Research Paper By Miki Stephens Foster
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
Can the implementation of NLP benefit recovery coaches?
I was first introduced to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) in the Advanced Program offered by International Coach Academy. Curious as to how it worked and what its effects on coaching might be, specifically with regard to recovery coaching, I began researching what NLP was and how my clients might benefit from the techniques. I was surprised by my findings. There are as many critics of NLP as there are proponents and the science behind NLP is considered a pseudo-science, which left me feeling disappointed. I went into the research hoping NLP would provide me with theories I could implement while being backed with years of scientific data. This wasn’t necessarily the case, however, rather than giving up I became curious as to why NLP is still around in spite of the controversy that surrounds it.
As I researched, experts in the field inspired me, such as: Chelly M. Sterman, Joseph O’Connor, Andrea Lages and Robert Dilts. These incredible writers were able to provide sufficient case studies, explanations and applications allowing me to see there are people that excel at teaching and practicing NLP in a way that can really make a difference in the coaching experience for clients. It was definitely worth doing the research to better understand what NLP is, how it can be used in coaching and find experts in NLP when considering learning the art of NLP in order to implement the techniques into one’s practice.
What is NLP?
NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a name that encompasses the three most influential components involved in producing human experience: neurology, language and programming. The neurological system regulates how our body functions, language determines how we interface and communicate with other people and our programming determines the kinds of models of the world we create. Neuro-Linguistic Programming describes the fundamental dynamics between mind and language and how their interplay affects our body and behavior (Dilts, 2011). NLP gets to the heart of our beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves in order to define the world we live in.
NLP provides strategies, skills and techniques for coaches once considered available only in the field of psychotherapeutic treatment. NLP has very little content beyond some basic beliefs about human values and complete respect for each client. It is primarily a process orientation, which makes it skillfully adaptable to the framework within which each individual coach functions, NLP focuses on change and accountability and is an ideal tool for coaching (Sterman, 1990).
NLP introduces techniques that work quickly, offering a pragmatic approach for coaches by providing tools that can be easily changed should they not work for a client. NLP deals with the internal subjective world from the inside and studies how we think about our values and beliefs, how we create our emotional states, how we build our internal world and give it meaning (O’Connor & Lages, 2004). As the coach begins to understand the construct of how the client models the world the relationship begins to develop intrinsic meaning by allowing the coach to speak to the client in terms of the client’s model of the world.
Historical Background of Neuro-linguistic Programming
NLP began in the mid-1970s in America with the work of John Grinder, a professor of linguistics, and Richard Bandler, a psychologist. They began by studying excellent communicators and building models of superior communication skills. According to its founders, Grinder and Bandler, NLP was originally based on the psychological, emotional or behavioral developments of three recent innovators in the field of psychotherapeutic treatment and in part on these individuals’ personal style and almost magic ability to heal their clients. These innovators were Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls and Milton Erickson. In examining the different treatment styles of each of these innovators, Bandler and Grinder found much that explained the healing qualities of the innovators’ therapies but did not account entirely for their great success with their individual clients. Bandler and Grinder examined the styles of each of these three innovators and discovered a number of commonalities that were, until then, largely ascribed to intuition. Grinder and Bandler wanted to understand the work behind the successes in order to develop methods that could then be taught to others so they too could get the same results. Since the methods of NLP stem from detailed studies of these outstanding innovators, it offers coaches the opportunity to enhance their effectiveness. Extrapolated from excellent practice, NLP provides practical tools believed to work and offers a way of thinking providing coaches and clients with a new way of understanding and exploring the world we create for ourselves through language, beliefs and behaviors. NLP is based on values, presuppositions, communication and change skills, all of which are commonalities often shared by different approaches to working with clients (Dilts, 2011).
NLP Theory and Practice
Bruce Grimley writes in his book, Theory and Practice of NLP Coaching, that NLP consists of four key theoretical strands: Modeling, Transformational Grammar, Systems Theory and General Semantics. Grimley outlines each of the strands as follows:
- Modeling is the key principal and methodology used for NLP that can be likened to reverse engineering and consists of two primary principles. The first principle is you do not learn by understanding, you learn by imitation and much of that imitation is carried out unconsciously. The second principle is that imitation is always done within a context. Human beings have an emotional commitment to the solutions which they discovery, and it is this psychological commitment that makes them rigid in the way they operate and blind to alternative solutions to the way they are operating. This principle embodies the concept that there is no such thing as failure only feedback (pages 37-40).
- Transformational Grammar could be the single most pervasive influence in the NLP paradigm. Transformational Grammar makes the point that we all have an underlying competency to correctly speak the language we have modeled. Such language is much more effectively explained by saying the performance has been distorted by the state of the operator in such a way as to produce a unique performance. Therefore, so often for people, the words ‘I could never do that’ become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the competency we possess becomes limited by a linguistic prison (pages 40-41).
