Basics, Mind Management

The Ethics of NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a discipline developed by Richard Bandler and Eric Grinder. If you think of computer programming as “cyber-linguistic programming,” you’ll get the gist of NLP. Assuming that the mind is an information processing device, NLP proposes a model of how the mind receives and filters information, and then provides methods of communication that allow us to hack the program.

NLP was popularized in the 1990s by Tony Robbins, whose Unleash the Power Within seminars use a form of group hypnosis to encourage people to cast off their self-limiting beliefs. During business networking, I have encountered life coaches, mediators, sales people and hypnotists who testify to have mastered these practices in seminars typically lasting a week or so.

A characteristic moment from Robbins’ seminar illustrates the technique. Tony may start “you like me – want to get the most out of this weekend.” Through emphasis, that innocuous sentence embeds the suggestion that “I like him.” The suggestion is obscured by the pause between “you” and “like,” and so may be discarded by the conscious mind when the sentence is completed. But the emotional effect lingers on in the subconscious, and subsequently affects our behaviors.

I could elaborate the NLP model, but I hesitate for ethical reasons. That caution was codified by Milton Erickson when founding the America Society for Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). All members must be licensed clinicians with a degree in mental health. (That’s right: I don’t qualify for membership.)

This is significant because Erickson was one of the clinical luminaries that Bandler and Grinder studied to develop the communication patterns that give NLP its power. Erickson’s caution is illustrated in a published paper that applies those patterns to his own work: “Transcript of Trance Induction with Commentary.”

The value of the paper is not just in its elucidation of the techniques that would be adopted in NLP, but also for what it reveals about the context in which those methods were developed. Erickson was an academic researcher, and coaxed many of his patients to serve as experimental subjects before beginning therapy. This was because Erickson felt that successful therapy required the application of “hypnotic work” that was accessible only after twenty or more hours of conditioning. But the experimental subjects were not limited to patients. Erickson and his wife also hosted weekend gatherings in which friends and colleagues were encouraged to explore hypnotic experience.

“Transcript…” is interesting on its face because it shows how skillfully and gently Erickson went about bringing his subjects into hypnotic experience. But for the concerns of this post, the important point is made near the end of the session. Erickson takes the subject into an age regression. The commentary reads:

Her hand didn’t point, so then I started narrowing down. Have her point with her left hand. When she failed to do that, I knew how deep in the water I was. I was out of contact with her.

The problem is in having convinced the subject that she was about eighteen years old, severe trauma would occur if she awoke in that mental state in a room with people who related to her as a thirty-year-old – not least her husband.

NLP techniques are powerful in part because they bypass the conscious mind – but that in itself is why they are so dangerous. The subject changes their behavior and doesn’t understand why. They begin to fear that they are losing their grip on themselves, and so that they might begin to express their worst tendencies. The mind turns against itself and may break.

As I summarized in a prior post, Erickson was extremely sensitive to this vulnerability, and eventually began to try to dissuade practitioners from application of his methods of speaking. Paraphrasing, his observation was

Do not believe that you can adopt my manner of speaking and thereby achieve the same therapeutic results.

I believe that he left silent the stronger caution: that in fact, the subject can be harmed when linguistic methods are applied with neither psychological understanding nor compassionate intuition. (This is not a hypothetical: I have interviewed a client who was so affected.)

Some confirmation of this caution is found in Hammond’s “Handbook of Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors.” Hammond summarized the collected wisdom of the ASCH, and in surveying research on the effectiveness of techniques for formulating suggestions, reported studies that showed NLP was of marginal therapeutic value.

For those of us without clinical degrees, Cheryl O’Neil’s Therapeutic Imagery program, the culmination of the lay hypnotherapy program formulated by Dr. John Kappas at HMI, is a safe practice. The therapeutic method facilitates self-improvement through gradual reconciliation of conscious and subconscious perspectives. The pacing of the process is under the full control of the subconscious mind, whose over-riding concern is to preserve the subject’s well-being.