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The history of NLP, part 5: Erickson’s contributions to NLP

Smile or Die

Written by Michael Hall

Here’s something most people don’t know about NLP.  Namely, when NLP began it was not called NLP, it was called Meta. Those involved were the Meta people. It was in late 1976 that the term “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” was created and used for what had been invented. 

That’s why there is no mention of NLP in the first books— The Structure of Magic, Patterns of Milton H. Erickson, or Changing with Families.  At first, the pre-NLP Meta groups focused on Gestalt (the first group was the Gestalt Class at the College) and then the second group focused on the first models: Representational Systems (from Perls and Satir), the Meta-Model (some linguistic distinctions from Perls and Satir) and then Grinder’s Transformational Grammar (TG) taken from his 1973 book where he sought to demystify TG.

Then suddenly everything seemed to change. What happened? Gregory Bateson introduced Richard and John to Milton Erickson, and they discovered a whole new set of linguistic distinctions—hypnotic language patterns. As they found and studied hypnotic language patterns and began modeling with Erickson, they created a list of linguistic distinctions that detailed how “hypnosis” worked. They fondly called this new set of distinctions the Milton Model. The structure of what’s called “hypnosis” works via communication— a specific way of being precisely vague(!).

As I read the history and have talked with those at the beginning, I get the sense that things changed radically once the hypnotic language patterns were added to NLP. Before this all of the NLP Communication distinctions focused on precision and clarity. Afterward NLP began to become “manipulative” as those involved began exploring what states and behaviors they could induce in people with the new communication distinctions. They even bought books on hypnotic phenomena and sought to see how many of those phenomena they could produce using the Milton Model.

Reading The Wild Days of NLP by Terry McClendon suggests to me that this changed everything in the early NLP movement. Suddenly, NLP (or Meta) no longer stressed precision, specificity, and modeling expertise in actual behaviors. Now the group shifted to being focused on inducing people into hypnotic states—doing things to people. And yes, while sometimes this would improve life and enable new resourcefulness, often it was about self-indulgence.

What Erickson contributed to NLP was mostly and primarily the hypnotic language patterns, the Milton Model. What the group discovered was that whereas with the Meta-Model you could take a person back down to real life experience and ground it in see-hear-feel referents, the Milton Model could take a person in the other direction. It can take a person up-up-and-away into a person’s imaginations and a person’s wildest dreams and hopes. It takes a person up into the non-specified realm of nominalizations and unspecified nouns and verbs: “And you can enjoy a loving and deep relationship with your loved one, feeling a rich connection and support as you have never felt before.”

Another thing that Erickson contributed was a deeper appreciation of matching and pacing. Form him we learned the pattern, “Pace, pace, pace, lead.”

The young Meta group learned from Erickson just how important it was to match, match, and match a person’s experience. By so pacing Milton could create a deep unconscious connection which allowed the person to be more open to change.  

Erickson also furthered the idea that each person has his or her map of the world and the need to create a new theory of personality for each person. That’s what he did. These practices underscored his attitude—one of absolute respect for his clients and curiosity about them. Milton Erickson himself was highly ethical and didn’t tolerate manipulation.

Of course, as a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, Erickson’s work focused first and foremost on health, wellness, disease, pain management, etc. He had introduced medical hypnosis to the psychiatric community in the 1950s and his series of books on his seminars— Healing in Hypnosis (1983), Life Reframing in Hypnosis (1985), Mind-Body Communication in Hypnosis (1986), as well as his many other books focused mostly on medical conditions. NLP did not take this from Erickson. If NLP had, there would be a whole set of patterns similar to Robert Dilts’ “Allergy Cure” pattern in NLP.  And this, by the way, is still an open and mostly unexplored area for NLP.

My take on NLP’s journey into hypnosis and hypnotic language patterns is that it, unfortunately, led to some people (not all of course) taking up NLP and using it for manipulative purposes. After all, the Meta-Model essentially de-hypnotizes people.  It brings them out of their nominalizations and unspecified models of the world and grounds them back in the real world.  But with these new language patterns, some of those who came into NLP who lacked a strong sense of ethics or professionalism began using it to sell, negotiate, seduce, etc.

The Milton Model conversely induces people into states but does so under the framework of the client not knowing what you are doing. Further, both Bandler and Grinder to this day still think this way, In various ways, they say: “The conscious mind cannot be trusted to know what’s best for it, only the unconscious mind can be trusted.”  This then leads to the next step:

“I as your therapist or programmer know what’s best for you; so right now I’m going to speak to your unconscious mind. So go away and I’ll give you what you want; you don’t need to know what I’m doing or how I’m doing it.”

No wonder people have gotten the idea from some NLP practitioners that “NLP is manipulative.” In the hands of some people, it is! Taking the Milton Model, they use it to covertly do things to people with or without their understanding or approval. From the beginning, in Neuro-Semantics we have considered this unethical and have taught our trainers and people to not use the hypnotic language patterns in that way. We have even revoked the license of a few who did so. We emphasize to work with people explicitly and overtly. In the code of ethics that governs our use of NLP and Neuro-Semantics, we emphasize respect, understanding, transparency and permission.

Erickson contributed to NLP the how of state induction, the positive nature of our “larger” mind—the mind that is typically outside of consciousness – and how to tap into it as a positive resource. He contributed the idea of isomorphic metaphor—to speak to someone using an analogy, an analogy completed corresponding to the structure of the person.

David Gordon wrote an amazing book on this subject (Therapeutic Metaphors) integrating into isomorphic metaphor representational systems, sub-modalities, and strategy.

To this day using hypnotic language presents a unique challenge. Part of the challenge involves the misunderstandings and myths about hypnosis—thinking that it is about mind-control and making people do things that they don’t want to do.  Part of the challenge is the responsibility for guiding a person into their inner world and doing so in a way that respects the person—his or her values.

Erickson contributed a lot; he and Bateson had been life-long friends long before NLP arose. And as Wyatt Woodsmall has noted, like Virginia Satir and Fritz Perls, NLP did not model their attitude, spirit, beliefs, etc., but their products—what they did with their language and behavioral patterns. NLP would have been significantly better if the early pioneers had modeled the attitude of Satir and Erickson.


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