Why you shouldn’t look for a unifying theory of NLP

by Martin Messier

Why did the Ericksonian hypnotherapist switch to gardening?

Because he wanted to put his clients in a "trance plant" state!

On the heels on this hilarity, let's move right along!

One of my favorite books about NLP is John Grinder and Frank Pucelik's:

"The Origins of Neuro Linguistic Programming"

More NLPers should read it.

It shares many tales of the early days of NLP in the voice of those who were there. People like Robert Dilts, Leslie Cameron, Judith DeLozier, among others. Besides offering different perspectives, stories help us sink our teeth into organic nuggets that yield insights that abstract concepts usually don't.

(This, incidentally, is one of the main issues I have with courses.)

One of the essays is written by Stephen Gilligan. He writes:

[...] Richard and John went to visit Erickson in late 1974, I believe, for three or four days. When they came back with stories, tapes, and books, my cosmic egg cracked open. Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir had been the prominent wizards of the initial Meta-Model focus, but adding Erickson to the mix was like introducing imaginary numbers into a primary math equation of adding numbers. Whatever it was, it was (and remains) something of mysterious and melodious beauty! I remember this inner space opening up, and a silent voice said, “This is why you’re here.” Dramatic, yes, but quite meaningful for a 19-year-old kid! 

Actually, Erickson so skillfully and consistently violated virtually every Meta-Model rule that it required the development of the “Milton Model,” a sort of inverted pattern of the former. These complementary models suggested different ways to communicate with the conscious and unconscious minds. Whereas skillful communication with the conscious mind was helped when a fuller linguistic map was developed (via the Meta Model), effective communication with the unconscious occurred via Meta-Model violations (ambiguities, generalities, deletions, etc.) that invited the listener to perform their own “trancederivational” search, resulting in a creative unconscious elaboration. This movement into a dual-mind model opened up infinitely more possibilities of experimental communication, and the pleasure of ever deeper discoveries.

Notice how, in two paragraphs, Gilligan reveals why models have to be person-bound and why, as Practitioners, we shouldn't necessarily seek to mix and match models from different exemplars.

With the Meta Model, the Bandler and Grinder Brothers Band had found a therapeutic "silver bullet" of sorts. When they described its components and how to use it in "The Structure of Magic," they set up a systematic approach to using language in therapy.

However, their modeling work of Milton Erickson rapidly revealed that their Meta Model wasn't a unifying theory of therapeutic approaches. In fact, quite the opposite! By actively and intentionally violating the Meta Model "rules," Erickson was able to produce as impressive if not even more amazing therapeutic results!

The lesson is clear: don't try to shoehorn someone's performance into your current understanding of how a phenomenon works. Instead, leverage NLP's methodology and code to model any outstanding performer's behavior on its own. 

Start fresh every time. Go at the project with beginner eyes.

You may discover that the big no-no for one top performer is the big yeah-yeah for the next.

Let me illustrate this with something from my own experience...

As I open up to learning about new perspectives on trading (now that I've formalized my model), I'm running into this issue repeatedly. Here's an example: many successful traders advocate to never trade against the trend. Their refrain: follow the trend!

On the other hand, there are other successful traders who sing the EXACT OPPOSITE chorus: trade against the trend! They follow a different approach they call "reversion to the mean".

Which one is right? Which one is wrong?

That's not the question to ask.

A better question would be: under which conditions might it be better to follow one vs the other? 

Here's another one: Is it possible to specialize in both, or would it be more effective to choose one and sacrifice the other?

No right. No wrong. No true. No false.

There's simply effectiveness and useful descriptions.

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