- Systems theory is the key presupposition that states ‘the mind and body are part of the same system’. NLP insists that our mind and body are constantly influencing each other and, at the individual level, one main reason individuals cannot move forward in their life is that they are only attending to one part of the systemic relationship – the part of the mind that is conscious. There is an appreciation of the system interrelations between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind (pages 41, 137-139).
- General Semantics is probably best known for providing the signature NLP presupposition: ‘The map is not the territory’. As a general rule the ‘territory’ is far richer than any map. Confusing the map for the territory is a bit like going into a restaurant and mistaking the menu for the actual food. We need to ensure that the relationships of objects out there in the world are represented structurally in a similar way by us (pages 42-43).
These four theories lay the foundation for NLP and provide a map for looking at the way things work (Grimley, 2013).
Practicing NLP can be beneficial in gaining a deeper understanding of one’s client. NLP, like coaching, is about change. Gaining insight into a client’s body language, grammar and how they think about themselves in the world is key to learning how to positively shift the client’s perspective. NLP provides tools for the coach to engage the client’s imagination while living in the real world. NLP is about understanding the language behind the stories a client has created about the world they live in and how to engage the client to change those stories in order to find meaning in the life they are living. A goal of NLP is to positively modify the beliefs and perceptions that limit the client from moving forward.
Pegasus NLP, a NLP training center that has been training people in NLP since 1999, states that the core skills taught for NLP certification are:
- The personality map – a valuable tool for learning what is driving a client’s behavior, specifically how self esteem, beliefs, values and life skills are related to their behavior.
- Eye movements – provides insight for how a person is thinking allowing the coach to communicate more effectively.
- Body language – better understand the non-verbal communication of a client in order to better adapt the coaching conversation to suit the client’s mood.
- Motivation – recognize how a person is motivated in order to better motivate the client.
- Thinking – recognize how a person thinks in order to make the coaching message more understandable and appealing to the client.
- Rapport – provides insight on how to create and enhance both verbal and non-verbal communication in order to build rapport with individuals and groups.
- Different perspectives – a technique used to help clients prepare for stressful and challenging situations.
- Anchoring – recognize how negative anchors occur and how to neutralize many of them. Create positive anchors to boost performance.
- Motivating goals – utilize the NLP Well-Designed Outcome model to set motivating, realistic goals for more achievable outcomes.
- Systems thinking – recognize how systems dynamics explains behavior of couples and teams.
- Challenge tips – help the client become more flexible and creative in how they deal with life’s challenges.
- Vision for the future – a technique used to create and inspire a client’s future.
These core skills are at the essence of NLP and can be helpful for a coach as they begin to understand how a client thinks about the world and what motivates them to create positive change in their lives. NLP techniques also help the coach to better communicate with the client by improving the coach’s understanding of their own model of the world and how operate from a place more closely understood by the client (Pegasus NLP, 2014).
NLP and Recovery Coaching
NLP encompasses philosophical techniques that lend themselves to successful coaching for individuals in recovery from substance abuse. To begin, NLP emphasizes the positive in both attitude and presentation. This positive approach includes talking in positives, giving directives in positives, and seeking positives in all behaviors. A basic NLP belief is that there is some positive intent or purpose to all behavior. In order to coach a client in recovery it is important to understand the theories of NLP and how one’s own model of the world consists of beliefs, values, perceptions, ways of organizing and representing thoughts will not work in the same way as the client’s model of the world. Recognizing the client has a very specific model of the world and communicating in a way the client understands is key to empowering the client to create the positive change they are seeking. Many times, a client in recovery may not have any ideas as to how to move forward in a new life free from substance abuse. They may also have limiting beliefs about who they are in the world due to the negative effects and perceptions substance abuse creates for individuals. Meeting the client in their model of the world allows the client to construct the changes they want in their lives. As the relationship progresses and the client begins to truly identify what it is they want for themselves recognition for the change goes to the client and not the coach. The recovery population is notorious for blaming everything wrong in their lives on someone or something. Coaching with NLP stresses the importance of individual responsibility and accountability and as long as a person is in constructive action they can avoid reacting to a past that keeps them from moving forward (Sterman, 1990).
As a recovery coach, working with one of the most creative and imaginative client populations provides the opportunity to explore the life the client is presently living while walking with the client as they design their future. NLP provides the tools and skills necessary to speak the client’s language and understand the model of the world the client is living within. NLP’s process orientation allows for complete integration with preexisting frameworks clients and coaches have used to obtain, maintain and progress the client’s recovery. Once a client is met in their model of the world, the coach can provide the client with questions that help the client see what they can gain rather than give up in their new life of recovery (Doorn, 1990).
