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The history of NLP, part 3: The Gestalt Base of NLP

Your body language shapes who you are

Written by Michael Hall

If you ask, “Where did NLP come from?” there are multiple answers. One of the central answers is Gestalt Therapy. 

NLP arose in the context of a Gestalt Class that Richard Bander and Frank Pucelik started at the new Kresge College at the University of California at Santa Cruz. There they practiced Gestalt practices and principles that they had learned. Frank learned Gestalt Therapy at a university in San Diego where he studied before coming to Santa Cruz. Richard never studied Gestalt. He learned about it from books and from the audio and video tapes of Fritz Perls which Dr. Robert Spitzer gave him to transcribe. From those transcriptions, Spitzer published the book, The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy (1973).

When NLP began—and long before it was called “Neuro-Linguistic Programming”—it began as a class studying how Fritz Perls encountered people to help them develop more fully as human beings. What they added to Gestalt was a structural analysis— that’s when John Grinder got involved. Then together with the group, they began wondering about how the language patterns and experiential processes were able to create the changes that the group was experiencing.

And this may be surprising—they did not invent so much as they appropriated what they found and put it together under the name “NLP”. What follows describes many of the things that NLP inherited from Gestalt. How these facts got shuffled to the back and de-emphasized, I don’t know. Nor do I understand why those who launched NLP didn’t highlight these facts. After all, from my perspective, they validate and give even more credibility to the birth of NLP, not less. Here are some of the things we (NLP) inherited from Gestalt.

1) Sensory Awareness.

The focus on awareness, especially on sensory-based awareness, came from Fritz Perls. Perls was known for his “Now I am aware …” exercise. He would have a person start every sentence with this line as a way to develop sensory awareness. It invited people into the present— and to be present in this moment.

“Become aware of his gestures, breathing, emotions, voice, facial expressions. The more he becomes aware of himself, the more he will learn about what his self is. ‘Now I am aware…’ The Gestalt Approach (p. 65)

“… the patient must come to his ‘senses.’ He must learn to see what is there and not what he imagines being there. He must stop hallucinating, transferring, and projecting.” Gestalt Approach (p. 104)

2) The Sensory Representational System.

NLP also received its focus on the VAK. An extensive description of each sensory system is detailed in chapter three of Gestalt Therapy (1951). There Perls goes through the visual system, auditory, kinesthetic (body awareness) and from there remembering, imagining, emoting, verbalizing. NLP did not invent the VAK— it was in the Gestalt experiments and processes that go back to the early 1950s.

3) Patterns.

In NLP we have lots and lots of what we call “patterns.” These are not new. In fact, in the 1951 book Gestalt Therapy, there are dozens and dozens of patterns there, called “experiments”. The point was to get people to experiment with their awareness to shift and change it, to try on the possibilities. Fritz Perls and his co-authors of that book, Ralph Hefferline and Paul Goodman, presented the experiments as trials to facilitate people to engage in specific observations about themselves and their experiences to either confirm or disconfirm an idea or hypothesis. Ah, yes, that’s what any scientific experiment seeks to do. It does not seek to “prove” something, but to either confirm or disconfirm a hypothesis they are testing.

4) Holistic Patterning and Constructionism.

Perls defined Gestalt as “configuration, structure, theme, structural relationship (Korzybski) or meaningfully organized whole …” (1951, p. ix). From Perls NLP also got the content/structure distinction. That was the distinction that Fritz presented repeatedly and which NLP inherited. It was also from Perls and Gestalt that they became acquainted with Korzybski. In Gestalt Therapy Perls quoted and referred to Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics:

“Although the content is what is said is important, it is much more the structure, the syntax, the style, that reveals character and underlying motivation.” (Gestalt Therapy, p. 216)

“The therapy consists of analyzing the internal structure of the experience… not so much what is being experienced, remembered, done, said, etc., as how what is being remembered is remembered, or how what is said is said…”

“A gestalt is a pattern, a configuration, the particular form of organization of the individual parts that go into its make up. Basic premise: human nature is organized into patterns or wholes.” The Gestalt Approach, (p. 5)

5) From Why to How.

