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The history of NLP Part 2 – The early identity confusion: 1975-1980s

By Michael Hall

From the beginning, NLP has had an identity confusion.

After all, what is it? What exactly is this thing that we call Neuro-Linguistic Programming? Now if you ask the people who should know, even NLP trainers, you will get all kinds of answers. So the confusion exists even here.

For example, many of them will identify NLP as a form of therapy. “It’s a new kind of psychotherapy,” many will assert. True enough, this field began from the field of therapy, as it was modeled from therapists and because it has at its heart many therapeutic processes. But although it began from there, that’s not what NLP is.

Confusing NLP with therapy has been highly problematic from the beginning. And yet, how that confusion came to be makes perfect sense. After all, NLP was modeled from three therapists, three world-class communicators who worked with hurting people who needed healing.

So it isn’t a big surprise that many people, right from the beginning and even to this day, confused it with therapy. NLP has a significant background in therapy. Add to this the fact that all of the original books and writings about NLP were written in the context of therapy – and the examples and illustrations used were almost always from the field of therapy. Nevertheless, this was still a significant confusion because NLP is not a therapy. It’s not even psychology.

Of course, it makes sense that it took two men from outside the field of therapy to walk into that area and see things that those on the inside did not. Thomas Kuhn wrote about this in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). Those inside a paradigm often become blind and cannot see what is obvious to those on the outside. So when Bandler and then Grinder happened upon the “magic” of Perls and Satir, for a short while, they had a distinct advantage.

Now against that background is another one, and one of far more importance for identifying what NLP is. I have been calling it “The Secret History of NLP.” This is the fact that Perls and Satir and Bateson were part of the Human Potential Movement, and that means that the focus was on psychological health (self-actualization) rather than therapy. It was on Maslow’s idea of modeling the best and healthiest in human nature.

Imagine how things might have turned out for the field of NLP if Perls, Satir and Bateson had made self-actualization the focus and made the “therapy” context more peripheral. But they didn’t. In fact, one of the surprising things that I found from the time I began studying NLP is that throughout the early literature of NLP, both Bandler and Grinder refer to themselves as therapists! Of course, they were not. They might have been working with clients and taking on therapeutic issues, but neither were trained in therapeutic work, and neither had any expertise as therapists or psychologists. As a side-note, later in the late 1990s, the name NLP was changed in several countries in Europe to NLPt — which stands for Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy.


An interesting comment from Bandler, Grinder, and Andreas comes from their book Frogs into Princes, published in 1978. In the following quotation they seemed to have just gotten the idea of moving from traditional therapy to Self-Actualization Psychology – although they didn’t have a name for that:

“We are very slowly tapering off teaching and doing therapy because there’s a presupposition shared in the field of clinical psychology which we disagree with: that change is a remedial phenomenon. You find something that is wrong, and you fix it. There is an entirely different way to look at change, which we call the generative or enrichment approach. Instead of looking for what’s wrong and fixing it, it’s possible just to think of ways that your life could be enriched: ‘What would be fun to do, or interesting to be able to do?’…‘What new capacities or abilities could I invent for myself?’ ‘How can I make things really groovy?’…The idea of generative change is hard to sell to psychologists. … We are currently investigating what we call generative personality. We are finding people who are geniuses at things, finding out the sequence of unconscious programming that they use, and installing those sequences for other people to find out if having that unconscious program allows them to be able to do the task.”

Many others confuse NLP with hypnosis or hypnotherapy. But again, that’s not what it is. That is just one of the sources of the first modeling and one of the applications.

The “magic” that Milton Erickson was able to produce with his medical hypnosis led to a second communication model in NLP: the Milton Model. And with that discovery, it seemed that the original founders took a strange turn, one that brought many other confusions.

So what is NLP?

NLP is a Communication Model. That’s what it is— a discovery of how people use words to inform themselves, map reality and create their behaviors. Modeled from people who were excellent in their use of language, NLP used Transformational Grammar to generate the Meta-Model from Perls and Satir.

And as a set of communication tools, the NLP model provides a way for us to shape human experiences. So, NLP is a modeling process. That’s how it began – accidentally – and that is (and will be) how NLP will grow and develop. The founders called themselves modelers in that early literature of NLP. And if they had really focused on that, they might have turned to focus on business. And if they had done that, the field of NLP could have possibly discovered the field of Coaching and would today own it. But they didn’t. It would be many years later before NLP applications for business would develop. That came in the 1980s, not the 70s.

About Michael Hall

Michael Hall is the co-founder and current leader of The Society for Neuro-Semantics (the governance body, with whom we certify).

Michael is also an entrepreneur who lives in the Rocky Mountains of Western Colorado where he had a private therapy practice for many years, operated an NLP Training Center, and from where he began his training in Meta-States and Neuro-Semantics.

Regarding NLP, he studied initially with Richard Bandler in the late 1980s and became a Master Practitioner and Trainer. His notes of Bandler’s trainings eventually became the books “The Spirit of NLP” (1996) and “Becoming More Ferocious as a Presenter” (1997). He worked with Bandler on the Society of NLP and edited two books, “Time For a Change” and “Applied Neuro-Dynamics”.

Dr. Hall’s doctorate is in Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology from Union Institute University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His doctoral dissertation explored the languaging of four psychotherapies (NLP, RET, Reality Therapy, Logotherapy) using the formulations of General Semantics. He addressed the Interdisciplinary International Conference (1995) presenting an integration of NLP and General Semantics.


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