypotheses that a person’s preferred sensory mode of thinking can be revealed by observing eye movement cues and sensory predicates in language use. A research review conducted by Christopher Sharpley which focused on preferred representational systems, in 1984, followed by another review in 1987 in response to a critique published by Einspruch and Forman, concluded that there was little evidence for its usefulness as an effective counseling tool. Reviewing the literature in 1988, Michael Heap also concluded that objective and fair investigations had shown no support for NLP claims about “preferred representational systems.”

I don’t know if I came in too late to the field, but...

By the time I started studying NLP, no serious trainer talked about this. I personally find this idea of “preferred rep system” bogus. It may have been an attempt to use rep systems as the basis for a typology (similar to Myers-Briggs).

I’m not sufficiently familiar with that research to credit or discredit it. I do, however, disagree with the notion of a “preferred” rep system. Each of us shifts from one representational system to the next according to context. It’s not a fixed preference.

NLP as a strategy for social influence

A research committee working for the United States National Research Council led by Daniel Druckman came to two conclusions. First, the committee “found little if any” evidence to support NLP’s assumptions or to indicate that it is effective as a strategy for social influence. “It assumes that by tracking another’s eye movements and language, an NLP trainer can shape the person’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions (Dilts, 1983). There is no scientific support for these assumptions.” Secondly, the committee members “were impressed with the modeling approach used to develop the technique. The technique was developed from careful observations of the way three master psychotherapists conducted their sessions, emphasizing imitation of verbal and nonverbal behaviors… This then led the committee to take up the topic of expert modeling in the second phase of its work.”(Druckman, 2004) Von Bergen et al. (1997) state that “the most telling commentary on NLP may be that in the latest revision of his text on enhancing human performance, Druckman (Druckman & Bjork 1991) omitted all reference to Neurolinguistic Programming.” According to Gelso and Fassinger (1990) Sharpley’s literature review, marked a decline in empirical research of NLP, and particularly in matching sensory predicates and its use in counsellor-client relationship in counseling psychology.

“[…] The committee “found little if any” evidence to […] indicate that it is effective as a strategy for social influence.”

No shit, Sherlock.

NLP is not a strategy for social influence.

It would be analogous to saying that quantum physics is a strategy to build bridges, or that you can use C++ to change someone’s mind.

NLP is just a methodology and a code you use to map out someone’s model of the world.

It’s not a silver bullet that solves everything.

Anyone who tries to peddle that idea is full of it.

Numero 2: NLP is not a technique.

The text above states “the committee members were impressed with the modeling approach used to develop the technique. The technique was developed from careful observations of the way three master psychotherapists conducted their sessions, emphasizing imitation of verbal and nonverbal behaviors.”

If you’re calling NLP a technique, you definitely don’t understand the field AT ALL.

Also, it seems a bit superficial to discredit a field just because Dr. Daniel Druckman omitted all references to it in a report. No matter what his credentials are, I sincerely doubt Dr. Druckman’s omniscience.

If it’s taken me 15 years of studying NLP to get to the point where I am today, I don’t think someone could understand the field in just a few days or weeks of reviewing it from the outside. It would be akin to watching a Tibetan monk meditate and telling him that he’s wasting his time.

Empirical vs Phenomenological research

NLP practitioners and academics Tosey and Mathison have argued that the experimental approach is not always appropriate for researching NLP, instead proposing that NLP should be researched phenomenologically. Gareth Roderique-Davies (2009) stated that “Phenomenological research is free from hypotheses, pre-conceptions and assumptions, and seeks to describe rather than explain. Given the claims made by proponents of NLP, this adds little to the credibility debate and would produce reports concerning the experience from the perspective of the individual rather than confirmation of the claimed efficacy. The fact remains that NLP proponents make specific claims about how NLP works and what it can do and this compels providing evidence to substantiate these claims.” He argued that the proposal to conduct phenomenology research using NLP modeling “constitutes an admission that NLP does not have an evidence base and that NLP practitioners are seeking a post-hoc credibility.

Whether the field can be investigated empirically or phenomenologically, I leave those who need that kind of validation to evaluate whether to pursue the field or not. 

One thing is certain: I get results from it and know many people who also do.

With that said, I just feel that criticisms highlighted on the Wikipedia page effectively discredit a wrong comprehension of the field (and by the way, I have no interest no discuss, argue or prove NLP’s validity with skeptics or others).

After you watch a master like Rex Sikes in action, and have the chance to interact with him, you know something is up. That’s what I’m passionately pursuing.

The validity claim for NLP is not “is it true?” but “is it useful?” I have found, and continue to find, it very useful over the years (in the same way I continue to find HTML useful).

You may or may not. Only your own experience can give you that answer.

PS: My NLP colleague Mike Bundrant has written an extensive article regarding the Wikipedia page dedicated to NLP. I suggest you read it to get a sobering perspective both on claims made on that page and on Wikipedia as a whole.

What's Next?

There you have it!

That's NLP 101.

Keep that in mind at all times and you will progress rapidly in the field.

Let's first do a quick recap...

Don't mistake therapeutic techniques for NLP

That's probably the most important message of this piece.

NLP is not a therapeutic, coaching or communication modality.

NLP is a modeling methodology and epistemological framework (read: code) that will allow you to absorb the patterns of excellence of outstanding performers, code them into an explicit model and then teach them to others — if you so wish.

If you want to learn the therapeutic models and patterns that Bandler and Grinder modeled, by all means go ahead.

Just be very clear when you are going down that avenue that you're not learning NLP.

Learning NLP involves getting a solid grasp on:

  1. its unique modeling methodology,
  2. its code
  3. its master tool (the Meta Model)
  4. the six key skills.

(You may also be interested in NLP's 4 areas of activity.)


When certain people claim that "NLP doesn't work", what are they referring to?

Are they referring to the METHODOLOGY and CODE that Bandler and Grinder used to ABSORB and SYSTEMATIZE Fritz Perls's, Virginia Satir's and Milton Erickson's therapeutic patterns?

Or are they saying that these therapeutic patterns don't work?

Which of the two?

The first is wrong because both Grinder and Bandler successfully absorbed those patterns and successfully taught them to others. We can then conclude that their methodology is effective.

The second is also wrong because the therapeutic patterns they modeled DO work, as attested by the sources themselves.

How would you twist the claim that "NLP doesn't work" so it makes sense, then?

You can't.

NLP always works when Practitioners define its scope correctly, stay in their sandbox and don't try to claim ownership of the whole territory.

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