In NLP we strongly emphasize that we don’t ask why – especially when a person is in an unresourceful state. Instead, we focus on how—and that gives us a focus on modeling the structure of an experience. Again, this is not an NLP invention. It came from Fritz Perls:

“Therapy oriented to the past is invalid because the whys of the patient’s neurosis really explain very little. ‘Why’ opens up an endless series of questions which can only be answered by a first cause that is self-caused. How will an explanation which makes the aunt the villain in the piece solve his problem? Such an explanation only gives the patient license to project all his difficulties onto the aunt. It gives him a scapegoat, not an answer.” The Gestalt Approach (p. 54)

“These are the questions that start with ‘why’. The ‘why’ questions produce only pat answers, defensiveness, rationalizations, excuses, and the delusion that an event can be explained by a single cause. Not so with the ‘how’. Those inquire into the structure of an event, and once the structure is clear, all the whys are automatically answered… If we spend our time looking for causes instead of structure we may as well give up the idea of therapy and join the group of worrying grandmothers who attack their prey with such pointless questions as ‘Why did you catch that cold?’ ‘Why have you been so naughty.’”Gestalt Approach (p. 77)

6) Figure / Ground Distinction.

A Gestalt involves the relationship between figure and background. In a “good gestalt” a figure stands out against a ground so that it finishes what is started. And what about this statement from Perls: “In such a case, all attention tends to flow from the ground of what one is the figure of what one is becoming.”

That sounds like the structure of the Swish pattern to me. Could it be that the NLP Swish Pattern came originally from Perls and all that happened in NLP was that someone (and from what I can tell, it was Christine Hall) invented a process for doing the Swish?

7) The Phobia Cure pattern.

In NLP we have a pattern that “cures” phobias and that can take the emotional charge out of a strong reactive emotional state. The pattern involves playing a movie through to the end as you remember it and then rewinding it to the beginning. That’s why I have always called it The Movie Rewind Pattern. The following was written in the context of reversing functions and playing around with the images that people entertain in their minds. Perls wrote, “Turn the pictures upside down” in 1951 – long before Richard Bandler claims to have invented it. Perls added:

“Imagine the motions around you as if they occurred the other way around, as in a reverse-motion moving picture film, where a diver sails gracefully from the springboard into the water, and then with equal ease flies back up from the water to the springboard.” (Gestalt Therapy, p. 47)

8) Meta-Model Distinctions.

There are the linguistic distinctions that Perls introduced. Most famous were his constant challenges to the modal operators of necessity: should, must, have to:

“If you say, ‘I must do them,’ who is supplying the ‘must’? You, apparently, for you are not compelled from outside. What if you didn’t do them? No blow would fall… Suppose you say, ‘I want to do them but some part of me objects.’”

9) Emphasis on Authenticity.

One of the things that Bandler heard on the tapes from Perls and transcribed in that 1973 book was about using Gestalt to enable people to get real. This was Perls’ way of talking about self-actualization— a theme that seemed to elude Bandler and the NLP movement for many, many years:

“The idea of Gestalt therapy is to change paper people to real people. To make the whole man of our time come to life and to teach him to use his inborn potential to be … a leader without being a rebel, having a center, instead of living lopsided.” Gestalt Approach (p. 120)

10) Responsibility.

If there was one thing that the first Human Potential Movement emphasized – or at least what Maslow and Rogers stressed – it was responsibility. Perls as one of the second generation leaders of that movement also emphasized it. Here are two quotations, both in the book Bandler transcribed:

“Without awareness, there is no cognition of choice.” The Gestalt Approach (p. 66)

“Responsibility is really response-ability, the ability to choose one’s reactions. … The therapist’s primary responsibility is not to let go unchallenged any statement or behavior which is not representative of the self, which is evidence of the patient’s lack of self-responsibility.” Gestalt Approach (p. 79, 80)

Wow! That’s a lot! NLP inherited a lot of what we today present as “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” from Gestalt. NLP did not invent it. Instead, the originators appropriated it from Gestalt, and then failed to give full credit to its source. They stood on the shoulder of these giants and saw further, but did not fully acknowledge those shoulders.


Perls, Fritz. (1973). The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy. CA: Science and Behavior Books.
Perls, Frederick; Hefferline, Ralph; Goodman, Paul. (1951). Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Dell Publishing Co.


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