Controversy Surrounding NLP
Since its inception, NLP has been the riddled with of controversy and criticism among the scientific world. Even today, there are many of those that see NLP as a field of study that existed before the modern scientific method discounting it as a proper science. Critics also believe NLP is a form of manipulation, mind control and/or brainwashing. Allegations of manipulation and brainwashing stem from a misunderstanding of what NLP is and how skillful application of the tool can create positive change in the lives of those people seeking transformation. These allegations are based primarily on claims that NLP is manipulative, NLP is a tool and the tool itself can never be the one manipulating. Successes in NLP cannot be easily and thoroughly evaluated by the scientific community, which leads to further controversy around its effectiveness. Even among reputed authorities from the fields where NLP has drawn its inspiration from, opinions are split, from some concluding that it is actually a pseudoscience with no practical application and no benefit, to others stating that it is a breakthrough in the science world and has strong benefits (NLP Center, 2006).
Most would agree that NLP shows proof of “something”, but also that a further inquiry into the substance of NLP is needed to accurately categorize it within the scientific community. The majority of reports, however, describe NLP as best resembling a cognitive science, this being the termed used to refer to NLP by people like George Lakoff, one of America’s most renowned linguists. However, it is also stated the findings of such a scientific field are largely abstract concepts with many metaphorical accents. More skeptical reviews even go as far as stating that the main beliefs of NLP are completely false and therefore cannot be relied upon. Many other adversaries of Neuro-Linguistic Programming also claim that NLP has failed to show an appropriate level of efficiency, especially in controlled studies on the methods it makes use of. The Preferred Representational System (PRS), on which NLP practitioners rely heavily for interpreting and utilizing to their advantage of a client’s personal experience, has received particular criticism. Some scientists claim that rigorous research reviews have found this system of relying on one’s choice of words and direction of eye movements to interpret thoughts and past experiences completely false. Furthermore, successful cases of NLP therapy are explained by part of the scientific community by things such as the placebo effect, social pressure, and superficial symptomatic, rather than real treatment. It is also believed that apparent successes are overestimated to the advantage of NLP, while failures are usually ignored or downplayed (NLP Center, 2006).
That said, proponents of NLP argue the techniques within NLP can be very effective when applied well. One of the most compelling parts of NLP is the ideas that encourages consciousness-raising thought and change within those seeking to improve their lives by learning how to implement new skills. Much like many interpersonal programs NLP is often the subject of heated debate between proponents and critics. NLP is a discipline of disciplines and anyone professing to practice or teach NLP ought to be able to demonstrate it well as to lend credibility to the discipline itself. NLP practitioners need to learn to be more honest about the extent to which their interventions can assist people with their outcomes and focus less on the marketing of NLP (Grimley, 2013).
The benefits of learning and using NLP in recovery coaching can provide the coach with additional tools for working more deeply and effectively with a client. By learning the client’s language and model they have of the world a coach can better communicate with the client in order to create a positive shift for the client. NLP may not be a quantitative science bolstering its effects with years of studies and data, however, it does offer a variety of techniques as tools to enhance the recovery coach’s ability to better understand and communicate with clients. It is important to remember, as a recovery coach, before any techniques for change can be successful a trusting and safe relationship must first be established with the client. During this time learning the client’s language, model of the world and beliefs of who they are will be instrumental in building a platform for change within the coaching relationship. It is our job as coaches to help the client redefine a model for living that contains positive choices, is free from resistance and is a good fit for them as the individuals they are.
I believe NLP can help facilitate the development of coaching skills to enrich the coaching-client experience for individuals in recovery. Acquiring NLP techniques provides the coach with the ability to communicate with a population who may find it difficult to trust and confide in someone outside of their model of the world. NLP provides some effective skills that can help us get the best out of our clients and ourselves.
Dilts, R. B. (2011). What is NLP? Retrieved 12 26, 2014, from NLP University: http://www.nlpu.com/NewDesign/NLPU_WhatIsNLP.html
Doorn, J. M. (1990). Neuro-Linguistic Programming in Alcoholism Treatment. In C. M. Sterman, & C. M. Sterman (Ed.), Neuro-Linguistic Programming in Alcoholism Treatment (pp. 79-90). Binghamton, NY, USA: The Haworth Press.
Grimley, B. (2013). Theory and Practice of NLP Coaching. London, England: Sage.
NLP Center. (2006). Connecting NLP Resources. Retrieved 12 26, 2014, from NLP Center: http://www.nlp-center.net/articles/nlp-controversy.html
O’Connor, J., & Lages, A. (2004). Coaching with NLP. Hammersmith, London: Element.
Pegasus NLP. (2014). NLP Core Skills & NLP Practitioner Certification (Part 1). (A. Tyrrell, Producer) Retrieved 12 26, 2014, from Pegasus NLP:
Sterman, C. M. (1990). Neuro-Linguistic Programming in Alcoholism Treatment. Binghamton, NY, USA: The Haworth Press, Inc.