An Introduction to NLP

What is NLP?

NLP is the abbreviation for Neuro Linguistic Programming.

Neuro                 –           The Mind/Body and our internal communication

Linguistic           –             Language – the language we use to communicate and express ourselves

Programming     –             Mental and emotional conditioning – repeating sequences of thought and action.

NLP was founded by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the 1970s, drawing influence from the areas of (Milton) Ericksonian hypnosis, Linguistics, and Cybernetics (“Control and Communication in Man, Machine, and Animal”).

NLP has been described by its founders as ‘The study of the STRUCTURE of subjective experience’.

Although we may not often consider this, everyone has their own particular experience of the world – both their internal and external environments.  We experience the world around us, initially, through our senses – we see, hear, feel, smell and taste things and maybe ‘sense’ or intuit things.  The input from our senses is then translated internally to provide us with a representation of the world around us.

We also have a unique and individual experience of our internal environment – our thoughts, feelings, internal dialogue, and awareness of our bodies – maybe pain or stress, or a sense of being calm and relaxed.

These are our subjective experiences, as they are particular to each of us.

The STRUCTURE of the experience is HOW we go about creating our experience.

NLP is concerned with the HOW of what we are thinking and doing, rather than WHAT we are thinking and doing.  Do we have positive mental images of a required outcome, or maybe negative self-talk?  In understanding HOW one person, maybe an expert in their field, goes about doing something, or the way in which they are thinking, it is possible to teach that mechanism, strategy or approach to others.  This is an important part of NLP, and is referred to as modelling.

The ‘Spelling strategy’ is an example of this, where people who were very good at spelling were modelled to see how they did it.  It turned out that people who had a visual image (in their memory) of a word they wanted to spell would be able to reference that, see it, and then write it out.  If a word wasn’t written correctly they would look at it and then get a feeling that it wasn’t right.  People who tried to spell by sounding out a word were not as successful at spelling correctly.

There are many uses and applications of NLP – some good, some maybe not so.  Like any tool, it is not the tool that is at fault, it is the intent with which it is used.

Some areas in which it has been used are Sales, Coaching, Sports, and Therapy.


The Mind/Body

In terms of the mind, people often talk of the Conscious and Sub-Conscious.

The Conscious Mind is our thinking and perception, of which we are aware at any particular time.

The Sub-Conscious is what is happening below our level of conscious awareness.

We take in vast amounts of perceptual information, of which we are not consciously aware; our body systems are run without us having to think about them.  Our memories are stored and organised without conscious effort or thinking on our part.

When we learn something new – maybe a sport or activity or language, we are conscious of what we are doing.  Once we have learned something we may make a conscious choice to do it, but may then carry out the activity without consciously having to think about how to do it, or even thinking that we are doing it – we just do it.

We can however, bring our behaviours and actions to conscious awareness where, if they are not ideal and we wish to, we can choose to change them.  NLP techniques can be used to do this, and this is also the basis of the Eastern practice of Mindfulness.  Beliefs may also be held subconsciously, and may lead to certain behaviours or ways of being.  Again, there are many NLP techniques which can be used to elicit and change any non-beneficial ones, as necessary.


Body Language

What and how we are thinking and feeling impact on, and show in, our posture and physiology.  This is often referred to as ‘body language’.

The reverse is also true – by altering our posture and physiology we can change how we think and feel.  It is very useful to be aware of this, as we can consciously make changes to our posture and breathing, for example to improve how we are feeling. E.g. slow belly breathing to alleviate stress.  Meditation, Yoga and many other practices make use of this fact.

Body language can account for a large proportion of our communication.  It is estimated that as little as 7% of our communication is from WHAT we say, with a much greater amount being expressed by HOW we say something (maybe our tone of voice), our facial expressions, and our body language.


Eye Accessing Cues

A similar connection between the mind and body is evident in relation to eye movements.  WHERE we are looking indicates HOW we are thinking – whether we are creating mental images, remembering a picture, recalling a sound, experiencing feelings, or listening to our internal dialogue.

This can also be utilised in reverse, by looking in a certain direction to help access the ability to create mental images – which can be useful for envisaging goals.

An NLP technique which utilises this is ‘The New Behaviour Generator”.



Language is primarily a communication medium.  It is a way of communicating with others (and sometimes our selves) and expressing our thoughts and feelings.

One part of NLP relevant to language is the use of Hypnotic Language to communicate with someone’s Sub-Conscious Mind to effect change.  As mentioned earlier, this can be used to influence or manipulate (e.g. Brainwashing and some Sales techniques), or to benefit the person by changing negative behaviours/habits and beliefs, and to improve self esteem and confidence, clarity, awareness and achievement.


Personal Language

It can be very interesting and informative to notice the language we use and the language of others.  It can be very telling, and can provide insights into our state of mind and wellbeing.  We can then become conscious of the kind of language that we are using – either to others or to ourselves, and look for and practice using alternative words, phrases or expressions which may be more beneficial for our wellbeing.

Consider the impact of saying to oneself “I can do this”, or “I’m stupid – I’ll never do this”.

It is also interesting to realise that just as people experience the world through different senses, they often describe their world and experience in terms of the senses:

Visual – “I see”, “That’s your view”, “the big picture”;

Auditory – “I hear what you’re saying”

Kinaesthetic/Feeling – “I feel pressured”, “It’s heavy”,

Gustatory (Taste) – “That’s sweet”, “He’s tasty”,

Olfactory (Smell) – “I could smell a rat”

People often have a preference for one (or maybe two) of these ways of expressing themselves.  It is interesting to become aware of your own preferences, and those of others.  Some people are very ‘visual’, whereas others may focus more on feelings (both physical sensations (e.g. temperature, pressure, texture etc) and emotions.

The type of language we use (in terms of senses) can have a huge impact regarding communication, rapport, and “being on someone’s wavelength”.  If two people are talking and using different terminology, there can be a mismatch and potential for misunderstandings and a decrease in the effectiveness of communication and perceived connection.

It can also be very enlightening to listen to the kind of language people use about themselves or others that is linked to physical complaints or body parts:

E.g. “He’s spineless”, “She’s a pain in the neck”, “I can’t stomach it” – this kind of dialogue may not be noticed consciously by the person using it, but can be very telling.

Also the work of Louise L Hay – ‘Heal Your Body’, and others (Mona Lisa Schulz, Debbie Shapiro and others), provides very interesting insights into the mind/body relationship and the effect of language on this.



These are the sequences of thought and action that repeat.  They are our learned and practiced behaviour, and mental and emotional conditioning.

They can be highly beneficial, or can cause us problems.  For example it is great that we do not have to learn how to walk each day we get up, or how to drive a car.  Once these things have been learned we get to the stage where we are able to carry out these activities with little or no conscious thought.  Carrying out actions ‘automatically’ can be very beneficial, as it frees up our brains to do and learn other things.  The problem can arise when we have maybe not learned something in the best way, or keep doing things that are harmful to us – mentally, emotionally or physically.  Someone may have ‘learned’ how to be in a dysfunctional relationship, for example, and may keep running that same programme, as it is ‘what they know’.

The good thing is that, if we wish, it is possible to alter our programming to make it as beneficial as possible.



Beliefs play a key part in the way we perceive the world, and act.  The information we take in through our senses is filtered and processed in order for us to ‘make sense of the world’.  We do not, however do this based on solely what is happening ‘in the now’.  Our perception is based on what we choose to pay attention to, our expectations, previous experiences and belief systems.

Someone who was attacked by a dog in childhood, might see a dog and freeze with panic, or run way, because they perceive it as a danger – given their previous experience, possible expectations and belief ‘dogs are dangerous’.  Another person in exactly the same situation may go up to the dog and pet it, yet another person may not notice it at all.

It is not necessarily the experience we have of the world that is important, it is more ‘what we make of it’.

Beliefs – whether consciously held, or sub-conscious, can have a great impact on our experience of life.  The good news is that, if we wish, they can be changed.  Not all adults continue to believe in the Tooth Fairy.  The question is whether a belief is beneficial, if not, what belief would serve us better?



Perspective is another aspect of perception which can have a large impact on the meaning we make of our circumstances and environment.

In NLP the distinction is made between ASSOCIATION, and DISSOCIATION.  Being ‘associated’ as a way of experiencing events means that you are experiencing them as if you are looking at them through your own eyes and are experiencing the associated feelings – you are ‘in it’.  Being dissociated is as if you are a third party observer, where you are less involved, as if you were watching yourself in a play or a film.  Both ways of perceiving or viewing a situation have their benefits.  Being associated, you can fully engage and enjoy an experience, whilst being dissociated enables you to gain perspective and be more analytical.  Many NLP techniques make use of the difference in perception this can have.

There are many NLP tools and techniques which can be applied for a variety of reasons, but the main ethos of NLP is the idea of AWARENESS (of self and others), OPTIONS, CHOICE, and ACTION.

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